HON MURRAY MC CULLY AGAINST HERALD ON SUNDAY

Case Number: 2161

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2010

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Herald On Sunday

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Hon Murray McCully, Minister for Sport and Recreation, accuses the Herald on Sunday of failing to comply with Principles 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) and 11 (Corrections) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in reporting matters involving Canoe Racing NZ (CRNZ) and two of its senior coaches Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald.

The complaint is upheld.

Background
In its 3 October 2010 edition the Herald on Sunday reported “Canoeing Crisis Sparcs Row”. This alleged crisis involved a reported breakdown in the relationship between the prominent former competitive canoeists Ian Ferguson and Paul McDonald on the one hand and CRNZ (the body established to administer competitive canoeing in this country) on the other. Messrs Ferguson and McDonald claimed they were the subject of a CRNZ campaign to “oust them from their coaching positions”.

In so reporting, the Herald on Sunday maintained Mr McCully, as Minister for Sport and Recreation, was behind this campaign.

In a letter to the newspaper dated 5 October 2010 Mr McCully denied all the allegations leveled against him.

The Complaint
Mr McCully claims that the Herald on Sunday piece failed to achieve the required standards of balance, impartiality and fairness required by Principle 1. Mr McCully refers particularly to: -
• the article headline “Minister Singles out Ferg”;
• the statement that Mr Ferguson was “in Mr McCully’s sights”;
• the statement that “Murray McCully felt it was unconscionable” that Mr Ferguson was coaching his [Mr Ferguson’s] son;
• the statement that “Mr McCully would cut the team’s funding” if objection was taken to Ben Fuohy being included in the New Zealand canoeing team; and
• the statement that Mr McCully was trying to “cull” the old guard (at CRNZ).

Mr McCully says none of these statements is true. Mr McCully says the above statements were “expressed in a manner that was calculated to impugn the professionalism and integrity with which I discharge my ministerial duties”. Mr McCully further complains that none of the statements and underlying propositions were put to him to for comment before the story was published.

Mr McCully, in response to the Herald on Sunday saying that Mr McCully had not engaged with it after the 3 October 2010 article, says he was not confident the newspaper would accurately take the correcting action he believed was required.

The Response
The Herald on Sunday responds, first by denying the claims in the story were calculated to cause damage to Mr McCully’s reputation.
The newspaper, secondly, says the story was a significant one requiring urgent publication. The newspaper regarded the piece as a “major exclusive story”. The newspaper says the article was not finished until late on 2 October (the day before publication). The reporter’s conversation with Mr Ferguson, when Mr McCully’s role was discussed, occurred on the Saturday evening precluding any approach to Mr McCully.
Thirdly, the newspaper published a denial by Paula Kearns that Mr McCully had made the statements attributed to him (Ms Kearns being the CRNZ chief executive). The Herald on Sunday maintains the Kearns’ statement provided balance in the absence of any comment by the Minister.
Fourthly, the newspaper claims Mr McCully has refused to provide his side of the story. The newspaper says the issue has been the subject of “10 stories and columns” over succeeding weeks. Mr McCully’s position could have been explained in any of them had he chosen to engage.

The Decision
The Council has carefully considered the Herald on Sunday article. It agrees with Mr McCully in that the article is not fair and balanced.
The sections of the article directed at Mr McCully are based upon supposition and hearsay statements made by Mr Ferguson and allegedly Ms Kearns. The lead headline “Minister Singles out Ferg” clearly suggests this to be fact when it was little more than an unsubstantiated claim by Mr Ferguson.
The Council takes the view that no steps were taken to corroborate Mr Ferguson’s allegations about Mr McCully via any third party apart from an enquiry about what Ms Kearns might have said.
On any objective view the allegations made against Mr McCully were serious given Mr McCully’s position. They were sufficiently serious to require proper investigation before publication.
The Council finds the article as being unbalanced and unfair toward Mr McCully. Ms Kearns’ denials, appearing as they did three quarters of the way through the article, do not in the Council’s view redress matters.
The Council takes the view that neither the newspaper’s view that publication was urgent, nor that the reporter involved had editorial responsibilities at the time, are factors justifying a departure from Principle 1.
In so far as the Herald on Sunday’s reliance on Mr McCully’s failing to engage is concerned, the Council notes Mr McCully’s 5 October 2010 letter to the newspaper. The Council does not consider Mr McCully was required make any further statements beyond his bare denial. The Council does not consider the newspaper’s failure to report Mr McCully’s denials can be excused because Mr McCully refused to further engage.

The Council makes no determination as to Mr McCully’s claim that the article was calculated to impugn his professionalism and integrity.

Subject to the immediately preceding paragraph, the complaint regarding breach of Principle 1 is upheld. The complaint as to breach of principle 11 is not upheld (Mr McCully in his communication with the paper limiting his comment to a denial of the allegations made against him).

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

Barry Paterson took no part in the consideration of this complaint.