Case Number: 703 T FREWEN AGAINST THE DOMINION
Council Meeting AUGUST 1998
The New Zealand Press Council has upheld one part of a multi-part complaint against The Dominion newspaper by media commentator Tom Frewen and dismissed the others. In its adjudication the Press Council said there were three issues which called for particular treatment and while upholding one part of the complaint, it dismisses another and remarks on the third.
The complaint was over the way in which The Dominion criticised Radio NZ in a debate on sponsorship of programmes. In the course of responding to an article written by Mr. Frewen, which appeared in another publication, The Dominion raised certain contractual arrangements between Mr. Frewen and the Clerk of the House, and his personal relationship with the CEO of Radio NZ. The Press Council has upheld the aspect of the complaint dealing with the way The Dominion handled the correction of an admitted error.
Mr. Frewen and the editor of The Dominion, Mr. Richard Long, became involved in a public dispute in newspapers. Before going to the complaint there are some features that ought to first be mentioned. Mr. Frewen is a knowledgeable journalist of considerable experience in several branches of the media. He is contracted to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives to provide parliamentary coverage to Radio NZ of the affairs of parliament. This contractual arrangement figured in the dispute. Mr Long is editor of the morning daily newspaper published in Wellington, and is himself an experienced journalist and editor. Both protagonists are senior wordsmiths, well versed in public life and controversy.
The central feature of the background to the dispute is the status of Radio NZ as a largely state funded public broadcasting system not relying on revenue from commercial activity. In the environment of government cost cutting Radio NZ has come under scrutiny, and some that have engaged in the debate propose funding Radio NZ partly from commercial sources. Sponsoring is the word used, which has a definite commercial connotation. Mr. Frewen has vigorously sided with those who believe public broadcasting should not be forced to seek sponsoring revenue. The Dominion has given considerable publishing space to the controversy from both viewpoints, but has editorially favoured those who support sponsoring, and stricter financial accountability for Radio NZ.
The dispute began with a feature article in The Dominion on 26 August 1997 under a headline “Taxpayers plug public radio’s debt”. The essence of the article was that Radio NZ was “living beyond its means” and was “bailed out at the taxpayers’ expense”. The bailing out consisted of payment of $3m as a “handout to cover most of the $4.5m or so shortfall.” In a strongly worded and combative article published in the National Business Review on 5 February 1998 headlined “Public radio feels icy blast from print media enemies” Mr Frewen castigated some branches of the print media and Treasury for their treatment of Radio NZ criticising by name one weekly, and three daily newspapers. He made special mention of The Dominion and the content of its article published on 26 August 1997 referred to above. It seems correct that the $3m payment was not to cover
shortfall, but to recompense Radio NZ for the costs of the relocation required by the government that needed the site of Radio NZ’s then existing premises for the proposed new parliamentary building. Although Radio NZ’s relocation, together with costs and compensation were dealt with in the article no connection was made to the $3m. Without acknowledging its previous error The Dominion in an article seemingly designed to meet Mr. Frewen's criticism corrected this mistake. In correspondence with the Council over this complaint the editor admitted the 26 August article on this issue was wrong.
It is fair to say Mr. Frewen in his article did not fail to impute questionable motives and conduct to The Dominion over its attitude to Radio NZ. In short it was a wide ranging, trenchant article dealing with many aspects of the public broadcasting debate. The article had appended a disclosure of interest in these terms: “Tom Frewen is a media commentator and is contracted by the Clerk of the House to present reports on Parliament for Radio New Zealand”.
Next day a columnist in one of the daily newspapers criticised, noticed the NBR article, and mentioned the disclosure interest referred to above, and included a suggestion that the disclosure should mention the fact that Ms Sharon Crosbie, the head of Radio NZ, lives in a permanent relationship with Mr. Frewen.
Mr. Frewen responded to the daily with a letter to the editor conceding the existence of the relationship and making the point that if the newspaper was implying his “professional judgment is influenced by my private life” the columnist should “come straight out with it”. The letter was printed without comment. Another publication, which had apparently run essentially the same story, later in February published a retraction and apology, which embraced the contractual and private matters, referred to above. In his complaint to the Press Council Mr Frewen made a point of saying he was satisfied with the treatment accorded him by both those publications.
In quite extensive coverage of the issue of sponsoring of public radio on 18 February 1998 The Dominion ran a feature article headlined “Sponsoring public radio” and a leader headlined “RNZ not owed a living”. The issue in the complaint is the feature article and a letter from Mr. Frewen to the editor about it. The article itself was comprehensive, but early in the article the twin matters of the contractual relationship of Mr. Frewen with the Clerk’s office, and his personal life received coverage. A columnist in The Dominion had made mention of Mr Frewen’s personal life in a column on 13 February 1998. The handling of these matters was unmistakably critical of Mr. Frewen, by insinuation conveying he was not free of the same brand of cant he had earlier levelled at the newspapers over their attitude to Radio NZ, and the sponsoring debate. It was this article that correctly set out the facts about the $3m payment to Radio NZ that it had got wrong in the August 1997 article.
Mr. Frewen wrote a letter to the editor alleging the purpose of the 18 February feature article was “revenge for my article exposing the sly editorial practice underlying your bias against National Radio and public broadcasting.” The letter was published in the letters’ column on 7 March 1998 with an unusually extensive rebutting comment from the editor, which began; “Mr. Frewen’s column in a business weekly is effusive in its support for Radio NZ. It does not acknowledge that he is the live-in partner of Radio NZ chief executive Sharon Crosbie.” Several other points were made which was really a recycling of the contractual allegations.
Mr. Frewen’s complaint to the Press Council concerns the extensiveness of the editor’s comments appended to his letter, which he regarded as subversive, and a negation of his side, and included new arguments. Mr. Frewen makes a point that he supports public broadcasting not Radio NZ per se. His complaint is couched in the terms that this is a breach of one of the three main objects of the Press Council as contained in its Constitution which is: “To maintain the New Zealand Press in accordance with the highest professional standards.” Although Mr Frewen did not use these exact words he seemed to say the rebuttal was a misuse of the editor’s powers to ensure he achieved the “last word” in the dispute. That is probably the central feature of this complaint.
At the beginning of this adjudication it was stated that the protagonists are experienced journalists. In the interests of freedom of expression the most robust confrontations are permitted. Furthermore, for brevity, not all the refined arguments on both sides are addressed. The Press Council believes that the funding issues surrounding sponsorship of public broadcasting may safely be left to open debate without further comment. Mr. Frewen’s complaint about the extensiveness of the rebuttal and the introduction into the debate of new material is not upheld, (subject to what is said below) and is left as an editorial decision.
There are three issues in this saga, which call for particular treatment. The Council upholds one aspect of the complaint, does not uphold another and makes comment on the third. The Council upholds the complaint about the way The Dominion chose to deal with the admitted error in relation to the $3m injection of government funds. This was a very important issue in the 26 August 1997 article, and the first volley in this debate. That article made a special feature of the payment and by the headline and the language of the opening paragraphs (examples of which have already been given) set out to severely criticise the way Radio NZ conducts its financial affairs. This must have been an embarrassment to Radio NZ. The editor in his replies to the Council stated that The Dominion corrected the mistake. The Council does not accept that the correction of 18
February was sufficient. When a mistake is made by a newspaper of the magnitude of this one it is not adequate to wait some months and then in another article simply correctly set out the proper facts of the payment without drawing to their readers' attention that it was wrong on the previous occasion. Ethical standards call for correction of mistakes and correlative due prominence in the correction, which should include abandonment of the previous information published. If the latter is not done readers are left with two versions without knowing for certain which is the correct one.
We deal next with the personal disclosure. The Council notes that Mr. Frewen does not isolate the coverage of his private domestic arrangements as a particular ground for complaint. Neither did he complain about the first daily newspaper to make the reference within the context of this debate. However, he supplied other material with the complaint, which suggest he wants it dealt with, and it ought to be.
How far news media may legitimately use details of the private lives of public figures in providing information to the public has exercised ethical standards in many countries outside New Zealand. A New Zealand Press Council decision on a particular complaint should not be the occasion for an analysis of this highly complex problem, but its existence cannot pass without acknowledgment.
The disclosure of a relationship is usually bilateral as to identity and for this one both names and occupations were published. Within the context of the dispute, outlined above, the purpose of the disclosure was definitely not neutral for the participants. The way it was used and the language adopted had inescapably pejorative overtones designed, at least, to embarrass. The issue must be faced then was it ethical in the context of this precise debate that the disclosure be made?
The Council is of the view that rather too much repetition was made of the issue, especially its use as the first point in the rebuttal to Mr. Frewen’s 7 March letter. However, the Council does not uphold this part of the complaint because the introduction of Ms Crosbie’s name was first made by Mr. Frewen in his NBR article of February 1998 when, without saying precisely how he obtained the information, he recorded “Radio New Zealand chief executive Sharon Crosbie was shocked to see a feature ...under the headline ‘Taxpayers plug public radio’s debt’ with a subhead teaser saying ‘The government is giving public radio $3million to help cover a large deficit’ ”. In this robust exchange Mr. Frewen might reasonably have anticipated the response of two newspapers he singled out for critical treatment would be to draw attention to the personal relationship between the two.
Whilst not upholding the complaint of the attacks upon him arising out of the use made by The Dominion of contractual arrangements he had with the Clerk of the House the Council makes the following comments. Mr. Frewen, by the disclosure, openly stated his interest in Radio NZ, but it seems there is a suggestion this is not widely enough known by the general public, and that “The Dominion revealed” the nature of the payments to its readers. The contract between the Clerk of the House and a media expert for the provision of services from one public sector through another to the public is unexceptionable, but is a legitimate matter for public debate.