MINISTRY OF BUSINESS, INNOVATION AND EMPLOYMENT AGAINST THE DOMINION POST AND STUFF

Case Number: 2515

Council Meeting: JUNE 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment complains about reports inThe Dominion Post and on the Stuff website about seismic inspections undertaken in Wellington and Auckland on non-structural elements of buildings. The complaint is upheld.

Background

2. Following recommendations of the royal commission of inquiry into the performance of buildings in the Canterbury Earthquakes, the ministry commissioned consultants to survey commercial buildings in Wellington and the Auckland CBD to check whether non-structural fixtures were sufficiently braced and secured. Since the ministry had no powers to compel building owners to undergo this inspection, and the inspection was to assess their fixtures against a new building standard that they were not legally obliged to meet, the ministry offered them confidentiality. The consultants would not identify them to the ministry, which was interested in the extent of the problem not specific buildings.

The Article

3. A story on the Stuff website on the evening of April 15 and The Dominion Post’s front page next morning began:

“Hundreds of office workers in Wellington and Auckland are unwitting guinea pigs in a secret trial on whether their buildings are strong enough to withstand a major earthquake.

“Secret seismic testing of about two dozen buildings in both cities has been done by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment — but the identity of the buildings is being kept under wraps.....”

4. After a complaint from the ministry the newspaper amended the story online to read:

“Hundreds of office workers in Wellington and Auckland are unknowing participants in a secret trial into whether parts of their buildings could collapse in a major earthquake.” The second paragraph was amended to say the seismic inspection was being done “for” the ministry not by it.

5. The newspaper carried a “clarification” two days later, stating the report had been done “for the ministry, not by it, and that neither the ministry nor its engineering consultants required the inspections to be kept confidential from staff.

The Complaint

6.The ministry’s Lead Communications Adviser has complained that both the initial story and the slightly amended version online have breached the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance and failed to make a distinction between fact and comment.

7.The story as first published contained several errors and appeared to deliberately mislead and misinform readers. It appeared to be based on an opinion formed by the reporter that a deliberate decision had been made to keep people in the dark and subject them to some sort of experiment as suggested by the terms “unwitting guinea pigs” and “secret trial”. While factual information and accurate explanation were included further down the story, the ministry feels this did not mitigate the impact and impressions created by the headlines, the introduction and initial paragraphs.

8. The ministry acknowledges that changes were made to the online story in response to its concerns but these did not go far enough. It also noted that by the time the amended version appeared, 12.38pm the next day, the story was no longer prominent on the website, reducing the likelihood that people would read it. The damage had been done and insufficient steps were taken to rectify it.

9. The updated story remained factually inaccurate when it said, “parts of their buildings could collapse in a major earthquake.” The survey was examining whether fixtures inside the buildings were suitably restrained and separated, not whether they would collapse. The survey was not looking at structural elements that can cause part of a building to collapse in an earthquake.

10. As for the “unwitting guinea pigs”, subsequently amended to “unknowing participants”, there was no deliberate or agreed decision not to inform people. It was up to the building owners or managers to decide what communication would be made with people working in the buildings, which the ministry believed was appropriate. If the reporter knew of a building where tenants had not been informed and believed they should have been, questions should have been put to the building owner.

The Response

11. Fairfax contends that, “nothing in the article suggested the survey concerned structural elements of buildings”. The phrases it used — “strong enough to withstand a major earthquake”, subsequently amended to “parts of their buildings could collapse in a major earthquake” — did not suggest that the survey was focused on structural building performance. If there was any confusion, this was clarified at other points in the story which stated the survey was looking at non-structural elements. The fourth paragraph of the story said the report was in response to damage to air conditioning ducts, broken pipes and collapsed ceilings in a 2013 earthquake in Wellington.

12. On the issue of secrecy and whether workers in the building were informed, Fairfax maintains that the surveys were secret and MBIE’s reasons for secrecy were made clear. There was no implication in the article that it was MBIE’s decision not to inform workers.

13. On the question of whether it was MBIE’s report, Fairfax said its reference to “The MBIE report” could refer to a report to MBIE, by MBIE or even about MBIE. In any case it was clarified in the amended story to be a report for MBIE.

14. Fairfax says the article was clear as to the nature of the testing and the secrecy involved. It explained the reasons for those and included comment from MBIE prominently in the article. It rejects the accusations that the article was not accurate, fair and balanced. There was no comment or opinion in it.

The Decision

15. The Press Council agrees there was no question this story was presented as an article of fact, not opinion. The complainant believes the reporter had formed an opinion that workers in the building were not being informed and had not established this as a fact. The newspaper insists it had “sources” for the fact that the survey was kept secret from workers, though its story made no reference to them. Principle 4 notes that a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. Readers of this story would have been in no doubt the newspaper was reporting what it believed to be factual. The complaint on this principle is not upheld.

16. On the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance, the decision is more difficult. There is no question the opening paragraphs of the story as it initially appeared online and on the front page ofThe Dominion Post next morning, were inaccurate in at least one respect and unfair in another. Fairfax conceded this by changing its unfair reference to “unwitting human guinea pigs” and modifying its reference to “whether buildings are strong enough to withstand a major earthquake.

17. The Press Council also has concerns about calling this exercise “a secret trial”. It was in fact a blind survey for the ministry. It was not “secret”, since the ministry was willing to talk about it publicly and the building owners who voluntarily took part were free to tell their tenants and staff all about it. It seems strange to call it a “trial”. It was an inspection of fixtures in a sample of office buildings.

18. It is simply not true, as Fairfax states in its response, that “nothing in the article suggested the survey concerned structural elements of buildings”. The headline and opening paragraphs would have given readers exactly that impression. The wording clearly carried that implication and the Council ventures to suggest the story would hardly have warranted the prominence it was given on the website and in the newspaper if it had been clear from the opening paragraph that it was about non-structural elements.

19. The Council agrees with the complainant that the alteration of the story on the website the next day, to refer to “parts of buildings” being not strong enough to withstand a major earthquake, would not have allayed the false impression that the subject was structural collapse.

20. Fairfax argues the story in its totality was not inaccurate. Its story ran to about 25 paragraphs and anyone who read it all would have realized, about half-way in, that it was about fittings and fixtures, not the buildings themselves. At that point readers probably realized they had been presented with what is commonly known as a “beat up”.

21. Beat-ups do nothing for the reputation and credibility of the newspaper concerned and the industry in general. They are deliberate exaggerations to give a story more prominence than it deserves. They come as close as they dare to the boundaries of accuracy, fairness and balance and unless they are very careful, they will cross it.

22. This case, in the Council’s view, crossed the line. Its opening paragraphs were simply wrong in several respects. The survey was not “secret”, it was not a “trial” of anything. Tenants and staff in the buildings were not “guinea pigs” or unknowing participants in something sinister. The survey was not concerned with the collapse of buildings or parts of buildings. It was looking at non-structural fittings.

23. The rest of the story does not mitigate these errors, in the Council’s view. The newspaper’s presentation of the story, both in print and online, was based on the claims in its opening paragraphs which were grossly inaccurate. The result was unfair to the ministry and misleading for readers. The complaint is upheld.

 

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan,Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Vernon Small stood down from consideration of this complaint tp ensure public member majority.