PROFESSORS KENDALL CLEMENTS, ELIZABETH RATA, DOUG ELLIFFE, GARTH COOPER, ROBERT NOLA AND JOHN WERRY AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3211
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2022
Comment and Fact
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Apology and Correction Sought
1. In July 2021 a letter from seven New Zealand academics was published in the New Zealand Listener magazine. The letter questioned the proposed equal treatment of mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) and science, especially in the school curriculum. A vigorous public debate followed, about the issues raised in what was sometimes referred to as the ‘seven professors’ or ‘Listener seven’ letter. Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles and others challenged the views of the seven professors and supported a role for mātauranga Māori in the science school curriculum and more widely. Complaints about the seven professors’ letter were received by the Royal Society Te Apārangi; several of the seven are fellows of the Academy arm of the Royal Society and subject to its code of conduct. An investigation into the complaints was launched by the Royal Society. This appeared to spark international coverage of the debate late in 2021, especially in the UK. Some reports are said to have suggested Ms Wiles was “attacking” or “cancelling” university colleagues.
2. On 20 December 2021 Stuff published an opinion article by Ms Wiles entitled Academics: Use your mana to aid colleagues, not fight them. The article was a contribution to the ongoing debate and responded to the reported UK media criticisms of her position in challenging the views of the seven professors about the value of mātauranga Māori.
3. The six complainants to the Media Council are Professors Kendall Clements, Elizabeth Rata, Doug Elliffe, Garth Cooper, Robert Nola and John Werry. (One of the seven signatories to the Listener letter, Professor Michael Corballis, has since died.) The complaint is made under Media Council Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; and Principle 4 - Comment and Fact. The professors have complained about an allegation in Associate Professor Wiles’ opinion column which said: “The reason I got involved is because those professors and fellows have influence and power over people’s careers. Astonishingly, some are now intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters.”
4. Professor Rata first complained to Stuff on 23 December on behalf of the six professors, requesting this unsubstantiated claim be withdrawn. None of the six professors had sent lawyer’s letters to junior colleagues. She requested Stuff name anyone who had sent such letters. Professor Rata sought a ‘fair deal’ from Stuff given that the incorrect claim “sullies our reputations”.
5. A clarification footnote was added to the article by Stuff at 5pm on 31 December as follows: “The “lawyer’s letters” referred to in this article were sent by the University of Auckland, following Privacy Act requests from two of the ‘Listener Seven’”.
6. On 4 January Professor Clements took the lead in saying to Stuff that the adjustment was not satisfactory and did not adequately correct the “incorrect and defamatory statement” and impression that lawyer’s letters were sent to junior colleagues by the professors. He said it now appeared the lawyer’s letters were sent by the University of Auckland as part of its process of responding to personal information requests under the Privacy Act by two of the professors. “We had nothing to do with how the university carries out this statutory process,” Professor Clements said. The remedy now he sought was a suitably prominent retraction and explanation that the lawyer’s letters were from the University and not from the signatories to the Listener letter.
7. In the course of the complaint Stuff responded through several staff. In response to Professor Rata’s initial complaint. Will Harvie, editor of the science page at Stuff, said that given the time of the year, a response may be delayed. As described above, Stuff added a clarification to the story on 31 December, but Professor Clements was not satisfied. On 5 January, Kamala Hayman, Editor of the Press-Stuff Canterbury, said she had decided to remove the sentence (viz “Astonishingly, some are now intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters”). For full transparency she had outlined the edit at the bottom of the column and a note was added to the top, drawing readers’ attention to the footnote clarification. A print clarification was published on 3 January on page 3, a more prominent position than the earlier column. In a response to the Council, Stuff say the sentence at issue was ‘ambiguous’ and following the corrections made they are now confident that any confusion has been cleared up.
8. In considering this complaint it is worth noting that none of the major academic participants appear to have called for censorship or suppression of others’ views. The seven professors’ letter has sparked strong debate on a matter of high public importance, the place and value of mātauranga Māori in science. Stuff helped to inform and balance this important public debate by publishing Associate Professor Wiles’ article.
9. The complaint to the Media Council is not about this important issue of scientific principle. It is rather about a matter of Stuff’s compliance with Media Council Principles, and the handling of the complaint by Stuff. Our findings are confined to these aspects and do not attempt to deal with the issue of mātauranga Māori and science, which would in any event be beyond the Council’s mandate.
10. The six complainants have cited: Principle 1, accuracy, fairness and balance; and Principle 4 Comment and Fact. Principle 1 says: “Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.” Principle 4 says “Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.”
11. The complainants complained about the statement “Astonishingly, some are now intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters”. They see it as a “serious and completely inaccurate” allegation which has harmed university relationships and “seriously damaged our reputations”. The Council agrees that the statement was inaccurate. It appears plain that none of the named Professors were involved in intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters.
12. It is also of the view that this is a most serious allegation to make, striking at the heart of academic freedom by asserting that the Professors were trying to stifle opposing views using lawyers’ threats. It required immediate public correction.
13. A number of surrounding circumstances have been considered by the Council. The incident took place over the New Zealand Christmas/New Year shutdown and dealing with the complaint was affected by that. However, the 24-hour news cycle continued during the holiday period and the article was readily accessible on-line. The Council considers that publications need to be able to deal with complaints, and make corrections at any time, especially where a key factual error has been made. In this case the error was damaging to the complainants’ professional standing and reputation.
14. A further consideration is the effectiveness of the correction made on 31 December. By then Stuff was aware of the error. The correction was less than clear and could have been read to imply that the complainants were responsible for the lawyer’s letters, even if sent by the university. It should have said plainly that the statement in the article was wrong, and that the Professors did not send out such letters or ask for them to be sent. The Council considers that it was reasonable for Professor Clements and the other complainants to be dissatisfied with this explanation. A simple factual error had been made, Stuff was aware of that, and an unambiguous correction could and should have been made at that time (or earlier).
15. Although Stuff reacted reasonably promptly by adding clarifications, their first 31 December ‘adjustment’ did not clearly correct the fundamental error of fact. The professors had not sent lawyer’s letters to junior staff and Stuff was aware of that by 31 December. Although it was an opinion piece, the inaccuracy was serious and plain. Immediate and clear correction could have cured it under Principle 12 of the Principles, but as we have set out that did not happen.
16. The complaint is upheld under Principle 1.
17. Principle 4 also deals with accuracy - material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate. A key material fact on which Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles’ opinion column was based was incorrect viz: “The reason I got involved is because…. some are now intimidating junior colleagues with lawyer’s letters”. The inaccurate statement remained on Stuff from 20 December to 5 January. This is in our view an unnecessarily long delay before making an unambiguous correction to an inaccurate and significantly damaging statement about the six complainants.
18. The Council also upholds the complaint under Principle 4.
19. The Council notes that the complaint could also be upheld under Principle 12, relating to failure to adequately correct, even though the complainants did not cite this ground for their complaint. However, the Council determined to set aside this particular procedural ground in the light of the substantive upholds on Principles 1 and 4.
20. Late in the process the Media Council received further correspondence from various parties. This correspondence was considered, but there was nothing contained in it, and in particular no copies of letters that were referred to in a general way, that would persuade the Council to depart from the views expressed above.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai and Tim Watkin.