Case Number: 2379

Council Meeting: MAY 2014

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: National Business Review

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

1. Iain Butler, as Stakeholder Communications Manager, complains on behalf of EQC in relation to an article that appeared in The National Business Review NZ Property Investor on 11 March 2014. This is a publication that is not available to the general public, being available only through subscription. It is written as a newsletter. However, newspapers and magazines are also available by subscription and we do not see this as a distinguishing feature.

2. The complaint relates to an article by regarding EQC actions in Christchurch. It is not dissimilar to a number of articles that have appeared in various other media outlets, and insurance difficulties following the Christchurch earthquake are well documented. EQC alleges breaches of Principle 1 (accuracy), Principle 1 (balance and fairness) and Principle 4 (failing to distinguish comment from fact).

3. We note with regret the failure of NBR to respond timeously.

4. In relation to accuracy, it is said that five statements are incorrect. Firstly, that EQC staff had been told to accelerate Christchurch earthquake claims by offering cash where possible. Secondly, that the Fletcher/EQC repair programme was to be wound down by December. Thirdly, that the only way the latter could be achieved was to offer cash settlement, leaving home owners to make their own repair arrangements. Fourthly, is that unless home owners obtained second opinions they may be short-changed by inadequate assessments. Finally, that if someone who has received a cash settlement and embarks upon their own repairs discovers more damage, they will need to engage in litigation with EQC.

5. EQC states no such instructions were ever given to EQC staff; that the criteria for cash settlements had not changed and that affected home owners would not be required to take cash settlements where they preferred a managed repair; and in cases where additional damage is identified, the case would be reviewed and, where appropriate, compensated accordingly. EQC also states that there is a mediation process available, so litigation is not the only avenue available to homeowners.

6. EQC states that if asked, these matters would have been made clear to the reporter, and furthermore they were available on their website.

7. The editor of NBR responds that this is a subscription newsletter, so a mix of fact and opinion was not unusual. However, the reporter knew from his own experience the issues being discussed. Further, he spoke to a number of sources including casual acquaintances, people he had known all his life and family members. This group included some of whom had either worked at EQC or dealt with them as claimants. He stated he had been told by several staff members of a desire to accelerate cash settlements. He further went on to say he was personally aware of inappropriate offers of cash settlement, of the impossibility of completing the repair programme because of the number of repairs still outstanding, and that cases of discovery of additional damage were not rare, and were the basis of many disputes.

8. The failure to bother to check the accuracy of the matters reported on with EQC is a failure of basic good journalism. Furthermore, it means that many of the matters reported are of contestable accuracy and these impact on both balance and fairness. Had comment been sought it might have pointed to a discrepancy between policy at Head Office level and the practice on the ground. We note in an unsolicited, out of time response NBR complains of EQC’s regular delays in replying to requests for comment. That is irrelevant here as they were never approached. In any event it is a straight forward matter for a reporter to request comment and impose a deadline. If that had been done in this case, without response, it would have been a more powerful story. We uphold the complaint for breaching principle 1, balance and fairness.

9. The article contains a mixture of fact and comment without a clear distinction being made and without indication that it was essentially a comment piece. It should have been clearly so labelled. There is an obligation to ensure this happens. As a result there is a breach of principle 4.

10. It must be noted that the New Zealand Press Council subscribes to the Principles set forth in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and the guarantee of freedom of expression contained therein. We accept that that needs to be balanced against the Principles laid out and published by the Council. Carrying out such a balance we see breaches of Principles 1 and 4 as set out above.

11. The complaint is unanimously upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, and Stephen Stewart.
Chris Darlow, a public member, withdrew from the discussion because of a conflict of interest. To ensure the public member majority Mark Stevens did not vote on this complaint.