MICHAEL LAWS AGAINST THE SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 669

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 1997

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday News

Mr Michael Laws, consultant to the then Associate Minister of Health, Mr Neil Kirton,complained to the Press Council concerning articles published in the Sunday Star-Times on 6 July 1997.

The substance of Mr Laws’ complaint about the two articles is that they alleged he was being paid $1000 per day for providing consultancy services to the Minister. The two articles in the same edition had different purposes. One article was concerned primarily with the costs incurred in Mr Kirton’s office by using consultants instead of permanent staff available. Two separate consultants were named, one of whom was Mr Laws, and the words complained of were “...Mr Laws, understood to be charging $1000 a day....” The averment was also contained in the headline “Kirton pays Laws $1000 a day”. This article suggested that Internal Ministerial Services were concerned at the level of consultancy fees incurred in Mr Kirton’s office, said to be up to $6000 per week. It was recorded in the article Mr Kirton described the costs quoted as “garbage”.

The second article was more broadly based and was a profile of Mr Kirton’s role in provision of governmental health services. That article also made the statement “Mr Laws’ daily rate is said to be $1000 a day....” and that “Reliable sources say Mr Kirton’s spending on consultants is running at $6000 a week.”

The two articles were written by the same journalist and contained a byline. The first article was reproduced in at least 2 other papers and Mr Laws made specific complaint about the Otago Daily Times reproducing it on the front page on 7 July without reference to him. The disposal deals with that newspaper as well. In his complaint Mr Laws drew attention to the fact that it was a company controlled by him that received payment, but that point has no materiality in a complaint of this nature.

Both Mr Kirton and Mr Laws reacted immediately to the articles’ allegations of payments. The former by a media release and the latter by a complaint to the editor of the Sunday Star-Times . Both denied the validity of the allegation of “$1000 a day” consultancy fees to Mr Laws. Their reaction was to deny, in strong language, the accuracy of the quantum of payment and both supplied certain information of a generalised nature about consultancy fees, but not particularised to the exact payments per day to consultants. Both complained in a variety of ways about the newspaper’s sources, and made counter allegations of “leaks” to the media.

The newspaper reacted to the complaints by the same journalist speaking with Mr Laws. The journalist had not spoken to him for the 6 July articles. The following Sunday, 13 July, another article was published under the heading “Laws disputes consultancy fee”. The strong and colourful denials of both were re-iterated and printed. The Sunday Star-Times renewed checks with its government sources and reduced the alleged payments to an estimated $900 per day. The article recorded that neither Mr Kirton nor Mr Laws would reveal Mr Laws’ hourly or daily rates, saying they were confidential. The third article did not mollify Mr Laws, and the complaint came before the Press Council for resolution.

The Press Council did not uphold the complaint. The issue of consultancy fees payable out of government funds is not only a matter of public interest, but a subject which is squarely within the province of a free press to investigate and publish the results. Throughout the exchanges between the parties during the disposal of this complaint Mr Laws has steadfastly refused to provide the precise figures as to payments he received as a consultant to the Minister. That is his entitlement and choice, but in adopting that course he cannot in parallel complain of inaccuracy and demand retractions and apologies.

The newspaper was acting responsibly on a matter of public interest, and if their sources were inaccurate Mr Laws was given ample opportunity to supply definitive information to refute the statements. This he did not do, and the issue was properly left before the public for their assessment.