GARRY MUIR AGAINST THE WEEKEND HERALD

Case Number: 3010

Council Meeting: MARCH 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Weekend Herald

Ruling Categories: Unfair Coverage

Overview

Weekend Herald reader Garry Muir has complained about a front page story in the newspaper -Scrooge cuts stepkids from $122m will - published on Boxing Day, 2020.

The story was about Auckland landowner and farmer Harold Plumley’s bequest to the Catholic Church and a subsequent dispute about how the money and property was distributed.

Mr Plumley left the vast majority of his $122m fortune to the church. He provided for his partner of two decades but not his step children.

The story formed part of a Herald investigation into New Zealand’s richest religious groups. Mr Plumley’s bequest is believed to be the largest charitable donation ever to be made in New Zealand.

The Complaint

In a letter to the Weekend Herald, Mr Muir charges that the newspaper has been “unfair” in its reporting of Mr Plumley’s bequest.

“I think that this is a family matter which seems to have been successfully resolved between his partner’s children and the Catholic Church. “I take exception that a family matter such as this gets headlines and on the front page.”

Mr Muir also believes that “comments about his life were unfair and biased”.

In particular the complainant says that Mr Plumley’s life of frugality characterised by reusing tea bags, driving older cars, living in a modest house and being described as a “Scrooge”- was disparaging of Mr Plumley’s frugal lifestyle.

“In my estimation these traits of modesty and frugality should be commended rather than so flippantly and easily disparaged.”

Mr Muir complained that the editor “saw fit to portray a charitable gesture in such a dismissive way and call it an act of spite against his step children”.

“Surely there are always two sides to a family dispute.”

Mr Muir also cast aspersions on the friends quoted in the story, their willingness to talk to the journalist and theHerald’s inclusion of their comments in the story.

“A true friend would never disparage publicly the life of a friend especially one who is now dead and could not defend himself.”

The Response

Weekend Herald editor Stuart Dye said the donation emerged as part of a major project investigating the wealth of the country’s largest religions.

He said the journalist approached as many people as they could to “shed light on this bequest” which was newsworthy because it was believed to be the largest charitable donation in NZ history.

“We published in good faith those people’s honestly held views - people who knew and considered themselves friends of Mr Plumley.”

The editor said the newspaper spoke to the Catholic Diocese and also tried to locate Mr Plumley’s stepchildren.

Mr Dye said the story was “fair, balanced and accurate” and the impact the story might have was “carefully considered.”

He said it was not the paper’s intention to be “mean spirited”.

Noting that the complainant did not reference any Media Council principles he believed had been breached, Mr Dye said the story was fair, balanced and accurate.He said it exercised caution to protect surviving members of the family, distinguished clearly between fact and comment and the heading fairly and accurately conveyed the substance of the story.

He said much of Mr Muir’s complaint centered around his own frugal upbringing “and his despair at the profligacy of today’s society” which was a subject theHerald “took no position on”.

The Decision

Mr Muir has not specifically complained under any New Zealand Media Council principles, however he believes the reporting of Mr Plumley’s bequest was “unfair” therefore his complaint will be considered under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

At the heart of Mr Muir’s complaint is a feeling that an extraordinarily generous donation was exposed to the glare of publicity without due recognition of his generosity, therefore the story is inherently unfair to Mr Plumley and by association his extended family.

Mr Muir might have expected those quoted in the story to be heaping praise on Mr Plumley - given the size of the donation - but instead they lampooned his “miserly ways” and frugal lifestyle.

Mr Plumley’s friends also suggest that the motivation for the bequest was not altruism, but to spite his step children.

The combination of a very large donation and a highly critical portrayal of the donor has left Mr Muir annoyed after reading the story.

The Council has some sympathy for Mr Muir’s position and understands why the Herald’s framing of the story has upset him.Mr Plumley’s stupendous donation was directed towards a charitable institution, but in the telling of the tale his character was impugned when the motivation for his generosity became the main angle of the story.

The media’s role is to report accurately, fairly and without fear or favour. The Council agrees with Mr Dye that the story was newsworthy and in the public interest, given the scale of the bequest and the fact that the story emerged as part of a wider investigation into wealthy religions.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the Council also accepts the Herald’s position that they published in good faith the honestly held views of people who knew and considered themselves friends of Mr Plumley. However the Council reminds theHerald that a story that relies completely on unnamed sources stretches credibility and that is especially so when the subject of the story is dead and therefore can’t defend themselves.

The Council also notes that his partner was dead and the reporter’s attempts to contact the step children were unsuccessful, however by way of balance comment was sought from the Catholic Church.

The media’s role is to report facts as best they are able to ascertain them. In this case the Council has not seen anything to counter Mr Dye’s position about the story and the sources used.

The Council also believes it was fair for the newspaper to quote a source in the story who called Mr Plumley a “Scrooge” - and use the term in the heading with quotes - because it was a fair reflection of the tenor of the story and the combined accounts of Mr Plumley’s friends.

Decision

The Council can find no breaches of any of its principles therefore the complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

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