A ELBORN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2384

Council Meeting: JUNE 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Photographs
Politicians
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Press Council has not upheld complaints about two separate columns in the NZ Herald criticising Labour Party leader David Cunliffe and his use of a trust.

One column was by Claire Trevett and appeared on March 6. The other, by Fran O'Sullivan, appeared on March 8.

The Complaint
A Elborn criticised use of a "highly unflattering" picture of Mr Cunliffe in Trevett's column. She also criticised use of comments from a radio show in the column, where an elderly voter said she would not have voted for Mr Cunliffe because of his "crumpled" face. The combination of the picture and the quote from the voter was unfair and an attempt to unduly influence voters.

On the O'Sullivan column, the complainant objected to its claim that Mr Cunliffe had "laundered" money through a secret trust. She contended the word commonly meant money obtained through crime or illegal means, or misuse of the financial system. Mr Cunliffe, she said, had not broken any parliamentary rules.

She said the first column was unfair and discriminatory, while the second used language to deliberately smear Mr Cunliffe's reputation.

Newspaper Response
Weekend Herald editor Jeremy Rees rejected any assertion that the columns aimed to "smear" Mr Cunliffe. The columns were by two of the Herald's most senior political and economic journalists. They were giving their opinion of Mr Cunliffe's performance, as columnists were expected and encouraged to do. Both columns were clearly marked as comment. Columnists were expected to take a position, and in this case they had: around Mr Cunliffe's concealing of a trust for donations to his leadership campaign.

Both referred to news stories of that week in which Mr Cunliffe had to reveal the previously secret trust. The columnists rightly gave their opinions on his behaviour and performance. They were calling him to account.

In regards to the "unflattering" picture, the editor said it could be regarded as showing Mr Cunliffe in full flight oratory. It was appropriate for the column. The column also pointed out that sometimes a politician couldn't catch a break, like its reference to the woman who said she wouldn't vote for him because his face was "crumpled". Mr Cunliffe's looks were an issue to the voter, not the writer.

He defended the O'Sullivan column's use of the word "laundered". "While it is strong language, it is surely justified. Mr Cunliffe admitted that he had used a secret trust to hide or 'launder ' campaign funds." The Concise Oxford Dictionary defined money laundering as the transfer of (illegally obtained) money to conceal its origins.

The columnist's use of the word, while strong and possibly obnoxious to some people, fell within the definition as money was transferred to Mr Cunliffe to conceal its origins.

The columns were not biased against Mr Cunliffe, but were critical of his actions and deplored his behaviour. O'Sullivan had even gone out of her way to mention his good points. "They are both strong, critical columns as you'd expect from senior journalists confronted with a lapse by a leading politician. But they do not show any systemic bias against Mr Cunliffe."

Complainant's Response
Ms Elborn maintained her objection to Fran O'Sullivan's use of the word "laundered". "Cunliffe didn't use this word. It was Fran's word. The use of this word is biased and unfair. ... Use of the word laundering taints Mr Cunliffe's reputation."

O'Sullivan had no proof that the money was obtained through criminal means, nor did she say she had this information. "The trust wasn't illegal, nor was it secret."

Mr Cunliffe had admitted to a lapse of judgment, but the Trevett column did not comment on the speed and effectiveness of his later action. This was important for the public to know in terms of how a potential future leader dealt with mistakes/errors of judgment.

The column did not mention that Mr Cunliffe had admitted an error of judgment. The "negative" column was also paired with a voter's comment about not voting for him because of his face. The column reinforced that with a negative picture of Mr Cunliffe.

Press Council Decision
Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are key tenets of Press Council decision-making. Distinctions between fact; and conjecture, opinions and comment must be maintained. The Press Council's Principle 4 notes that a clear distinction must be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion, and that an article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such.

The columns which prompted this complaint were clearly identified as opinion, and both were the views of senior journalists on a matter worthy of comment.

Selection of the photograph to accompany the Trevett column was the newspaper's right. While the complainant may view it as unflattering, the contrary view could be that it simply shows Mr Cunliffe in full-flight oratory in Parliament. The comment about his "crumpled" face was that of a voter, not the columnist.

Use of the word "laundered" in the O'Sullivan column is arguable. However, the journalist was expressing a critical opinion, in deliberately strong terms, as columnists are encouraged to do. The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Tim Beaglehole, Peter Fa’afiu. Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.