ALVINA EDWARDS AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES
Case Number: 2651
Council Meeting: MARCH 2018
Decision: Not Upheld with Dissent
Publication: Sunday-Star Times
1. On January 21, 2018 Sunday Star-Times ran a story entitled “Ngai Tahu and Tainui receive $370 million in Treaty top-ups, with more to come”, which covered payments made to the two iwi on December 15. According to the article, the payments were made “quietly” without any public announcement but they were “discovered” by Stuff and confirmed by the Office of Treaty Settlements just prior to publishing the story.
2. The top-ups were made because of relativity clauses the two tribes negotiated during the settlement process in the mid-90s, ensuring that as the first iwi to settle their claims, Ngai Tahu and Tainui’s “economic redress continues to remain relative to all future claims settled by other iwi”.
3. A sidebar to the main story, “Education for a whanau”, which was published in theSunday Star-Times and on Stuff, concerned Waikato University student Alvina Edwards, who studied alongside her four children at university with the support of her tribe, Ngai Tahu, and the children’s tribes Ngai Tahu and Tainui. The story said Ms Edwards is working on a PhD on indigenous identity, the culmination of a decade of study during which she has completed two degrees and a masters.
4. An image of Ms Edwards with the caption “Alvina Edwards has got an education from scholarships funded by Treaty payments” appeared in the sidebar, along with another of Ms Edwards and her mother. The caption was later changed online to “Alvina Edwards is studying towards a PhD. She says she has had support from her iwi Ngai Tahu, including some financial contribution”.
The complaint was not upheld by a majority of Council members 6:5.
5. Ms Edwards complained the story and sidebar breach Principles 1 Accuracy Fairness and Balance, 2 Privacy, 4 Comment and Fact, 6 Headlines and Captions, 7 Discrimination and Diversity, 8 Confidentiality, 11 Photographs and Graphics, and 12 Corrections.
6. She said the main article was inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair in suggesting the top-up payments were made to the iwi behind closed doors, or quietly, and “were discovered by reporters”. That was untrue, she said.
7. Ms Edwards said the comments she made about her education in an interview had been “cut and pasted” for a sidebar to the story about Treaty top-up payments to iwi and relativity clauses, and the result made her positive comments irrelevant. She said she agreed to an interview for a “completely separate article” on how she had been supported by her iwi but she was not told that her interview would be accompanying an article on relativity payments to iwi.
8. The caption which appeared under her photograph was “seriously incorrect” and “insulting”. Ms Edwards says she paid for her education “like every other student” with student loans. She said she has been fortunate to receive small contributions but what she has received from the iwi is holistic support which is not “just monetary”.
9. She said her iwi has “done us all proud”, as has Tainui, “but no one has paid my education”.
10. She questioned how the Sunday Star-Times obtained the photo of her mother, without her permission, and demanded its removal since it had no relevance to the article.
11. She accused Stuff of inciting hate and discrimination because they failed to moderate the public comments on the website.
12. Sunday Star-Times editor Jonathan Milne defended the article’s statement that the top-up payments signed off by cabinet just before Christmas were not publicly disclosed prior to Fairfax’s enquiries. When the journalists got word of the payments, they approached the two iwi and the Office of Treaty Settlements, which confirmed they had been approved.
13. Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little subsequently explained to media that it was his decision not to disclose the payments last year and that he had planned to schedule a joint announcement by the Government and the two iwi in the early new year when Parliament returned.
14. Mr Milne said he was confident the journalist who interviewed Ms Edwards had explained clearly that the article was about the Treaty settlement top-ups; he said the interview was to be used as an example of how iwi money is well used.
15. He agreed to remove the image of Ms Edwards and her mother. The second photo was a Fairfax file shot which he declined to remove.
16. He agreed to change the caption because it “did not fairly represent the article”.
Further comment from the complainant
17. In further correspondence, Ms Edwards denied that she was informed her comments would be included in an article on relativity clauses and Treaty top-up payments. “At no stage was I informed that this would happen. I would have refused to do the original interview if I had.”
18. She said the two articles bear no relation to each other except to draw on long-established stereotypes that Maori have their education fully funded by iwi where non-Maori do not.
19. She referred to text messages she received from the journalist who interviewed her, apologising for the way the article appeared. She questioned why the journalist would have apologised if, as the editor maintained, she was well aware her comments would be included in the article on Treaty top-ups and relatively clauses.
Further comment from the editor
20. The editor said the journalist had supplied her interview notes to him and had given an assurance that she had explained to Ms Edwards in detail the context of the story in which the interview would appear. He said the journalist had read the story back to Ms Edwards, which he believed was evidence that Ms Edwards was happy with the story.
21. He referred to the text exchange between the writer and Ms Edwards, and said the texts clearly related to the images and the offending caption, not the matter of the inclusion of the interview as a sidebar in a story about Treaty top-ups and relativity clauses.
22. He noted that Ms Edwards had not provided any instances of “foul and racist” comments on the article.
23. The lengthy email exchange between the complainant and the editor of the Sunday Star-Times in this complaint on the matter of whether or not the journalist had fully briefed Ms Edwards as to how the interview would appear in the newspaper illustrates the need for very clear communication between journalists and the public regarding comments made in an interview; this is even more important when the article for which the comments are being sought is on a matter as highly sensitive as Treaty settlements.
24. The complaint that the sidebar discussing Ms Edwards’ education has no relevance to the main story is not for the Press Council to decide: that is the role of an editor. We are also not in a position to judge whether the journalist did ensure that Ms Edwards understood for what purpose the interview had been requested; both the editor and the complainant are adamant the other party is wrong but it is doubtful the journalist would have knowingly misled Ms Edwards. As the Press Council website states in its preamble: “Editors have the ultimate responsibility for what appears in their publications, and for adherence to the standards of ethical journalism which the Council upholds.”
25. That said, we have sympathy for Ms Edwards’ view that publishing her comments about iwi assistance for Maori university students alongside a story about a $370 million Treaty settlement top-up draws on long-established stereotypes, and the poorly worded caption only made matters worse.
26. The majority of the Press Council is satisfied however that the caption, which caused offence rather than actual damage to the complainant by suggesting she got a free education rather than support including some financial assistance from her iwi, was corrected in the online version of the article in a timely fashion.
27. Ms Edwards has alleged the Sunday Star-Times breached eight principles. We agree there is cause for her to feel aggrieved about the article, sidebar, and original caption, but we do not believe her complaints amount to breaches of Press Council principles.
The complaint is not upheld by a majority of the Press Council - Sir John Hansen, Chris Darlow, Tim Watkin, Jo Cribb, John Roughan, Tracy Watkin.
Liz Brown, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu and Jenny Farrell dissented from this decision.