ANDI BROTHERSTON AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 2208

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Introduction
Andi Brotherston makes a complaint on two grounds regarding an article published by the Herald on Sunday. The grounds are accuracy, fairness, balance; and headlines and captions.

Ms Brotherston’s complaint is substantially upheld.

Background
The Herald on Sunday published an article on June 5, 2011 under the heading “Wife in strife at threats”.

The article related to Ms Brotherston’s alleged behavior towards a blogger (Jacqui Sperling) who had published a blog relating to Ms Brotherston’s husband, Martin Devlin.

The article stated that Ms Brotherston was facing questions over how her work hours were spent following what the article described as an “online spat” about her husband Martin Devlin.

Complaint
Ms Brotherston believes that almost every aspect of the story was incorrect, and also stated that she was not given the opportunity to provide comment or right of reply prior to publication. She stated that she did receive a text around 9.15pm on Saturday night from [a Herald on Sunday reporter] which she read the next day. The text asked if she had been sprung by [a reporter for a rival Sunday publication] doing her husband’s PR during work time. She did not realise it was a formal request for comment.

Ms Brotherston goes on to state that a comment from her employer was taken out of context and gave the impression that she had behaved in an unprofessional manner and that this continues to impact on her reputation. It implied that she was in trouble with her employer due to the behavior described in the article and this is totally incorrect.

She states that the quoted comment “A TVNZ spokeswoman said the broadcaster was aware of the issue. “It’s not an issue of consequence”” was proof that there were no issues relating to her employment.

She states that the e-mail exchange (copies provided) shows that her interaction with the blogger “totally contradicts the image portrayed by the article”.

Ms Brotherston denies threatening the blogger with legal action and goes on to state that she made it very clear that although the post was defamatory, she had “no intention whatsoever” of doing anything about it but wanted the blogger to consider removing the defamatory parts of the post. Ms Brotherston states that the blogger said she would take it down immediately and said she had posted it as a joke.

Ms Brotherston said the editor of Herald on Sunday acknowledged to her that the headline was inaccurate and conceded that it did not reflect the story content, but that he stood by the story.

The Herald on Sunday offered to run a clarification regarding the headline in a later edition but Ms Brotherston believes that the story should have been checked for accuracy prior to publication.

Ms Brotherston, in an e-mail dated 25 August 2011, stated that she believed there was evidence of collusion between the Herald on Sunday and a rival paper, the Sunday Star Times, regarding the article.

Ms Brotherston, in reply to the response from the Herald on Sunday, states that she received only the one text and any suggestion that there were multiple attempts to obtain comment from her are incorrect.

Response from the Newspaper
The editor for the Herald on Sunday acknowledged the headline was neither fair nor accurate but stated that the story itself was correct. He states that Ms Brotherston was offered recourse by way of a published clarification.

He goes on to say that the blogger believes that the story accurately reflects her interaction with Ms Brotherston and provided a copy of e-mail confirmation from the blogger.

In that e-mail, the blogger comments that Ms Brotherston’s comment about the post being defamatory and the subsequent argument as to whether they were or not, led her to believe that a threat of legal action was implied by Ms Brotherston should the post not be removed.

The editor states that there was an attempt made to contact Ms Brotherston on the night of the story and any lack of balance came about because she did not respond to the newspapers attempt to contact her.

He goes on to state that in regard to Ms Brotherston’s allegations that comments from her employer have been misrepresented, no-one other than Ms Brotherston had made a complaint.

Discussion
The Herald on Sunday acknowledges that the headline was neither fair nor accurate. Despite the fact the newspaper did offer Ms Brotherston a published clarification, it is important that a headline accurately reflect the article when it is published.

The inference in the headline and article was that Ms Brotherston was “facing questions” at work over “how her work hours are spent” because she had contacted the blogger during work time. There was no evidence in the article to substantiate this inference. In fact, the article quoted a TVNZ spokeswoman who stated “It’s not an issue of consequence” which belied any such inference.

In regard to the alleged threat of legal action being taken against the blogger, while Ms Brotherston states she made no such threats, the perception of the blogger was that a threat was implied during what she saw as a heated conversation. The newspaper was using information from the blogger and this was her perception.

In describing Ms Brotherston as “angry” in her interaction with the blogger, the Herald on Sunday used information from the blogger herself. This was confirmed by the blogger in an e-mail to the newspaper on July 20, 2011 in which she outlines her feelings and perception of the interaction with Ms Brotherston.

Ms Brotherston may not think she came across as angry and intimidating, but this was clearly the perception of the blogger. The article did not state that Ms Brotherston was angry, intimidating and threatening, it made the comment that the blogger had to deal with “an angry Brotherston who threatened legal action over it [the article]” based on information provided by the blogger herself.

Ms Brotherston’s complaint regarding inaccuracy concerning her interactions and behavior with the blogger are not upheld as despite Ms Brotherston’s opinion that the interaction was friendly, the blogger has a different view and is entitled to express her own opinion which was quoted in the newspaper.

The Press Council does not see a text sent at 9.15pm on a Saturday night, when the newspaper was to be published the next morning, as a reasonable attempt to seek comment. If a newspaper intends to publish unfavourable comment about a person, they should make a reasonable attempt to contact that person for comment on the allegations prior to publication. The wording of the text would also not necessarily inform a person that they were being asked to provide comment for an article about to be published.

While there was some public interest aspect in the story, the headline is incorrect and the story could have been better reported by the newspaper.

The complaint is upheld on the grounds that:
• it contained inferences relating to Ms Brotherston’s employment situation which were incorrect
• the headline did not reflect the information in the story and this is acknowledged by the newspaper
• the newspaper did not make a reasonable attempt to contact Ms Brotherston for comment prior to publication of the article.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.