LEISA RENWICK AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2505

Council Meeting: MAY 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
False Accusation

Overview

Leisa Renwick has presented a petition to Parliament from melanoma patients seeking to have the drug branded Keytruda publicly financed. She complains that a report on the Stuff website referred to her having had part of a course of the treatment provided free by the drug’s manufacturer, Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and reported that it understood some of the patients who came to Wellington for the presentation of the petition had their flights paid for by the drug company.

The complaint is not upheld.

Following her complaint to Stuff, and its investigation by Fairfax Media’s political editor, Stuff altered the story and published a footnote, stating, “Ms Renwick has since clarified that all melanoma patients paying for Pembrolizunam in New Zealand are offered the third and fourth treatments, as well as the seventh and eighth treatments, free under the drug company’s cost-share programme.”

The footnote also admitted the earlier version of the story was not correct when it said some of the patients’ flights to Wellington were paid for by the drug company. Its correction read, “The flights were covered by the patients themselves. The error is regretted.”

The Complaint

In her complaint to the Press Council, Ms Renwick said she could “live with” the correction of the reference to her own treatment but she was not satisfied with the retraction concerning patients’ flights. She had asked for an apology as well as a retraction and the apology had been refused. She had since contacted all the patients affected and it was their collective wish that the complaint should proceed and an apology be sought. They felt their independence and integrity had been called into question.

The reporter had made no effort to ask those patients whether their flights had been paid for by the drug company. It would have been good journalism to check the facts before publication and not rely on speculation from an un-named source.

The story in its original form had been published on the front page of the website on March 1. The corrected story, with the footnote, appeared on March 3 and was much more difficult to find on the site. The patients would like the retraction and apology to be given the same prominence as the original story.

The Response

The political editor for Fairfax Media, Tracy Watkins, told the Council neither of the statements subject to complaint had featured prominently in the original story, which had been primarily about a meeting between the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, and drug company executives.

The reference to patients’ flights had come from the reporter’s conversation with an Opposition staff member at Parliament who had been involved in organizing logistics for the patients’ rally. The reporter believed the staffer had referred to the drug company when he said some of the patients’ travel costs had been covered. But on checking back, after receiving Ms Renwick’s complaint, the reporter discovered the staffer was referring to other patients covering the costs of those who could not afford the fare.

The political editor considered this a genuine misunderstanding that required a correction but not the apology the complainant was seeking, since the error had not been prominent — it consisted of two lines near the bottom of the story — and it had been amended as soon as the error was realized.

The Decision

The Press Council accepts that this rather sloppy piece of reporting, with reliance on a single source and without elementary fact-checking, was hurtful to the patients who made the trip to Wellington. The Council also appreciates that while the reference to their flights was not a prominent feature of the story, the report in which it appeared was very much more prominent on Stuff’s homepage than the corrected story that appeared two days later.

But the fact remains the error was corrected and regret expressed. The Council has no power to order an apology even though it agrees with the complainant that the patients deserved one for the suspicion cast on their independence and integrity.

The Council does not believe it to be in the public interest to uphold a complaint that could not achieve more than the newspaper or its website has already done. If publications receive no credit for corrections in these circumstances, and an admission of error only increases their vulnerability to an adverse Press Council ruling, they may be less likely to make these admissions and corrections voluntarily and quickly.

In this case the publication has done all that can be required of it and nothing would be gained by upholding the complaint.

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.