FELIX AND KELLIE WATKINS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3283

Council Meeting: JULY 2022

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories:

Overview

On 21 May 2022 Stuff published a story in the Dominion Post and online headed: Mates who got $300k in PledgeMe funding bought cars, holidays and booze. It covered a start-up clothing company, Woolies Ltd, that had raised $337,000 in a PledgeMe campaign. The three young men behind the venture had been school friends. The “marketing story” for the venture was that one of them, Jovian Cummins, a shearer, had come up with the idea for merino-lined jeans and roped in two former schoolmates, Felix Watkins and Isaac Williams, who the story described as “supposedly successful entrepreneurs”, to help with the business. The pair had actually spent a good part of the past two years on the dole and had been involved in a failed clothing shop, the story said.

A few days after PledgeMe deposited the first tranche of funds, $49,000 was spent on a Mustang. Watkins and Williams had used the money for purchases including liquor, restaurants and holidays, the story said. They told Stuff they had repaid all the personal expenses, and the story said bank statements appeared to verify this. The story reported that the pair had fallen out with Cummins. It reported that Watkins had applied for a discharge without conviction on a drink-driving charge and was ticketed while driving a Porsche at 123kph. The story also covered a dispute with a landlord, where it was said the pair had left their high-end rental a “pigsty”.

Cummins was quoted as saying he was concerned about his partners’ “party culture” and was shocked when he saw the bank statements. “It felt wrong to use shareholders’ funds like this,” he said. The pair defended the spending, saying lawyers and accountants said it was “perfectly OK”.  They were reported to be in Portugal, working to get their product manufactured.

Felix Watkins complained about the story, saying it contained false information and had been published to “deliberately defame and slander my reputation”. Kellie Watkins, his mother, also complained, saying her son had given consent for her to lodge a complaint on his behalf. She said Cummins was not the brains behind the concept. He was merely a “manufactured actor” to front the brand. Watkins and Williams had created the concept and done all the groundwork. Their shop did not “fail”; it was forced to close during the pandemic. The story was slanted towards Cummins, Kellie Watkins said, outlining actions taken by Cummins she thought were malicious. The story had been biased in looking for Watkins’ past transgressions. The pair were not responsible for the state of the rental. They were not “on holiday” in Portugal; they were there to negotiate a contract for the production of the product. The pair were two “bright young guys”, who did not deserve bad press from a journalist who had not reported in a fair and balanced manner, she said. In further correspondence, she said the article had had negative consequences for the pair; one company had pulled out of negotiations, citing the story.

Stuff replied, saying that one of the most significant matters complained about was that Cummins did not come up with the idea for the jeans. Yet that was what potential investors had been told. “Are you confirming that potential investors have been misled?” Stuff asked. While the story made it clear that the money had been largely repaid, it remained unclear why money was used for personal expenses, including rent payments. Regarding the suggestion that Cummins' actions had not been covered in the story, Stuff said there were many allegations made by both sides, and only the most significant had been included. Stuff believed potential investors had a right to know how the business was being run, that the pair had a lengthy stint on the Jobseeker benefit and about the driving misdemeanours. Stuff had information that did not tally with the suggestion the pair were not responsible for the state of the rental. The article did not state that the trip to Portugal was a holiday. Stuff would be happy to do a follow-up piece on Woolies Jeans if there were new developments.

The Council can find no inaccuracies in the material published. Watkins was given the chance to explain the pair’s actions, and their explanations about the money being repaid and the rental dispute were reported. If a key element of the story, that Cummins was responsible for coming up with the idea for the jeans, is false, Stuff cannot be blamed for this as they are accurately reporting the company’s marketing material. The Media Council believes investors, who have put a considerable amount of money into this venture through the PledgeMe appeal, have a right to know how it is being spent and how the company is being run. No principles have been breached.

There are insufficient grounds to proceed.

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