KĀINGA ORA AGAINST THE STAR
Case Number: 3435
Council Meeting: 25 SEPTEMBER 2023
Publication: The Star
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Conflicts of Interest
Editorial Discretion / Freedom
- On July 13, 2023, The Star newspaper published a page 4 article headlined, Agency fights council plan. Kāinga Ora complains the story breaches Media Council Principle (10) Conflicts of Interest. The complaint also engages Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The complaint is upheld on Principle (10) but is not upheld on Principle (1).
- This story is angled on how government social housing agency Kāinga Ora opposes significant changes Christchurch City Council has proposed to reduce housing intensification in the city – known as Plan Change 14.
- The Council wants to limit the impact of government-imposed housing density legislation – including protecting access to sunlight, recognising areas with poor access to public transport and protecting some sensitive areas.
- The article previews an independent panel hearing submissions on the matter.
- There were 1092 public submissions on the plan change with Kāinga Ora being one of the biggest. Its submission covers more than 330 categories and opposed or sought changes to 80% of them.
- It outlines how Kāinga Ora has been criticised about not building social housing quickly enough but at the same time faced controversy nationally for failing to communicate with communities over proposals to take over existing housing developments and build more.
- It quotes a residents association leader saying Kāinga Ora’s submission on Plan Change 14 shows it wants to build more social housing no matter the cost and confirms the agency does not care about or support Christchurch residents. Another residents group leader says Kāinga Ora has played an unusually dominant role in the submission process.
- Kāinga Ora, in response, says it submits on plan change proposals to ensure it can carry out its statutory obligations. It also says it supports aspects of Plan Change 14 that support a well-functioning urban environment and a compact urban form and has encouraged change or opposed aspects it does not believe support these aspirations.
- Kāinga Ora initially complained to The Star editor on July 7 (before the article was published) after the journalist who wrote the article contacted the organisation.
- The agency expressed concern that the journalist had been quoted by at least two media outlets that week as the chair of another Christchurch residents association and he had made it clear that he opposed intensification.
- Based on those comments, the journalist appeared to have a conflict of interest. Kāinga Ora said from its perspective it was hard to see how the journalist could approach the story objectively and with fairness and balance.
- Kāinga Ora, in its formal complaint to the Media Council on July 18, reiterated these concerns and said it was disappointed there was no declaration of the journalist’s link to the subject and the fact he had made a submission on Plan Change 14.
- The agency believed that in the interests of transparency, readers should have been informed. The failure to publish a disclosure was a clear beach of the Media Council’s conflicts of interest principle.
- Kāinga Ora also noted the journalist chose to focus on its submission despite there being more than 900 submissions on the issue. The agency believed the journalist's summation of its submission was clearly influenced by his own views on intensification.
- There was also concern the only people approached for comment were those opposed to intensification despite there being many submitters who favoured it.
- Kāinga Ora said the story was the latest in a string strong of articles the journalist had written over the past couple of months on the agency’s housing developments and it had complained to the editor about the fairness and balance of two of these stories.
- In response to the initial complaint, The Star said it had no issues with the journalist’s objectivity or balance as had been demonstrated numerous times when he had covered housing stories which are about or touch on intensification.
- The journalist’s expertise and understanding of housing intensification specifically was valuable to informing readers.
- In its formal response to the Media Council, The Star said the journalist worked for Star Media (publisher of The Star) as a contract journalist. He generated his own ideas and was also assigned stories.
- The journalist had a lengthy background in journalism. When he came on board with Star Media, he raised the potential for conflicts of interests and perceived conflicts of interest because of his role as a residents’ association chair. That association was then and still is actively involved with others in opposing government housing intensification.
- The Star told the journalist at the time that potential conflicts would be discussed on a story-by-story basis.
- The journalist has written a wide variety of stories but his knowledge and insight into housing, particularly intensification, and his ability to navigate his way through reports had led to several major news breaks. The articles had been fair, accurate and balanced.
- The only complaint made against the journalist was from Kāinga Ora .
- The article in question was clearly a big story and one that readers needed to be informed about. The journalist has asked if The Star wanted another reporter to tackle it given his residents’ association role, but The Star said it had no issues with the journalist's previous stories on Kāinga Ora .
- The Star said it saw no reason to put a disclosure at the end of the story. It had not done so previously and believed if the journalist had been writing an opinion piece, then that would have been done in his residents’ association capacity and would have been clearly labelled as such.
- The Star said the journalist focused on Kāinga Ora’s submission in the article complained about because it was a new aspect to a long-running issue.
- Kāinga Ora continued to play the bias card unfairly and The Star disagreed with the agency’s view that the article’s summation on Plan Change 14 was influenced by the journalist’s own view.
- The Star provided copies of other articles the journalist had written and said they were both negative and positive about housing and intensification.
- This complaint cites NZ Media Council Principle (10) Conflicts of Interest which says:
- To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence. Where a story is enabled by sponsorship, gift or financial inducement, that sponsorship, gift or financial inducement should be declared. Where an author’s link to a subject is deemed to be justified, the relationship of author to subject should be declared.
- The final sentence of this Principle drives to the heart of the complaint. There is no dispute that the journalist who wrote the story had a strong connection to the issue he was writing about.
- This was a news article, not an opinion column, and in this case The Star risks giving the public the impression that its coverage is not independent. It had an obligation to have included a disclaimer outlining the author’s role as the chair of a residents’ association which had made submissions on the very issue the story was about. Readers could then judge for themselves.
- It is critical that media cover news issues impartially in order to fulfil their role as a watchdog and in this instance, The Star has failed to do so. The Council would encourage media organisations and editors to consider whether it is wise to have journalists covering news stories in which they have a direct involvement
- Kāinga Ora also raised issues of fairness and balance in its complaint which the Council considered under Principle (1). The Council finds The Star was within its rights to focus on the Kāinga Ora submission. News angles are ultimately up to editors to determine and balance was achieved in that the story had a right of reply from Kāinga Ora. Therefore, this aspect of the complaint did not meet the threshold of Principle (1).
- Decision: The complaint is upheld under Principle (10) Conflicts of interest. It is not upheld under Principle (1).
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Scott Inglis, Jonathan MacKenzie, Tim Watkin, Hank Schouten, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Richard Pamatatau.