DAVINA DUKE AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2898

Council Meeting: MAY 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Court Reporting
Discrimination
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Background and Timeline

1.The complaint is about Stuff’s reporting and handling of a story about a Tenancy Tribunal finding, which was subsequently overturned. The following is the sequence of events:

- On March 16, 2019 Stuff published an article headlined Landlord let brother hold frequent parties in shed, which reported a Tenancy Tribunal finding against the landlord, Davina Duke, and an award of $1020 to be paid to the tenant;

- It later transpired that Ms Duke had not received notice of the hearing and on May 3, 2019, when the case was reheard, the Tribunal overturned the earlier finding against the landlord, as well as the requirement to pay compensation. The Tribunal adjudicator at the second hearing described the tenants’ behaviour towards the landlord as “rude and aggressive and on one occasion at least, offensive and bordering on hate speech”. Stuff did not at that time report the overturned finding, or update the article of March 16, 2019, which remained on the website unchanged until some time in February 2020;

- In February this year Ms Duke learned for the first time of the March 16, 2019 article, and complained to Stuff. Ms Duke had a number of exchanges with Stuff reporters around this time, including a telephone conversation with the reporter who was the author of the 2019 story;

- In mid-February 2020, a footnote appeared at the bottom of the March 16, 2019 article, very briefly noting the Tribunal’s finding had been overturned. In Ms Duke’s view this was insufficient and she continued to seek takedown of the article in exchanges with a number of Stuff representatives;

- On February 26, Ms Duke made an official complaint to Stuff and received no response by the expiry of the 10 day deadline set in Media Council guidance;

- On March 11, 2020, she therefore submitted a complaint to the Media Council. On March 13, 2020 the Council exercised its discretion to accept her complaint after the normal deadline; on March 18 the Media Council contacted Stuff in the normal way to ask for their response to Ms Duke’s complaint;

- On March 27, 2020 Stuff posted a new article on their website headed Tenants’ offensive behaviour sees tenancy ruling overturned; Stuff did not take down the March 16, 2019 story but linked it to the March 27, 2020 story;

- On April 3, 2020 Stuff made a substantive response to the complaint, to the Council and to Ms Duke.

The Complaint

2. The complainant, Davina Duke, says that Stuff has breached Media Council Principles on a number of fronts. Ms Duke believes Stuff has shown lack of balance, fairness and accuracy. She points out that Stuff did not contact her to get her side of the story for either the March 2019 or April 2020 stories. Ms Duke notes that the original story, although inaccurate once the new Tenancy Tribunal finding was published, stayed on the website unchanged for a considerable length of time.

3. Ms Duke says that although she was contacted at one point by another Stuff journalist, her impression was this was intended only to enquire about her attitude to government proposals on tenancy law, and was not about hearing her side of the Tenancy Tribunal story. Ms Duke says when she telephoned the reporter who wrote the original article, to explain “calmly” that the article, which was still on the website, was inaccurate, her treatment by the reporter was “rude and dismissive”. Ms Duke says that the inaccurate original article is damaging to her reputation as a teacher, and as a practising artist. She notes that Stuff showed apathy towards correcting the original report; and she fears that the original article feeds into racist stereotypes about Maori. Ms Duke sought redress from Stuff including removal of the original article from the website, an apology and a follow up article covering the overturned Tenancy Tribunal finding.

The Response

4. Stuff’s Editor in Chief, Verticals, Geoff Collett, says that Stuff routinely reports the outcome of court and other hearings which may subsequently change. This does not require them to take down earlier stories. At the time of publication the story was accurate, and such stories are part of the public record. He notes in a busy news environment lapses in follow up on rehearings or appeals will occasionally occur, and says steps have now been taken to ensure staff are aware of their responsibilities to check for these. He says there is no question that the original report was anything other than accurate and factual. There was no intrusion of opinion into the story, and he strongly rejects any idea that Stuff’s coverage breaches the discrimination and diversity principle.

5. The editor, however, notes that Stuff’s normal checks did not pick up that the finding was overturned on rehearing, and that this was a failure on their part. On reviewing the history of the story, the editor says that the footnote subsequently placed on the original story was insufficient. He said, “Despite the significant delay, it seemed the best course was to finally report the facts of the rehearing; and further update the original story with a more prominent note acknowledging the changed outcome, linking to the follow up.”

The Decision

6. It is important for the normal operation of the news media to report facts at the time. We note that Tribunal and similar findings and judgments are often reported without speaking to anyone involved. But the editor now acknowledges the failure of Stuff processes in ensuring follow up and reporting of the changed Tribunal finding; and that the footnote was inadequate. The subsequent publication of a new and updated story and footnote is to Stuff’s credit.It should be acknowledged that the overturning of the first finding was caused by the fact that Ms Duke was not informed of the first hearing and therefore did not attend to state her side of events.This is an important part of the sequence of events to be on the public record, to ensure transparency of the Tribunal process. (We observe that if Stuff had reported the overturned finding in a timely way, this would, at one stroke, have illuminated the Tribunal process; removed the cause of the complaint; and been an interesting news story.) There is no indication that Stuff’s reporting was other than factual, or that it breached discrimination and diversity principles.

7. However, the Council has a number of concerns about Stuff’s handling of this complaint. While the article was accurate at the time of publication in March 2019, once the second, subsequent Tribunal finding was released in May 2019, the March 16, 2019 story became substantially inaccurate, and remained unchanged on the website until February 2020. The initial treatment by Stuff of Ms Duke’s complaint in early 2020 appears to have been dismissive, until she forwarded it to the Media Council, and the Media Council raised it with Stuff. At this point the matter seems to have been taken up at a higher level in Stuff. A more accurate follow up story was quickly published (although without consulting Ms Duke), along with an improved footnote on the original story. It took until April, and the involvement of the Media Council and Stuff senior management, to get the situation eventually acknowledged and corrected.

8. Stuff’s process for updating stories about rehearings and appeals was inadequate. Although, as a one off lapse, this might be accepted, Stuff has compounded this failure by its slow and inadequate response to Ms Duke’s complaint. This was unfair to Ms Duke. She approached Stuff with her complaint and initially received no response. Without advising her, Stuff published the footnote which Ms Duke, and subsequently the senior editor both regarded as inadequate; the new correct story was published only at a very late stage. The Council also believes it is a pity that Stuff did not see fit to apologise to Ms Duke in this case, as is provided for under Principle 12, Corrections.

9. The Council on balance, including for practical reasons (the story and headline will already in effect, be permanently cached on the internet), does not require Stuff to remove from its website the first story of March 16, 2019, which was correct at the time of publication. However, this now incorrect story is still the first to come up on an internet search. The Council believes that Stuff should therefore more prominently display the correction, which currently sits at the foot of the March 16, story. The correction must be placed at or near the top of the display of the story, so that it is one of the first things seen when using a search engine to investigate this incident.

Media Council Finding

9. The Council does not uphold the complaint on the grounds of Principles 4 and 7: comment and fact; and discrimination and diversity.

10. The Council upholds the complaint against Stuff on Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, on the grounds of unfairness to the complainant.

11. In accordance with paragraph 8 of the ‘Publication of adjudications’ section of its Principle