MURRAY McCULLY AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND HERALDTwo complaints from the Hon Murray McCully, at the material time Minister of Tourism, against the New Zealand Herald, have not been upheld by the New Zealand Press Council .
On 8 March 1999 Mr. McCully wrote separate letters to the Editor of the New Zealand Herald about two articles in the Weekend Herald of 20 February 1999 on the subject of his dealings, as Minister, with the New Zealand Tourism Board. Mr. McCully complained of the lack of “accuracy, fairness and balance” in both articles and (again in respect of both complaints) of the way in which “he was dealt with by reporters”. The Deputy Editor replied on 16 March and Mr. McCully, rejecting the response, asked on 29 March that the Press Council consider formal complaints against the newspaper..
As background the Press Council notes that the relationship between Mr.McCully and the Tourism Board was of intense public interest at the time, coming as it did on top of other questions about wider government engagement in the tourism area. There had been extensive media coverage and close parliamentary scrutiny of the actions of both the Prime Minister and the Minister.
The New Zealand Herald coverage on 20 February 1999 was part of an ongoing saga. It is an index of public interest that a major metropolitan newspaper published two articles on the same day dealing with different aspects of one issue: the Minister’s dealings over a fairly extended period with the Tourism Board.
The two separate articles overlapped. The front-page article was narrower in scope and whilst providing some background observations on the government’s deteriorating relationship with the Board nevertheless concentrated on two issues. There was a change of headlines between editions but that need not detain us. The practice is not exceptional.
The first issue was a meeting of 2 December 1998 between Mr. McCully and his advisers when they met Board management at their offices. No Board members were present. The Board management made notes at that meeting.
The second issue was a legal opinion obtained by the then Board chairman, Mr. Bryan Mogridge about the nature of the legal relations between the Board and the Minister in the light of the New Zealand Tourism Board Act 1991. A particular of complaint of Mr. McCully was that there was misrepresentation (by emphasis and selection) of the legal opinion in the articles. The Council will not involve itself in that question. The negotiations for the Purchase Agreement on 30 October 1998 were the cause of the request for the opinion. Those negotiations had been protracted and energetic with the Minister using the Agreement as a vehicle for expressing his views on the directions the Board should be taking.
A central point in the front-page article was: “The extent of Mr. McCully’s meddling is revealed in documents obtained by the Weekend Herald.” Although not disclosed in that article that the documents (notes of meeting of 2 December and opinion) were leaked it became clear in the second article that the Herald, and at least one other publication, were in possession of a number of leaked documents.
The second article under the heading “Directing or meddling?” labeled “Inside story. A Herald special investigation” was broader in its scope. There were several main points, which could be identified. The article began with the issues surrounding Mr. McCully’s South American trip covering Mr. McCully’s advice in September he intended to make the trip notwithstanding apparent firm objection to the trip, some of it contained in a letter from the then chairman to the Minister. On his return Mr. McCully demanded an explanation and assurance from the chief executive, Paul Winter “ that no staff or board members were involved in leaking of confidential information”. This quotation (source not identified) contained in the article, presumably came from Mr. McCully. The article went on to say: “Fear and paranoia were already building among staff.” The Council does not know and has not been told of the extent of the leaked documents but gathers it was not inconsiderable and well before November/December 1998. The rest of the article was mainly reworking and development of the notes of 2 December meeting, the leaked legal opinion and leaked correspondence surrounding the negotiations towards the Purchase agreement. The article mentioned Mr. McCully’s critics alleged he was manipulating tourism for election gain.
What is plain is that long before the journalists put questions to Mr. McCully on 19 February he was aware that there had been leaking of documents to the media. There has been no suggestion that at 19 February the Herald had obtained the documents by legal channels such as the Official Information Act, or through official release.
In two letters dated 8 March 1999 (16 days after publication) addressed to the editor of Herald Mr. McCully complained about both articles and the headlines. The letters of complaint overlap but each was primarily devoted to a separate article. Particulars of complaint were supplied in both letters but two main themes were common to both complaints.
First, the Minister had not had disclosed to him the “existence” of the notes of 2 December meeting and the legal opinion. The wording of both letters was ambiguous in that Mr. McCully does not state outright he was completely unaware of the literal existence of the said documents but the complaint seems to be the existence of the documents in the hands of the Herald’s journalists was not disclosed to him.
The second theme is that both articles were deficient in that all main points of criticism in the articles should have been put to Mr. McCully to obtain his explanations and answers before publication. The implied allegation not to have done so was unethical, and offended on the grounds of fairness and balance.
The Council now turns to an examination of the events central to these complaints, namely, the exchanges between the journalists and Mr. McCully’s office on Friday afternoon 19 February.
The Herald approached Mr. McCully’s office in the afternoon of Friday 19 seeking a reaction to questions based on these papers. The Minister’s press secretary asked that they be put in writing. This was done by e-mail at 4.42pm that day, with a request that answers be given by 6.00pm. The Deputy Editor of the Herald has said that no effort was made to either contest the deadline or to have it extended; nor were there any questions from the Minister's office about the source of the material on which the questions were based. The Council does accept the Deputy Editor’s contention that the first question would have made it plain that the Herald held inside information. In the event Mr. McCully’s answers were reflected in the two articles published the next day.
There were more detailed complaints than the two main themes identified earlier but they have been mostly dealt with elsewhere in this adjudication.
The Council believes the disposal of the vexed question of the use of the leaked documents is governed by the events that occurred before and after 19 February. The Council has not been asked, and does not offer, comments on the general issue of leaked documents. By the time Mr. McCully returned from his South American trip he was well aware that document leakage was occurring, and on a significant scale, apparently. The wording of four of the seven questions put to Mr. McCully on 19 February conveyed beyond doubt that the questioner was in possession of sensitive written material which was critical to the deteriorating relationship (already in the public arena) between the Board, the Board’s management and the Minister. The Minister’s responses sent to the newspaper were dexterous and skilful. The responses could not have been composed other than with the practical certainty the questioner was in possession of the notes about the meeting of 2 December and the legal opinion, and other documents. The legal opinion is identified in two of the questions. It suffices to say that the Minister responded to each question meeting the deadline requested and made no complaint of any kind. It is difficult now to reconcile Mr. McCully’s complaints about any aspect of that exchange be it either unfairness as to time, the use made of the leaked documents or any inherent unfairness in the way the journalists dealt with his office in the course of their enquiries for the articles. These parts of the complaints are not upheld.
The Council now turns to the issue of so-called failure to put to the Minister all the critical comments that were to appear in the columns and to obtain his views, comments and answers. The way in which a newspaper chooses to handle investigative enquiries and publication of the results is in the hands of the paper. Good practice dictates that the object of the enquiry be provided at some stage with an opportunity to put his or her case; but that does not mean that the paper is bound by any ethical obligation to put every single issue for reply. It is not a breach of ethics to include in the published material matters not put to the Minister. If the Council were to rule otherwise that would place intolerable strains on free expression and publication. It is pertinent to observe that Mr. McCully waited 16 days before approaching the editor and he and his advisers would have known full well how to react if the articles contained material inaccuracies or seriously misleading statements. The Deputy Editor in his response to the complaints to the Council says the newspaper would have printed any timely response provided by the Minister after publication of the 20 February articles.
After dealing with the detail of the complaints, as set out above, the Council stands back and asks itself whether these articles, on a question of significant public importance in the political field, represented accurate, fair and balanced journalism. Unhesitatingly the Council answers not only was it accurate, fair and balanced but was also in the public interest that these issues be subjected to critical scrutiny in the way the Herald did on this occasion. The articles could fairly be described as hard–hitting journalism but that does not call for criticism or admonishment. The newspaper was fulfilling its role in a responsible manner.
The complaints are not upheld.