Please don’t quote me on that

Confidentiality is an ethical cornerstone that is drummed into journalists. The public may not have the same understanding of its obligations and limits.

Last Friday (Black Friday the 13th as it happened) a story appeared in Stuff titles and its website revealing worrying levels of online harassment and threats against Māori women. Several wāhine were named and pictured in the double-page spread, which also documented far-right threats against prominent Pakeha women.

Following publication, five women, three of whom had been named in the story, signed an open letter saying they had been ‘retraumatised’ by the story and accused Stuff of breaching “agreed terms of privacy” for one of the signatories and including information relating to others against their consent “in a way that left them exposed and identifiable”. The letter claimed Stuff had “failed to keep us safe”.

“In abusing the rights of consent of the Wāhine Māori in this story, the journalists have revictimized them, causing further hurt and trauma, left some of them feeling violated, and have increased risk levels around them.”

The open letter was posted on Twitter and drew a swift response from Stuff’s Head of News Mark Stevens. He sympathised with the women over the threats but categorically denied identifying subjects against their consent or breaching any agreed terms of privacy.

“We reject these claims and are surprised at the reaction, given consent from those quoted was checked. And checked again.” he said. “Everyone quoted in the story did so with full agreement. No commitments to the contrary were breached, nor were any other terms agreed during the reporting of the story.”

The open letter had directly criticised the authors of the article, Stuff national correspondent Michelle Duff (author of a recent biography of Jacinda Ardern) and investigative journalist Kirsty Johnston. Stevens defended his staff, whom he referred to as “two of New Zealand’s leading journalists”, saying it was “unacceptable to suggest either journalist would put their story ahead of being mindful of the safety of their sources”.

The strong words used by both sides in this conflict suggest that somewhere along the line things went awry.

Duff and Johnston would not have knowingly breached undertakings. Both have a fine track-record in championing the afflicted. Their professional approach is supported by the fact that they interviewed five other women to whom they had given undertakings of confidentiality. The story stated: “Stuff spoke to five others who did not want to speak publicly because of fears for their families, after receiving death and rape threats, being followed, filmed, having visits to their workplaces, and their homes.”

The reporters would also have been aware of the established process for dealing with confidentiality.

  • First, they would have established whether the comments were on-the-record, unattributed, or off-the-record (confidential and for background only).
  • If the subject wished to remain anonymous or that they wished to speak in confidence, that agreement would need to be made before the interview began and would be subject to confirmation by a senior editorial executive.
  • Should the subject realise during the interview that her safety was being compromised by what she had said, the reporter would have to take any belated request for anonymity to a higher authority and warn the subject that retrospective agreement to confidentiality faced a high hurdle.
  • Should an editor refuse to honour anonymity or confidentiality arranged by a reporter before the interview, the New Zealand Media Council has ruled that the subject would be entitled to withdraw her comments and the material should not be published.
  • The over-arching principle is that any undertakings are up-front, explicit, and understood by all parties. Comments, questions, or off-hand requests during an interview do not constitute agreements.

How many members of the public are aware of those processes? I suspect it is not something to which people give much thought until they are confronted by an encounter with a journalist…or later. How many members of the public weigh up consequences before talking to a journalist? How many are unaware of – or unable to visualise – the difference between what they say in conversation and its rendering into cold hard type in a multi-page spread complete with photographs?

A subsequent thread posted on Twitter indicated one of the women had initially agreed to talk on the record (and Stuff reveals she signed a waiver allowing the journalists to talk to police about her case) but had changed her mind after conferring with a friend. That would have placed her in front of that high hurdle that needs to be jumped by those who change their mind. Editors give considerable thought to weighing such requests and the Dominion Post’s editor Anna Fifield was well-placed to give the request due consideration before deciding to publish. In a response to the second thread, Fifield said reporters and editors “acted responsibly and ethically throughout”.

The facts of the story do not seem in doubt. One of those quoted in the story, Hiria Te Rangi, had told Businessdesk four days earlier that she had received online threats over several weeks as she campaigned for the presidency of InternetNZ (an organisation from which she resigned). Online threats against Wāhine Māori were also confirmed by both the co-leader of the Māori Party Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence and Sexual Violence Marama Davidson.

It appears that this is a case where the protocols surrounding the solemn undertakings of confidentiality have been understood and followed by journalists but the subjects of their story had a more elastic view of them.

It is also possible that the confusion was fuelled by the growth of an added layer to media anonymity, a casual and informal adjunct to decision-making on naming individuals.

Too often we see the phrase “has chosen not to name”, which is very different to saying “agreed not to name”. The latter signals a formal agreement on anonymity while the former suggests an arbitrary decision based on some ill-defined notion that the subjects don’t deserve to have their name bandied about in public. In similar vein, we see and hear people quoted only by their given name, choosing to keep their surname to themselves.

This may have eroded what used to be a reasonably clearly understood default position: If you speak to a reporter, expect to be quoted by name unless there is an upfront confidentiality agreement. If, in the course of an interview, you want to go off the record to provide non-quotable context, make sure everyone knows when the recorder is off and when it can be turned on again.

The Elephant

For more than a week now I have been waiting for someone to loudly call out the elephant in the room occupied by MediaWorks and its damning report on workplace place. So far only blogger David Farrier seems to have made even passing reference.

The elephant has a very large numeral stencilled on its side: 3.

The report on workplace culture undertaken by Maria Dew QC focussed on the past three years at MediaWorks, from March 2018 to March 2021. Dew said explicitly that she investigated its radio operations and her findings did not relate to MediaWorks’ former television division. TV3 and its streaming services, along with the Newshub news operation, were sold to US media company Discovery in September 2020.

The radio focus was understandable. MediaWorks could hardly commission a report on operations it no longer owned. Nor could it impose on its former assets the decisions it will make in response to Dew’s 32 recommendations.

However, it is highly unlikely that, while the radio operations were enduring excesses and misdemeanours, the television operation was uncontaminated by the “boys’ club” that had developed in the organisation. The toxic culture did not materialise only after the company was split up: The most damning episode it reveals – allegation of sexual impropriety with a member of the public – was in 2019.

In its old guise, MediaWorks did not operate entirely separate radio and television silos with no interplay between them. It also had an integrated management structure. Its news operation had worked across all media since 2016.

Maria Dew’s investigation took place in no small measure because of the arrival of a new CEO from outside the industry. The implementation of her report will be further assisted by a new chair, following the resignation last week of Jack Matthews who had a key role in divesting MediaWorks of TV3. The television arm’s owner also has the virtue of being a new broom.

Discovery needs to act now to investigate its New Zealand television operation’s workplace culture. The obvious candidate to carry out that review is Maria Dew.

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