Case Number: 2790

Council Meeting: JUNE 2019

Publication: Stuff


On Saturday April 13, Stuff published online an opinion piece by Stacey Kirk titledMPs can’t turn off the politics, even when the doors are closed. The piece was also published inThe Dominion Post and Manawatu Standard under the headline Politics outs, even behind closed doors.In it, Kirk discusses the role of select committees in general and then outlines her views on a series of matters that occurred in the course of recent select committees.

One of the instances she focuses on is Labour MP Louisa Wall, chairwomen of the Health Select Committee, and her management of a proposed review into Pharmac and her dealings with a petitioner to the Committee, Malcolm Mulholland.Mulholland is the husband of a terminal cancer patient who is seeking an inquiry into Pharmac’s policies.

Kirk states her opinion about how Wall managed this instance.She thinks Wall turned on Mulholland, after promising a review then voting against it.She states that Wall has ‘earned a place to hang (her) portrait in the Hall of Narcissus’ and ‘Wall takes pride of place above the Altar of Pyrrhus’.

The Complaint

Louisa Wall complains about the opinion piece, referencing seven of the Media Council’s Principles.She states that Kirk did not ask for her comments about the claims of a promise made to Mr Mulholland and as such breached Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

She complains that there is no clear distinction between factual information and comment or opinion and that the facts that Kirk used to describe her in a negative way were not accurate.

Under Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters, Wall complains that the story was not clearly identified as an opinion.Wall states that the headlines ‘embellished and sensationalized’ the situation that she was in.She also points out that the caption under the photo on the on-line version incorrectly stated that the Select Committee was considering an independent inquiry into Pharmac.

Wall complains about Kirk’s view about her being offered a ministerial portfolio if she managed her issues well.In correspondence Kirk notes that she had been told this by ‘sources’.Wall states that these ‘sources’ needed checking to make sure they were reliable and that Kirk should have checked with her as a first step.As such she argues that Principle 8: Confidentiality has been breached.

Wall further complains that her photo was included with the article, and as such is a breach of Principle 11: Photographs and Graphics.Finally, despite being assured the inaccuracies in the article would be addressed, Stuff had at the time of Wall’s complaint, not done so and as such breached Principle 12: Corrections.

The Response

Keith Lynch and Bernadette Courtney responded for Stuff.They stated that Kirk at no time passed comment on Wall’s behavior as a matter of fact.The piece is clearly her opinion.While Kirk gave Wall the opportunity to contact her but Wall did not, Stuff points out that Kirk is under no obligation to seek Wall’s views before she wrote the opinion piece.

Further, Stuff state that the column was clearly labeled as opinion and the headlines capture the essence of the piece.

They acknowledge that the photo caption was inaccurate, in that it labeled the review of Pharmac as independent.They state that they sought to correct it on the day Wall complained however it could not be done immediately due to ‘production errors’.They also sought to remove references about Wall making promises to Mulholland, instead referring to the ‘claims’ that Mulholland made [of promises].

Stuff states that it stands by their reporters and their judgments to trust sources. There was no obligation to check the sources with Wall.The use of the photo of Wall, they state, was logical because the article was about her.

The Discussion

The complaints have been considered under each of the Principles:

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.While this is an opinion piece, the principles of accuracy still apply.For an opinion piece the test is whether the facts on which the opinion is based are accurate.Stuff has acknowledged that the language of the article needed improving and as such sought to change wording that stated that Mulholland was ‘promised a review’ to that he ‘claims’ this was so.Stuff did so “to clarify this in the comment piece so it is clear that this is what Mulholland claims and cannot be seen as a statement of fact”.They also addressed an inaccuracy in the photo caption that stated the review in question would be ‘independent’.The Media Council acknowledges Stuff for doing so.However, these revisions are in the scheme of the article minor as the bulk of the piece outlines Kirk’s opinion.As an opinion piece, the Media Council can see no deliberate attempt to mislead or misinform readers, and as such does not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Principle 4: Comment and Fact.As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the Media Council acknowledges that Stuff sought to remove any potential confusion about between fact and comment around Mulholland’s statements.The article is clearly presented as opinion and the Media Council can see no breach of Principle 4.

Principle 5: Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters.As above, the printed version has the page clearly labeled opinion as does the beginning of the on-line version.The print version was published on the op-ed page.

The complaint under Principle 5 is not upheld.

Principle 6: Headlines and Captions.As mentioned above, the inaccurate caption was amended.The headline captures the essence of the piece.Not upheld.

Principle 8: Confidentiality.While the reliability of the source of information about Wall’s potential promotion to Ministerial ranks will only be known by Kirk, given the reputational risks attached to sources we have no reason to question her judgment.Kirk is also under no obligation to test information with the subjects of her opinion pieces.As such, there are no grounds for upholding the complaint under Principle 8.

Principle 11: Photographs and Graphics.The Media Council agrees with Stuff that it was a logical choice to have a photo of Wall accompanying the piece.As such, there are no grounds for upholding the complaint under Principle 11.

Principle 12: Corrections states that significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence.Stuff readily acknowledged one factual error and chose to amend text for clarification.The Media Council’s tracking of this correction shows that while the initial complaint was acknowledged by Stuff on 15 April, with amendments agreed on that day, no amendments had been made to the on-line version by 23rd April.The amendments have subsequently been made.Stuff states the delay was due to ‘production errors’.This does not equate to a prompt response.

As the Media Council’s Principle 12 states ‘a publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility’.Stuff’s credibility has not been enhanced by this extended delay.

As such, the Media Council upholds the complaint under Principle 12.

The Council notes that it is receiving increasing numbers of complaints that are wholly or partly about the timeliness of amendments.Those who have sought amendments are understandably anxious to have them made.However, publications are often hampered by the volume of complaints they receive and the need to verify material before any amendments are made.Some changes, such as those related to Google, need to be negotiated through third parties.The Council is also wary of setting arbitrary standards about the timeliness of amendments without knowledge of what are feasible and realistic timeframes.

As such, the Council proposes that it works with industry representatives to develop a set of agreed industry guidelines as to the appropriate and acceptable timeframes for making amendments.While there will always be exceptional circumstances, the guidelines can help set realistic expectations for complainants and best practice standards for industry members.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Liz Brown and Tracy Watkins took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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