LENNI AND NUU MAMEA AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTLenni and Nuu Mamea’s complaint stems from a web article published by dompost.co.nz (Dompost) on 24 August 2013. The complaint is widespread and alleges breaches of principles 1,2,3,4,5,7,8,9,10 and 11 of the Council’s Statement of Principles.
The complaint is upheld, by a majority of 7:3, on breaches of Principles 1 and 11.
With the complainants’ encouragement their children have become talented singers, dancers, writers and performers. They have entered many competitions. One of these was sponsored by the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand (PGF). They wrote a fictional story and poem about being victims in a family where the parents were problem gamblers.
2. PGF were impressed by the entry and arranged for the children, accompanied by their father, to present at a public symposium on problem gambling in Wellington. The children performed at the symposium and, in particular, one read a fictional poem dealing with the problems associated with gambling. They were also interviewed, with parental consent, by the reporter from the Dompost.
3. Accompanied by a photograph of the children this was reported on Dompost on 24 August 2013. It appeared under the headline “Kids speak out against problem gambling”. The article quoted from the poem and referred to the award winning speech. It included “The Mamea family has been working with the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand for two years, and the parents were recovering from the addictions.” This of course was completely untrue. The story and poem were fictional and the complainants were not problem gamblers.
4. On 24 August the complainants emailed the reporter setting out the factual error in emphatic terms. It was responded to on 25 August by the Dompost’s Head of News. The response effectively side-stepped the point that the children’s presentation was fictional. In fact the Head of News questioned why the children were allowed to travel to the symposium to discuss the negative effects of gambling on “their family”. On 26 August the Head of News emailed again stating the Post was in contact with PGF regarding the story but that in the meantime the story had been removed from the website. However, Google search results still showed the photo and header for the story even if the link was to a dead page.
5. Ultimately, PGF confirmed what the complainants were saying. PGF accepted it was an error on its part in not making clear the story was fictional. A correction and apology was published on the web site on 30 August and continued until 7 October, much longer than normal. It was in the following terms:- “A story published here on 24 August incorrectly said [the children’s] parents were recovering gambling addicts who were working with the Problem Gambling Foundation.
[The children] performed at a symposium that was promoted as featuring children sharing their personal stories about the impact of gambling on their lives. The Problem Gambling Foundation now admits it made a mistake in not verifying that the children’s performance came from their personal experience.
We regret the errors in our story and we apologise to the Mamea family for the distress caused.”
The Complaint and Response
6. As noted above a number of principles have allegedly been breached. The embarrassment and effect on the family from this article (extending to one child being questioned at school) is self-evident. The complainants reaffirm the story was false, that the children’s introduction makes it clear the story was fictional and the Dompost’s response was totally inadequate. They take the position it was for the reporter to verify the story.
7. The response of the Dompost is that they considered the PGF a reputable organisation and were entitled to rely on that. They say the reporter was at the symposium and nothing indicated the story was fictional. The reporter requested an interview through PGF with the father that was declined, she understood for language reasons. She obtained consent to interview the children. The Dompost removed the offending article quickly and once PGF verified the true position was established issued an apology and correction. The editor accepts the responsibility of a reporter to check facts but said there needed to be trust between organisations and the media and in the circumstances it was reasonable for the reporter to assume the children were speaking from personal experience.
8. We do not consider it necessary to address each of the many breaches the complainants have alleged. It is more appropriate to identify the important issues that arise from the complaints made. The first is whether it is acceptable for a reporter to simply rely on an organisation such as PGF, particularly when reporting on statements from children, or should a reporter take steps to verify the facts independently. The second relates to the time taken for a publication to respond when they are advised of an allegedly grave factual error. The third is where such an error is established how quickly a correction and/or an apology should be published and the size and extent of such correction. Finally, in such an apology and/or correction is it appropriate to place the blame on another organisation without apparently accepting direct responsibility.
9. It was an egregious error that led to the publication of this story. A story that was demeaning to the complainants and, understandably, highly embarrassing. The reporter states she was present throughout but Mr Mamea is adamant that when he introduced the children it was clear that what they had to say was not a personal reminiscence of their family. While it is unnecessary for us to resolve this dispute we do note that in the editor’s response of 20 November there is not a specific denial of Mr Mamea’s claim.
10. While we accept that PGF must accept significant blame for what occurred, and while we also accept there must be an element of trust between organisations and the media, we do not accept that absolves a reporter from the obligation to ensure the facts relied on for an article are correct. This should have occurred to the reporter, especially while dealing with young children. It was lazy reporting that lead to a clear breach of principle 1. The fallacy of such reliance is established in this case. PGF proved not to be reliable in this instance.
11. The Mameas’ response to the inaccuracy was swift. The same could not be said of the Dompost’s response. Much more urgent and immediate steps should have been taken to ascertain the true position. The time taken is compounded by the Head of News’ initial response that seems to accept the complainants were problem gamblers. He should have been concentrating on urgently obtaining the advice from PGF.
12. Any correction, or apology should be published as soon as practicable, this appears to have occurred here. However, the fault lies with the inordinate time taken to ascertain the true position…5 days.
13. While the correction regrets the error and apologises for the distress caused the family it blames the error on PGF. The Dompost should have directly accepted responsibility for its own failure to check the facts and this should have been spelt out in the apology. Further, given the factual error established here a more generous apology would have been appropriate. There has been a breach of principle 11.
14. The complaint is upheld as breaching both principle 1 and 11. It is unnecessary to address the other alleged breaches which we do not consider established.
Three members of the council, Clive Lind, Stephen Stewart and John Roughan, disagreed with the decision. They considered the case to be an unfortunate misunderstanding, primarily on the part of the Problem Gambling Foundation which put fictional material in front of a seminar billed as a forum "where children would share their personal stories through poetry and song about the impact gambling has had on their lives".
They noted the Foundation had admitted it did not know these children were not writing from personal experience when it invited them to the seminar. The reporter had checked the subject matter with the Foundation before attending and sought permission to speak to the children after their presentation. She was asked not to question them about their family. In these circumstances the three members did not think it reasonable to expect the reporter to have verified that the children had suffered personally when she spoke to them afterwards.
As soon as the newspaper realised the children's account was purely a work of imagination, it had removed the story from its website. The three members understood its wish to seek an explanation from the Foundation before publishing a retraction. Having done so, it published a correction and an apology online. They considered the newspaper's actions to be reasonable throughout.
Press Council members upholding the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Penny Harding and Pip Bruce Ferguson.
Press Council members dissenting from this decision were John Roughan, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.