The New Zealand Press Council has upheld complaints from Sam Knowles, Chief Executive of @Work about two articles published in the National Business Review (NBR) in February this year.

The complaints were the first involving the NBR to come before the Council since expansion of its jurisdiction. Before then the complaints resolution procedures of the Council were restricted to daily, Sunday and community newspapers. The Press Council acknowledges the co-operation of the NBR in responding to the complaint and agreeing to adjudication.

Mr Knowles lodged a complaint against the NBR following publication in February this year of a front page article headed '@Work executives seek million dollar golden handshakes'. The report stated that 'He (Mr Knowles) has been in the job only since @Work was set up nine months ago but is believed to have negotiated a golden parachute in his employment contract - his payoff is likely to be near $1 million.'

Mr Knowles considered that in this report the NBR breached three of the Press Council Principles, Accuracy, Comment and Fact, and Headlines and Captions. In the follow up article a week later he took the view that the NBR had also breached the principle dealing with Corrections.

In support of his complaint Mr Knowles advised that the $1million referred to was totally incorrect. The total redundancy package for all the 45 staff of @Work (himself included) would be less than $900,000. He said that the reporter had not at any stage broached the subject of a $1million payout when she interviewed him. Yet it was referred to three times as the principal news item in the article. By not putting the $1million allegation to him the NBR gave him no opportunity to refute the claim directly, but by including his comments immediately below the $1million reference, had made it appear that he was in fact responding to the claim.

Although the article also contained a number of errors in the description of @Work with confusion arising as to its relationship with ACC, these inaccuracies were not the main thrust of Mr Knowles' complaints.

He wrote to the NBR stating categorically that the claim it published about the $1million payout was completely false, and asked that the NBR correct the allegation as soon as possible. His @Work Chairman also provided a media release rejecting the $1million claim, stating that the total redundancy for @Work would be less than $900,000.

The following week the NBR printed an article on workers' compensation on page 3, but their comments on Mr Knowles' denial of the $1million payout were included in the 15th paragraph of a 17 paragraph article. The headline did not alert readers to the correction of the previous week's story.

The NBR Editor in Chief, Nevil Gibson responded to Mr Knowles' complaint that two well-connected sources had told the reporter that Mr Knowles' contract contained a clause making him eligible for a payout of 3 years salary in the event that @Work was wound up. Mr Gibson explained that the reporter had not asked directly about the $1million payout because Mr Knowles was insistent that he was not leaving his job. When asked about severance payouts Mr Knowles had said no deals with the Government had been made. Mr Gibson pointed out that NBR had very tight deadline policies and that the treatment of the story would have undoubtedly been different had Mr Knowles returned NBR's call earlier in the day. The story was therefore printed largely as originally written. However the NBR acknowledged that they did manage to accommodate Mr Knowles with late editing changes to include his comments made to the reporter when he called an hour before the deadline.

The payment of golden handshakes within the public sector is a matter of public interest and is a topical issue. However the NBR should have questioned Sam Knowles as to the validity of its claims before giving them front page prominence. Accordingly the Press Council upholds Mr Knowles' complaints about the inaccuracy of the front page article and the lack of suitable prominence of the follow up rebuttal published the following week.


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