KARL STAFFORD AGAINST MEDIAWORKS NEWSHUB

Case Number: 2892

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Mediaworks

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Karl Stafford complains about an article headed Emails show Labour was sent details of sexual assault allegations against party staffer and published byNewshub on September 10, 2019. He considers the article breached Principles 1 (accuracy fairness and balance), 4 (comment and fact), and 9 (subterfuge) of the Media Council principles. Elements in the complaint also appear to relate to Principle 6 (headlines and captions).

2. The Media Council accepted this out-of-time complaint on the basis that information Mr Stafford relied on to substantiate his complaint had only recently become available.

3. The Media Council upholds the complaint in part.

Background

4. The article in question was part of ongoing reporting about claims of bullying and sexual assault by a Labour Party staff member.The main thrust of the article is that while the Labour Party denied that it knew the claims against the man included sexual assault, Newshub had seen an email sent some six months previously by a complainant to the Labour Party investigating panel with an attachment headed “to print sexual assault experience”. The full text of the email was not published but was summarised as “she wanted to be able to read off a timeline and testimony. She asked if someone could print the document before her interview which was taking place an hour later.” The attachment was said to include details of the sexual assault allegation and of the complainant’s reaction to it.The article also reported that the Labour Party agreed the email had been sent but claimed there were no documents attached to it.

5. In December 2019 an independent inquiry concluded that the allegation of sexual assault could not be substantiated. It also found that on the balance of probabilities, the email did not include an attachment detailing the alleged sexual assault.

The Complaint

6. Mr Stafford complains that the article was inaccurate and misleading. He says it led readers to believe the allegation that the email had been sent with the attachment when at the time of the article this was disputed and at a later date was found to be unsubstantiated.He says that Newshub should have conducted a more thorough investigation before presenting information as fact, and in particular he refers to the headline that does not indicate any dispute or uncertainty about the sending of the attachment.

The Response

7. The MediaWorks Standards Committee considered Mr Stafford’s complaint and decided not to uphold it.It said it was satisfied that the email given toNewshub included an attachment and that it was appropriate to report on the attachment, given that it was a key point of dispute. It noted that in view of the disputeNewshub also reported the Labour Party claim that the original email had no attachment.

8. The Committee also noted the finding of the independent inquiry that, on the balance of probabilities, the email did not include the attachment. It said this was information that did not exist when the article was written and thatNewshub reported on the inquiry findings when they were released.It was satisfied thatNewshub did not deliberately mislead and that it complied with fairness and balance obligations.

The Decision

9. The main point in Mr Stafford’s complaint is his concern that Newshub reported on the information it had received without enquiring further into its accuracy. It does appear that later developments amount to evidence that the email in question did not have the attachment. However the media are often called upon to report on matters of public interest – and this was certainly a matter of public interest – when it is either difficult or impossible in the time available to ascertain all the facts before publication. In such circumstances the obligation is to report accurately the available facts that are not in dispute and to indicate where relevant facts are not available or are disputed.

10. While the Media Council considers the article could have been better worded by not stating as apparent fact that “a document “to print sexual assault experience” was attached” to the email, that sentence is immediately followed by three paragraphs that make it clear the claim is disputed. This meets the requirements for accuracy, fairness and balance

11. The Media Council does, however, have concerns about the headline. While it reflects the first sentence of the article (which the Media Council would probably have found unbalanced if it had not immediately been followed by a sentence on the Labour Party’s denial of knowledge of the allegations) it does not indicate any uncertainty about the sending of the attachment and accordingly does not accurately convey the substance of the report.

Determination

12. The complaint is upheld under Principle 6, but not under Principle 1. Mr Stafford also cited Principles 4 and 9 but they do not appear to be relevant.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten Marie Shroff and Pravina Singh.

Tim Watkin stood down to maintain the public member majority.