KATHERINE RICH AGAINST NELSON MAIL

Case Number: 2506

Council Meeting: MAY 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Nelson Mail

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Katherine Rich, Chief Executive NZ Food and Grocery Council, complained that an article published inNelson Mail on April 1, 2016 breached all three limbs of Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

The article headlined Rich accused of “spinning” soda tax reported that Mrs Rich had said recent figures from Mexico showed sales of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) had “bounced back” to pre-tax volumes.

This statement was disputed by health researchers, who referred to a study published in the British Medical Journal which found SSB consumption had decreased an average of six per cent from what would have been expected.

The article quoted one of the co-authors of the study who noted the BMJ data was peer-reviewed and adjusted for various factors, whereas the FGC was simply looking at aggregate /total sale numbers and “simply spinning statistics in a way that appears to support their argument.”

The Complaint

Mrs Rich’s initial contact was with the reporter who was querying the data she had to support her statements. She advised the reporter they were not “her” statistics, but those of Nielsen, a highly respected global data measurement company. She gave the reporter contact details for Nielsento verify the data, as well as a contact for an FGC staffer who could provide further information if questions were put to him.

She knew nothing about the “spinning” allegations until she read the story. There was no balance and to make the statements without putting the allegations to her was unfair. “It’s a one-sided piece that essentially allows someone to attack me without giving me an opportunity to say anything in my defence.”

FGC had volunteered additional information at least three times over the week the article was in production and had received no substantive response from the journalist.

Additionally, had she been made aware of the content of the story, she could have advised the reporter that the BMJ study included figures only up to 2014, whereas the data set FGC had obtained included data for 2015. The article was, therefore, inaccurate.

Mrs Rich provided the Press Council with extensive email correspondence initially with the reporter and, subsequent to publication of the article, with the editor ofNelson Mail.

Email correspondence indicates that Mrs Rich and the editor had come to an agreement on an apology and statement on April 8, but subsequently that offer was withdrawn. Mrs Rich also complains about the absence of a correction or apology, noting that the apology seemed to be the sticking point.

The Response

The editor acknowledged from the outset that the article did not contain adequate balance and considered she was working with Mrs Rich to address this imbalance in an appropriate way.

She suggested running an op-ed piece accompanied by an editor’s note “Due to a processing error an article published in theNelson Mail on April 1 Rich accused of spinning soda tax had not been completed at the time of publication and did not include Katherine Rich’s right of reply to some of the issues raised, nor the Nielsen data. This is her response to the claims made in the article.”

She was concerned that by publishing the initial [agreed] statement further imbalance could have been created and considered the op-ed piece would better serve public understanding of the issue.

The Decision

The editor acknowledged early that the article should not have been published as it was and that an imbalance existed. She offered a sincere apology to Mrs Rich via email.

However, as at April 11 negotiations were still ongoing as to how this imbalance should be remedied. The Council is not surprised that at this point Mrs Rich brought her complaint to the Press Council.

The newspaper had a responsibility, to Mrs Rich and to its readers, to publicly and promptly acknowledge that it was wrong. The editor did not, and still has not, acknowledged that this lack of comment from Mrs Rich also led to an incomplete and inaccurate position being represented to Nelson Mail readers.

Mrs Rich had data to support her public statements and the reference to “spinning”, while a quote, would probably not have withstood further examination had the reporter consulted the data on offer. Worse the editor’s offer of “an op-ed” piece with the above editor’s note came a day after Mrs Rich’s complaint to the Press Council. This was too late.

The final matter is that of the article being available to be picked up for publication before it was complete. As this case demonstrates there are risks in this.

The Press Council upholds the complaint on all three grounds of inaccuracy, unfairness and lack of balance.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.