The piper was paid

We need to talk about ethics.

Let’s begin with disclosure.

Last Tuesday, the Dominion Post carried a page 3 brief in which it stated that two opinion columns published by the newspaper last year had been removed from its website after it found they had been paid for by a third party.

The first column, Building a dynamic Wellington economy by David Skilling, was published on September 26. The second, Absolutely Positively Consequential by Brian Sweeney, was published on December 15. Both were removed from the Stuff website after the newspaper discovered they had been paid for by WellingtonNZ, a Council Controlled Organisation that is 80 per cent owned by the Wellington City Council and 20 per cent owned by the Greater Wellington Regional Council. Its job is to promote the capital and hinterland.

Skilling’s piece did disclose he was director of Landfall Strategy Group, an economic and policy advisory firm, and former chief executive of The New Zealand Institute. The disclosure statement on Sweeney’s article stated he is the New York-based chairman of Strategic communications company Sweeney Vesty, which he co-founded with Jane Vesty in Wellington in 1987. It also noted he publishes

Both pieces were well-argued commentaries on the potential of the city. There was nothing particularly contentious or controversial about the content.

However, that is not the point.

While both writers could have penned the pieces in their own right – Skilling is an economist with an international pedigree and Sweeney has an international reputation as a branding and PR guru – they were, in fact, hired guns and the DominionPost did not know it. 

If the fact that WellingtonNZ had paid Skilling and Sweeney to write on its behalf had been disclosed to the opinion page editor, it is odds-on the newspaper would have published the pieces anyway. However, it would have disclosed the connection so that readers could factor that into their reaction to the opinions.

Disclosure must not be selective. Yes, stating credentials is important but so, too, are genesis and motivation. 

Every day, opinion pieces are published under the name of the chair or chief executive of this and that lobby group. We know the genesis and the motivation: It came from an organisation with a vested interest, and we should take that into account in forming our opinions of the content. It may have been written or polished by a communications advisor, but the attributed author subscribes to the views expressed.

That may not be the case with an undisclosed ‘hired gun’ relationship. What we assume to be the honestly-held views of the writer may, in fact, be shots fired from behind a rock by an unseen sniper.

There is no suggestion that this was the case with Skilling and Sweeney. The views they expressed were undoubtedly reflecting what they believed but there was a principal at stake.

The Dominion Post and its readers had a right to know that the authors had been paid to write them and that they represented the views of an unidentified party.

The need for disclosure of financial arrangements should be self-evident but, for the avoidance of any doubt, this is what the New Zealand Media Council’s Statement of Principles says on the matter: Where a story is enabled by sponsorship, gift or financial inducement, that sponsorship, gift or financial inducement should be declared.  Where an author’s link to a subject is deemed to be justified, the relationship of author to subject should be declared.

There may be an innocent explanation for the failure to disclose WellingtonNZ’s link to these commentaries, but we’ve yet to hear it. Certainly, there seems to be no nefarious motivation. However, the Dominion Post  has done the right thing in removing the articles. 

Each piece served its purpose on the day of publication, so removal is symbolic. However, it reinforces an important principal and, one hopes, sends a message to other contributors.

It may also raise questions in the minds of readers about the motivations behind other opinion pieces and columns penned by consultants and, perhaps, some freelance journalists. Do any have clients who might benefit directly or indirectly from what has been written? If so, those relationships should be disclosed. And “Joe Bloggs is an Auckland/Wellington/Christchurch/Dunedin public relations consultant and former circus performer” doesn’t cut it. We want to see disclosure that the Underground Hot Air Ballooning Society is a client…if appropriate.

Each contribution should have the answer to the following question appended to it: What aspects of personal or professional background, relationships and potential conflicts of interest should the reader be aware of in order to form a fair and balanced assessment of what has been written or said here?

I’m not suggesting such writers are indulging in anything approaching pay-for-comment situations but, too often, regular contributions carry a boilerplate disclosure that does not take into account the content of a particular column and its potential – albeit indirect – relationship to the writer’s other business activities. When the answer to the question demands disclosure, readers and listeners have a right to know.

We need to talk more about ethics

Our mainstream media have codes of ethics and conduct which are underpinned by the Media Council’s Principles and the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s Codebook. They provide not only guidance for journalists but assurances for the public. The latter has added significance in a world awash with disinformation.

There are immutable core principles. The international Ethical Journalism Network lists five: Trust and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. Within, and beyond, those foundations lie a myriad of ethical issues. 

Editors and frontline staff deal with them routinely. Often, they are the subject of urgent conversation and fast decision-making. That’s the nature of news production. 

Occasionally, newsrooms will come together to discuss an ethical issue in greater depth. Stuff’s current exploration into its own attitudes to coverage of tangata whenua and its past failure to understand and reflect Te Ao Māori is a case in point. Its exploration of Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono: The truth about Aotearoa has explored multiple dimensions of journalists’ and the public’s attitudes, perceptions and shortcomings. The investigation, spread over many months, is revealing countless ways in which New Zealanders need to recalibrate their society.

Stuff is not alone in re-examining attitudes and its part in reinforcing them. In the United States, a number of news organisations have issued apologies like those published throughout the Stuff outlets. However, as Alexandria Neason noted in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review on atonement, apology is not enough. In fact, she says, it can be an easy way of making white folk feel good. At best, this sort of recognition is only the beginning of a process that ultimately must embrace and empower those that have been oppressed.

Neason’s article ( warns of the dangers of slipping back into old ways and the need for ground-breaking structural changes to news organisations.

One structural change that New Zealand media should embark upon is to re-examine its ethics and codes of conduct through a new lens. Their roots in the ethical theories of German philosopher Immanuel Kant serve journalism well but there are dimensions on which they are either silent or inadequate and which need to be explicit.

The codes are the product of other cultures. They have been imported, one way or another, from Eurocentric domains that have reinforced various forms of supremacy – racial, gender, economic, cultural and religious. And the codes deal almost entirely with the product of journalism and not with the structures and systems through which it is produced. Neason noted that this translates into an extremely poor record in the employment of minorities in newsrooms. However, it goes further: It conditions the way institutions are reported.

The CJR article documented the way in which Josephus Daniels, the editor of the News & Observer set out to systematically undermine Black aspirations in Wilmington (North Carolina’s largest city) in 1898 with a vitriolic campaign of anti-Black propaganda. Neason observed:

The press of today has a different relationship with white supremacy, but the modern manifestations—of language, of omission, of framing—are the offspring of Daniels’s tactics, only softened, normalized, and couched in industry norms. We defer to police officers even though they are incentivized to lie about behaviour that results in the loss of Black life. We use passive language to describe police brutality. And in the past year, we have obscured the ways systemic racism has made the effects of the pandemic most acute for Black, Native, and other marginalized people; some articles have minimized or ignored how intersecting crises pose the greatest risk to those groups—the same people who continue to be underrepresented on mastheads.

This suggests that media codes of conduct must also provide roadmaps to remove supremacy bias from our journalism, to reflect multi-faceted views of our society’s structures and institutions. Racial equalities must be at the centre, but other forms of supremacy and inequality need also to be addressed. Yes, we need to talk about ethics.

You gotta larf

My current Facebook obsession is a private group called ‘Horny handed subs of toil’. It is populated mainly by former sub-editors (I say that on the basis that there seem to be fewer and fewer current sub-editors) who have nothing better to do than collect examples of things they would not do. They are endlessly amusing. Here are a few examples:

  • “A large boulder the size of a large boulder is blocking the southbound lane”
  • Trump’s lawyers misspelled ‘United States’ in his impeachment brief.
  • UK can’t close its border because it’s an island ‘unlike Australia’.
  • Covid woman who lived through Spanish Flue gets vaccine.

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