ANNE-MARIE BRADY AGAINST THE SPINOFF
Case Number: 2971
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2020
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: The Spinoff
Balance, Lack Of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
1. Professor Anne-Marie Brady complains that a Spinoff article about an aspiring Chinese-New Zealand MP contained numerous errors, did not present her views accurately, and unfairly slandered her.
2. The article in question was published on 16 October 2020 with the headingNaisi Chen, a new generation of Chinese-New Zealander is Parliament-bound. The article begins with the statement, “Chinese influence in New Zealand politics has been the subject of regular debate over the last term. What does it mean to represent the Chinese community in 2020? Sherry Zhang meets Labour’s rising star Naisi Chen”.
3. The article proceeds to give a short statement about the background of Ms Chen. It includes the statement that she is a former University of Auckland law student, and “President of the New Zealand Chinese Student Association and Vice President of the Auckland Chinese Students and Scholars Association”. It states that Ms Chen found herself named-checked by the high-profile academic Anne-Marie Brady, who approvingly quoted a characterisation of her as capable of forming a “New Zealand Parliamentary CCP party”, along with Raymond Huo and JianYang. Mr Yang had been previously referred to as a National MP who was the subject of reports about an historic role in the training of Chinese spies.
4. The article referred further to Professor Brady, citing her 2017 paperMagic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping, with a link to it.It is stated that Professor Brady argues that the communist party is using the Chinese diaspora to push the agenda of the “united front”. The article stated that in recent days members of a group called the New Zealand Value Alliance (NZVA), an organisation unconnected to Professor Brady, were handing out fliers in Aotea Square claiming that Ms Chen was a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agent. The article goes on to take the form of an interview with Ms Chen where she comments on these allegations.
5. Ms Chen was quoted as saying that her background was not communist and that her father was a Christian pastor and her mother a Chinese doctor. She referred to the policy work she had done with Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye, changing the light bulbs in Albert Park, and being persuaded to run for Labour in 2017 (where she was unsuccessful).The article refers to the suggestion that Ms Chen is some kind of Beijing operative, a claim that Ms Chen says is not backed by evidence. Ms Chen was quoted as saying that everybody in New Zealand has a right to vote and to present a political perspective from either side.
6. In the interview Ms Chen made the point that there is diversity within the Chinese community in New Zealand. She was quoted as stating that as a “1.5 generation migrant” she was confident in her ability to communicate across different groups. She emphasised that she was not just there to serve the Chinese community. She claimed her allegiance lies with New Zealand.
7. Ms Chen was also quoted as stating that she does not dismiss out of hand Professor Brady’s concerns about China’s effort to use the diaspora for its own. However, in the article she said that it is not happening to the extent suggested and is perhaps somewhere “in the middle”. She described China as a friend, despite different perspectives on some issues, and spoke positively of the long-term relationship. She addresses the popularity, or lack of it, of the National party within the Chinese community in New Zealand and stated that the tendency of Chinese voters to vote National was changing as the community readjusts their mentalities from economic to social issues.
8. Ms Chen referred to older members of the Chinese community in New Zealand still having old-fashioned attitudes, and this includes the position of her parents. However, she said that there was a new generation of Chinese-New Zealanders that has emerged, and she was ideally placed to represent that new generation in Parliament. The fact she came to New Zealand when she was 5 and not subject to “brainwashing”, she claims makes her a part of this new generation.
The Complaint to The Spinoff
9. Professor Brady complained about the article directly to The Spinoff through an email dated 17 October 2020.In a reply dated 20 October 2020, the editor ofThe Spinoff, Toby Manhire, advised that two factual corrections had been made to the article. This statement was also added to the end of the article: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the phrase, “army of diaspora” to Anne-Marie Brady’s paper, “Magic Weapons”. Apologies for the error. The article has also been updated to clarify that there is no link between Brady and NZ Values Alliance.”
10. Professor Brady wrote a further email to Mr Manhire on 22 October 2020 claiming thatThe Spinoff response did not address her concerns. She attached an annotated version of the article with her concerns to this email. On 2 November 2020, Mr Manhire in reply addressed her various concerns and offered Professor Brady an opportunity to provide comment.
The Complaint to the Media Council
11. Professor Brady made a formal complaint to the Media Council dated 2 November 2020. In her complaint Professor Brady asserted that the article slandered her, and that the changes made to it byThe Spinoff were insufficient to counter that slander. She considered a retraction and apology to be the appropriate response to her complaint. She asserted that her reputation had been damaged by the story.
12. She also claimed that the article unfairly singled her out and unfairly put her against Ms Chen. She stated that her 2017 research paperMagic Weapons, which was 20,000 words long, barely mentioned Ms Chen, devoting “a mere 160 factual words to her”. Professor Brady also made the point that other prominent voices in the New Zealand-Chinese community had been raising concerns about Ms Chen, but the author of the article did not engage with those arguments. She asserted that the article claimed that she said things she had never said, and as such left a misleading impression of her research and damaged her reputation.
13. Professor Brady also complained that the article was unbalanced and should have given voice to the concerned Chinese population who have raised objection to Ms Chen and her political views. She gave the names of others who had expressed concerns about Ms Chen.
14. She sought a retraction of the article and an apology for the distress caused. Reference was made to an annotated version of the article presented with the complaint, where Professor Brady made a number of specific complaints about specific statements.
15. Professor Brady was dissatisfied with the response of The Spinoff to her complaint, which she described as “curt and derisory”. She sought a full apology for the “emotional and reputational damage”. She claims it was misleading forThe Spinoff to say that Ms Chen had not been invited to respond to Professor Brady’s characterisation of her inMagic Weapons, as Ms Chen had been invited to present her perspective in an inquiry at New Zealand Parliament in April 2019.
16. The editor of The Spinoff, Toby Manhire, in his initial email in response dated 22 October 2020, went through Professor Brady’s specific tracked complaints and responded to some of them, denying any significant errors, but accepting that some changes were necessary. Mr Manhire also stated that Ms Chen was now an MP and subject to scrutiny, and as such entitled to put her view in response to Professor Brady’s view. He accepted that he should have ensured that Professor Brady was approached for comment and stated that he would be happy to add comment from her should she wish to provide something.
17. In The Spinoff’s formal response to the Council, Mr Manhire commented that the form of the article was an interview, and that Ms Chen was responding to questions about her motivations and role in New Zealand society and politics, as raised by Professor Brady in her Magic Weapons paper. He pointed out that Professor Brady is a prominent and frequent commentator on Chinese influence in New Zealand and had been referred to in that regard in earlier articles published byThe Spinoff. He suggested that her views did not lack presentational platforms.
18. Mr Manhire referred to statements by Professor Brady in her Magic Weapons paper which he stated provide a proper platform for the summaries in the article. On the issue of Professor Brady not being contacted about Ms Chen’s views, he pointed out that Ms Chen had not been offered an opportunity to respond to Professor Brady’s characterisation of her in her paper. He also pointed out that Professor Brady has not chosen to respond to the invitation to provide a response, and that some errors in fact had been corrected.
What is the article about?
19. The article was plainly a write-up about an aspiring MP and her background. It takes the partial form of an interview, although it cannot be fairly described as an interview in total, as there are a number of paragraphs which provide background about Ms Chen without quoting her directly.
20. Ms Chen responded to Professor Brady’s allegations, and denied that she was some kind of “Beijing operative”. As we have set out, she asserted that Professor Brady’s claims were not backed with evidence. She observed that everyone has the right to voice their political perspective, and that within the New Zealand-Chinese community there are a number of diverse views and values. She said that as a “1.5 generation migrant”, she was confident of her ability to communicate across different groups.
21. In general terms, she presents herself as a balanced politician, expressing a different point of view from the previous generation of Chinese immigrants that her parents represent, but not hostile to China. It is clear that Ms Chen recognised that not all of its policies are acceptable in New Zealand.
22. Save for her specific and strong rejection of Professor Brady’s claim that she is in some way under the influence of Beijing, she does not in any specific way criticise Professor Brady. She does however observe that Professor Brady has targeted New Zealand citizens who have a right to vote and right to voice their own political perspective.
Professor Brady’s tracked specific allegations of error
23. It is necessary to respond to 17 allegations of specific errors made by Professor Brady. We will follow her numbering:
The allegation is that a statement in the article that Jamie-Lee Ross released tapes of confidential conversations with former National leader Simon Bridges about Chinese National MPs was incorrect, in that Mr Ross did not release the tapes and they were not about Chinese MPs. There was no response from The Spinoff about Professor Brady’s complaint that this statement was incorrect.
Despite this, we cannot see much in this specific complaint. It was undoubtedly referring to a recording of one conversation that was released, not multiple conversations, but there were references in that recorded conversation regarding the Chinese MPs. The sentence therefore was not inaccurate.
Professor Brady makes an allegation that the author of the article should have engaged with the “conversation” about the major parties selecting CCP-affiliated candidates, with particular reference to Mr Yang and Mr Huo.
We do not accept this criticism. The article does not purport to be an in-depth analysis of the allegations made against Mr Yang and Mr Huo, or of the major parties selecting CCP-affiliated candidates. It is a piece about an aspiring MP and, among several other topics, it covers an allegation that Ms Chen is associated with the CCP.As such, engaging with the specific “conversation” noted by Professor Brady would have been irrelevant to the article’s purpose.
We agree with Professor Brady that the 1.5 generation is not explicitly referred to inMagic Weapons. However in the context of the general statements she makes throughout her research paper in relation to the Chinese diaspora and its use by the CCP, we do not see this as a seriously misleading error. Professor Brady’s remarks are plainly directed to Chinese-New Zealanders of multiple generations who are under the influence of the CCP, which would undoubtedly include those known as generation 1.5 Chinese-New Zealanders to which Ms Chen refers in the article.
Professor Brady states that the author should have explained what the New Zealand Values Alliance is, this being a group that handed out fliers in Aotea Square calling Ms Chen a CCP agent. We cannot agree with this. The article is an article profiling an aspiring MP and does not purport to be a work of research. As such, there was no need for the author to set out the background of this organisation.
Professor Brady asserts that the author makes a false link between her research and the pamphlet of the New Zealand Values Alliance mentioned in the previous paragraph.
We do not agree that the sentence complained about makes a link between Professor Brady’s research and the pamphlet of the New Zealand Values Alliance. Although Professor Brady’s paper is mentioned in this paragraph immediately following the paragraph referring to the New Zealand Values Alliance, no connection is either stated or implied.
Professor Brady queries this sentence: “Chen scoffs at the suggestion she is some kind of Beijing operative. Brady’s claims, she says, are not backed with evidence”. As mentioned, it is correct that Professor Brady does not refer specifically to generation 1.5 New Zealanders. However, this phrase, which we have already commented on, is not used in this sentence.
In her paper as mentioned, Professor Brady does effectively claim that Ms Chen is a person who is closely connected with the United Front. There are clear critical allegations made by Professor Brady in her paper and it was reasonable forThe Spinoff to give Ms Chen an opportunity to respond. As such we can see no error in this sentence.
Professor Brady asserts that what she has said about Ms Chen was factual and non-defamatory. We take this complaint by Professor Brady as meaning that she was not making a significant criticism of Ms Chen. Taking it in that sense, we do not agree.
While her discussion of Ms Chen consists only of a single paragraph in a lengthy research paper, Ms Chen is singled out and is one subject of the paragraph, and it is stated that she “has close United Front connections”. Professor Brady plainly puts Ms Chen together with Mr Huo and Mr Yang as persons who are capable of being a group in Parliament favouring the Chinese government. The effect of the paragraph is to assert that Ms Chen may be influenced by her connections to the CCP and management of Chinese overseas students if elected to Parliament. We see this as a serious allegation and criticism of Ms Chen.
24. .Our reaction in general to the comments about Professor Brady in the article is that, while there is disagreement expressed with some of her views insofar as they constitute specific criticisms of Ms Chen, there is no rejection of Professor Brady’s perspectives about CCP using the Chinese diaspora to push its political and economic agenda. The interview insofar as it concerns Professor Brady’s allegations sets out Ms Chen’s responses, which in our view can be described as moderate and considered. Ms Chen rejects strongly the allegation that she is personally affiliated with the CCP but does not dismiss Professor Brady’s general research and her claims that there is CCP political influence in New Zealand. Ms Chen recognises the conflict between generations. The message she appears to be giving is conciliatory and positive.
25. Professor Brady has been highly critical of a number of Chinese-New Zealanders, and specifically in her research paper Magic Weapons, is critical of Ms Chen. Her criticism is not in any way ameliorated in that it is contained within only one paragraph of the paper. It is a significant paragraph and would be regarded seriously by any person subject to such criticism.
26. We do not agree with Professor Brady that her reputation has been illegitimately damaged by the story. Her core thesis is not challenged. Her specific criticism of Ms Chen is, but Professor Brady having made these criticisms cannot now complain when they are challenged. Therefore, we do not think that the article in any significant way misrepresents Ms Brady’s views. There are minor inaccuracies, but we do not consider that they would warrant an uphold of the complaint. We note that two corrections were in fact made by The Spinoff.
27. It is inaccurate for Professor Brady to say that she has been unfairly singled out. She is a prominent public critic of the alleged CCP policy of influencing Chinese New Zealanders, and as such may reasonably expect her views to be discussed in the media.
28. It is true that the article gives weight to Ms Chen’s perspective of matters. That is to be expected in an article that is written about her as an aspiring MP, and which in part constitutes an interview. We cannot agree that it damages Professor Brady’s reputation for Ms Chen to deny that she is connected with the CCP. An academic who chooses to publish an article that is critical of a specific person cannot complain when that person responds, particularly when asked to do so in the course of an interview.
29. The claim by Professor Brady that the article is unbalanced because she did not get asked to respond before it was published is rather weakened by the fact that she does not appear to have acceptedThe Spinoff’s offer to publish a comment from her in relation to the article, which would have worked to counter any negative impact she may have felt the article had. It is also the case that the issue of Chinese-New Zealand MPs being influenced by the CCP is a long running issue in New Zealand where for that reason, given its publicity, strict balance is not required.
30. This would have been a better story if Professor Brady had been contacted as Mr Manhire acknowledges. It also would have been a better story if some of Ms Chen’s assertions, set out in the article the day before the election, had been more fully tested. Nevertheless, we also do not accept Professor Brady’s assertion that the article should have given voice to the concerns of New Zealand’s population who “Chen Naisi purports to represent”, and that certain other persons who have “raised serious concerns about Ms Chen” should have been quoted. The purpose of the article was not to analyse each and every critic of Ms Chen, but as one aspect of an interview Ms Chen was asked to comment on Professor Brady’s widely publicised critique.
31. The article does not purport to be an investigation into Ms Chen’s activities with the Chinese government. It is not conclusionary. Professor Brady is plainly the most high-profile of the critics of Ms Chen. Indeed, we were not referred by Professor Brady to any other articles concerning Ms Chen. It was enough forThe Spinoff to present the criticisms of Professor Brady and to invite comments from Ms Chen.
32. We emphasise that we do not determine the accuracy of Professor Brady’s allegations or Ms Chen’s responses. The Media Council cannot determine questions of disputed and complex fact.
33. We do not consider that the article has breached any of the Media Council principles. No significant errors or unfairness have been shown. If Professor Brady considers the article to be unbalanced, that could have been fixed and indeed can still be fixed by her providingThe Spinoff with her comments on the article.
Result: The complaint is not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Liz Brown (Chair), Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.