ADAM GREENWELL AGAINST interest.co.nz

Case Number: 2535

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: interest.co.nz

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Adam Greenwell has complained about an article that appeared on the online news site interest.co.nz on June 11, 2016 under the headline “Kea Street Cred and US$1 bln promise lures Kiwi to front questionable financial service providers.”

The complaint is not upheld.

Background

The lengthy article explained how Mr Greenwell, who is not a financier, had followed up on an advertisement on NZ expats network Kea and was put in touch with US-based interests holding out the prospect of major investments of US$1b in projects in NZ in line with the sustainability philosophy espoused by his mother Professor Liz Greenwell.

It details (including using websites but also information and correspondence provided by Mr Greenwell) Mr Greenwell’s interactions with father and son Stan and Steven Medley and his efforts in setting himself up as the representative of their companies including those companies’ links to dubious overseas entities described in other articles in the series.

These NZ companies’ registered as financial service providers subsequently used Professor Greenwell’s Palmerston North house as their physical office. The house was pictured in the article.

The article does not allege any illegal actions by the Greenwells, but rather presents Mr Greenwell as having been taken in or duped and to be continuing to hold out hope against the evidence that the investments may come to fruition.

It was by-lined with the names of freelancer Denise McNabb, interest.co.nz staffer Gareth Vaughan and Richard Smith of finance and economics blog Naked Capitalism.

The Complaint

Mr Greenwell argues the article at various points breached the principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, subterfuge, discrimination and diversity, corrections, fact and opinion and headlines and captions.

Specifically in relation to Press Council principles he complains:

a) Not telling him that Naked Capitalism was involved in production of the article and its distribution was subterfuge.

b) His company Town Green Music was wrongly named.

c) He doesn’t want to be called a Kiwi. He says his nationality is Irish though he obtained permanent residence in New Zealand in 1975.

d) interest.co.nz breached privacy by publishing the photograph of his mother’s house as well as its address as listed in Companies’ Office records.

e) Specifically mentioning Palmerston North as his base was intended to suggest something untoward, by implied comparison with big city-based firms, and was therefore discriminatory.

f) interest.co.nz did not seek a right of reply over the allegation in respect of the Medleys’ activities and their links.

g) The headline reference to “questionable financial service providers” was discriminatory, pejorative and inaccurate.

h) interest.co.nz mentioned the names of the Medleys were left out of his emails, but they were only left out of the emails he forwarded to them, not in the original communications with Internal Affairs and others.

i) That McNabb showed a lack of impartiality by questioning him, a Catholic, working with Scientologists.

j) That interest.co.nz showed discrimination including against small families, a mother and a son, by saying he appeared too close to his mother and was eager to further her lifelong work.

The Response

interest.co.nz is not formally a member of the Press Council. However Gareth Vaughan provided a short response, without rebutting the complaint in detail. He said interest.co.nz believed it had been fair and balanced in its reporting on Mr Greenwell and the companies he is associated with.

He said the article that featured Mr Greenwell was part of a series written by Vaughan, freelance journalist Denise McNabb and Richard Smith, a blogger from the Naked Capitalism website “on New Zealand's role in the murky world of offshore finance”.

He said Mr Greenwell cooperated “to the extent of providing a series of documents including emails, letters and Companies Office filings. Denise McNabb spoke with, and interviewed him, by phone on several occasions. He was also in regular email contact with us”.

The Decision

To deal with the complaints listed above in order.

a) It is common for publications to run stories with multiple by-lines and there is no expectation all those interviewed for a story are informed of all those working on what could be disparate parts of the story. Articles are frequently syndicated or published across different platforms and failure to disclose them does not support a finding of subterfuge.

b) The company name was later corrected by interest.co.nz, although this did not happen as promptly as Mr Greenwell would have wished.

c) The term Kiwi as shorthand for a New Zealander or something New Zealand-based is common, especially in headlines where short words are useful. It may not be Mr Greenwell’s preferred description, but its use is not confined to NZ born or those with citizenship as he suggests. We note Mr Greenwell has been a permanent resident of New Zealand for 40 years.

d) There is no breach of privacy involved. Pictures of residential addresses are readily available on several property and mapping websites in this case a picture was sourced from QV and are in the public domain, as is the link between Mr Greenwell’s mother’s house and the companies mentioned in Companies Office records.

e) The reference to Palmerston North was factual and accurate and no implications are made, as a result, in the article. The inferences Mr Greenwell takes are his.

f) The Council has no first hand evidence to support or rebut the extent of contact (if any) between interest.co,nz and the Medleys in relation to this article. Mr Greenwell acknowledges the Medleys are not part of the action he is taking, so the Council makes no finding on this aspect of the complaint.

g) The headline accurately and fairly reflects the article and its tenor.

h) interest.co.nz does highlight its decoding of the identities of “Mr” and “S” which does seem overdramatic given he only redacted the names from the version he provided to it, not in the originals. If interest.co.nz was aware of that it should have made it clear, but it does not claim the names were omitted in the original, so the Council makes no finding against it on that score.

i) It is not clear to the Council from the complaint how the alleged discrimination by McNabb is alleged to have coloured the article, so it makes no finding on the matter.

j) The Council’s view echoes e) above: That the inference is Mr Greenwell’s and if there is an implication it is that Mr Greenwell is motivated strongly by his respect for his mother and her work.


Conclusion:

Mr Greenwell was clearly hurt by the article and its theme that he had been “taken in”, which he rejects. His respect and consideration for his mother, and her work, is also without question.

The Council does not have the resources, nor is it its role, to undertake separate investigations of the matters covered in the article. There are also a number of issues involving minor factual matters (such as claims references to Steve or Stan Medley were mixed up) that the Council has not addressed individually and which would not influence its overall finding.

But in the Council’s view the article was fair, accurate, balanced and exhaustively documented drawing extensively on information provided by Mr Greenwell himself and information in the public domain. In the context of the evidence before it, interest.co.nz was entitled to draw the conclusion it did that Mr Greenwell was dealing with “questionable financial service providers”.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, and Tim Watkin.