DUSTIN PLUNKETT AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2902

Council Meeting: MAY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Advertisements
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Conflict of Interest
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] On 5 March 2020 Stuff published an article headlined “Kiwi sanitiser Zoono tests 99.9% effective against coronavirus, sales increase five-fold”. The story reported a statement to the Australian sharemarket from Zoono, a New Zealand-based company, that testing had shown the company’s products were almost 100 per cent effective against the current strain of coronavirus. The company’s sales had increased five-fold since the announcement. The story included an interview with the company’s founder about the product and the effect of the coronavirus outbreak on its sales

The Complaint

[2] Dustin Plunkett complained under principles related to Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Comment and Fact, Headlines and Captions, Subterfuge and Conflicts of Interest. He said the story was a thinly veiled advertisement for the company using the coronavirus outbreak to “scare up business” for a product with no proven health benefits.

[3] Mr Plunkett pointed out apparent inconsistencies in the information available on the company’s website, which said that the product was effective against the feline and bovine versions of the virus and that testing for the Covid-19 strain had not been completed and would not be for four to six weeks. Furthermore, the CDC (US-based Centers for Control and Disease Prevention) suggested the use of alcohol-based sanitisers or washing with soap and water. The story presented the Zoono products as an effective way to prevent the virus for 24 hours, but there had been no proof provided and the journalist had not tried to verify the claims, Mr Plunkett said. “It’s extremely obvious this is an ad for the sterilizer by the company without disclosing it as such… I hope you were paid well for running this advertisement.”

[4] In later correspondence Mr Plunkett also objected to a statement from the company’s founder that hospitals and medical staff wanted the product but were prevented from ordering it by supply contracts that were locked in for 20 years. No hospital would sign a 20-year exclusivity contract, Mr Plunkett said.

The Response

[5] Stuff responded that it had no connection or advertising relationship with the company. Stuff placed the highest priority on maintaining the independence and integrity of its editorial content. There had been no inducement between Stuff and the company.

[6] The article was primarily based on a statement by Zoono to the Australian Stock Exchange and an interview with the founder. Given the disclosure and accuracy requirements around market announcements for public companies, the statement was a reasonable and reliable document to quote from. Stuff had checked the veracity of the testing body and were satisfied the process and results were credible and reliable. Stuff invited the complainant to provide evidence to back up his claims against the product. “If you have such evidence we would be extremely keen to see it. If the claims about the product are demonstrably untrue we would certainly report that,” Stuff said.

[7] The story was part of a massive news event and the blanket coverage provided context for the story. On the complaint about comment and fact, Stuff said the article was clearly a news story and was properly attributed as reported comments and statements. The headline accurately reflected the story. There was no subterfuge or conflict of interest.

The Decision

[8] Considering the complaint under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, the council agreed with Stuff that it was entitled to report a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, which had requirements around accuracy. The stock exchange statement had reported that the product was 99.9 per cent effective against Covid-19, the test result came from a reputable laboratory, and it was reasonable to report this. Although the company’s website says that tests against the actual Covid-19 virus have yet to be completed, the website has been updated to state that tests against feline coronavirus are a recognised surrogate for Covid-19 and this is what the latest research was based on. The Stuff story stated that a surrogate virus had been used for the test results released to the sharemarket. The complainant said that Stuff had not investigated the claims about the product’s efficacy, but he also did not provide any evidence that the claims were untrue.

[9] One minor aspect of the complaint was not addressed by Stuff. The story reported the business founder’s assertion that he was unable to get his product into hospitals because of 20-year procurement arrangements - the council had some sympathy with the complainant that this was a surprising assertion and the journalist could have questioned the business founder more closely about this. However the main thrust of the story was about the product’s sharemarket announcement and its sales growth, so the council did not consider this a major point, and did not uphold the complaint under Principle 1.

[10] The complainant also alleged that the story was in fact an advertisement masquerading as a news item and suggested that Stuff had been paid to run it, an allegation Stuff strenuously denied. The council finds there is no evidence of any commercial link. On the other principles raised, the headline accurately reflected the content of the story, and on the principle relating to comment and fact, it was clearly a news story with the business founder’s comments properly attributed.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan Mackenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Christina Tay.

Tim Watkin stood down to maintain the public member majority.