MITRE 10 AGAINST SOUTHLAND TIMES

Case Number: 2497

Council Meeting: MARCH 2016

Verdict: Upheld in Part with Dissent

Publication: Southland Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Confidentiality
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Mitre 10 complains that an article headed “No goodbye for Mr Mega” published inSouthland Times on 27 November 2015 breaches Press Council principle one (Accuracy, fairness and balance). The article was also published on theStuff site under the title “Mitre 10 ends Mr Mega without even a goodbye – Vaoga”.

The complaint is upheld in one respect, by the majority of the Press Council.

Background

The story covered the ending of a contractual relationship between Mitre 10 and one Levi Vaoga, Mr Vaoga having fronted advertisements for the Mitre 10 retail chain for several years. Part of the story referred to Mr Vaoga as having left the company without a “sendoff”. This was surprising to Mr Vaoga given the long association. Mr Vaoga described himself as a “strongman” and being “famous” for his positive descriptions of the Mitre 10 home improvement stores. It included comments from the Mitre 10 marketing manager who said Mitre 10 “had a new marketing direction”. While the image portrayed by Mr Vaoga was appropriate when Mitre 10’s large format stores were being introduced this was no longer the case given evolving Mitre 10 branding.

The story referred to Mr Vaoga being on an “annual contract” but that the company “chose not to renew it and did not give him a reason for it ending”.

The article went on to describe Mr Vaoga’s plans for the future.

The Complaint

Mitre 10 complains that the Southland Times piece was published without it having been given a proper briefing as to the upcoming story and without being given a fair opportunity to respond. In particular Mitre 10 says that the paper failed to advise it was planning to run a story about Mr Vaoga’s contractual situation, failed to confirm Mr Vaoga had been interviewed for the story and did not advise as to the specific allegations levelled against the company. Mitre 10 says that these failures led to the story being unbalanced. Had the newspaper “properly notified” Mitre 10, its response would have been “very different”. Had it known Mr Vaoga was claiming that Mitre 10 was somehow in breach of its duties to him it would have sought a “privacy waiver” from him and would have supplied Southland Times with a comprehensive response.

Mitre 10 says that the terms of its contract with Mr Vaoga were confidential as was the content of failed negotiations it had with him over a possible contract renewal.

Mitre 10 is especially concerned about Southland Times’ refusal to disclose whether “someone had said something”. It also disputes the editor’s claim that the paper had no obligation to inform it of the identity of others interviewed for the story.

Mitre 10 says, basically, that it has been unfairly treated by this story and its reputation damaged.

The Response

The Southland Times responds by referring to five questions put in writing to Mitre 10 before the story was published. Mitre 10 was asked, among other things, as to “what kind of send off did [the company] throw for [Mr] Vaoga?”(question 1). It also asked “what other words or wishes [does the company] have for Vaoga’s future? (question 4). The newspaper says these and the three other questions “clearly raised the issue of the manner in which Mr Vaoga had been “let go” and what it had done for Mr Vaoga by way of “send off””. Mitre 10 did not answer questions 1 and 4.

The paper says the article was not, as Mitre 10 suggests, a story about Mr Vaoga’s contract. Rather it referred to the ending of the association between Mitre 10 and Mr Vaoga and Mr Vaoga’s new career. It was not required to disclose its sources, nor did it have to put every allegation it received to Mitre 10 for its response. The newspaper says, essentially, that it put “material allegations” to a person within Mitre 10 who was capable of “providing a balancing view”.

The paper also points to its invitation to Mitre 10 to provide further comments after the story was published. The invitation was declined.

The Decision

The majority of the Press Council does not agree with Mitre 10 except in one respect. Crucially, and on any objective view,Southland Times’ five written questions should have alerted Mitre 10 that the paper was considering running a story which potentially might be critical of the way in which the company had treated Mr Vaoga. The Mitre 10 representative quoted in the article responded to three of the questions but chose not to respond to questions 1 and 4. Mitre 10 does not explain why not except to say it was concerned about the “angle” being followed.

The majority takes the view that the object of question 1 in particular was unambiguous. The question was not misleading nor framed as to put the company off guard. It would (or should) have been clear to the company that the paper was talking to Mr Vaoga or someone close to him. It was equally clear Mr Vaoga was likely aggrieved with the way the company had dealt with him as to the recognition he received (or did not receive) on his actual departure. While the company was entitled to ignore the question it did so at its risk.

The Council does not agree Southland Times was required to disclose the sources of its information to the company.

There is one aspect however where Mitre10 rightly complains. It says the reference to Mr Vaoga being on an annual contract and the fact the contract was not renewed without reasons is wrong. The Council notes that the paper failed to put this element to the company before the story was published. Had it done so the company may well have issued a correcting statement. The majority of the Council believes its failure to put the point to Mitre 10 results in this reference being unfair. The newspaper’s offer to publish a follow up statement by the company does not excuse the breach given the story’s context.

The complaint is upheld, in relation to the contract reference only, by seven members of the Council Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Tim Watkin.

Two members of the Council, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu and John Roughan, would have upheld all aspects of the complaint.

Two members of the Council, Sandy Gill and Mark Stevens would not have upheld any aspect of the complaint.