ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIANS IN NEW ZEALAND AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDIntroduction
The Association of Nigerians in NZ claims a story published in the New Zealand Herald on February 10 breaches the following Press Council principles: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance (Principle 1), Comment and Fact (Principle 4), Discrimination and Diversity (Principle 7) and Subterfuge (Principle 9).
The complaint is not upheld.
The article was headlined ‘Nigerian rental scammers rip off desperate house-hunters’.
It outlined a scam whereby house-hunters were lured into paying rental deposits for properties which had already been rented.
Photos and details of rental properties were copied from legitimate advertisements and reposted on the auction website Gumtree, often for cheaper rent.
In one such case, a Herald journalist reporting on the scam rang the telephone number left on the fake advertisement. It had a Nigerian country code and the man who answered attempted to take a rental deposit.
An email from the scammer about one of the properties, seen by the Herald, said the renter was in West Africa.
A representative of one of the legitimate rental agencies had contacted Gumtree about the fakes and, according to the Herald, been given an apology. The Herald did not obtain Gumtree comment directly.
A representative of the same rental agency said they had not approached police but understood a scam victim intended to lay a complaint.
The February 10 story ended with advice on how to avoid being scammed.
A follow-up article the next day, February 11, included police comment. A detective inspector confirmed complaints had been received.
The February 11 story included a further case and referenced a comment on the Gumtree advertisement which was apparently posted from West Africa.
A third Herald story, on February 17, also referred to the ‘Nigerian property rental scam’. Police were again quoted, saying they were aware of the issue but had not received a formal complaint.
The Association of Nigerians in New Zealand, represented by its president Gary Unamadu, complained about the article to the Herald editor, and referred it to the Nigerian High Commission in Canberra, Australia.
An attempt was made to find out from the reporter how she determined the scammers to be Nigerian. The reporter was ‘not cooperative’ and, according to the complainant, hung up on the Association president.
The Association’s own investigations found the Herald had not been thorough in its approach to the story and was ‘completely wrong’ in labelling the scammers Nigerian.
The complainant demanded the Herald properly determine which country their phone call to the scammer went to, and which country hosted the bank account the deposit for the fake rental was paid into. The phone, although registered to a Nigerian number, could have been roaming at the time.
The reporter’s information used to report the story, and a further report disassociating Nigeria from the story, were sought.
The Association’s Press Council complaint described the Herald article as a figment of the reporter’s imagination, claimed Nigerian officials would investigate and demanded a retraction. Not enough was done by the reporter to confirm the scammers were Nigerian.
The Association claimed its own inquiries with police failed to reveal any complaint about the scam, and that the rental agency would not confirm it was even aware of the issue.
The Herald article had dented the reputation of productive and law-abiding Nigerians in New Zealand. It also stereotyped all Nigerians as scammers.
The response was provided by New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie.
The editor spoke to the reporter and checked information, including the phone number, and was satisfied the story was fair, accurate and balanced.
An invitation was made to the Association to share positive stories about its members with the Herald.
Policy and ethics prevented the Herald sharing its information with the Association.
The rental agency was aware of the scam and was quoted as such.
The editor said the Herald had reported that police were aware of the issue but had not received a formal complaint.
The story was a public service.
Reporting scams is a worthwhile pursuit of the media, and can be considered very much in the public interest.
The reporter saw an email where the scammer claimed to be from West Africa.
The Herald sought balance and corroboration by contacting the scammer. There is no suggestion subterfuge was used or that the Herald reporter claimed to be anyone else.
The phone the scammer was reached on, although potentially roaming at the time, was registered to a Nigerian number.
It is not unreasonable, therefore, to conclude the scam originated out of Nigeria.
There was no gratuitous emphasis placed on the race of the scammer. It was a reported fact and relevant to the story in the sense potential renters were warned against dealing with property managers based abroad.
Rightly or wrongly, Nigeria has earned a reputation of being a source of scams. Our Government’s own scamwatch-style site references the ‘commonly known’ Nigerian scam.
Although two of the Herald’s follow-up stories differed in whether the police were simply aware of the issue or had received a complaint, it was enough of a concern for the police to issue a warning.
There is no obligation on the Herald, or any other media, to provide details obtained in the course of reporting to a third party.
The Herald went as far as offering to consider stories from the Association which painted Nigerians in a more positive light.
No Press Council principles were breached and the complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Vernon Small and Mark Stevens.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.