HUGH STEADMAN AGAINST THE PRESSHugh Steadman complained to the Press Council about articles relating to a friend and business partner, Harmon Wilfred, which had been published in The Press between March 2005 and November 2011. He cited the Council’s Principles which refer to accuracy, fairness and balance, and to a newspaper’s obligation to take reasonable steps to ensure that “sources are well-informed and that the information they provide is reliable”.
The complaint is not upheld.
It should be noted that several of the articles date back some years and were well beyond the time frame for complaints, but the Council accepted that they could be included as background to Mr Steadman’s complaint about the last two articles which appeared in November 2011.
It should also be noted that the Council has Mr Wilfred’s authority to consider this third party complaint.
Three articles (December 2005, August 2008, February 2009) outlined the unusual immigration case and progress (or lack of it) of a Christchurch resident, Harmon Wilfred, who had arrived in New Zealand in 2001, formally renounced his American citizenship in March 2005, and then applied for permission to remain in New Zealand.
Mr Wilfred claimed that various charges he faced in North America were a “personal vendetta” resulting from his alleged knowledge of the details of several massive scams. Mr Wilfred claimed that he knew about such matters from his time as a CIA operative.
While pursuing his case with Immigration NZ and before the Removal Review Authority, the High Court and the Refugee Status Appeals Authority (without success) he was also pursuing various business interests and living with his third wife, a wealthy Canadian heiress, Carolyn Dare-Wilfred.
He referred to himself as a “stateless” person and had appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
He and his wife were key players in the establishment of La Famia Foundation, a charitable trust, which aimed to provide a range of social services. The Press reported that a fellow trustee and one of La Famia’s employees had both been previously discredited for their roles in social service agencies.
A fourth article (April 2010) reported that the Prenzel Distilling Company which was half-owned by La Famia was selling off its gin and vodka brands. The CEO of Prenzel, Hugh Steadman, explained that La Famia did not want to be linked with the selling of “hard liquor”.
A fifth article (14 November 2011) was headed “Overstayer gets funds”. It reported that Work and Income NZ was contracting services from “a Christchurch charity run by an American overstayer” ie Harmon Wilfred. The report also explained that four former staff of the various branches of La Famia were taking personal grievances against the charity after they had been dismissed and the foundation seemed to be “in disarray”.
The sixth article (and the final one in the series that Mr Steadman complains about) was published 19 November 2011. It was headed “Minister guest of overstayer” and reported that Associate Minister of Immigration (Kate Wilkinson) had made a guest appearance on Radio La Famia, a station “run by one of Christchurch’s most high-profile overstayers”. According to the report, “Immigration NZ has tried for many years to deport Wilfred” but it included Wilfred’s counter-comment that “his application for citizenship was still pending and Immigration had made no attempt to deport him”.
Mr Steadman made a lengthy submission to the Press Council. He accused the newspaper of “acting as a bully to gain cheap cheers”. He accused the newspaper of “irresponsible abuse of its power” in carrying out a sustained campaign against Mr Wilfred.
In his initial complaint to the editor, he stressed that it was the sixth article about the Wilfreds (19 November 2011) which had finally moved him to try to bring to an end the persecution and bullying of two victims by “slurs . . . innuendo . . . sloppy reporting . . . ad hominem attacks.”
More specifically, he explained that Mr Wilfred was not an “overstayer” but a “stateless” person. He argued that an “overstayer” had no rights to remain in New Zealand but in Mr Wilfred’s case, he could not be deported as there was nowhere he could be sent. Deporting him could mean illegal rendition and so he had every right to remain.
He further noted that at first, Mr Wilfred had been referred to accurately ie “Stateless American bids to stay” but this had been replaced by the harsher and more emotive term. “overstayer”.
He pointed out that the newspaper’s reporters had not met with Mr Wilfred nor visited his charitable and business operations and so had failed to meet the journalistic standards of providing fairness and balance in their reporting.
Finally, he stressed that instead of making certain that information provided by sources was honest and reliable, the newspaper had given credence to the views of a highly disaffected ex-employee, an employee who was the subject of a current police investigation.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor countered that far from a vindictive campaign against Mr Wilfred, the newspaper had simply covered developments in an ongoing story that was both of interest to the public and in the public interest. For example, how the Immigration Department reacted to someone who renounced their US citizenship and then sought NZ citizenship.
Further, the foundation which he had helped to establish had some access to government funding and was also seeking private donations. It was in the public interest to apply some scrutiny.
He argued that “overstayer” was used accurately and noted that Immigration NZ used that term in its Record of Personal Circumstance form (eg “Why have you overstayed in NZ?”)
He accepted that the reporter had not met with Mr Wilfred, nor visited the La Famia Foundation premises but explained that two scheduled meetings had both been cancelled by Mr Wilfred, almost at the last minute. In any case, Mr Wilfred had been approached for his comments and point of view.
Despite Mr Steadman’s view that their sources were unreliable, staff had spent considerable time on the matter and were satisfied the sources were genuine and truthful. Further, the editor claimed that the police investigation had been concluded and no charges had been laid.
He suggested that the complainant had accused the newspaper of many inaccuracies but had failed to pinpoint such issues, while continuing to blame the newspaper for harassment.
Discussion and Decision
On the face of it, it is somewhat surprising that no reporter had met with Mr Wilfred when seeking information – over a series of six articles, spanning nearly eight years. Nevertheless, by e-mail and telephone, he had usually been approached for his side of the story. Further, the Council notes that Mr Wilfred had cancelled meetings that had been timetabled (on legal advice, according to the complainant). Both parties blame the other for not having achieved a meeting, but The Press can hardly be criticized for failing to seek some balance and counter-point from the subject of the newspaper’s scrutiny.
The “unreliable sources” are only of minor importance in one of the articles and the Council notes that the newspaper had acknowledged that the former employees were taking personal grievance proceedings and readers could have worked out for themselves that they might have a grudge against their former employer. It also notes that readers were informed that police were investigating allegations that had been made against them. Mr Steadman advised the police investigation is on-going, and subsequently the Council has been advised that charges have been laid.
The Press Council notes the distinction Mr Steadman draws between “stateless” and the more sharply critical “overstayer” but “overstayer” is hardly a gross inaccuracy, especially given its use in official documents such as the Record of Personal Circumstances form completed by Mr Wilfred (though it must also be noted that he rejects that term – he answers the question “Why have you overstayed in New Zealand ?” with “As a stateless person, I don’t believe that I am an overstayer.”)
Finally, and most importantly, the Press Council stresses that this was indeed a story in the public interest. Readers were entitled to know what was happening to Mr Wilfred’s request for citizenship, still unresolved after nearly eight years, and entitled to be informed about La Famia and the results of its attempts to gain private and public funding for its activities. Given such a lengthy battle to gain NZ citizenship, readers might also have been curious about the Associate Minister of Immigration making a guest appearance on the La Famia radio station.
The Press may have treated Mr Wilfred with some scepticism but the Council does not see a campaign of vilification and harassment. The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.