WENDY COOK AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 2822
Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2019
Verdict: Not Upheld
Balance, Lack Of
1. South Waikato District Councillor Wendy Cook complained about an article in theWaikato Times/Stuff which reported she had been absent from 16 of 46 full council meetings in the previous three years. She also complained about a poll on the Neighbourly website which asked readers whether she should resign after missing a year’s worth of full council meetings.
2. Ms Cook complained about several aspects of the story published in the Waikato Times, South Waikato News and Stuff on August 6. In addition to setting out her case in a formal complaint she also made the effort to travel to Wellington so she could speak to the Council and outline her concerns.
3. Her first concern was the relevance of a reference to her involvement as general manager of the Pockets 8 Ball Club gaming venue which had been put into liquidation eight months earlier.The demise of the club was old news, the paper had wrongly stated it was “her” club and inclusion of the comment that she “fell into financial difficulty” was inappropriate and personal. Ms Cook’s absences were driven by illness and she was appalled that the reporter had made “the assumption that my financial position is a reason I am on medical leave”.
4. She also felt her comment that she would be back once she was fit and well, had been twisted to discredit her. The story stated “South Waikato District Council anticipates she will return by the end of August but in a statement to Stuff Cook said this may not be the case.”This went beyond what she had said in her statement that “I will be back once I am fit and able and have the appropriate clearance from my physician.”
5. Stuff had no right to comment on why she had missed so many meetings.“I have a medical certificate and that’s the end of the story. You have no right to assume why I am away. That is private and confidential and not for you to know, nor for you to ask and not for you to surmise and put your opinion in a report for the public to read.”
6. She said this was not the first time this reporter has stepped over the line. It was public perception his reports repeatedly show “bias towards me”. It was a political ploy as elections were close and the reporting was a form of bullying.
7. Ms Cook said the publication of a poll on the Neighbourly website, asking readers whether she should resign, had caused “irreparable pain and anxiety and irreversible damage”. It was, in her view, unethical and a breach of Media Council principles.
8. Stuff Waikato news director Nicola Brennan-Tupara defended the story saying that covering the matter of a councillor’s attendance was part and parcel of good journalism. The reporter had asked for council attendance records and the story centred on Ms Cook as she had missed so many more meetings than any other councillors.
9. She believed reference to the gambling venue was relevant. “It is our understanding that the liquidation of Pockets 8 Ball, of which she was the general manager and shareholder, had a flow-on impact for Cook financially, given she lost her job and is named in the legal proceedings involving the IRD action. Given Cook is a councillor, who is tasked with making decisions on what to do with ratepayers’ money, any mismanagement of funds of her personal/work life is of relevance to a story about her performance as a councillor. We do not consider this a breach of privacy given that link, nor do we believe it is an ethical breach. The closure of Pockets also coincides with a lot of Cook’s absences from council meetings and we are of the understanding that the stress of the closure is part of the reason Cook is on medical leave.”
10. The liquidation of Pockets had only occurred a few months earlier, matters were still proceeding and given her involvement with the business it was relevant to this story.
11. Ms Cook’s statement relating to her sick leave was reported in full in the story.
12. As for the poll, this was removed after Ms Cook indicated she had an issue with it and the story, although she did not immediately identify what these were. Due to concern that it might be based on a flawed story, it was removed at Ms Cook’s first complaint as a sign of goodwill.
13. However, political polls of this nature were not unusual and it was not unethical to construct a poll asking whether people think a councillor who has missed a year’s worth of meetings should resign.The poll was sparked by a suggestion made by another councillor. It was not sparked by the reporter’s personal feelings.
14. Ms Brennan-Tupara added that she had spoken to the reporter about how he could have worded the poll a little differently, but similar polls would be done if the need arose.
15. It is widely understood that anybody who stands for or holds public office is subject to a degree of public scrutiny. Their behaviour and conduct is a matter of public interest and their failure to do their duty is also a matter that can rightly be recorded publicly. In this case Ms Cook’s absence from so many council meetings was a matter of public interest which Stuff was entitled to report on and ask questions about.
16. It was also not inappropriate to record that the gaming business for which she was a general manager had gone into liquidation just eight months earlier. It was a matter of public record and public interest that she ran an organisation that had failed to pay its debts.
17. However, the Media Council does have some concern about the reporting of this story and the defences offered by Stuff.
18. Ms Cook said it was incorrect to describe the gaming club as “hers” as she was not its owner. She has a point but given that she was a general manager, and therefore responsible for running it, we don’t consider it to be a significant error and besides it was corrected when she raised it with Stuff.
19. She also thought it was inappropriate and personal for the story to state that “she fell into financial difficulty” when the club was put into liquidation and the implication that this was why she was on medical leave. The linking of her absence to financial difficulty after the gaming venue was put into liquidation was speculative and not supported by other information in the story. It was a poorly constructed sentence that needlessly pulled together facts to make an inference that might or might not have been true. Stuff further compounded the offence to Ms Cook, in its response to this complaint, by continuing to argue on the basis of surmise. The story was speculative and touched on the personal. However, the Media Council found it was not beyond the bounds given the public interest.
20. The public interest is also relevant to the questions posed as to why she had missed so many meetings. Ms Cook is entitled to take sick leave and is within her rights to say that her medical condition is private and confidential but she goes too far when she claims “it is not for you to know, not for you to ask.” It is legitimate questioning for the media to ask politicians about anything that affects their ability to do their job, but equally politicians cannot be compelled to answer any question they wish to avoid.
21. Stuff was clumsy with its handling of Ms Cook’s statement as to when she expected to return to her council duties. She said she would be back once she was fit and able and had a clearance from her physician. This inferred that she might not be back at the end of August as anticipated by the council but the story was remiss in stating “Cook said that may not be the case.”
22. Ms Cook was clearly aggrieved by the story but has not offered any information to support her claim that it was biased, unethical or a form of bullying.She had been upset by previous stories done by the same reporter but it does not follow that he was biased. However, the reporter left himself open to that suggestion when he posted the poll asking Neighbourly readers whether Councillor Cook should resign. It goes a step beyond reporting a story to then put up a poll with a loaded question like that. It was taken down the day of publication after a complaint from Ms Cook as a “gesture of goodwill” and out of concern it may have been based on a flawed story.Stuff also acknowledged that it was not appropriate, said the reporter had been spoken to about how he could have worded the poll a little differently. But it argued the poll question was suggested by another councillor who said in the story that a councillor who was not there for a year might as well resign and give another person the chance to represent their community. It also defended the use of polls like this.
23. There were errors in the way this story was handled by Stuff which touch on the principle relating to accuracy, fairness and balance but these were corrected swiftly.
24. Ms Cook’s claim that her privacy had been breached is tenuous. Media Council Principle 2 says that those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration. She cites Stuff’s own code of ethics which states journalists should “approach cases involving personal grief or shock with sympathy and discretion” and the E Tu code which says “they shall respect private grief and personal privacy and shall have the right to resist compulsion to intrude on them.” In this case the reporter emailed Ms Cook asking for comment on the story he was doing on her absence from council meetings. It was a legitimate approach and one that he was obliged to make if he was to give her the opportunity to comment. She responded with a statement stating that she was on sick leave and that is what Stuff reported.There is also a question as to whether the ‘‘special consideration’’ mentioned in Principle 2 needs to be extended to somebody who has lost their job as Ms Cook did when the business was liquidated and what that special consideration might mean. The news media often need to approach people who have lost their jobs or faced other more traumatic losses and it is appropriate they do so with respect. The Privacy Principle also states that privacy interests should be balanced against significant matters of public record or public interest. As Ms Cook was a councillor there was a public interest in the attendance issues raised by Stuff. Likewise the financial matters relating to Pockets 8 Ball are on the public record and available for reporting, again in the public interest.
25. While there were deficiencies in the reporting they were outweighed by public interest considerations. The complaint is not upheld.Ms Cook’s privacy was not breached.
Note: After the complaint was lodged the Media Council was advised that Ms Cook would not be standing again at this year’s local body elections.
Media Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.
Jonathan MacKenzie took no part in the consideration of this complaint.