MAORI TELEVISION AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDIntroduction
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Maori Television against the New Zealand Herald for stories about employees attending a World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network conference in Norway.
The first article, by the newspaper’s media reporter, reported that five Maori Television executives were at an international conference of indigenous broadcasters in the Arctic highlands. The headline – Five Maori TV executives sent on expedition to Arctic with the sub-head Team at indigenous network meeting in Norway; channel declines to reveal cost – indicated that the articles would question the cost and value of the conference. While observing that times are tough for public broadcasters, the article noted that Maori TV staff would be flying economy, staying in hotels for the conference, that costs for two delegation members were paid for by the organisers, quoted Maori TV that it was keeping costs down but declining ‘to spell out the costs to taxpayers flying staff to the isolated Sami community with a population of 2925.”, and refusing to name the five delegates. It also raised the issue of bonus payments to 150 staff following the Rugby World Cup, speculated that Maori TV was interested in taking over some TVNZ7 functions and outlined the salary earned by Maori TV chief executive last year.
The second article, TV staff a-Twitter over trip was accompanied by a republished image of Maori TV broadcaster Julian Wilcox who’d tweeted a self-portrait with sleds and reindeer, identified the five Maori TV employees at the conference, repeated the statement that Maori TV would not reveal the cost of the trip and repeated tweets from an employee regarding their conference schedule and mention of having a shot in the icebar.
Maori TV responded to the articles by releasing, on March 30, a press release giving the cost of the attendance, and clarifying which staff attended.
On 31 March, the Herald ran a brief giving the details of cost and noting Maori TV’s stated pride in “fiscal prudence and willingness to be accountable for public funding.”
Maori TV chief executive Jim Mather complained that the two articles breached Principle One (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance), Principle Four (Comment and Fact) and Principle Five (Headlines and Captions). Specifically:
The headline was misleading and reinforced the general tone of the article suggesting the Arctic trip was not a legitimate one.
The sub-heading was misleading because the original NZ Herald deadline for requiring costs was too early to allow them to be determined accurately. This was made clear and the information was disclosed as soon as possible.
Maori TV did not send five “executives” but three executives and two programme producers to the conference.
The reference to tough times inferred that Maori TV had been fiscally imprudent with taxpayer funds, which was incorrect and devoid of context thus blurring the distinction between comment and fact.
A reference to the main industry of the Sami people (reindeer herding and husbandry) was offensive and gratuitous and caused offence to the representatives at the conference including the official hosts.
Two employees were incorrectly identified as to their jobs.
It was inaccurate to say Maori TV had been lobbying to take over some functions of TVNZ7 claiming this was a false statement unsubstantiated and without attribution.
One employee was incorrectly named and the BBC Scotland did not attend the conference.
General tone and context
The articles served to depict Maori TV management as irresponsible with taxpayer funds and implied the journey was futile and/or frivolous.
The Newspaper’s Response
As a result of the complaint a correction/clarification was run on 24 April clarifying who had attended, their roles in the organisation, and confirming that $24,500 had been budgeted.
The headline was reasonable and covered Maori TV reasons for attending.
The subhead was accurate as the reporter had requested costs but was told there was no guarantee the full cost would be released. The newspaper offered to run a clarification once the cost had been supplied.
As Maori TV had refused to give names it was not possible for the newspaper to be clear about the roles of the employees but it was able to once they began tweeting.
The newspaper confirmed that the context for the story was “tight times for public service broadcasting”. And that Maori TV was drawing unwarranted inferences regarding the activities of the Sami people.
The newspaper stood by the speculation over a future role for Maori TV in TVNZ7 saying it had been discussed with the reporter and noted that the media are expected to examine the financial practices of publicly funded organisations.
The complainant repeated the view that the headline was inaccurate and inflammatory, designed to attract and misled readers into thinking Maori TV employees were on an Arctic expedition rather than attending an international conference.
The complainant reiterated that Maori TV had not refused to give the costs but had stated “it was too soon to reveal cost”.
In general, the complainant argues that the article was not a fair summary of facts but, through sensationalised and inaccurate reporting, inferred wasteful expenditure.
There is no more legitimate subject for the news media than expenditure of public money and when it is being spent by another media organisation, the coverage can be predictably intense.
The newspaper accepted factual inaccuracy about the names and titles of the employees attending the conference. Maori TV does not accept, as asserted by the newspaper, that this was corrected in the second article and neither does the Press Council. However this is not a significant enough issue on which to find the complaint upheld, particularly in light of the refusal of Maori TV to disclose all the names.
The main headline, “expedition to the Arctic” uses a pair of words commonly used together which would not, for every reader, conjure images of frivolous waste. For some, the notion of an expedition to the Arctic would provoke thoughts of deprivation and hardship.
The latter part of the sub-heading is what sets the tone for the article and the complaint: Channel declines to reveal cost.
It is not possible to determine whether the media reporter’s request for costs was met with “it is too early to tell but it will be revealed”, as stated by Maori TV, or by “we decline to reveal it” as stated by the newspaper. Or “get in an OIA request” as stated by the newspaper in another response. Both sides maintain the other is wrong.
The purpose of the article was to question the value of attending the conference and the issue of cost was crucial.
The article reported on the use of economy class airfares, the sponsorship of two employees by the conference organisers and that costs were being kept down. It reported in detail the statements of the Maori TV spokeswoman about the value of the employees attending the conference.
There was a sarcastic tone to the information about the Sami people. This, and the curious comment that Maori TV employees would be staying in hotels reinforced the mean-spirited (petty) tone. However readers are not foolish and, like Maori TV chief executive in his response, would be well aware that sub-zero temperatures in Norway made camping outdoors foolhardy if not fatal. It is also not clear how the conference delegates were offended by the article as it is not likely would have known about it without the Maori TV executives drawing attention to it.
In relation to the second article, once Maori TV delegates began tweeting, there was no reason for the newspaper not to use the material. The issue of whether Maori TV did lobby to take over some part of the TVNZ7 broadcast functions also remains in dispute with the reporter claiming a discussion has taken place and MT that it has not. It is not possible to determine this.
The complaint is not upheld. Overall, balance was achieved through the sum of the three articles. A clarification/correction was published as soon as the cost of the delegation was made known. However the Council notes that while the two main articles remain on the Herald website, neither the brief nor the clarification appear. The Council recommends that this is remedied, and that the additional information be linked to the articles.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.