MATT ROBSON AND MIKE SMITH AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3455
Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Right of Reply
- Stuff and its newspapers, The Press and The Post, published an article on 17 June 2023 headlined Why warnings about Russian propaganda were ignored. Mike Smith and Matt Robson complain the article breached Principle (1) Accuracy, fairness and balance. The complaint is not upheld.
- Just over a year earlier on 26 May 2022, RNZ had published an article which quoted former Labour Party general secretary Mike Smith and former Alliance cabinet minister Matt Robson criticising the Government’s decision to support Ukraine in the war. Newshub and the NZ Herald republished the article.
- A senior RNZ journalist noticed a lack of balance in the story the following day. The story was updated to include comments from security analyst Paul Buchanan, academic David Capie and the then Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta.
- In July 2022 Vaclav Fisher, a member of the Czech-Slovak community, complained to the Human Rights Commission and asked for an investigation into articles involving ‘’our communities.” He linked to the Newshub version of the article. The commission referred Mr Fisher to RNZ and the NZ Media Council.
- In October, Ukrainian New Zealander Michael Lidski, supported by 25 others, wrote to Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson, complaining about the 26 May 2022 article. They also sent the letter to multiple media outlets.
- The following month, Mr Fisher filed a complaint with the Media Council against RNZ and Newshub about the 26 May article, but the council did not accept the complaint because it was lodged too late.
- In June 2023, the extent of the pro-Russian bias in RNZ stories emerged. More than two dozen stories had been inappropriately edited, sparking a major review in the organisation. The journalist at the centre of it was stood down.
- The Stuff article published on 17 June 2023 and which is at the centre of this complaint, examined the RNZ controversy.
- It described Mike Smith and Matt Robson as ‘’prominent left-wing politicians.’’
- According to the Stuff story, Mike Smith had argued in the RNZ article that helping Ukraine would put NZ offside with Russia and China and ‘’we’re betting on the wrong team.’’ Western weapons would be given to neo-Nazi extremists in Ukraine, echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia invaded Ukraine to ‘’de-Nazify’’ it. That claim was not taken seriously by western analysts, the article stated. Matt Robson also said that Russia’s justification for the war was that it was threatened by NATO.
- Stuff’s story quoted Michael Lidski and covered the letter of complaint sent to the broadcasting minister and media outlets about the May 2022 RNZ article.
- The Stuff story contained passages from the letter in which Mr Lidski and his colleagues strongly condemned Mike Smith and Matt Robson for their comments in the RNZ story.
- In the letter, they wrote that Messrs Smith and Robson’s views were ‘’morally and factually wrong, and in essence, are a disgrace to our country.”
- The letter also said, “Instead of upholding the cornerstone values of freedom, democracy and human rights which we enjoy in New Zealand, those politicians parrot the Russian Government’s fascist propaganda in much the same way as some British politicians once were in favour of Hitler – until he started bombing London.”
- Mr Lidski told Stuff that Russia ‘’started a totally unprovoked, vicious, aggressive war’’ and concluded that Mike Smith and Matt Robson’s views ‘’are not a free expression of an alternative point of view, but a definite carbon copy of the enemy propaganda.”
- The Stuff article devoted most of its space to other aspects of the RNZ saga, including that complaints made by Mr Lidksi and Mr Fisher were considered early warnings of what transpired with the RNZ controversy.
- Mike Smith and Matt Robson complained that the Stuff article lacked fairness and balance and was a ‘’free shot’’ at their legitimate opinions. Describing them as ‘’prominent left-wing politicians’’ raised fairness issues.
- The quote “.. these politicians parrot the Russian government’s fascist propaganda in much the same way as some British politicians were in favour of Hitler – until he started bombing London” represented, they said, an ‘’egregious ad hominem attack on us using memes totally unacceptable to us.” It was unfair, unbalanced and unhinged.
- Mr Robson and Mr Smith were not contacted for a comment or reply. They noted Stuff’s media policy, which states ‘’Any subject of a news story who is facing criticism or allegations must be afforded reasonable right of reply before publication.’’
- They said the article concluded with an unbalanced statement by Mr Lidski where he advocated for Putin’s assassination. These unacceptable sentiments should never have appeared in any responsible publication.
- The complainants also cited accuracy, saying that the article claimed Valdimir Putin’s stated aim that one of the reasons for the special military operation was to “de-nazify Ukraine” was “not taken seriously by Western analysts.” It was not exactly clear what was not taken seriously: Mr Putin’s claim or the absence of Nazi-style factions in the Ukrainian government and army. The former was presumptuous in the extreme and the presence of the latter well-documented.
- The article’s author also wrote pejoratively, “Robson had echoed Russia’s justification that it was threatened by NATO.” He continued much less pejoratively “Lidski and his colleagues pointed out that Russia “started a totally unprovoked, vicious, aggressive war against Ukraine for the sole reason that they want to restore what they imagine to be the former glory of the Russian empire.” Messrs Smith and Robson said diplomatic and academic authorities had established that NATO’s eastward expansion would be considered a direct threat by Russia and was unwise and dangerous in the extreme.
- The statements “This situation cannot be looked at, understood, or described in any alternative way” and that Mr Robson and Mr Smith’s views were not “a free expression of an alternative point of view, but a definite carbon copy of the enemy propaganda” were seen by the complainants as an attack on their freedom of expression and on freedom of expression in general.
- Mike Smith and Matt Robson requested equivalent space and place in the two papers and on Stuff to ‘’discuss an alternative view on the headlined issue of propaganda in the context of the war in Ukraine.” This would also be in line with Stuff policy ”On rare occasions when it is not feasible to seek comment before content is published, the right of reply should be offered as soon as practicable afterwards and the subject’s response published either in an update or a new story.”
- The Press maintained describing the complainants as ‘’prominent left-wing politicians’’ was fair because they held senior Labour and Alliance Party positions.
- It was a fact that both had expressed views sympathetic to, or closely aligned with, Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine. Mr Smith had written that one of the Russian President’s objectives was to ‘’denazify’’ Ukraine.
- Mr Robson had given an interview on Russian state-controlled television in which NZ media reported him as labelling NATO a ‘’terrorist organisation’’ and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of “promoting fascists.” These comments echo Mr Putin's justification for the war.
- It was clear Michael Lidski was comparing such comments to those made by British politicians as they attempted to appease Hitler prior to WWII and hopefully avert war. The Press was satisfied that Mr Lidski’s quote in the open letter was an honestly held opinion based on facts as they were known and outlined.
- Mr Smith and Mr Robson were not contacted for a response. Mr Lidski’s quote was taken from an open letter written many months prior to publication. It did not come from an interview and was not central to the article, which was focused on how Mr Lidski’s letter of complaint was handled by the Broadcasting Minister, the Human Rights Commission, media outlets and the Media Council.
- The Press defended Michael Lidski’s comments about someone killing Vladimir Putin, saying it was not unacceptable that a Ukrainian national might dream of the assassination of a totalitarian leader whose invasion of his country has led to the deaths of thousands of people and widespread destruction.
- In response to the allegation that it was inaccurate to dismiss Mr Putin's justification for Russia's invasion of its neighbour because the existence of "Nazi-style factions in the Ukrainian government and army" was well documented The Press said many countries, including Ukraine and NZ, had citizens who were members of far-right groups. This could never be a reasonable justification for a violent invasion by a neighbour. This was a fruitless argument and not central to the article.
- Stuff, in its formal response to the Media Council, stated the Michael Lidski letter covered about a dozen paragraphs from a 50-paragraph story. The reporting of Mr Lidski’s criticism was not gratuitous and the article’s point was not to focus on Messrs Robson and Smith’s views but to explore whether RNZ had been vulnerable to Russian misinformation.
- Stuff also provided, in its response, article links it said showed it was reasonable and factual to say western analysts had not taken the pair’s argument seriously.
- Stuff maintained that it did not need to afford the complainants a right of reply. Their own comments had been reported extensively, initially without challenge. It was clear that the complainants had ‘’publicly staked out a contentious position on a highly charged and long-running news topic of significant public interest and that pushback and strongly worded criticism from those with opposing views was inevitable. It is legitimate for the news media to report on such reaction without being automatically required to go back to all parties to revisit their views.”
- The article was an example of where balance was achieved over the long term. Stuff had also published an opinion piece by Mr Robson early in the conflict in which he expressed similar views to those in the RNZ article.
- The Media Council has reviewed this complaint against the principle the complainant’s said was breached – Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.
- In terms of accuracy, the complainants have not demonstrated that Stuff published anything inaccurate in its article. The Council notes that in heated issues such as war it is common for people on both sides to never agree on the facts.
- The complainants challenged the fairness of being described as ‘’prominent left-wing politicians’’. The Council considers this a fair description given their former political roles.
- The Russia-Ukraine war will evoke strong, emotional opinions and feelings across the spectrum, and it was understandable for Michael Lidski to want Vladimir Putin dead. This comment was an opinion and did not breach Principle (1).
- The issue of balance is the weightier part of this complaint. Mr Smith and Mr Robson have made strong public comments on the war and Mr Lidski in his letter, parts of which were republished by Stuff, expressed strong views about the pair and their opinions. The question is, did Stuff have an obligation to give the complainants a right of reply?
- Mike Smith and Matt Robson have proactively entered the public debate over this war and made comments they must have known would spark strong reactions. They have had their say and need to accept that others will subsequently have theirs. Given this, there was no obligation for Stuff to go back to the complainants.
- Balance is a cornerstone of journalism and enshrined in the Media Council’s Principles. In this instance, balance was achieved because views from both sides were included in the Stuff article.
- Decision: The complaint is not upheld under Principle (1) Accuracy, fairness and balance
Council members Raynor Asher and Judi Jones comment
- We agree with the decision to not uphold the complaint but wish to record our concern that such a strong condemnation was quoted from Mr Lidski, comparing the complainants to the appeasing politicians who were “once in favour of Hitler”, and of a “carbon copy Russian propaganda”, without Stuff giving the complainants an opportunity to reply. What stays us from supporting an uphold is a paragraph in the article quoting Mr Smith’s views, and also a link that was in the article to an earlier article Russia-Ukraine war: NZ entered war without public consultation - former Labour politician, which set out Mr Smith’s views. However given the extreme comparisons of Mr Lidski, it would have been better if a direct right of reply was given to Messrs Smith and Robson, and for that reply to have been quoted in the article
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Scott Inglis, Jo Cribb, Alison Thom, Judi Jones.