Case Number: 967

Council Meeting: MARCH 2004

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

Carol Rankin, Senior Parliamentary Officer, complained to the Press Council, as the senior staff member named in an article in the Sunday Star-Times. The article on September 28 was headed “Bureaucrat contra deal raises eyebrows” and referred to training given to public servants who provide advice directly to select committees.

The complainant made personal representations to the Press Council meeting and clarified that while the complaint was personal it had the full support of the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. The assistant editor of the Sunday Star-Times said the newspaper had no wish to have a representative appear in person.

The Press Council has upheld the complaint.

Carol Rankin complained in particular about the opening paragraph as being materially incorrect and leading readers to an inaccurate conclusion that was damaging to her reputation as a named individual.

The paragraph said: “TOP PARLIAMENTARY officials face fire for privately coaching high-paying bureaucrats on how to answer MPs’ questions.”
The article went on:
“The Office of the Clerk and a private training consultancy have set up a contra deal that ducks rules against accepting cash payments.
Bureaucrats pay $210 each for half-day seminars hosted by Change Training Consultants, where officials coach them on advising select committees.
The office said it did not expect ‘payment or reimbursement in any form’ but after Star-Times inquiries, acknowledged receiving free training from Change – training worth $6930.
The deal avoids tax liability or accusations of officials taking payments, by effectively paying under the table.
Corporate services manager Peter Carr confirmed senior parliamentary officer Carol Rankin and other clerks were providing coaching.”

The reporter contacted MP Rodney Hide who was quoted as being surprised that the government could sanction a “taxpayer money-go-round of backdoor compensation” and said he would be demanding answers from Speaker Jonathan Hunt. The next day Mr Hide submitted three written questions for answer to the Speaker who rebutted the suggestion in the questions that the Office of the Clerk was providing advice to paying clients “in return” for free staff training.

Mr Hunt explained that Change Training Consultants began organising public sector machinery of government seminars when the State Services Commission’s Training Works unit was closed. While the Office of the Clerk, like other government agencies, provided speakers to seminars dealing with select committee processes to help raise public servants’ knowledge of parliamentary procedures, the Office did not contribute to seminars on how to be a witness before a select committee or provide coaching on how to answer MPs’ questions. The nature of the training was set out in the Office’s annual report.

In singling out the opening paragraph, Carol Rankin complained about each phrase, finding the terms “face fire”, “high-paying” and “bureaucrats” disparaging. She said that the word ‘privately’ in the way it was used “suggests the work is over and above official duties, not that the training provider is in the private sector.” Equally, the word ‘coaching’ says Rankin “is not a word we would contemplate using in the context of the training we do. It implies working with a team, all of whom have the same interest and loyalties. I work for Parliament, whereas public servants work for the Executive. This is a fundamental constructional separation that we in this Office take pains to maintain.”

She said the most damaging part of the paragraph was the phrase “on how to answer MPs’ questions”, saying it was clear from the reporter’s written questions to the Clerk’s Office that he understood to provide such training on how to answer questions could undermine committee processes. “We made it very clear that we do not provide training to witnesses on how to answer committee questions.” The training which the Clerk’s office provided at Change Training Consultants’ seminars concentrated on “general committee procedures, ethical expectations and the content of reports to committees to best meet committee needs.”

Carol Rankin said this training (advertised in Change Training seminars entitled “Advising Select Committees”) was given to advisers to the committees, and the role of advisers was largely unknown to the public compared to the occasions when public servants appeared as witnesses before committees to answer questions, often in very testing circumstances. “It would be a betrayal of our responsibility to Parliament to be providing ‘coaching’ to public servants on how to manage such engagements with committees.”

The arrangements between the Office of the Clerk and Change Training Consultants were clearly explained in an exchange of emails between the Sunday Star–Times reporter and the Manager, Corporate Services, of the Office of the Clerk prior to the story. The emails were submitted to the Press Council.

It was explained that the Office had contributed speakers to Change Training Consultants’ Machinery of Government seminars for several years and a speaker to seminars about select committees for about a year. Carol Rankin, a Senior Parliamentary Officer in the Select Committee Office, had most involvement in that she arranged and contributed to the seminars. Other staff, usually clerks of select committees often attended to contribute and gain experience.

The Office had no involvement in fees charged by Change Training and received no money. The Office provided speakers for Change Training seminars as a way to promote knowledge of parliamentary procedures to public servants. The cost to the Office was the time of the speaker to prepare and deliver the seminar. There was no reimbursement.
Change Training offered the Office unfilled places on other seminars free of charge and 11 staff had attended Machinery of Government seminars.

Sniffing out a story, the reporter asked, how do staff in training witnesses and advisers to appear before select committees avoid undermining the select committee processes? The answer was that training was limited to procedural matters to give public servants a better understanding of how to work in the select committee process. The training did not deal with subject areas, and in its relationship with Change Training, the Office specifically avoided providing training for public servants about how to be a witness.

The reporter asked, what conflict of interest issues arise, eg can a staff member act as a clerk to a committee when a witness they have trained is appearing, or must they excuse themselves? The Office answered that no conflicts of interest arise because training was limited to procedural matters. The Office did not provide training about how to be a witness except for general guidance to the wider public on making a submission. Change Training provided a course on being a witness, but the Office had chosen not to be involved.

Change Training did not provide credits to the Office of the Clerk for other training in lieu of payment, the seminars offered to the Office by Change Training had no monetary value because they were unfilled places, and as for any public sector policy on “such barter-type arrangements”, that question needed to be directed to the State Services Commission, but the Office did not have any barter arrangement with Change Training and [the Office] training was delivered without any expectation of payment or reimbursement in any form. In her personal submission, Carol Rankin reaffirmed that the appearance by Office staff at seminars to educate public servants on the select committee process would continue as a public service education whether or not there were free places offered at Change Training seminars for Office staff. There was no tax liability and no tax paid.

In an email one hour after the first, the Office of the Clerk added in further responses that staff of the Office spoke at seminars as part of their duties to the Office. Rather than undermining the select committee process, such training enhanced it by making public servants aware of the constitutional importance of the process. To impart such information through a range of seminars and conferences (not by any means limited to Change Training) was seen as a core function of the Office of the Clerk.

No conflict of interest could occur in providing information about the parliamentary process as it was the right of every New Zealander to have such information. More emphatically, it was stated while Change Training provided a course on being a witness, the Office was not involved. The Office was not tied to sourcing all its staff training through Change Training. Staff were trained through a number of different forms.

In the newspaper’s defence, the acting editor and assistant editor relied on the plain meaning of the words used, claiming words such as “coach” and "training” were simply synonyms, and saying that nowhere did the article say that training was “about how to be a witness” and that nowhere in the emailed responses from the Office did it say that training does not involve answering MPs’ questions.

In reply, Carol Rankin reasserted that the statement in the first paragraph was damaging to her reputation and the article named her in association with an activity she specifically avoided, that the article was about a routine activity carried out in the public interest but it had been described in a sinister way, providing no balance.

It is clear from the detailed answers from the Office of the Clerk to the newspaper that there is nothing untoward in either the training or the arrangement with Change Training Consultants. So what is the news? That some parliamentary officials have taken part in some seminars over some years? No, the newspaper tried to find some unseemly activity and, while defending the words used, has nevertheless presented them in a context suggesting improper goings-on. Having “perk-buster” MP Rodney Hide lend weight to their interpretation does nothing to dispel that view.

While the Office of the Clerk accepts the report of the acceptance of free training, the complainant does find the suggestion of impropriety offensive. The build-up of innuendo from the words “contra deal” in the heading to the point about “privately coaching” and the phrase “effectively paying under the table” make the whole article an attempt to create the suggestion of something fishy. The language and framework used has reflected badly on the ordinary work of the Office of the Clerk where integrity is essential to the proper running of Parliament. It is enough to create for an average, reasonable reader a sense that some inappropriate activity is being described. This gave rise to a justifiable complaint.

The complaint is upheld.