Case Number: 3439

Council Meeting: 25 SEPTEMEBER 2023

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Headlines and Captions
Conflicts of Interest

Ruling Categories: Behaviour of Journalists
Unfair Coverage


  1. Christchurch philanthropist Grant Nelson has complained about two stories published in the NZ Herald  on May 12 and July 7, 2023.   The first story is headlined Victoria University institute in wealthy donor research row faces closure and the second is headlined University defends staff against ‘inflammatory’ attack from high-profile donors.  
  2. Mr Nelson has complained under Media Council Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, (2) Privacy, (10) Conflicts of Interest, (12) Corrections and (6) Headlines and Captions. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

  1. The first story is lengthy and based on a tranche of documents obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA). The story involves Victoria University and Mr Nelson.  It details how Mr and Mrs Nelson’s philanthropic Gama Foundation donated $10 million to Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) and how the relationship became strained when the Institute spent the money on things other than what Mr Nelson says they intended for.  The follow up story is about a website founded by Mr Nelson which mentions his dispute with the university and some of the people involved.  The story angles on the university’s defence of its academics.

The Complaint

  1. In a lengthy complaint, Mr Nelson argues that he has been treated unfairly by the NZ Herald and deliberately targeted by the journalist. He complains that his privacy has been breached via information contained in the OIA release, the stories and headings are inaccurate, a “false picture” of the issues was portrayed and that the university used the journalist and their own staff to conduct a “vendetta” against him while “false and misleading things had been said”.  In support of some of these allegations Mr Nelson says in his experience “newspapers do not want articles longer than 800 words” while the first article ran to 3071 words. Mr Nelson believed that was an aberration. The article was published in Auckland but pertained to matters miles away in Wellington. In choosing to write about Nr Nelson’s donation to the university and his subsequent dissatisfaction with how the money was used, the journalist  was operating outside the issues he normally reported on which “seems rather odd.” 
  2. The article made it look like the Nelsons were at fault and not specific university staff.   A headline described a “row” over a dispute but in fact both parties worked “amicably through a problem that finally came to a head after 8 years”.  The university had made “untrue” statements which were reported in the story, while the journalist had an agenda and selected material from the OIA documents to position the Nelsons in a negative light.   The Nelsons were very clear that their money was to be used for research into political donations and their effects on democracy “but none of this was made clear'' in the articles.   The first story failed to include details about a charter for how the endowment fund was to be used and which had not been complied with.
  3. The second story was “not based on any new facts that the Auckland public needed to know about”.     There was no “massive falling out” between the parties, a response from the university about claims made against its staff “was just innuendo trying to cover up what staff had done.”   The fact that the Ministry of Social Development had made a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority was unrelated to the story and should not have been mentioned while the complaint was being heard.   The reporter did not comply with the  NZ Herald’s code of conduct and ethics and he should not have used the NZ Herald “to assist a dishonest friend carry out a vendetta.”

The Response

  1. For the NZ Herald, editor Murray Kirkness said in several aspects Mr Nelson had conceded that the documents had been accurately reported but in Mr Nelson’s opinion the university’s position in those documents  “was not really correct.”  “In applying Principle (1) the test must be that the documents that the Herald obtained were accurately reported - not whether Mr Nelson agreed with the content of those documents.”
  2. The first article reported the contents of the documents “ ‘factually and neutrally’ in what was a dispute between Mr Nelson and the university and then some academics and the university.”
  3. Mr Nelson was quoted extensively in the first article and chose not be interviewed for the second.
  4. Mr Kirkness said the bulk of the factual background to the dispute is canvassed in the OIA documents “while Mr Nelson’s complaint relies on his perceived nuances of the original funding arrangement.” “Our position is that the article contains accurate contextual information but its focus is correctly on the 2021 dispute and the subsequent fallout. “
  5. The article does not discredit Mr Nelson or his wife or apportion blame to the couple for the dispute. It correctly reports that Mr Nelson provided  a “significant endowment but became dissatisfied with the performance and direction of the IGPS - and he raised this repeatedly with the university.”
  6. It “defies belief” that Mr Nelson takes issue with the word “row” in the headline as Mr Nelson accused IGPS members of “dishonest behaviour” and “having a slush fund for life.”  He says he is pursuing legal action against three entities. There was undoubtedly a “row” and a “falling out” between Mr Nelson and the university and this “permeates the documents he provides in his complaint.”
  7. It was not true that Mr Nelson was given only one hour to respond to the reporter’s question for the first story. Mr Nelson was provided with written questions and had a week to consider them.
  8. With regard to the second story the piece accurately quoted the university describing Mr Nelson’s comments as “inflammatory.”  Mr Nelson may dispute this opinion but it does not make the article inaccurate.
  9. Regarding privacy and Mr Nelson’s view that “his privacy should have been taken into account” Mr Kirkness said Mr Nelson should direct his concerns to the Ombudsman if he is referring to the information contained in the OIA documents.    The broad issue of academic freedom and research is a matter of significant public interest.”  Mr Nelson did not raise privacy concerns when he provided a statement for the first article. The Nelsons regularly appear in media coverage in relation to their foundation and initiatives they fund. Mr Nelson loses any claim to privacy after posting criticism of university staff on his website.
  10. Thomas Coughlan was a political reporter based at Parliament who reported on politics and higher education so the stories complained about were “entirely within his  area of responsibility.” 
  11. The articles were based on “meticulous” research including over 100 pages gleaned from an OIA request.  The paper considered the articles “fairly and accurately represent the background to the dispute.” Before the articles were published Mr Nelson received suitable notice of the reporter’s questions and these were provided with an opportunity to comment. “You did so for the first article and declined for the second.”
  12. Mr Nelson’s email to the NZ Herald was very long and contained background information that the reporter was already aware of.
  13. Neither the university nor the IGPS reject the characterisation of the issue as a “dispute.” The story presented both sides of the dispute about the charter . The fact is that the faculty believes the charter was adhered to and the foundation believes that it was not.

The Discussion

  1. The nub of this complaint is whether or not the NZ Herald has accurately and fairly reported the circumstances that lead to the breakdown of a relationship between the Nelsons and Victoria University, following their donation in the form of a $10 million endowment.  Mr Nelson has taken issue with many aspects of the NZ Herald’s reporting, going into quite some detail about the meaning of certain words and phrases, the number of pages included in a tranche of OIA documents and the repetition and frequency of selected words and phrases in documents and stories.
  2. After careful consideration of the documents and the arguments from both parties, the Media Council finds that there has not been a breach of any of its principles. Both stories were accurate.The Council agrees with the NZ Herald that the test under Principle(1) must be that the documents were accurately reported and not whether Mr Nelson agreed with the content of those documents.The Media Council has not seen any evidence to the contrary and believes the Herald has adequately presented both sides of the story. Mr Nelson’s concerns about where and how the money was spent arei ncluded in the stories. He gets a fair say in the first story and chose not to be interviewed for the second story. The Council understands that in Mr Nelson's view the story should have taken a different trajectory, but it is for the journalist not Mr Nelson to choose the angle for a news story.
    1.  UnderPrinciple(6), Headlines and Captions, the Council agrees that describing the situation as a “row” was appropriate for the story. Similarly after consideration of the documents, the Council does not agree that a “falsepicture” has been presented in either of the stories and notes that while Mr Nelson might believe that the university has made “untrue” statements, that is his opinion.There is no evidence before the Council to suggest that anything the university has said in the stories is untrue.
    2. The newspaper and the journalist were not carrying out a “vendetta” against Mr Nelson, his wife or the Gamma Foundation. Nor is there anything unusual about the first story running to3000 words or the journalist choosing to write about the topics he did.
    3. A detached reader might have some sympathy for Mr Nelson's concerns about how his generous endowment was handled by the university, and some might agree with Mr Nelson that the university did not treat his endowment well.
    4. Mr Nelson complains that the first story did not include details about how the money was to be spent, but that is not so. The story clearly outlines Mr Nelson’s position in relation to his desire for the institute to research the influence of political donations and lobbying on New Zealand politics.
    5. The newspaper had every right to investigate the second story after Mr Nelson publicly criticised university staff on his website. He declined an interview, as is his right, but that does not give Mr Nelson a legitimate cause to complain that the story contained “no new facts that the Auckland public needed to know about.”
    6. The Privacy Act does not apply to news media but in any case the documents were available to any member of the public who might request them, Mr Nelson freely engaged with the journalist for the first story and he invited scrutiny from news media when he critiqued university academics on his website.
    7. There has been nothing provided to the Council to suggest that a correction should have been made by the NZ Herald for either story or that there is evidence of a conflict of interest.
    8. Decision: The complaint under Principles (1), (2), (10), (12) and (6) is not upheld.

    Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Jonathan MacKenzie, Tim  Watkin, Hank Schouten, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Richard Pamatatau. 

    *Council member Scott Inglis declared a conflict of interest and withdrew from the discussion.


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