LIAM VENTER AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2857

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2019

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Politicians
Social Media

Overview

1. Liam Venter complains that a story published in the New Zealand Herald’s online and print editions was inaccurate and therefore detrimental to a Facebook group he founded and its members.

2. The story, written by Simon Wilson, and published under the heading “Battle brewing over North Shore’s future” was published online and in print on September 25, 2019 as part of a six-part series about fiercely contested Auckland wards in the lead up to the 2019 Local Body Elections.

3. The story is a news analysis piece backgrounding the issues brewing in the area over the North Shore’s future.

4. The piece was displayed as a double page spread in the New Zealand Herald and branded with the newspaper’s election logos. It was also available online at nzherald.co.nz, behind a paywall.

5. The story stated that death threats against candidates were made on a Facebook page as tensions in the ward boiled over.

The Complaint

6. Liam Venter complains that the piece incorrectly states that a Facebook page he created, Community Action Network or CAN, was identified in the story as hosting death threats against councillors.

7. Writing to the NZME’s planning editor Andrew Laxon, Mr Venter said he was concerned that the article “was clearly based on hearsay and no attempt was made by the reporter to verify the incorrect facts presented with respect to CAN”.

8. He said the public have expectations that information in a news story is accurate “and that the journalist has taken the steps to verify information presented”. Mr Venter said he believed that the story did not meet “the minimum standards of acceptable news reporting”.

9. Mr Venter asked for an apology that he could email to the members of Community Action Network and post on CAN’s Facebook page, “where Simon claims the death threat was posted”.

10. He wanted an “unequivocal apology” that stressed the following points. Namely that the report was incorrect and no death threat was posted on the CAN page; the reporter made no attempt to verify the claim with members of the CAN network or via his own observations, and that the threat referred to in the article was not made by anyone in any way associated with CAN.

11. Whether the newspaper and its reporter supported the E Tū union’s code of ethics for journalists was also queried by Mr Venter, who noted clause (J) which decrees that: “They shall do their utmost to correct any published or broadcast information found to be harmfully inaccurate.”

The Response

12. After apologising for a late reply, Mr Laxon accepted that the article was inaccurate because it stated that the page belonged to members of CAN instead of the Save Takapuna Carpark campaign group.

13. Mr Laxon said the error was corrected “within a few hours of publication and as soon as we were informed of the error. The wider context of this information was death threats against candidates on more than one occasion, which is a serious issue and relevant to the local election.”

14. He said the reporter received his information from two sources “who stand by their accounts - apart from the website misattribution - which we corrected as soon as possible.”

Mr Venter’s Response

15. The complainant asked “if a retraction was printed” and if so where was it published.

16. He had seen a correction in print but that “in no way” addressed the reporter’s claim that a death threat was made on the CAN Facebook page because it did not focus on CAN or its page and seemed to relate to another error about death threat claims and a Facebook page that belonged to a different group.

17. Mr Venter said his view was that the problem was still outstanding and he repeated his request for a “retraction” that contained the three points mentioned in his first complaint as well as an apology to the members of the CAN Facebook page.

18. In addition he wanted to know if the reporter had received training or guidance to ensure a similar situation would not occur in future “should he receive a similar allegation from a source”.

Mr Laxon’s Second Response

19. Responding, Mr Laxon explained that “he was under the impression we had already dealt with this complaint”.

20. After acknowledging the error the Herald sought to correct the online version on the morning of publication and in print the following day, “which related to a separate but related complaint about the same story”.

21. Mr Laxon said that correction made it clear that the page belonged to the Save Takapuna Carpark group.

22. However, when the online story was checked on October 16 “in response to your email” it was discovered that the correction had not removed the incorrect Facebook page attribution. “I contacted the journalist, Simon Wilson, who was surprised as he believed he had made both changes. He updated the correction immediately to remove the mention of Community Action Network. I regret the fact that this change did not happen on the day, as intended, but I believe it was probably the result of dealing with three separate complaints from people involved in the North Shore campaign, who had objected to similar issues in the story.”

23. Mr Laxon said he believed “we have now done all we can to set the record straight”.

24. The Herald would be “happy to clarify in print that the Facebook page referred to in the story did not belong to CAN. However, it seems to me that this would bring more attention to the original mistake, which Mr Venter presumably wishes to avoid.”


Mr Venter’s Second Response

25. Mr Venter advises he does not have access to the Herald’s content behind the paywall but he speculated that the online story had been edited to remove the incorrect information and therefore fell well short of “adequately addressing the misinformation presented and digested by readers of the original story”. And “merely correcting the original story online does not afford any value to the people who only read the print version”.

26. Also, the print version compounds the situation with the claim that the threat “had appeared on the Facebook page of their opponents”. Mr Venter said the CAN page is not a page for the opponents of Chris Darby or Richard Hills.

27. “It seems as if the correction was crafted with a spade (in manner of digging a deeper

hole).”

28. Mr Venter was concerned, given the seriousness of the death threat claims, that neither Simon Wilson, or Andrew Laxton “or anyone else from theHerald” returned his phone calls to address the issue.” It was not until I contacted the Media Council that I received any response from theHerald.”

29. Opposing Mr Laxon’s view that the record had been “put straight”, Mr Venter said he was confident thatHerald journalists could craft a suitable correction/apology that addressed his concerns as per his previous response.

Mr Laxon’s Third Response

30. The newspaper believed it had acknowledged the original mistake and “genuinely” tried to resolve it.

31. It was “happy” to offer Mr Venter “a revised print correction which names Community Action Network”.

32. Mr Laxon didn’t wish to respond to every claim in Mr Venter’s email but it was not true that he did not respond to his complaint before Mr Venter went to the Media Council. “I responded on October 3, well before the first email I received from the Media Council on October 11.”

Mr Venter’s Final Response

33. Mr Venter was disappointed that the process took so long and so much effort but was grateful for theHerald’s offer to print a correction.

34. “It should never have been a saga. It should have been very straight forward, but the main thing is that they are going to print the correction and apology.”

35. He hoped that the three key points mentioned earlier would be included and that the correction/ apology would appear in a prominent place in the newspaper compared with the offending article.

The Decision

36. Mr Venter has not specifically cited the Media Council principles he believes theNew Zealand Herald has breached The Council will consider the complaint under Principle 1 - Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 12 - Corrections.

37. There is no argument that the publication breached Principle 1 in terms of accuracy. The principle states: “Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.”

38. The reporter could have easily checked the Facebook page in question as well as contacting a representative from the page. These steps were not taken and this breach of basic journalistic practices was made worse because death threats were involved.

39. Principle 12, headed Corrections, states: “A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.”

40. It is the Council’s view that the New Zealand Herald has also violated this Principle.

41. It is clear Mr Venter made strenuous attempts to have a relatively simple matter corrected and it is clear that the NZH muddled what should have been a relatively simple correction.

42. The story was corrected online and in print but both iterations had serious flaws pertaining to Mr Venter’s grievances.

43. Compounding the grievance the first attempt to correct the story online failed to remove the erroneous reference to the CAN Facebook page while the correction in print did nothing to absolve CAN from the death threat slur because CAN was not mentioned in the correction.

44. The Council notes that Mr Laxon has offered a correction in print which Mr Venter has accepted but as far as the Council is aware the correction has not been published or discussed further between the parties.

45. Therefore the Council must assume that the New Zealand Herald is waiting for a directive from the Council to initiate the correction. The Council’s view is that this is unnecessary and, if this is the case, only serves to aggravate an already unsatisfactory situation.

The Decision

46. Mr Venter and the members of his Facebook group have waited long enough to have the record put straight.

47. The media should deal quickly and fairly with complaints but in this casethe New Zealand Herald fell short.

48. The Council strongly encourages the New Zealand Herald to publish a correction, ideally incorporating Mr Venter’s three suggested points.

49. The complaint is upheld on Principles 1 and 12.

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

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