GAVIN MILLAR AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3450
Council Meeting: December 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Principle: Conflicts of Interest
Ruling Categories: Advertisements
- Gavin Millar has complained an opinion piece published on Stuff on 30 September 2023 and headlined POLi – a foretaste of open banking? breaches Media Council Principle (10) Conflicts of Interest. The complaint is not upheld.
- The Stuff article was written by Allister Hunt. A by-line in bold at the top of the story reads, “Allister Hunter is chairman and director of payment strategy at Merco, the New Zealand distributor of the POLi payment service.”
- The column is clearly labelled as opinion and sits under ‘Opinion & Analysis’ in Stuff’s Business section. Stuff also promoted the column on social media where it was labelled as opinion, but without naming the author or his job title.
- A link in the fourth paragraph, 235 words into the article, reveals this column is a response to an earlier column on 16 September by financial commentator, Janine Sparks. In that column Janine Sparks described POLi as “dead technology” in Australia, that “shouldn’t exist in New Zealand either” and only does so because our financial regulation is, in her view, out of date.
- Gavin Millar complains that the column is “clearly intended as a sale pitch for POLi.” The article is written by the company’s chair and amounts to an “undeclared advertisement”, yet Stuff has not declared the conflict of interest. Mr Millar complains Media Council Principle (10) Conflicts of Interest has therefore been breached. Principle (10) states publishers must be “free of obligations to their news sources”; must declare any sponsorship or financial inducement and any link an author has to a subject; and avoid anything that might compromise their independence.
- Mr Millar believes POLi has been given an ideal place to promote itself and he’s unclear whether or not POLi paid for the column. If it did, it was not stated.
- While the fact the column was written by Merco’s chair is noted on the page, there’s no indication of this on the homepage or in the social media posts to ensure readers are informed before they click through.
- Mr Millar says POLI’s business model is controversial because it requires people to breach their bank’s Terms of Service and puts them at risk of fraud.
- Mr Millar argues that if the column is an attempt to add balance to the September 16th opinion piece at the request of POLi “it utterly fails at retaining journalistic integrity as it's clear that the original piece contained balance and appropriately referenced POLi's business plan.”
- In reply, Stuff has clarified that the article was not sponsored or paid for. Rather than being “a sales pitch for POLi” Stuff says the column was submitted by the company and was a response to recent coverage of the payment service. The story was considered by Stuff’s editorial team which “discussed its content with POLi” and exercised its discretion to publish the column “in the interests of balance.”
- Stuff links to several articles it has published about POLi in recent years to argue the controversy surrounding it is a long running issue. It points to the Janine Starks’ column on September 16 to show it has run commentary critical of the company and therefore is under no obligation to POLi or its chair, Allister Hunt.
- Stuff accepts the author’s details were not in its social posts or visible to readers before they opened the story. The response says it is “standard practice for Stuff to present opinion pieces in this way unless the author is very well-known.” It’s not practical to put the author’s name and credentials in short headline fields and the headlines that were used fairly convey the contents of the article.
- The article is clearly labelled as opinion and the author’s role is transparent. At the top of the story, it reads “Allister Hunter is chairman and director of payment strategy at Merco, the New Zealand distributor of the POLi payment service.” Stuff says “there can be no doubt… that what follows is clearly Hunt’s opinion.”
- Gavin Millar complains under Principle (10) Conflicts of Interest. To uphold the complaint Stuff would have to have some undeclared obligation to Allister Hunter and/or POLi or have been paid in some form and hidden that from the public. Alternatively, the author’s link to the subject of the column must have been hidden.
- There is no evidence any of those situations occurred in this instance. Rather, right at the top of the story Stuff tells readers who the author is and that he is the chair of the company that owns the service. Readers are intelligent enough to know that what comes next will be entirely coloured by the author’s self-interest. Allister Hunter’s interest is declared and Stuff tells us its “editorial team” chose to run the article independent of any obligations or pressure.
- That Mr Hunter’s name and role was not revealed on the homepage or in social posts before clicking through to the story is of no consequence. Some media outlets name authors on their home or landing pages and in their social media, some do not. But few give their titles, which is the pertinent information in this case. Contrary to Mr Millar’s claim, Stuff clearly stated Allister Hunter’s conflict – in bold – at the top of the article.
- Stuff provided evidence it has published stories critical of POLi in the past; indeed, Janine Sparks’ column from two weeks prior is linked to from this column. In it, Janine Sparks is damning of POLi. While Ms Sparks is reasonable and expert in her commentary and Stuff had no need to balance her analysis, it has the right to do so if it desires.
- Having said that, this is an unusual column. It is not standard practice for companies to be offered space in opinion sections to promote the scale of their business, to claim that it is “trusted” and “cost effective” and “easy to use” or to make unverified claims that their business “saves retailers about $30 million a year.” Rather than a piece of commentary or argument, the column uses the language of advertising with lines such as “Merchants like POLi because...”; “POLi has always been ahead of its time”; and “it allows people to pay the way they like.”
- Gavin Millar is correct the column reads like a sales pitch rather than a piece of business analysis. The reader is 223 words into the article before there is any context and is informed this column is in response to the earlier column by Janine Sparks. Honest opinion is one thing, promotion is quite another. Stuff might like to reflect on the decision of its editorial team to publish this column in this state.
- Decision: The complaint against Stuff under Principle (10) Conflicts of Interest, is not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Jonathan Mackenzie, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau.