TERRY TUOHY AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3218

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Bias
Politicians
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Terry Tuohy complained about a Stuff story that reported on the property holdings of National Deputy Leader Nicola Willis’s parents’ family trust, saying this was a breach of privacy and was biased. The complaint is not upheld.

Background 

On 2 December 2021, Stuff published a story headlined Christopher Luxon’s property gains soar as National promises to tackle housing crisis. It reported that National Leader Christopher Luxon had the biggest property portfolio of any sitting MP, and was earning about $90,000 a week in capital gains on his seven properties.

While the Opposition was criticising the Government for the housing crisis, Luxon was benefiting more than most from rising house prices, the story said. National Deputy Leader and housing spokesperson Nicola Willis’s family home had risen in price by $900,000 during 2021, and that her parents’ family trust owned property valued at $9 million. It reported that Willis said she had no control over those properties and was not a trustee or director.
 

A commentator was quoted as saying the high rate of property ownership among MPs was an obstacle to overcoming the housing crisis and inequality generally. It insulated them from the realities facing most New Zealanders.
 

Luxon was quoted as saying it was unfair to suggest he was playing a part in the housing crisis, saying more building and less regulation was the answer and house prices needed to stabilise. The story concluded with a list of the MPs with the most properties.

The Complaint

Terry Tuohy complained about the publication of details of properties owned by Nicola Willis’s parents. It was an “unbelievable intrusion into people’s lives”, a “blatant privacy breach” and evidence of media bias, Tuohy said. He had no problems with the press highlighting Luxon and Willis, but their families should be left out of it. 

The Response

Anna Fifield, the editor of the Dominion Post, where the story was first published, replied.

Regarding Tuohy’s concern that it was an intrusion and a privacy breach to publish details of Willis’s parents’ family trust, Fifield said the story was based on publicly available information about a politician’s personal interests and its reporting was in the public interest. In Parliament’s Register of Pecuniary Interests, Willis declared she had a “beneficiary interest” as a discretionary beneficiary in the Appledore Trust, and that she had “beneficial interests” in properties in Wellington, Wairarapa and Wānaka. “As a beneficiary of the family trust, she stands to gain from the ownership of these three properties,” Fifield said.

Willis herself had described the housing crisis as a generational issue and there had been numerous stories written about the transfer of inter-generational wealth and the part this played in the housing crisis, Fifield said. The fact that Willis stood to benefit from this property ownership was a matter of public interest and the kind of scrutiny a politician should expect.

The story also included information about MPs with the most properties, which included some Labour MPs, and noted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s capital gains, Fifield said.

In his final comment, Tuohy said the fact that Willis had disclosed her beneficial interest in her parents’ trust was all that needed reporting. There was no record of what that beneficial interest meant in terms of its value or time frame. The issue was a hit job on National’s new leadership team and was sensationalised reporting, he said.

The Discussion

Mr Tuohy complained under Principle 2: Privacy, which states in part: “Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.” Tuohy also suggested the story was evidence of bias against National, so it has been considered under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

The Media Council notes that the story could have more directly stated that Willis stood to gain from the trust, as explained fully in Fifield’s response. The story stated it was her parents’ trust and that she was not a trustee or director. Had the story explained that Willis had declared that she had a “beneficiary interest” in the trust in Parliament’s Register of Pecuniary Interests, the reason for the inclusion of information about the trust would have been clearer.

However, MPs’ property holdings are a matter of public record and, in the light of concern about rising house prices, it is in the public interest and legitimate to report on properties MPs own or have a beneficial interest in, so there is no breach of privacy. The story included comments from Luxon and Willis, and information about the properties of some Labour MPs, so there is no breach of Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The complaint is not upheld.

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.

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