FRANK MACSKASY AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDThe Press Council received complaints from Lindsay Lyons and Frank Macskasy concerning articles published in the New Zealand Herald and Herald on Sunday.
The Council determined that these two complaints should be considered together. Mr Macskasy did not specify the principle alleged to be breached, while Mrs Lyons alleged breaches of Principles 1 and 4.
The New Zealand Herald, and the Herald on Sunday, commenced an investigation into the relationship between a wealthy Chinese immigrant, Donghua Liu, and the two major New Zealand political parties, National and Labour. A significant number of articles were published in both the New Zealand Herald and the Herald on Sunday concerning these relationships. It is reasonable to categorise the articles as critical of the relationship between the wealthy businessman and both the major parties. The initial publications related to the relationship with the National Party, culminating in the resignation of Hon Maurice Williamson from his ministerial duties.
The Leader of the Opposition was critical of the activities of National Party Ministers and MPs in their relationship with Mr Liu.
Both newspapers then commenced a series of articles relating to Mr Liu’s dealings with the Leader of the Labour Party in his role as an electorate MP; and with the former cabinet minister, Hon Rick Barker. First, the papers revealed a letter from Mr Cunliffe that had been written on April 11, 2003 to the Immigration Department relating to Mr Liu’s application to that Department. This was published following Mr Cunliffe’s denial that he had ever had any dealings with, or on behalf of, Mr Liu. Subsequent articles reported that Mr Liu purchased a book signed by Rt Honourable Helen Clark at a Labour Party function for $15,000 and that the newspapers had come into possession of a signed statement from Mr Liu. They further reported that these revealed that Mr Liu had paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine signed by Ms Clark, at a Labour Party function. Ultimately, stories reported that Mr Liu had hosted Mr Barker to a lavish dinner in China, and made a donation to a rowing club in the Hawke’s Bay of which Mr Barker’s daughter was a member.
The Macskasy Complaint
i) That the June 18 story revealed the date of the letter as April 11, 2003. In several of the subsequent stories, he maintains, reference to the letter omitted this date, thereby suggesting to readers it was recently written.
ii) An article claimed Mr Liu had paid $15,000 for a book at a Labour Party fundraiser. He complains that there was no evidence to back the claim, and the Labour Party denied it.
iii) That the claim that Mr Liu paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine lacked evidence to back up the claim, especially when the Labour Party stated no such event had taken place.
iv) That the newspapers were obliged to publish the signed statement they said they held from Mr Liu, and it was unconscionable not to do so.
v) On June 18, in a comment, the chief political commentator, John Armstrong, demanded Mr Cunliffe’s resignation. The complaint alleges there was failure to refer to the fact the letter had been written in 2003; by omitting this, the commentator was able to reach an unreasonable conclusion; and finally, taken in context of subsequent stories, the paper had adopted an unfair and biased stance against Mr Cunliffe.
vi) The bias was said to be emphasised by the reporting of thousands of dollars being spent on a social event for visiting Labour MP Rick Barker, which the complainant states, based on Mr Barker’s statements, was simply a staff dinner. The same complaint states that there is innuendo relating to the donation to the Hawke’s Bay Rowing Club.
The Lyons complaint
Mrs Lyons complains that the article on June 22, 2014 was in breach of Principles 1 and 4. She also complains of a follow up article on June 29.The complaint is the former article led readers to believe that Mr Liu had made $150,000 of payments to the Labour Party, including $100,000 for wine at a fundraiser and $50,000 for a cruise in China. There is a further reference to an interview with the New Zealand Herald editor Tim Murphy with Radio New Zealand on June 23, 2012, where he said, “Well what’s not to stand by? Donghua Liu made this claim, he signed it, we have the document, now whether he is correct is yet to be seen.” The complaint is that the New Zealand Herald did not feel the need to check the veracity of Mr Liu’s claims before printing them. It is accepted that since then, the New Zealand Herald has made clarifications regarding the amounts said to be spent and quoted Mr Cunliffe as saying the alleged events were six years before his time.
The Herald’s Response
In relation to Mr Macskasy’s complaint, the editor-in-chief of the Herald titles says that the date of the letter was prominently publicised when the story was first broken, and the fact that the residency application by Mr Liu was in the mid-2000s was referenced a number of times. He stood by the report the book was purchased, and accepted that the claim of $100,000 for wine was mis-reported, but was soon corrected when further information became available from Mr Liu. This correction was clarified on all their channels and in the subsequent Herald on Sunday, and explained in an editorial in the New Zealand Herald. He says it is not an automatic thing to make public documents which a newspaper obtains in the part of an ongoing inquiry. He points out that the letter by Mr Cunliffe was obtained under the Official Information Act, released to all media, and was a public document. While Mr Macskasy accepted Mr Barker’s claim that the function was a staff dinner, the newspaper did not. He further stated that it would be naïve to assume the donation to the rowing club associated with an MP was unconnected to the MP.
In relation to Mrs Lyons’ complaint, Mr Murphy responded that those complaining about the reporting of the relationship between Mr Liu and the Labour Party overlooked the Herald’s coverage of the National Party and its donations and relations with the same person. He stated he did not suggest on National Radio that the Herald on Sunday had rushed into print without verifying the donations story. He said the paper had validated the source of the document and confirmed it was the view of Mr Liu, who was the central figure in the affair. He said the dollar figures stated were based on Mr Liu’s signed statement. He accepted in hindsight that the statement was possibly ambiguous. Mr Liu was pressed to clarify the position and when he did a correction was published.
It is apparent that the Herald publications carried out an in-depth and ongoing investigation of the relationships between National and Labour and Mr Liu.
At the heart of Mr Macskasy’s complaint is the failure of the Herald in later articles to continue to repeat the date of Mr Cunliffe’s letter. The Herald has provided us with the full series of articles, which make it plain that the date was published, and a link to the full letter provided. It was a public document. We are satisfied that readers of these publications, in context, would be aware of the timing of the application for residency and the fact that Mr Cunliffe’s letter was published some time earlier. The publication of the letter only followed Mr Cunliffe’s denial of having anything to do with Mr Liu. We are not satisfied a reader would have been misled. As we have said previously where there is a series of linked stories it is not necessary in subsequent articles to repeat every detail. In any event the date of the letter and the fact it was written 11 years previously was repeated in a number of articles.
We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source. As a result the reporting about which Mrs Lyons is complaining was incorrect. We accept the statement was ambiguous and could have been read to mean Mr Liu had paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine when in fact he was attempting to convey he had spent $100,000 in total for various matters relating to the Labour Party and Mr Barker. But if a second source had been sought to confirm the story the error would not have occurred.
However, we accept that the Herald assiduously pursued Mr Liu for clarification and when it came immediately published a correction. A number of subsequent articles repeated the correction. Principle 12 reads: “A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.” Here it was the Herald’s enquiries that revealed the error. It was corrected promptly with fair prominence and the correction was repeated. In those circumstances the Council does not uphold the complaint.
Neither complaint is upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.