FRANK MACSKASY, ANDI BROTHERSTON AND DR. SIOUXSIE WILES AGAINST NZME

Case Number: 3345

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: NZME

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Corrections

Ruling Categories: Misleading
Social Media

Overview

1. On 21 July 2022, New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) published two articles: Siouxsie Wiles documentary receives $20,000 of taxpayer money (Newstalk ZB) and Taxpayers fund Dr Siouxsie Wiles documentary (New Zealand Herald). Three complainants said the articles breached Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness, and Balance and (12) Corrections.

2. The complaint is upheld because the articles included inaccurate information on the amount and source of the funding and the Newstalk ZB article did not make it clear when the documentary was made and published. Although NZME published a correction and apology, this  did not address the failure of the article published on Newstalk ZB to say when the documentary was made and published and should have been made more quickly.

The Article

3. The first article Siouxsie Wiles documentary receives $20,000 of taxpayer money was published on Newstalk ZB’s website at 5.16 pm. The article briefly promoted an interview about funding of an eight minute documentary on microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, saying the documentary received $20,000 of taxpayer funding as well as funding from NZ On Air. The article said Dr Wiles was a compelling subject, but questioned the funding, saying “Why can’t people just pay out of their own pocket?”.

4. The second article Taxpayers fund Dr Siouxsie Wiles documentary was published on the NZ Herald (the Herald) website at 7.43 pm and covered the content of the interview in more detail. The article repeated the statement that $20,000 of taxpayer money was used to partially fund the eight-minute documentary on “Siouxsie and the Virus”, noting it was part of season seven in the Loading Docs series of short documentaries on stories about contemporary history.

5. The article said Newstalk ZB’s deputy political editor, Mr Walls, was “perplexed that the documentary used taxpayer money given the current state of our hospital sector” and quoted Mr Walls as saying: “Although the money was approved in either 2020 or 2021, we were still facing immense pressure in the hospital sector.” The article continued with further background on Dr Wiles’ role in the pandemic, and then provided information on the controversy about funding from NZ On Air for a political documentary on a Green party MP.

6. In the morning of 22 July, having received complaints about the accuracy of the articles, NZME removed the articles and commenced a review. On  26 July at 2.26pm, NZME published a correction and apology, saying the documentary received $6,000 and postproduction costs worth $2,000 from Loading Docs, and the Film Commission funding was for a subsequent project on Dr Wiles.

The Complaint

7. The Council received complaints about the articles under Principle (1)  from Dr Wiles, Ms Andi Brotherston, and Mr Frank Macskasy and under Principle (12) from Dr Wiles and Ms Brotherston.  All three pointed out that the article contained a core inaccuracy: the funding of $20,000 from the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) was not for the eight minute documentary, but rather for preliminary work on a script for a potential movie on Dr Wiles.
 

8. Dr Wiles said the article contained inaccurate and misleading details about the documentary and about her. She said the article failed to clarify that she did not receive any of the funding for the documentary, she was not involved in any of the funding decisions, nor did it say the funding had been granted in 2020.

9. Dr Wiles said the cost of the documentary was $6,000. Dr Wiles said it was unfair and misleading for NZME not to put the documentary’s funding in context, for example, by disclosing how much NZME had received from similar funds. She said the article also targeted her by not mentioning “the dozens” of other documentaries and films (on many other subjects) that have been produced since the documentary about her. She also said it was unfair for NZME to equate funding for the documentary with overwhelmed hospitals.

10. Dr Wiles said following publication of the articles and interview, she started to receive abusive emails and messages on social media, providing copies of a sample of the abuse. She said the messages accused her of receiving the funding personally and of not caring about the health service. She also complained that NZME did not contact her for comment before publishing the articles, despite her being the subject of the articles.

11. Dr Wiles said when NZME removed the articles without comment, some on social media accused her of censoring NZME. She felt NZME should have owned the decision to pull the articles by publishing a statement. She also complained about the five day delay in publishing a retraction and apologising to her.

12. Mr Macskasy also said the article implied the documentary had been released recently, rather than in 2020 before Omicron became endemic in New Zealand. He said the article unfairly targeted Dr Wiles, given around 50 other documentaries have been produced. He also said no effort was made to contact Dr Wiles to obtain her side of the story, which was unfair given her public profile. He said the nature of the commentary was misleading, poorly researched and inaccurate, and incited abuse toward Dr Wiles.

13. Ms Brotherston agreed the article implied funding for the documentary was recent, rather than in 2020. She said NZME’s response to her confirmed the NZFC told NZME the funding for the movie was granted in 2020 and not making this clear was unethical. She also said NZME knew the NZFC’s funding was for “Siouxsie the Movie” and the documentary was called “Siouxsie and the Virus” and that the different titles should alerted NZME to the need to make further enquiries, rather than run the story about funding for the movie as if it were funding for the documentary.

14. Ms Brotherston questioned whether NZME’s actions in removing the articles was sufficient. She said simply removing the articles without comment exposed Dr Wiles to continuing social media abuse, of which NZME should have been aware and taken further action to protect Dr Wiles. She felt the apology to Dr Wiles and the producers should have been given “in the public domain where the harm was caused.” She said the story was focused on Dr Wiles, rather than on funding by the NZFC as claimed by NZME. She said a story focused on the NZFC’s funding would have included much more information on its total funding and covered other funding decisions.

The Response

15. NZME provided the same response to the three complainants. It said on the morning following publication of the articles, having been alerted to apparent errors in the articles about the funding, it removed the articles from Newstalk ZB’s and the Herald’s websites and associated social media platforms.  It said it contacted the producers of the documentary to acknowledge the article apparently contained inaccuracies and the articles had been removed.

16. NZME said following a review, it published an apology and correction on Newstalk ZB’s and the Herald’s websites and also broadcast the correction and apology on Newstalk ZB. NZME said it also wrote privately to the producers and Dr Wiles to apologise for the inadvertent error and on 27 July, the editor of the Herald personally apologised to Dr Wiles for unintended hurt and distress caused.

17. NZME admitted it confused funding for the movie and for the documentary about Dr Wiles, noting the NZFC website showed a grant of $20,000 funding for a project entitled “Siouxsie and the Virus”. It said the article was commenting generally about the use of taxpayer funds to fund documentaries, questioning whether it would be better spent on the health system. It said the articles did not say Dr Wiles personally received any of the funds, and the articles did not target Dr Wiles but rather used the documentary about her as an example of the use of taxpayer funds for documentaries. NZME said the articles were complimentary rather than critical of Dr Wiles, noting the articles talked of the acclaim she received for her communication during the  pandemic.

18. NZME said it did not deliberately mislead or misinform readers and the incorrect statements about the funding for the documentary were unintentional. It said the inaccuracy has been corrected and apologised for and it had acted promptly in doing so in accordance with the Media Council’s Principles. It said the correction and apology was published prominently on the Herald’s website and received more readers than the original article. The published correction and correction said:

A Newstalk ZB item and subsequent NZ Herald story, published on July 21, about funding for the short documentary film
Siouxsie & The Virus incorrectly reported that the Film Commission provided $20,000 for the project.
Siouxsie & The Virus received $6000 and post-production costs worth $2000 from Loading Docs, which is primarily funded
by NZ On Air.
The Film Commission funding was for a subsequent project about Dr Siouxsie Wiles. We regret and apologise for the error.
Siouxsie & The Virus was published on nzherald.co.nz and other media in 2020. You can watch the documentary above.

19. In its response to the Council, NZME noted Dr Wiles did not initially contact either Newstalk ZB or the Herald to complain but voiced her concerns over Twitter. It noted Dr Wiles submitted her formal complaint to NZME on 19 August. NZME suggested it was Dr Wiles’ activity on Twitter that had provoked the unwelcome responses, rather than the articles themselves.

20. NZME said it was reasonable for Mr Walls rely on information directly from the NZFC and available on the NZFC’s website. It said there was nothing on that website to alert Mr Walls he might be confusing two separate projects. It said the article included comments on separate funding for a documentary about Chloe Swarbrick, a prominent Green Party MP. NZME also pointed out that the Herald article said the $20,000 funding was granted in 2020 or 2021, making it clear it was not a recent funding decision, contrary to the claims of the complainants.

21. NZME said it had acted promptly in removing the articles and observed that most of the online criticism of Dr Wiles was in response to Dr Wiles’ posts about the two articles and it was Dr Wiles’ posts that increased readership of the articles. NZME said its actions in removing the articles while investigating had previously been endorsed by the Council in two previous cases (2955 and 3277). It denies its response was in any way inadequate, noting both producers accepted its apology and that the personal apology to Dr Wiles from a senior executive carried weight. It said that keeping that apology private was appropriate, given Dr Wiles’ concerns about ongoing online abuse.

22. NZME also noted Dr Wiles is engaged in litigation with her employer over her claims her employer has failed to sufficiently protect her from social media abuse. It says this shows that the articles complained about were not the catalyst for negative comments about Dr Wiles on social media.

Final comments from complainants

23. Having received NZME’s response to the Council, Dr Wiles expressed her frustration at what she saw was “a disgrace to the profession”. She said when Mr Walls saw a poster for “Siouxsie the movie”, he found the NZFC funding for the movie (2020-21) and the eight minute documentary, which was released in mid-2020. Dr Wiles said Mr Walls “wasn’t at all curious or puzzled why a movie had suddenly become an 8-minute documentary released before the funding was awarded.”

24. Dr Wiles also distinguished Media Council case 2955 (Hackwell v NZ Herald), saying the reason for the delay there was the NZ Herald was waiting for a response from RNZ. In this case, Dr Wiles said Loading Docs, which produced the documentary provided the correct information immediately, but NZME took several days to publish the correction during which time Dr Wiles said she was accused of censoring NZME.

25. Dr Wiles said the articles “deliberately and disingenuously linked [her] to the highly emotive issue of health services being stretched and underfunded”. She said, contrary to NZME’s view, the social media harassment began before she tweeted and abuse flowed from NZME’s posting of the articles to Twitter and Facebook.

26. Mr Macskasy expressed his concerns about NZME failing to take responsibility for the online harassment of Dr Wiles, saying this “indicates a lack of understanding of the consequences of what is published, and the real life detrimental actions it may have on an individual.” He said he felt the NZME story added to the demonisation of Dr Wiles and was deeply troubled that NZME “did not recognise or accept or understand this”.

27. Ms Brotherston did not provide further comment.

The Discussion

28. The complainants have raised a number of issues under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness, and Balance. The main part of Principle (1)  says:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

29. NZME has admitted the articles contained inaccurate information about the amount and source of funding for the documentary on Dr Wiles, which it acknowledged and corrected in its published correction and apology. The Council needs to determine whether other aspects of the complaints under Principle (1)  are substantiated, and if so, whether the correction is sufficient to remedy any breach.

Focus on Dr Wiles and opportunity to comment

30. The complainants said the articles were inaccurate in that they did not make it clear that Dr Wiles did not receive the funding personally, nor that she was not involved in the decision on funding. NZME did not comment on this aspect of the complaints in its response. The Council observes that when the Newstalk ZB article asks: “Why can’t people just pay out of their own pockets?”, it is not clear which “people” the article is referring to. A majority of the Council thought the articles were inferring that Dr Wiles received some benefit from the funding but noted both articles referred to “funding for the documentary”, and the Herald article named Loading Docs as the producer of the documentary. On balance, the Council does not believe this aspect of the articles breached Principle (1) .

31. The complainants said the articles were not balanced or were unfair because if the focus was on public funding as NZME claims, then the articles failed to provide the full picture of public funding for documentaries and films. The Council finds that while it was open to NZME to include further information on public funding, not doing so does not in itself make the article unbalanced.

32. The complainants said the articles were unfair as Dr Wiles was not given the opportunity to comment on the information, despite, in their view, the articles focusing on Dr Wiles. Given the discovered inaccuracy of the reporting, the complainants said talking to Dr Wiles could have revealed the error before publication. NZME said the articles were not about Dr Wiles, rather they were about public funding for documentaries and the documentary on Dr Wiles was simply one of two examples given. The Council agrees that the focus of the articles was on the funding, rather than on Dr Wiles herself, and finds that a failure to seek Dr Wiles’ view before publishing does not make the articles inherently unfair.

33. Specifically on fairness, Principle (1)  says “In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.” The Council does not believe the articles were on a topic in which there was already controversary or disagreement such that an opposition view had to be given a fair voice.

Timing of the funding decision

34. The complainants said the articles were also inaccurate or misleading in that they implied the funding had been granted recently, rather than in 2020 and well before the Omicron variant put pressure on the hospital system. NZME noted the Herald article had said the funding was approved in 2020 or 2021. However the Newstalk ZB article was silent on timing, and the Council finds that the context meant readers could reasonably believe the decision to fund the documentary had been made recently. The Council finds this omission means the Newstalk ZB article breaches Principle (1)  by being misleading.

Link to underfunding of hospitals

35. The complainants also say drawing a link between funding of the documentary and underfunding of hospitals was unfair, especially given the documentary was published in 2020. NZME says it was simply questioning the use of public funds, as it has done extensively in other articles, and was using the documentaries as examples.

36. The Newstalk ZB article does not include Mr Wall’s view that the funding was questionable when there was pressure on the health system. The Herald article says Mr Walls “was perplexed that the documentary used taxpayer money given the current state of our hospital sector” (emphasis added). It continues to quote Mr Walls as saying: “Although the money was approved in either 2020 or 2021, we were still facing immense pressure in the hospital sector”.

37. The Council believes the link between funding of the documentary and the highly emotive issue of hospital funding is tenuous but does not find this aspect of the articles breaches Principle (1) .

Was the published correction and apology adequate?

Principle (12) says:

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.

38. The Council finds the correction and apologies adequately address the main inaccuracy, that of the amount and source of the funding for the documentary. However, NZME limited its correction to the source and amount of funding, meaning it did not address the problem of Newstalk ZB not making it clear when the documentary was made and published.

39. The complainants believe NZME should have corrected the information much more quickly, especially as NZME would have been aware from its own monitoring of social media that Dr Wiles was receiving abuse. NZME says it acted quickly and within the time frame accepted by the Council in two previous decisions.

40. The Council does not agree the cases referred to by NZME are comparable. In case 3277 (Slade v One Roof), there were complex issues of fact to be reviewed. In case 2955 (Hackwell v NZ Herald), a delay in the NZ Herald in publishing a correction was accepted because the NZ Herald was waiting on Radio New Zealand.

41. The Council believes NZME should have acted more quickly in publishing the correction and apology. NZME would have been aware of the abuse being directed at Dr Wiles on its own social media and the issue of funding of the documentary could have been relatively quickly established. The Herald suggested Dr Wiles’ own actions were partially responsible for the abuse she received. It may be true that the inaccuracies in the articles cannot be considered the catalyst for all negative online commentary about Dr Wiles, but NZME needs to be accountable for the negative commentary that flowed from its error.

42. The Council believes NZME acted fairly and reasonably in making a separate personal apologies to Dr Wiles and the producers of the documentary, and whether the apologies are accepted is a matter for those individuals.

Decision

43. The Council upholds the complaints under Principle (1) . It finds that the correction and apology does not sufficiently address the breach. This is because the correction did not address the failure of the article published on Newstalk ZB to say when the documentary was made and published, and because of the delay in publishing the correction and apology.

44. Council members considering the complaint were Raynor Asher (Chair), Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau, Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough and Jonathan Mackenzie. Council member Scott Inglis did not participate in the discussion because of a conflict of interest.

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