COMPLAINT AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMESIntroduction
The complainant complains, under several Principles of the Council, about an article which appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on May 29, 2011.
The article headed “Legal Funds Spent on Lawyer Slug Fest” alleged that tens of thousands of taxpayer’s dollars meant to be used to solve community legal problems have instead been spent resolving infighting between lawyers at one of the country’s top law centres.
The complaint is not upheld.
The article referred to details of infighting contained in an “LSA Special Audit and Notice of Beach of Contract Report” (the audit report).
The complainant initially believed that the information had come from the audit report which the Legal Services Agency (LSA) had released under the Official Information Act and which would have been released on a confidential basis, but then found out that the report had been leaked.
The complaint relates to information in the article about the parties who had raised the personal grievances and said that the information about those parties was grossly inaccurate. A particular inaccuracy given was that two of the parties were not on paid leave, as stated in the article but had left for new employment.
The complainant checked with two other persons who had been named in the article as personal grievance complainants. One of those had spoken to the reporter and asked him to call back to verify details of his article, which he did not do. Neither the complainant nor the other person were approached by the reporter.
The complainant says:
I simply disagree with the slant taken and the naming of individuals did not add anything to the article. If the paper had taken a genuine approach to the substance of the LSA audit instead of trying to tackle sensationalism, it would have been a much better article.
Another alleged inaccuracy is that the funds used on the personal grievance matters did not come from taxpayer funds, as stated.
The newspaper has not been prepared to disclose the source of its report and does not agree that it should not publish details about personal grievances which are at the heart of the issue in terms of the management of the publicly-funded group.
The editor acknowledged that since publication the reporter had become aware of employment circumstances which had changed from those mentioned in the article. Because of the privacy concerns of those people, he had not published a correction.
The complaint raises three relevant issues:
the use by the Sunday Star-Times of a confidential report leaked to it;
naming staff members who had made a personal grievance claim without their consent;
stating that those persons were believed to be on paid leave at the moment.
The complaint is not against the reporting of the problems at the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office. Nor has the LSA complained.
The fact that a large sum of money was possibly spent by a community law centre in resolving staff disputes is a matter of public interest which a newspaper can, and arguably should, highlight. However, the issue raised relating to the accuracy of possible use of taxpayer’s funds can not be resolved in the complaint as the Council does not have sufficient information to know where the funds came from.
A newspaper is entitled to refuse to name its source. The publication of details from the audit report may have given the LSA a right to bring a breach of confidence case. The information was not in the public domain, it was confidential and the reporter would have known that, and it was disclosed without authorisation of the LSA or the Board at the law office. The report was marked “Confidential”.
A newspaper can publish information which might have been obtained in breach of confidence if it is about a matter of legitimate public concern. In the Council’s view, this matter fell within that category and the complaint can not be upheld on the breach of confidence issue. The fact that a copy of the report had been applied for under the Official Information Act does not affect the position.
The article contained errors of fact and, in particular, the fact that some of the complainants under the personal grievance claims were believed to be on paid leave. The Council can understand why the editor was reluctant to publish a correction in the circumstances. It may have aggravated the privacy issue.
The reporter says that he contacted the personal grievance claimants who either did not wish to comment or could not be contacted. The complainant, one of those claimants, says she was not contacted. Another has provided an email saying she was not contacted, there were no miscalls on her phone and no missed messages. A third says that she was contacted by the reporter and asked him to call her back to verify the article, but he did not do so.
The Council can not resolve the factual dispute as to whether or not the reporter made the contacts he alleges. There appears to have been no urgency to publish their story. The article stated the claimants were believed to be on paid leave. Had the reporter contacted the parties there would have been no need for this qualification, and the correct information would have been put before the public. The reporter would have been wise to have checked with all persons named in the article before publication.
There is an issue of privacy. Employees, who had not given their consent, were named. The source of their names was a confidential report. Details of employment disputes are usually private facts that an employee can reasonably expect will not be made public.
The ordinary expectation is that people at the centre of important new stories will be identified. Often details of the people involved give credibility and authenticity to the story. This was a story of public interest.
While a public interest factor permits publication of private facts, the publication should be no more intrusive than necessary to the legitimate aim of raising a matter of public interest.
The story in this case would not have suffered if the personal grievance complainants had not been named. It was about staffing problems and personal grievance claims at a community law office. The issue could have been highlighted without including the employees’ names.
The Council has given careful consideration to this borderline case. On one view the article was unfair to the complainant and went further than necessary. It contained an inaccuracy. However, on balance the Council has determined that the breaches were not of sufficient materiality to uphold the complaint.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.