CLARK THOMBORSON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2789

Council Meeting: JUNE 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Advertisements
Conflict of Interest

Overview

Clark Thomborson complains about an article by New Zealand Herald property editor Anne Gibson detailing new attempts to sell “New Zealand’s most expensive house”.

The article talks about a plan to sell the property by tender in two titles under an exclusive deal with Ponsonby real estate company Graham Wall Real Estate.

It details at some length the nature of the exclusive arrangement with the agency and notes its previous success selling high end properties.

The Complaint

Mr Thomborson complains of a conflict of interest because it was “extremely unlikely” theNZ Herald would agree to publish such promotional content for this particular sales agent unless there was some “undeclared” quid pro quo for theHerald.

He says the article has two apparent purposes, to promote a single, exclusive listing by the agent, and to embellish the agent’s public reputation.

Mr Thomborson suggests the Herald make good by discussing some of the reasons why the distinction between advertising and news is very important to maintain. He suggests this be done with a display advertisement.

He also asks for a review of the Herald’s policies and procedures for managing and disclosing conflicts of interest by its editorial staff.

The Response

NZ Herald weekend deputy editor Stuart Dye responded that the story was about the ongoing attempts to sell what is likely to be New Zealand’s most expensive property. That made it news worthy.

He says it was not a paid advert and there was no quid pro quo or conflict of interest.

He agreed there should be a clear distinction between editorial and advertising and said theNZ Herald had robust processes to ensure that was the case.

The Decision

The line between news and advertising is often blurred when it comes to reporting on consumer issues. That line is even more blurred when it comes to reporting on property matters. The articles usually include quotes by the agent and, often, the sellers, and can stir up a lot more interest in a property than might otherwise have been the case.

But this does not mean the stories are not newsworthy. In fact there is a voracious appetite for property and real estate stories - and the various efforts to sell a luxury mansion on Waiheke Island would certainly qualify as newsworthy, as Mr Dye states.

In this case, however, Mr Thomborson’s concern appears to have been triggered by the prominence given to the nature of the exclusive arrangement with the real estate agents.

Some of his concern is understandable.

While we can accept Mr Dye’s assurance that there was no payment or quid pro quo with the agency, it is obvious that real estate advertising is a valuable source of revenue for print media.

That makes it doubly important to guard against perceptions that this relationship influences editorial decisions.

On the face of it, the prominence of the information about the exclusive agency agreement in the story does seem unusual and the more newsworthy aspects - details about the property itself - are further down the article.

But this is also the nature of news; it may be that, having reported on the various attempts to sell the property previously, Ms Gibson was looking to dress it up with a new angle. As the nature of the arrangement was the only new information she had, it would naturally be used higher up the story.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.