TOM FREWEN AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2612

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2017

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Conflict of Interest Advertisments

Overview

[1] Tom Frewen has complained about a series of articles run in the Sunday Star-Times and onStuff from June 18 to July 30 2017 under the ‘Nurture Change’ tagline.

[2] Each article introduces a New Zealand business or sporting leader who will be speaking at this year’s Nurture Change Business Retreat in Fiji and features the chance for readers to win flights and one of four “scholarships” to attend the event.

[3] The articles are written by Zac de Silva, a business coach, “long-time columnist of theSunday Star-Times” and the co-founder of the Nurture Change event. They appeared in the Business section of the paper and website.

The Complaint

[4] Mr Frewen complains under Principle 10 ‘Conflicts of Interest’ and says that the content displayed on the Business pages as news stories are anything but. “They should have been clearly marked “advertising”, “advertorial” or “sponsored content”.”

[5] He initially complained about the June 18 story, saying that “the article has no discernable news value and does nothing to enhance the newspaper’s claim to having an independent editorial stance… It seems to me that the obvious commercial relationships, both hidden and declared, between the author of the articles, its subject, the newspaper and its owner, would require that it be labelled as an advertisement or, at the very least, as advertorial.”

[6] As more stories appeared over the coming Sundays, Frewen added to his complaint.

[7] He points out that the author of the articles about the Nurture Change retreat is one of three directors of Nurture Change Ltd. One of Nurture Change Ltd’s shareholders is Nurture Travel Ltd. Frewen claims its main business is running this very annual five-day retreat in Fiji.

[8] Frewen says none of this is declared in the first, third or fourth articles. In the second, the paper has included a photo of de Silva and Steve Pirie, captioning them as “Nurture Change founders”. Reading the others readers would be unaware of the commercial interest the by-lined author has in the event. Yet, Frewen says, “clearly the purpose of publishing these articles is the promotion of a commercial enterprise”.

[9] He concludes: “The newspaper’s contribution seems to be a relaxation of the usual journalistic standards of sceptical inquiry in pursuit of objective truth to allow the company to promote the supposed educational benefits of its retreat.”

The Response

[10] The Council has two responses from the Sunday Star-Times; one from Business Editor Jayne Atherton to Frewen and another from Business News Director Roeland van den Bergh.

[11] Atherton thanks Frewen for his vigilance, but defends the series, saying that as a “long-standing columnist” de Silva has had a relationship with theStar-Times for three years “with regards to the annual competition to allow four of our readers the chance to attend his business retreat”. She feels “we have made the commercial/competition relationship clear at the end” of the articles, with a declaration that this is “a special collaboration”. It varies slightly from week to week, but the declaration essentially reads: “Nurture Change and Fairfax are giving away four scholarships worth around $5,000 each. For full terms and conditions go to Stuff.co.nz and search “Nurture Change 2017”.

[12] She says where a photo of de Silva and Pirie was used, they were captioned as the event’s founders.

[13] In his reply to the Council, van den Bergh denies any commercial arrangement between Nurture Change and the Star-Times, but rather describes the relationships as “an entirely non-commercial media partnership”.

[14] Van den Bergh argues the stories are not advertorials “because the Sunday Star-Times is not being paid to write the articles. Indeed, we retain complete editorial control over the content of the articles”. Neither are they sponsored content, because advertorials and sponsored content require sign-off from a client. This is not the case for the Nurture Change series.”

[15] He goes on to say that while the complaint only covers four articles, there were at least six print articles run and the photo and caption of de Silva and Pirie disclosing their connection to the event ran in three of them. Online, they ran in six of eight articles published.

[16] While the Star-Times run the competition, it “has not bought, or in any way owns, the tickets provided for the scholarships. There is therefore no pecuniary advantage to Fairfax Media from the arrangement.

[17] Finally, the news director says staff have now reviewed the pages and decided to clearly identify de Silva as the co-founder of NurtureChange.com. “This will ensure that his relationship is more clearly disclosed”. Further, on August 8 a paragraph was added to all the online articles in the series identifying de Silva as the event’s co-founder.

The Decision

[18] Principle 10 states that newspapers must be independent of their sources to be good watchdogs and where a story is enabled by gift, sponsorship or financial inducement, it should be declared. Any link the author has to the story should also be declared.

[19] The Sunday Star-Times has roundly failed to fulfil this principle and, indeed, to uphold the highest professional standards as per our pre-amble.

[20] Each article subject to this complaint is displayed as a news story, with no declaration of the author’s interest in promoting the event from which he is profiting. The declaration in bold at the end of each story is in most cases, merely an invitation to enter a competition. It tells the reader nothing about the author’s conflict of interest.

[21] The exception is the July 9 column, which includes the photo of de Silva and Pirie captioned as founders, but it is not a prominent or adequate declaration. The more fulsome declaration at the end of the article does more to promote the event, but nothing more to spell out the fact the author is profiting from the retreat.

[22] It should go without saying that offering a partial declaration on some, but not all, of the articles in a series falls below the standards required of this principle. Getting it partly right some of the time is insufficient.

[23] The Star-Times has not helped its case with the internal contradictions in its responses. While van den Bergh describes the relationship between Fairfax and Nurture Change as “an entirely non-commercial media partnership”, Atherton properly acknowledges a “commercial/competition relationship”.

[24] Further, while van den Bergh insists the Star-Times does not “in any way” own the tickets for the scholarship, he goes onto highlight the declaration at the end of each piece that clearly states “Nurture Changeand Fairfax are giving away four scholarships…”. As if Fairfax can give away something it does not own in any way.

[25] Van den Bergh also argues the articles cannot be advertorials or sponsored content because theStar-Times was not paid to write them and the client did not sign-off the articles. Yet clearly a transaction of sorts has occurred here. TheStar-Times has gained content and four “scholarships”, while the author has been granted prominent space to write about an event from which he will profit. As for sign-off, when the client has been granted the rare privilege of writing the articles himself, sign-off is hardly needed.

[26] If, as van den Bergh says, editorial control was retained over the articles, it is hard to see where it was exercised.

[27] Undoubtedly, and despite their display as news stories, de Silva has written the articles predominantly to promote a commercial event from which he will profit. As such, the author’s conflicts of interest should have been declared on every piece, or, in line with standard practice, the person profiting from an event should not be commissioned to write about it.

[28] It seems incredible to the Council that the Star-Times would argue these articles stand alone on their news merit, given the promotional lines deployed (eg “Graham spoke at our inaugural Nurture Change Business Retreat. He was such a hit that he will be back by demand…”); the repeated references to the conference while tickets were on sale; and the uncritical praise that runs through each piece.

[29] But even if the paper believes the author came to such judgement independent of his stake in the retreat, it should have allowed its readers to decide for themselves.


[30] If, as the Star-Times decided, the co-founder should be permitted to write about his own event in its news pages, the articles should be clearly displayed as advertising, advertorial or sponsored content, so that readers can judge for themselves their rigour and exactitude. Anything less compromises Fairfax’s independence.

[31] While the paper defends its approach, its decision to add declarations of de Silva’s interests to each article - while still insufficient - suggests it does realise it has fallen short.

[32] On the matter of the complainant’s emails being lost, the Council is concerned that Fairfax would leave its complaints email “unattended” for some weeks, but is encouraged to learn from van den Bergh that “steps have been taken to ensure that all mailboxes are properly monitored”.

[33] The complaint against Principle 10 is upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens took no part in the consideration of this complaint.