JIMMY CARLING AGAINST CRUX

Case Number: 2895

Council Meeting: MAY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Crux Media

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Social Media
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Jimmy Carling, owner of RoyalTree Ltd, has complained about an article published on local news websiteCrux on February 6, 2020. It was titled QLDC contractors – $388,672,685 in 3 years. We focus on ZQN.7.

[2] The article reported a list of consultants and contractors that the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) has paid for work from July 2016 to December 2019 and the fact the total spend topped $388 million. The story is described as “a preliminary analysis” of data released under the OIA after “years” of request and rejections. It says a large number of contractors’ names were withheld by QLDC for privacy reasons.

[3] One section of the article lists $7.6m of spending on tree-related companies. This section starts “People who look after trees seem very popular with council staff. We all love trees, but this does seem like a lot of cash to look after them or cut them down.” After the list Crux notes “Trees – a good business to be in if you are chasing council cash.” The complainant owns one of the companies listed, RoyalTree Ltd, which was paid $114,271 during that period. The story does not say what the money was spent on.

The Complaint

[4] Jimmy Carling said friends and family brought the article to his attention and he was “disappointed” to see the story implied contractors were overpaid, without any information about what the contractors had done for the money. The article lacked context or any list of projects and he felt attacked.

[5] He thought it poor journalism but did not act until March 15, when he saw anotherCrux story on Facebook headlined Queenstown Covid-19 case confirmed – QLDC knew yesterday. He says it suggested a trend in anti-council articles and he said in the comments section thatCrux seemed to use any platform to criticize the QLDC.

[6] The following morning he saw Crux had replied on Facebook, “Unrelated to QLDC giving your company RoyalTree $114k?” and was “shocked”. He read the reply as defamatory, “disturbing” and suggesting the QLDC was donating ratepayers’ money to his company. He replied the money was for contract work done by the company. Within a couple of hours, he says, the comments were removed (both his and that byCrux) and he was banned from Crux’s page.

[7] At 9am he rang Crux Managing Editor Peter Newport “to ask what was going on”. He says Newport became aggressive, said “you’re just like every other fucking business” and told him it was his job to hold everyone accountable, including QLDC contractors.

[8] In subsequent emails Carling threatened a Media Council complaint while Crux threatened legal action for defamation. In those emails Newport writes Crux “published no information about your company”.

[9] Carling has complained under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balanceand Principle 4, Comment and Fact.

The Response

[10] In response Peter Newport argued this was a frivolous nuisance complaint that was no more than an abuse of process. He says Carling is someone who thinks attacking the media or journalist is fair game if you merely disagree with what it written.

[11] Newport says RoyalTree was listed in the article because Crux thought the $7.6m spent on tree companies “seemed a bit generous”, but they made no comment on the company itself. “There was no implication whatsoever about the value provided by RoyalTree Ltd or the quality of their services”.

[12] Carling was banned from Crux’s Facebook page for violating its policy that while readers can comment on stories, they cannot critique whetherCrux is biased, left or right wing or unfair to the QLDC.

[13] Carling wrote on Facebook that “Crux is always attacking the council”, so Newport replied that his company was a Council contractor, pointing out he was not impartial.

[14] Newport says it was Carling who was abusive on the phone call, saying he was “going to holdCrux to account” and use every opportunity to attack Crux and Newport personally when speaking with friends and family. He denies swearing. He says he has asked his lawyers to write to Carling, arguing the attacks are unfair and potentially defamatory

The Decision

[15] The complaint can be broken down into three parts: The article, Facebook comments and phone call.

[16] The phone call we can put aside, as what was said is disputed and the Media Council is in no position to know who said what. Further, a private conversation, however ill-judged, is beyond our remit.

[17] In terms of the article, reporting on local government spending is important and necessary journalism that provides accountability. If Carling is paid with rate-payers’ money, then it is fair that he be subject to scrutiny.

[18] RoyalTree is mentioned only once in the story and then only as a line in a list of companies paid by the QLDC to “look after trees”. The complainant does not dispute the dollar amount reported and there are no specific claims made about the company that require a right of reply. Without details of the jobs completed or hours worked, the figures will have meant little to readers, but there is nothing inaccurate or unbalanced about the report.

[19] Inasmuch as the story relates specifically to the complainant and his company, it is fact rather than comment that RoyalTree was paid $114,271 to look after trees.

[20] Having said that, the article overall is a mix of comment and fact that blurs the line between the two. For example, above the list of the six tree companies, the article says “it does seem like a lot of cash to look after them”. As noted in our previous ruling regarding Crux, if it fails to distinguish between the two it will continue to be in jeopardy whenever its articles are referred to the Council.

[21] The comment by Crux on Facebook (“Unrelated to QLDC giving your company RoyalTree $114k?”) can be seen in a similar light. As the Council has said in prior rulings (eg Case 2492) the same standards apply to social media posts as to other published material.

[22] The dollar amount used is accurate and the platform afforded Carling a right of reply, which he used, and which convinced at least some readers. Carling has supplied an email from Timothy Ceci, who also commented on the post, saying he [the complainant] pointed out the breakdown of the payment and stated strongly the money was earned.

[23] The question of fairness and accuracy in the comment by Crux rests on the definition of “giving”. Carling interpreted it to mean his company had been given the money as a gift or donation. Without context, it’s a reasonable interpretation. One online dictionary defines “giving” as “to present voluntarily and without expecting compensation”. However others include the payment of money in their definitions. “Giving” can be used in a transactional sense and as the comment says the money was given to a company, it’s also reasonable to expect most readers to see it as a payment for services rather than a donation.

[24] The Council notes Newport’s comment was replying to criticism from Carling that “Crux is always attacking the council”. However as we have advised editors in the past (Case 2355) they should exercise caution on social media and maintain professional standards. In this case the comment was flippant and likely to provoke readers, somethingCrux seems to have acknowledged by removing the exchange from its Facebook page. It does not, however, reach the threshold of breaching our principles.

Decision

[25] The complaint is far from frivolous and should give Crux pause for thought in how it conducts itself online and distinguishes between fact and comment. The Council considered upholding the complaint due to the amount of opinion liberally sprinkled through a story that was presented as news. If Crux wants to keep writing stories like these using first person narrative and the writer's opinions, they would do better to clearly identify them to readers as opinion, as per Principle 4. We strongly suggest Crux take greater care in the future.

[26] Put together, the article, Facebook exchange and phone call do not reflect well onCrux, but none of them goes as far as breaching Council principles. We also note the importance of reporting on local government.

[27] The complaints under Principle 1 Accuracy Fairness and Balance and Principle 4 Comment and Fact arenot upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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