CANOE RACING NEW ZEALAND, LISA CARRINGTON AND KAYLA IMRIE AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3004

Council Meeting: MARCH 2021

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage Photographs

Overview

Summary

 1. Canoe Racing New Zealand Inc. (CRNZ), Lisa Carrington, and Kayla Imrie have made complaints against Stuff’s reporting over approximately four months between 30 August 2020 and 18 December 2020 about problems with CRNZ’s high-performance women’s programme.

2. These complaints concern a series of Stuff articles that are critical of CRNZ generally and particular persons associated with CRNZ. They report allegations of unfair policies and bullying, intimidation, and psychological abuse in CRNZ’s high-performance women’s kayaking programme. In addition to criticism of the policies and programmes, serious allegations are made against certain specific named persons associated with CRNZ.

3. Although the articles can be seen as legitimate investigative journalism, and specific areas of complaint are not upheld, the Media Council finds that aspects of the reporting significantly lacked balance and were unfair. There was a particular failure by Stuff to seek out and obtain and express the views of the team members that had a favourable view of the actions of CRNZ. Further, certain particular factual assertions of serious import against two coaches should have been put to them with an opportunity for them to comment. Lisa Carrington should have been contacted and asked to comment on statements about her role.

4. The complaints are upheld in part.

 

The Articles

 5. There were in our calculation 12 articles over approximately four months. The flavour of the articles is captured by the headline of the first article on 30 August 2020, and the first sentence in the article. The headline reads, “Canoe Racing NZ facing athlete welfare crisis as two thirds of elite women’s team quit”. The first sentence reads, “Canoe Racing New Zealand (CRNZ) is facing an athlete welfare crisis following mass exodus from its women’s high performance squad amid allegations of bullying, intimidation and psychological abuse.”

6. The various articles that followed began with the following headings, which give some indication as to their content:

a) “Canoe Racing NZ call on HPSNZ to facilitate mediation with top paddler”.

b) “Sports minister Grant Robertson says abuse allegations in elite canoe racing ‘concerning’; athletes call for independent investigation”.

c) “Kiwi canoeing great Ian Ferguson felt unable to help put-upon paddlers”.

d) “HPSNZ facing revolt within its ranks with claims senior leadership ignored athletewelfare concerns”.

e) “Canoe Racing New Zealand engages with independent experts following alleged abuse”.

f) “Anonymous allegations over High Performance Sport led Sports Minister Grant Robertson to summon chair of Sport NZ”.

g) “High Performance Sport NZ ‘deeply concerned’ by fresh allegations of mistreatment within elite women’s canoe racing squad”.

h) “High Performance Sport NZ commission’s independent audit after backlash over handling of Canoe Racing crisis”.

i) “Canoe Racing NZ facing threat of legal action over handling of abuse claims”.

J) “Top paddler walks away from Olympic dream due to ‘unsafe’ Canoe Racing NZ environment”.

k) “‘We were in this bubble, trying to keep athletes alive’: Canoe Racing’s cultural crisis”.

 

[Emphasis added]

 

7. The articles do not name many of the athletes. Two names are however frequently mentioned. The first is that of Aimee Fisher, a prominent member of the elite squad, who had left the programme and trained outside of it, and who it is now said is not putting her name forward for the Tokyo Olympics. She is particularly referred to in five articles, one of which was headed, “Top Paddler walks away from Olympic dream due to ‘unsafe’ Canoe Racing NZ environment”. However, while her story is frequently referred to in support of the criticisms she is not directly quoted at any point.

8. The second frequently named athlete, and one whose photograph appears frequently, is Ms Carrington, who is referred to in the article as we will set out. She is a complainant and we consider the statements about her later.

The Complaint

9. As set out above, the complaints are from CRNZ, Lisa Carrington, and Kayla Imrie. The CRNZ complaint is written by its CEO Tom Ashley. The complaints from CRNZ and Ms Carrington, particularly that of CRNZ, are lengthy, covering many pages. Ms Imrie’s less so. Given the summary nature of the Media Council process, we will not set out all the various points made.

10. In making the complaints, the complainants rely primarily on breaches of Principle 1 of the Media Council principles, which requires accuracy, fairness and balance. There were also complaints that there had been breaches of the Privacy Principle, and reference is also made to matters of Comment and Fact, Confidentiality, Photographs and Graphics, and Corrections. Complaint is made about the Stuff reporters, asserting that they harassed team members, and were guilty themselves of bullying.

11. We will deal with more detail of the complaints in the body of our decision.

The Response

12. Stuff’s response is also a detailed document, covering 24 pages. It is denied that there has been a breach of any of the Principles and the complaint is disputed in its entirety, while some minor errors are conceded. CRNZ is criticised by Stuff for not acting in good faith, and for not seeking to address the concerns, which it waited until late December to air. Ms Carrington is criticised for not contacting the reporters after the articles began. It is said that CRNZ has sought to abuse Stuff with its complaint, and that Ms Carrington has not constructively sought to resolve the complaints. Ms Imrie’s complaint is also rejected. Allegations of harassment and bullying by reporters are denied.

13. Stuff also is concerned that the case highlights the limitations of the restrictions on out-of-time complaints regarding online content. It took almost four months before a meaningful complaint was made to Stuff. It concludes that

“Stuff stands firmly and proudly by its reporting in this case. We have taken a stance of siding with the afflicted and responsibly unearthed some very serious allegations levelled against a national sporting body. Throughout we have acknowledged and recognised the distress our coverage will have caused to many of those caught up in it, on both sides. That is not a reason for us to resile from our responsibilities to the story. “

Time of Filing the Complaints

14. The first complaint was made by Lisa Carrington on 15 December 2020, followed by a complaint by CRNZ on 18 December 2020, and one from Kayla Imrie on 24 December 2020.The complaints related to articles, the first of which was published on 30 August 2020, and the last of which was published on 18 December 2020.

15. While the substance of the complaint would have been reasonably apparent to the complainants on the publication of the first article, the detail and gravity of the complaint grew incrementally through the series. Moreover, the articles are online, and under Rule 2(c) of the Complaint Procedure, the complaint option is kept open for two years if the offending article remains uncorrected electronically. New Stuff articles provided new links to older articles.

16. We note Ms Carrington’s point that she did initially hold back;

“However, after 10+ articles, which, over the 15 weeks regurgitated much of the same content, I decided to take some action because Stuff’s coverage was having a serious unhealthy impact on all members of our squad.”

17. In these circumstances, the Media Council is prepared to accept the complaint about the entire sequence of articles. It would be artificial to consider only those articles published in the last month, and we do not consider it unfair to Stuff to address them all.


The Decision

18. There are a great number of points made in the complaints and the response. For instance, CRNZ in its complaint set out the first two articles in full with 34 tracked complaints in relation to the first article, and six complaints in relation to the second. The Media Council, which must deal with complaints speedily, will not examine each particular point of complaint or response. Rather, we examine the major areas of complaint in all three complaints, and the response.

Inaccuracies

19. It is complained that the heading of the first article, that “two thirds of the elite women’s team quit”, was misleading, as two thirds have not quit and there are currently 8 athletes in the Squad. Six athletes are then named in that article as persons who have left the national squad. The complaint is that there is always going to be a process of attrition as the Olympics approach, and that three of those who left did not support the angle Stuff was taking.

20. While the heading was somewhat misleading in that it gives the impression of a sudden mass exodus, this impression is remedied in the paragraphs that follow which make it clear that the athletes left over a period of 18 months. CRNZ has not given the detail of the departures from the squad, and it is clear that they have been considerable. We do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

21. Reference is made to “governance failures”. We have not sufficient detail to be able to assess whether this is accurate or not, and by its nature it is a statement of opinion. Complaints are made that the CEO of CRNZ, Mr Ashley, has been misquoted as saying that “the complaints have never been raised with CRNZ”, whereas he said “…some of the complaints have never been raised with CRNZ” (emphasis added).There is a difference of substance, but although this was a careless error by Stuff, we do not think the inaccuracy to be sufficiently serious to warrant upholding this aspect of the complaint.

22. There are other inaccuracy complaints about statements in the articles, for example, that a tier of talent has been wiped out, and that women in the team are conditioned not to speak out, and do not do so out of fear. These are summary statements, turning on the complaints outlined in the article, and the broad complaints have not been shown by CRNZ or Stuff to be either untrue or true. In the absence of more information we cannot determine the accuracy of the statements.

23. We do not uphold the complaints of inaccuracy.

Breach of Privacy

24. The articles detail concerns for the mental health of unnamed athletes and it is clearly indicated in the articles that CRNZ acted with disregard for the athletes’ mental wellbeing. CRNZ makes reference to two particular athletes who it is said do not agree with the articles, and that the reporting does not reflect their experience. They are two young people, and they claim to have been bullied by Stuff. Stuff in its reply says that it went to considerable lengths to protect privacy and respect private and personal information; no pressure had been imposed. Stuff says that the allegation is baffling, and when one athlete did not wish to be contacted, Stuff respected that. On one occasion, an athlete’s parents were contacted, and support for the Stuff investigation was expressed. CRNZ does not now pursue a privacy complaint.

25. No particular athlete has complained to the Council about breaches of her privacy. There are two different versions of events presented by the complainant and Stuff. Given the absence of further material and any complaints from particular athletes, this part of the complaint is not upheld.

Photographs

26. It is correct that there are many photographs of female kayakers, either when they are kayaking or at social functions. These include several photographs of Ms Carrington. We do not think that this alone is a basis for complaint, given her high public profile. However, it is a factor of relevance to our consideration of her complaint that she was not approached for comment by Stuff, and treated unfairly in the articles.

Anonymity

27. Stuff does not name most of the persons who have expressed concerns. There is no Media Council principle prohibiting anonymity, and often journalists are bound to observe it. We do not uphold the complaint on this ground, (which was not pushed by the complainants).However, when sources are not identified, the obligation to obtain comment from those anonymously attacked, can be seen as stronger. This was the case here, given the serious anonymous allegations.

Lack of comment from CRNZ as an organisation

28. Mr Ashley, who lodged the complaint on behalf of CRNZ, complains that he and the coach in charge of the high-performance programme, Gordon Walker, were not given a fair opportunity to respond to the allegations that were made. However, a list of questions was submitted to CRNZ for CRNZ to answer. We are not clear that we have all the questions asked of the various CRNZ employees, but we do have at least some of those asked of Mr Ashley and the set of questions that was sent to Mr Walker.

29. Stuff in its response states that its reporters frequently asked Mr Ashley to respond fully and fairly to the complaints of the athletes. It is said that Mr Ashley and the coach of the squad chose “to respond by way of written statements, but neither meaningfully addressed our questions in their statements”. Another member of staff did not answer their questions at all.

30. It is said by Stuff that CRNZ has overwhelmingly chosen not to respond to direct questions, and that Mr Ashley repeatedly declined requests to be interviewed. We agree with that comment.

31. Neither CRNZ nor Stuff have given us a complete set of the written questions and answers. Mr Walker is not himself a complainant and we have no hard material before us about what he was asked, save for one set of questions. We accept that Mr Ashley was given multiple opportunities to set out the position of CRNZ. We do not have sufficient information to reach a conclusion about whether the questions and the answers were fair.

32. It does seem that much of the detail of allegations was not put to Mr Ashley. However when general highly adverse comments are made against an institution, the persons in charge place themselves in a difficult position when they decline to be interviewed. This is compounded when in the course of a complaint to the Media Council, they do not set out the exact sequence of questions and answers (although we acknowledge that Mr Ashley in going through the Stuff articles, made numerous specific assertions that CRNZ was given no opportunity to comment on).

33. Given that Mr Ashley was undoubtedly given multiple opportunities to respond on behalf of CRNZ to the general complaints, and the lack of detail in the complaint about what was asked and the answers given, we are unable to uphold this part of the complaint. We deal with specific complaints against Mr Walker by an unnamed physiotherapist later.

Lack of comment from current coaches and members of the team

34. Under this heading, we deal with the complaints that Stuff did not seek comment from Ms Carrington, Ms Imrie, and other current members of the elite squad on serious and largely anonymous allegations, and did not seek comment from two coaches, Mr Walker and Jasper Bats, on certain specific and damaging criticisms from an unnamed former team physiotherapist.

35. All three of the complainants assert that it was a particular fault of Stuff that it failed to obtain comment from athletes who had a positive view of the CRNZ programme. In general terms, Stuff’s response is that it was not obliged to do so, and that its questions put to CRNZ were sufficient.

36. CRNZ correctly observes that no current members of the CRNZ national women’s kayaking team are quoted in the articles. Stuff did attempt to contact some athletes who were former members, some of whom did not respond, and some of whom did. Ms Carrington makes the same point saying that the members of the group were not asked for comment and that the journalists have used their power to target a group of people and bully them with defaming articles.

37. As Ms Imrie recorded in her complaint, the reporting highly impacted on her welfare and that of her teammates, coaching and support staff. She says, “The unfairness around the bias is how your reporters have hurt us the most.”

38. A particular athlete who is not a complainant and who has not been quoted in the articles, whose name we therefore do not state but will call XY, was contacted by Stuff via text. The text stated that the reporter was aware that she was not allowed to talk to the media and did not want to get her into trouble, but asked whether she was training under a particular coach. XY responded that she had not ever been told not to talk to the media and welcomed it and she set out the nature of her training and coaches. She concluded, “I am very lucky to have the use of both coaches, which both individually have some amazing strengths to provide and when put together have assisted in some huge improvements over the years.” The journalist responded thanking her for clarifying her situation and said that it appeared she had been put wrong. She took the matter no further. Ms Carrington also put forward statements in her complaint from five of the current athletes in the squad, (three of which are anonymous), all of which were entirely positive about the programme and coaches. None of them were contacted by Stuff.

39. Stuff says that the contact with XY was not pursued because she had answered the question about her coach. However, the response should have alerted Stuff reporters to the fact that this member of the squad, in contrast to all the reports in the articles, was happy and positive about the CRNZ coaching environment and was willing to talk. She did not acknowledge bullying intimidation or abuse. What she said indicated the opposite. Despite this Stuff did not question her further and her response was not reported.

40. We have not been able to find any statement in the articles that there were members of the squad who had a positive view of the coaches and the programme. Plainly, the text exchange with XY put Stuff on notice that some of the athletes were entirely happy in the CRNZ environment. In our view, Stuff should have contacted at least some of the current members of the squad to get their perspective on the allegations of serious wrongdoing by the coaches and members of CRNZ. This would have been fair and would have given the articles balance.

41. Stuff has responded stating:

“the articles were not about the wonderful experiences some athletes had in the programme: if CRNZ wished to portray this version of events in its response, it didn’t attempt to…At its core, the view being argued by the complainants deals with the very essence of reporting, journalists are focussed on investigating when things go badly wrong. Just as we don’t seek the countering opinions of people who aren’t the victims of crime when we report on the actual victims, so we don’t see in this example the need to find voices of people who said they didn’t have the same experiences as the sources we talked to…It is good that some athletes including Ms Imrie and Ms Carrington report positive experiences: we do not <<

consider that should detract from the very negative experiences which others spoke to us about in detail.”

42. We do not accept this explanation. While journalists can be focussed on investigating when things are alleged to have gone badly wrong, that does not excuse them from providing a balance, and reporting things that are said to be going well. Those who are likely to have a strongly different perspective should be approached for comment. They should not be avoided. It is true as Stuff says that if positive experiences by members of the squad were reported it could “detract and diminish” the “very negative experiences” that were referred to, but that is as it should be. That would have given the reporting balance. This explanation by Stuff is tantamount to saying that its reporters should not be obliged to obtain perspectives from the other side, as this may spoil a good story. he story was not just about individual experiences, but alleged a toxic team environment and a crisis within the elite team. Therefore, any investigating reporter would have wanted to hear from as many team members as possible.

43. Ms Carrington is frequently referred to in the Stuff articles and her photograph is shown on numerous occasions. Ms Carrington observes that there are general statements through the articles concerning her and her aspirations. A theme of the articles is that after the 2017 Olympics, she sought a fresh challenge and decided to add the K2 and K4 boats to the kayaks she raced. Her coach took over coaching the K2 and K4 programmes.

44. Ms Carrington and her coach are shown in a less than favourable light. This is most clearly seen in the article headed, “Canoe Racing NZ facing athlete welfare crisis as two thirds of elite women’s team quit” dated 30 August 2020, where it is stated, quoting a parent of one of the athletes:

 

“The parent alleges [the coach] has effectively hijacked the women’s programme to advance Carrington’s ambitions. Rather than build a sustainable programme with the long-term success of the sport in mind, it has become about building Carrington’s legacy, he claims.”

45. Ms Carrington’s alleged wish to be part of the K2 and K4 teams is shown in the Stuff articles as the root factor that has led to the alleged unhappiness of other athletes.

46. Stuff responded to the complaint that CRNZ was not approached about this by asserting that CRNZ and Mr Walker were offered every opportunity to contribute their views, and this particular quote about “ambitions” was presented as the view of a parent. It does not suggest that it gave CRNZ, the coach or Ms Carrington an opportunity to comment on the particular statement that it was her ambitions that led to the problem. Ms Carrington in particular should have been given an opportunity to comment on this, as it related to her personally. The fact that it is the complaint of a parent that is quoted does not mitigate this.

47. We do not accept Stuff’s further response that if Ms Carrington wished to comment she could have contacted the Stuff reporters, but that she left it to December 2020 and then went straight to the Media Council. The duty was on Stuff to have sought her comment at the outset, before the damaging first article, which it did not do.

48, A theme of the series concerned Ms Carrington’s wishes, and what they had done to the squad. She should have had this put to her personally and been given a chance to give a response.

49. The complaint of a failure to seek comment from members of the current squad and Ms Carrington in particular, is upheld.

 

The physiotherapist’s reported complaint

 

50. In the original article, a former team physiotherapist who is not named is quoted making remarks critical of Mr Walker calling him the “chief manipulator” and “driving force behind the bullying culture”. It is said in the article that this “alleged toxicity” was reinforced in the physiotherapist’s mind when, at her final meeting with CRNZ support staff ,the coach put up a photo of her in a bikini during a farewell presentation. “I was mortified. You know, I’m sitting in this room in front of my mostly male colleagues and here’s a picture of me in a bikini”. She is quoted as saying that the rest of the photos shown were respectful and says, “That being brought up, would just be met with ‘oh well that wasn’t our intention’ or ‘there’s no malice in it’”. She goes on to say that such things build up the culture.

51. Earlier in the article the physiotherapist is quoted, referring to another named coach, Mr Bats, as saying if athletes were emotional “oh you’re just having your period, you must be hormonal” and that he was very negative towards anyone who spoke up about an issue.

52 .CRNZ states, and Stuff acknowledges, that these allegations were not put to CRNZ or either coach.

53. CRNZ states that if the allegation about the photograph had been put to Mr Walker, he would have explained that it was a photograph sent to him by the physiotherapist, and that his children were in the photograph, and that he had used it because it was the only one he had.

54. In response to the second allegation CRNZ says “the coaches and current athletes strongly deny the second allegation, which we consider defamatory. We would go further, and say that there is not a culture of toxic masculinity in our team”.

55. We agree with Stuff’s concession that these allegations by the unnamed former physiotherapist should have been in the questions asked of CRNZ. They named and portrayed Mr Walker and Mr Bats in a light indicating that they had misogynist and sexist tendencies. At the very least, they should have been given an opportunity to respond fully to such assertions. Not to do so was a breach of professional standards by Stuff.

56. Stuff says that in any event, no meaningful response would have been elicited. We do not accept this. We have referred to the explanation of the bikini photograph that was available. In any event, Stuff does not know what he would have said in response. Nor does it know what Mr Bats would have said.

57. Allegations with misogynist and sexist implications like this should be put to those who are the subject of the complaint. To not do so was in breach of Principle 1, unbalanced and unfair.

58. This part of the complaints is upheld.

Other matters

 59. There are numerous other specific complaints about matters of fact or inability to comment. However, we have found no other instances of lack of balance or unfairness that warrant upholding those complaints. There is no evidence of harassment by Stuff reporters.

60. The Council wishes to make it clear that the partial upholding of these complaints is not to be taken as in any way undermining the sources and their right to speak out and is not intended to exonerate or excuse the alleged failings of CRNZ. The upholds are focused on specific failings in parts of the reporting, not on the series as a whole.

Result

61. The complaints are upheld in part.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

Jo Cribb took no part in the consideration of this complaint.

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