SAM DOH AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3213
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2022
Decision: Not Upheld
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
Conflicts of Interest
Balance, Lack Of
Conflict of Interest
Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori
1. This was a complaint that an article by historian Vincent O’Malley was an advertorial or “thinly veiled plug” for his recently published new book. The complaint was not upheld.
2. Stuff published an article on November 18, 2021, headlined Signs are encouraging for a historically aware Aotearoa. This was an opinion piece by historian Vincent O’Malley commenting on moves to encourage education, understanding and engagement in New Zealand history, particularly the 19th century New Zealand Wars.
3. Sam Doh said Dr O’Malley’s so-called opinion piece was in fact an advertorial for his recently released new book Voices from the New Zealand Wars. For Stuff to allow an author to plug his own book in thinly veiled disguise as an opinion piece was not acceptable. This was complete with links to Bridget Williams Books, the publisher of most of his works as well as his latest book.
4. In the article the author mentioned his “two best-selling books” and this phrase was hyperlinked to Bridget Williams Books from where the books can be bought online.
5. “It’s one thing for Stuff to review Dr O’Malley’s new book, but quite another to allow the author to do his own promotion, disguised as an opinion piece.”
6. He noted the review of Dr O’Malley’s book earlier the same month did not carry a direct link to the same page, where it would have been expected.
7. The article’s use of hyperlinks to the publisher’s website was not necessary if the purpose was simply to provide readers with information on the authors credentials. It would have been sufficient to say he was “a writer, historian and Waitangi Tribunal consultant.”
8. He also questioned the value of Dr O’Malley’s opinion – “what do his books have to do with the fact that New Zealand is becoming more historically aware (the subject of his opinion piece)? Does one have to read his books to come to that conclusion? The answer is no.”
9. Mr Doh said there should have been a disclaimer at the beginning of the article to say it was promoting Dr O’Malley’s new book. He asked Stuff to amend it, so readers were aware of this and apologise for the miss-step.
10. He believed Stuff was in breach of Media Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) 5 (columns, blogs, opinions and letters) and 10 (conflicts of interest).
11. Stuff Pou Tiaki Editor Carmen Parahi said the article was Dr O’Malley’s opinion and clearly identified as such and believed his opinions had a foundation of fact as required under principle 5.
12. She also believed the piece written by Dr O’Malley, a leading historian, met the Media Council’s accuracy, fairness and balance criteria.
13. The article was not promotional and any links to Dr O’Malley’s work were simply to inform readers about his credibility. There was a link to his public profile in the body of the article and a link to his book in the explainer at the end. It was standard practice for Stuff to write a blurb about commentators and add links.
14. Throughout the article there were a number of links to different aspects referred to, such as reference to Mihingarangi Forbes’ RNZ The NZ Wars collection. There were sixteen links in the article of which some are linked to other related Stuff stories and projects relating to the opinion piece.
15. As for Dr O’Malley’s reference to best sellers, he has written many books and articles which have won awards and his current book was recently long listed at the 2022 Ockham New Zealand National Book Awards. Mentioning his own work in a single paragraph in an 800-word column was hardly an advertorial.
16. She defended publication of commentary by a distinguished historian, such as Dr O’Malley, and Stuff’s reference to his work.
17. The article was a reflection on how Dr O’Malley was feeling encouraged about Aotearoa becoming more aware of the nation’s troubled history, detailing the national shift in the past five years and the change in education policy to teach New Zealand history in all schools next year. Reference to his work only validated his credentials in his field.
18. She also cited Stuff’s Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics which says:
The credentials of opinion authors who are not regular contributors already familiar to readers should be disclosed in a footnote statement to allow readers to gauge the author’s credibility. When we publish opinion submissions from people purporting to be experts on a topic, we should verify their credentials.
19. She did not believe the article was a “plug” for the book or that a disclaimer was needed at the beginning of the article.
20. Ms Parahi apologised for a delay in responding to the initial complaint to Stuff and acknowledged this was a failure to meet Stuff’s own standards to respond quickly.
21. Aside from the Media Council’s concern about Stuff’s tardiness in responding to this complaint, for which there has been an apology, the Council has difficulty finding fault with Stuff’s handling of this article.
22. It was an opinion piece and was clearly marked as such. It was appropriate for Stuff to note Dr O’Malley’s credentials as a writer and historian at the bottom of the article.
23. There was also nothing wrong with stating Dr O’Malley is the author of Voices from the New Zealand Wars/He Reo No Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa (Bridget Williams Books).
24. It could be seen as a “plug” and the complainant was concerned that the hyperlink connected to the book purchase page. More importantly the hyperlinked page provided information to those looking to read more about the author.
25. A majority of the Council, however, were concerned that editors needed to exercise caution when providing commercial hyperlinks that could be regarded as advertising.
26. Dr O’Malley commented in his article that there was a growing public interest in the New Zealand Wars, and this was reflected in his “two best-selling books.” That term may be regarded as sales hype, but the Media Council has no information challenging the veracity of the statement.
27. The Media Council does not accept Mr Doh’s comment questioning the value of Dr O’Malley’s opinion. A key point is that there is public interest and continuing debate on issues relating to New Zealand history, race relations, the Waitangi Treaty and the use of Māori language.
28. As an historian Dr O’Malley has the knowledge and perspective to make a valuable contribution to such debates and it is not surprising that the media believe his commentary might be of interest to their readers.
29. Dr O’Malley may have sold more books after this article appeared, but that does not lessen the value of his commentary. Stuff would have been churlish and less than frank with its readers if it did not acknowledge his credentials or mention the title of his new book on the subject. Mention of the publisher’s imprint is also a matter of record and may be of interest to readers – it is of no particular significance.
30. Mr Doh accepts mention of a title and publisher might be appropriate at the bottom of a review. But the Media Council notes it is also commonly done on other occasions - when newspapers or magazines publish book extracts, interview authors or run their essays or commentaries.
31. Authors have an obvious commercial interest in selling their books, but such promotion is not a conflict of interest on their part. It is also commonplace for publications to run material because they think their readers might be interested, without regard to advertisements that may or may not be running elsewhere on their pages.
32. There is no evidence that Stuff had any commercial or other conflict of interest in publishing this article. As to the complaint that this is advertorial, it certainly does not bear the usual hallmarks of such content, where a flattering article - dressed up as news or a feature - runs alongside an advertisement for the same product or company.
33. For the reasons set out here the Media Council does not uphold this complaint.
Media Council members considering the complaints were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai and Tim Watkin.