JVL PRESTIGE REALTY AND MARK FERGUSON AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD

Case Number: 2262

Council Meeting: JUNE 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Balance, Lack Of
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

JVL Prestige Realty of Palmerston North employed an agent, Mark Ferguson, who had not made a payment ordered by a Disputes Tribunal when he previously had an agency in Inglewood, Taranaki. JVL and Mr Ferguson complained that the Manawatu Standard's reporting of his unpaid debt was unfair to him and his new employers. The complaint was not upheld.
Michelle van Lienen appeared before the Press Council to speak to the JVL case. The editor was invited to attend, but chose not to.

Background
On April 13 the newspaper reported that a Palmerston North real estate agent "with a checkered professional past" had not paid a former client $12,600 awarded by the Disputes Tribunal nearly a year before. It said Mr Ferguson was "an owner of a real estate company in Inglewood but now works for JVL Real Estate in Palmerston North".
The former client said he was not responding to her efforts to contact him. The paper had also spoken to Mr Ferguson who said he had sent email to the woman but she had not replied.
A week later a follow-up story reported the debt was still unpaid and JVL had placed an advertisement in the Property Press using the logo of the Real Estate Agents Authority without permission. The advertisement defended JVL's integrity and stated that a formal complaint had been laid over the Manawatu Standard's previous story.
On May 1 the newspaper reported that Mr Ferguson had left the industry and was facing bankruptcy.

The Complaint
JVL and Mr Ferguson complained to the editor of subterfuge, a lack of accuracy, fairness and balance and breaches of privacy. They claimed the reporter had not identified himself when he called Mr Ferguson who thought he was from a court.
They said quotations of Mr Ferguson were "a deliberate lie" and misleading.
They considered the story unfair because the newspaper was not interested in Mr Ferguson's case but only in whether the money had been paid. It had breached Mr Ferguson's right to privacy on a matter they believed was not of significant public interest. The paper had published a one-sided account based on a former client's "personal vendetta". The report had damaged JVL Prestige when the firm had nothing to do with the dispute. The paper had not exercised care and discretion in accord with the Press Council's privacy principle. They asked for an apology to be printed.

The Response
The editor of the Manawatu Standard said the reporter had properly identified himself and a colleague overheard him do so. There was no subterfuge.
He noted the complainants had not said what was inaccurate in the quotations.
Issues of fairness and balance did not arise because the facts of the story were not in dispute. The debt was acknowledged, it had not been paid. The story was not about the past dealings between Mr Ferguson and his client.
The newspaper believed the story was a significant matter of public interest. It was important the public was informed about the integrity of real estate salesmen working in the region.
The obligation of special care in matters of privacy applied to relatives of people convicted or accused of a crime and did not apply in this case.

The Complainant's Response
Michelle and John van Lienen, directors of JVL Prestige Realty supplied SMS messages to the Press Council to support the claim of subterfuge. The first message recorded only the reporter's name and phone number.
They repeated the complaints of inaccuracy and fairness and wondered why the report referred to Mr Ferguson's "checkered professional past" if it was not interested in the background to the unpaid debt.
Had the paper interviewed him properly it would have discovered he had appealed against the Tribunal's decision. The appeal had been withdrawn on February 15 and he had been waiting for a "process of payment" to be issued when the Manawatu Standard got onto the story.
The editor could not claim it was important the public were fully informed on this matter when his paper's reports gave readers only the former client's account.
After the Manawatu Standard alleged JVL made improper use of the Real Estate Agents Authority logo, the complainants had spoken to the REAA's chief executive and discovered he had not spoken to them as their report claimed, they had spoken to his secretary.
The final story had an inaccurate headline, "JVL Agent faces bankruptcy threat". By then, the newspaper knew Mr Ferguson was no longer working for JVL.

The Newspaper's Response
The editor said the newspaper was not responsible for the information an SMS message service relays to its client.
This was the first the paper knew that Mr Ferguson had appealed against the ruling. If correct, and the appeal was not withdrawn until February, the paper would question his claim that the reason he had not paid the debt was his inability to contact the former client.
The editor accepted his reporter had not spoken to the chief executive of the REAA. The reporter had spoken to its communications and marketing manager who had asked that her comments be attributed to the CEO. The editor also accepted that the headline on the final story suggested Mr Ferguson was still employed by JVL but the first paragraph made it clear he had left the industry. The paper altered its online heading after receiving the complaint and published a clarification in its next print edition.

The Decision
This was a story of genuine public interest. A house is most people's only substantial asset. They have a valid interested in matters that reflect on the reliability of real estate agents and agencies offering services in their region.
The Palmerston North agency, JVL Prestige, considered it unfair of the Manawatu Standard to have highlighted the company when disclosing Mr Ferguson's previous difficulties. The Council disagreed. It was JVL's employment of Mr Ferguson that made the story of interest in Manawatu.
Nor did the Council agree that the newspaper ought to have reported Mr Ferguson's Inglewood case in more detail. The Disputes Tribunal had made a decision almost a year earlier and Mr Ferguson had not complied with its order. Those were the facts of most interest. As the editor pointed out, these facts were not in dispute. There appeared to be no material inaccuracies in the Standard's account.
The newspaper had not known, until the complainants told the Press Council, that Mr Ferguson had filed an appeal which he had withdrawn just two months before the stories were published, and that since then he had been waiting for a "process for payment" to be ordered. The Council found it strange that Mr Ferguson did not mention this when he spoke to the reporter, particularly since he said in his complaint he thought he was speaking to someone from the courts.
The evidence available did not allow the Council to rule on the allegation of subterfuge. It notes however that newspaper ethics generally require reporters to identify themselves unless there is no other way of obtaining an item of information of over-riding public interest. In this case the reporter had the story and it seemed unlikely he would resort to subterfuge when seeking Mr Ferguson's response.
Privacy issues did not arise. The stories concerned a business of public interest. The particular "care and discretion" obligations the complainant raises apply to relatives of people charged with a crime.
The complainants cited two inaccuracies in subsequent stories: a quotation attributed to the chief executive of the Real Estate Agents Authority when the reporter had not spoken to him, and the headline on the final story described Mr Ferguson as "JVL agent" when the newspaper knew the company no longer employed him.
The Council has no reason to dispute that the first "inaccuracy" was at the request of REAA's communications manager who asked that comment be attributed to the chief executive. The second error was corrected as soon as the company complained. Overall, the Council finds the Manawatu Standard's reports to be accurate and of interest to its community.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, and Stephen Stewart.

Clive Lind and Sandy Gill took no part in the consideration of this complaint.