HON MURRAY McCULLY AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMESHon Murray McCully, Minister for the Rugby World Cup and Minister of Foreign Affairs, complained about a front page article in the Sunday Star-Times on January 30, 2011. He claimed that various assertions, including the headlines and a caption under an accompanying photograph failed to meet journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness and balance.
His complaint is upheld.
Background and Context
The article appeared on the front page. It was headlined “Fiji Dictator’s World Cup Freebie” and “Military hardman can’t be kept out”.
It also featured photographs of Fiji coup leader Frank Bainimarama and his brother-in-law, Francis Kean, with a caption stating that they “would be exempt from the visa blacklist imposed after the 2006 coup”.
The story suggested that New Zealand faced the “embarrassment” of being “forced” to host the two men. Kean, the Fiji naval commander, was attempting to become the Chairman of the FRU and if that happened, Bainimarama was expected to become the FRU President. Under IRB rules, two officials from Fiji could attend the Rugby World Cup and the host nation would have to pay their costs.
The report included information that Kean was a “convicted killer” (manslaughter), comment from a FRU insider that Kean was the frontrunner for Chairman and closed with Steve Tew, the NZRFU’s CEO, explaining that the VIP hosting programme was a significant cost but standard for such events.
Mr McCully argued that the assertions were incorrect and “grossly inflated”.
He had been forced to issue a media statement the same day, explaining the correct situation ie that members of the Fiji military regime could apply for an exemption from the sanctions denying them a visa and that the decision would then be made by the Minister of Immigration, under advice from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but that “under current circumstances” any such request would be denied.
In short, the travel sanctions applied to the leaders mentioned in the article and headlines.
Further, the newspaper had published these assertions without putting them to the Government or its appropriate departments either for checking of accuracy or for balancing comment.
Finally, when he had initially complained to the newspaper, the editor had mentioned the media coverage of the Minister’s press statement as being sufficient to counter any concerns about the original report. In his view the newspaper’s response was both inadequate and unethical.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor’s first reply to the complainant, and later in response to the Press Council, stressed that his counter argument to the story had been widely reported, including in the Sunday Star-Times the following week.
He claimed the ministry had been approached for comment about “the state of Fiji rugby” but they had been told that the minister would not comment.
Further, comment from Immigration had also been sought but without success.
Mr McCully took issue with the claim that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been asked for comment. He stressed that neither the Ministry nor the respective Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Immigration had been asked to comment on the assertion that the government could not prevent Frank Bainimarama from coming to the World Cup.
He repeated his view that the article was inaccurate because the Fijian military was covered by the sanctions against entry and the NZ government would not grant any visa exemptions.
The editor confirmed that comment had been sought from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A spokesperson (unnamed) had provided the comment that “Fiji Military Employees are currently subject to a travel ban”, but with a rider, “Any rugby players who are captured by that ban are able to file an application for an exemption to be considered, and these are assessed on a case-by-case basis”.
The editor also pointed out a passage in a pamphlet produced by the Department of Labour and the Ministry of Immigration, “Sanctions against Fiji”. “The ban on sporting contacts applies to sportspeople (including sports administrators) . . . representing Fiji . . . at all levels. However, such people are not subject to the ban if they are participating in a regional or international tournament which requires travel to NZ and the NZ host sporting body does not have control over the selection of the participants.”
Discussion and Decision
The editor of the newspaper would have it that “the position could not be much clearer” when he referred to the leaflet explaining the sanctions against Fiji, in particular the ban on sporting contacts.
However, that leaflet begins by listing the classes of people covered by the ban on travel to and within New Zealand. It is not necessary to list all the groups here, but the very first group is particularly significant – “all Republic of Fiji Military Force personnel, including members of the territorial forces”.
An obvious question then, is to ask what is the position of sports people who are also Fiji military personnel?
Certainly, the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs is clear. According to his media statement, as far as members of the Fiji military regime are concerned, “the sanctions apply” and there will be no exemptions.
If that is the case, both the caption (“Frank Bainimarama and Francis Kean would be exempt from the visa blacklist”) and the headline (“Military hardman can’t be kept out”) are inaccurate.
Further, the assertion of the first paragraph, that NZ could be “forced to host” Bainimarama as a VIP even though he is blacklisted, is also inaccurate.
The Press Council accepts that the newspaper made some attempts to check with government departments but this was a story which needed to be put directly to the Minister of Immigration and/or the Minister of Foreign Affairs or put at least to their respective offices.
Finally, in the Council’s view it is not sufficient simply to argue that balance was provided by reporting the Minister’s media statement, including his rebuttal of the January 30 article.
In this case, a fair voice was not sought to balance the claims made in the newspaper’s report and the complaint is upheld on the grounds of a lack of accuracy, fairness and balance.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Lynn Scott (Acting Chairman), Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.