ASHLEY MACMILLAN ON BEHALF OF THE NATIONAL CENTRE FOR PEACE AND CONFLICT STUDIES, STUDENT AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT ORGANISATION

Case Number: 3274

Council Meeting: JUNE 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Principle:

Ruling Categories:

Overview

Summary

[1] The National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Student & Community Development Organisation complains about an article “Peace being outweighed by conflict” published by the Otago Daily Times on 1 March 2022. The complaint largely falls to be decided under Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The complaint is not upheld.

The article

[2] The article focused on a University of Otago internal review of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (the centre), a theory, research and practice centre located within the Division of Humanities at the University.

[3] The article outlined who had conducted the review and several of its recommendations.

[4] It also recounted some of the review’s findings. A number of these were negative. The centre had developed a “toxic and unproductive culture that is paralysing, isolating and divisive” and the working environment was dysfunctional and below the professional standards of other university departments. Some findings were positive. The centre was praised for its overall goals and for its efforts in starting relationships with Māori and Moriori communities.

[5] The article ended by noting the review indicated that the director of the centre had decided to stand down, that the director had ultimately declined to comment for the article and that the university refused to comment on individual employment matters. It also noted a comment from the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Division of Humanities that all the review’s recommendations had been accepted.


The Complaint

The complaint

[6] The National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Student & Community Development Organisation (the complainant) considers the review was an honest document that provided a constructive pathway forward for the centre. However, it complains that the article grossly misrepresents the review because:

  • It was unbalanced and unfair as it did not represent all views. In particular, the complainant was not approached for comment.
  • It was inaccurate as it implied that the director of the centre was stepping down from his role because of the review.
  • It was misleading by omission as it failed to mention any of the positive commendations the review contained. These were not insignificant and included high research performance and high-quality teaching.
  • It failed to acknowledge that many of the recommendations were aimed at the wider university, not just the centre.

 [7] These issues are compounded because the review was not publicly available. It had been leaked to the Otago Daily Times and readers were not able to independently verify the accuracy of the article.

[8] The complainant also states that the author of the article had a conflict of interest as he had recently been a student in the centre’s Masters programme and this was not mentioned.

The Response

The response

[9] The editor of the Otago Daily Times maintained that the reporting on the review was fair and accurate. It was a report on what has already been acknowledged as a critical but balanced review. The article contained a summary of the review’s criticisms, which were from the review’s authors. The article acknowledged some positive aspects of the review. An opportunity to comment was given to the University’s Division of Humanities Pro-Vice-Chancellor and she acknowledged and accepted the issues raised.

[10] The response also included a comment from the author of the article. He notes that he sought a range of student voices (which were also well canvassed in the review itself) but was unaware the complainant existed.

[11] In relation to the suggestion the article inaccurately implies that the director was stepping down because of the review, he notes the fact that the review was critical of the centre’s leadership, and that the director left that role. He had given the former director the opportunity to comment, and the former director had declined to comment as had the university.

[10] He considers the article accurately portrays the review, which was overwhelmingly critical of the centre. Some positive points were made, and these were mentioned in the article. They were not the main point of the article, nor were they the main points of the review. Any commendations were outweighed by the criticisms.

[11] He rejects any suggestion of a conflict of interest, noting he took a single class with the centre in 2021 as part of his Honours degree with another department. He disclosed this to his employer who agreed there was no conflict of interest.

The Discussion

Discussion 

[18] The Media Council has been assisted in its consideration of this complaint by having access to an ‘in confidence’ copy of the review in question. In our view, the complaint largely falls to be decided under Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, which states:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

[19] We do not consider it was necessary for the article to seek the views of the complainant. The article was a simple, short, report of the contents of the review and some closely connected matters such as the university’s reaction to it. It was not necessary to seek reactions of others to the review itself.

[20] The complainant states that, coupled with a final comment that “the university refused to comment on individual employment matters” the following statements imply the director was stepping down because of the review: 

                    …the current leadership was “not embraced” by all staff members, which had contributed to conflict and unhealthy working relationships.

                     The report said [the director] had decided to step down …

[21] It is possible to read this as suggesting a link between the review and the director’s decision to step down. However, this was not inappropriate. The article accurately notes that the review states the current director had taken the decision to step down. The review does not state what the motivation for this decision was, nor does the article. However, the facts on their own are open to interpretation. It was appropriate for the article to note the fact of the director’s decision to step down. It was also appropriate for the reporter to seek comment from the director and university. This gave those concerned an opportunity to choose whether or not to dispel any potentially incorrect inference. 

[22] The balance of the complaint is that the report was misleading and unbalanced as it did not mention any of the positive commendations contained in the review, nor did it acknowledge that many of the recommendations were aimed at the wider university.

[23] While the article could have raised the University’s positive response to the review much earlier (rather than leaving it until the end), overall, we do not consider the review was misleading or unbalanced. The article does note some positive comments that arose out of the review. Indeed, it would appear there is much the centre does well. However, it is not surprising that the focus of the article was on the centre’s extensive difficulties. The most newsworthy aspect of the review was the extent of the systemic problems faced by the centre itself and the impact on those who work there. Given the focus was on the centre, we do not think it was necessary to also recount the systemic problems the wider university appears to suffer from and that contributed to the problems faced by the centre.

[24] Finally, we agree that in the circumstances as described by the author of the article of a short involvement as a student with no apparent issues, there was no conflict of interest or breach of Media Council Principle 10.

Decision: The complaint is not upheld.

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon Raynor Asher (Chair) Judi Jones, Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Alison Thom, Jonathan Mackenzie, Marie Shroff, Richard Pamatatau, Ben France-Hudson, Tim Watkin and Craig Cooper.

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