Home > Media, The Body Politic > The Donghua Liu Affair: the Press Council’s decision

The Donghua Liu Affair: the Press Council’s decision

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composite header - donghua Liu Affair

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1. Prologue

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The Donghua Liu Affair hit  the headlines on 18 June, with allegations that David Cunliffe wrote a letter in 2003,  on  behalf of  business migrant, Donghua Liu.

Four days later, on Sunday 22 June, the Herald ran stories alleging  massive donations to the Labour Party by Liu. Tabloid- style stories of  $100,000 paid for a bottle of wine and $15,000 for a book, along with a $50,000-$60,000 dinner party hosted for then Labour minister, Rick Barker, and a donation to a rowing club, raged for several days.

By Wednesday, on 25 June,  the Herald was forced to retract  Liu’s claims. The “new” story was that Liu’s  “donation” was,

… close to $100,000 and that is my closing comment in my statement…that is how much I believe I have donated in total to Labour and some of their MPs during their last term in Government.”

The so-called Yangtze River boat “dinner for Rick Barker” turned out to be some sort of staff function that Liu had invited the Labour minister to attend.

Only Liu’s donation – of $2,000 – to the Hawkes Bay Rowing Club, was confirmed.  Considering that any “link” between the NZ Labour Party and Hawkes Bay Rowing Club is tenuous at best (Barker’s daughter was a member of the club), the value of this aspect of the Liu Affair is dubious, to put it mildly.

Cunliffe’s 11 April 2003 letter was far from “avocating on Liu’s behalf”. Instead, the eleven year old letter turned out to be a stock-standard inquiry sent to Immigration NZ with the rather banal request ,

I am aware of the difficulties facing the Business Migration Branch of New Zealand Immigration Services in coping with the overwhelming numbers of applicants that have applied for consideration under these categories and the time taken to verify documents. However it would be very helpful to Mr Liu to be advised of an estimated period of time period [sic] in which he could expect a decision on his case.

Requesting “an estimated period of time period” seems a stretch to describe it as advocating.

Accordingly, this blogger lodged a formal complaint with the Herald’s editor-in-Chief, NZ Press Council; and OIAs lodged with Deputy PM,  Bill English; Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, and the Office of the Prime Minister.

A letter seeking clarification was also emailed to Herald journalist, Jared Savage, which he has responded to. A further letter, emailed on 21 August was sent, requesting further details to his initial response. No reply has been received at this date.

On 21 August, the Press Council released their decision on my complaint – embargoed until 29 August, to allow both parties to respond (which I according did so on 28 August).

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2. The Complaint

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My complaint to the Press Council, lodged on 5 July this year, related to a series of article published in the NZ Herald, predominantly by staff reporter, Jared Savage. The articles ran from 18 June to around 26 June. The  complaint fell into six main categories;

  1. That the date on David Cunliffe’s letter to Immigration NZ (11 April 2003), regarding Donghua Liu’s application for residency under the business migrant policy, was not consistently applied to subsequent Herald articles – thereby giving some readers the impression that it was a recent document – and not eleven years old. I provided examples of five stories that omitted the crucial date.
  2. Donghua Liu claimed that he paid $15,000 for a book at a Labour Party fundraising event. Liu has not provided a single item of evidence to back up this claim, and the Labour Party  categorically denied that any such fundraising event has ever taken place on the date that Liu has given. That has not prevented the Herald from presenting Liu’s claim as a fact.
  3. Donghua Liu claimed that he paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine at a Labour  Party fundraising event. Liu has not provided a single item of evidence to back up this claim, and the Labour Party  categorically denied that any such fundraising event has ever taken place on the date that Liu has given. That has not prevented the Herald from presenting Liu’s claim as a fact.
  4. On 22 June, Bevan Hurley wrote in the NZ Herald that the paper had obtained a copy of Donghua Liu’s “signed statement” which made several claims. The text of that “signed statement” has never been released to the public. I submit that it is manifestly unfair, unreasonable, and unconscionable that the Herald has not released, in full and verbatim, Liu’s “signed statement” as it did with David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter.
  5. On 18 June, the Herald’s chief political commentator, John Armstrong,  wrote a column that was highly condemnatory of David Cunliffe, and called for his resignation. Again, Armstrong failed to mention that Cunliffe’s letter to Immigration NZ was eleven years old;  secondly, that in failing to mention that salient fact, was able to infer that Cunliffe was lying; and thirdly, failed to mention Cunliffe’s explanation that because of the age of the letter, any reasonable person would have accepted his subsequent explanation.
  6. That the Herald misrepresented ex-Labour Minister, Rick Barker’s attendance on a Yangtze River boat trip and Donghua Liu’s $2,000 donation to the Hawke’s Bay Rowing Club, and, by innuendo, was able to ‘spin’ both events in a negative light.

(Full text of complaint here.)

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3. The Herald’s editor responds

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In an email dated 4 July, Herald editor Tim Murphy responded to my complaint;

1.       The date of the letter was prominently publicised at the time we
broke the story and indeed we published the letter online.  The residency
application by Liu was in the mid-2000s and that was referenced numerous
times in our coverage.  We do not list all dates and facts in all subsequent
references.

2.       We stand by our report that a book was purchased and expect further
‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly.

3.       It is clear that the $100,000 for a bottle of wine was misreported,
and was corrected as soon as further information became available from Liu.
We clarified this on all our channels and in the subsequent Herald on Sunday
and explained the error in an editorial in the New Zealand Herald.

4.       We do not automatically make public documents which we obtain as
part of ongoing journalistic inquiries.  There are many reasons for this,
including the conditions upon which they were obtained from whatever source
and the need for us to pursue further matters contained within.  While there
seems to be an expectation that journalistic inquiry must be ‘open source’
this ignores these conditions and also the competitive nature of news
gathering.  The Cunliffe letter was obtained under the Official Information
Act and was released to all media, so is thus automatically a public
document.

5.       You seem to have accepted without question MP Rick Barker’s claim
he attended only a staff party in China.  We do not accept this and expect
further details of the hospitality for him and others in China to be
revealed in due course.

6.       It would be wilfully naïve to assume that the donation to the
rowing club associated with an MP, the day after that MP has hosted Liu in
the region, is unconnected to that MP.  The donation was made and Liu made
it with the intent of it being in favour of the MP.

It is worthwhile noting several points from Mr Murphy’s 4 July email;

Whilst the Herald did not “list all dates and facts in all subsequent  references” – that did not stop them from continuous reporting of a “$100,000 bottle of wine”, a “$15,000 book”,  a boat trip, and a donation to a rowing club. These matters were repeated ad nauseum. But not the date of a letter that put matters into some perspective.

Tim Murphy stated that he stood by the “report that a book was purchased and expect further  ‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly”. After nearly two months, no such ‘evidence has been forthcoming.

Tim Murphy admitted that the “$100,000 bottle of wine” was misreported. What else in Donghua Liu’s “signed statement” is a fabrication?

Tim Murphy makes no reasonable explanation why Donghua Liu’s “signed statement” (and subsequent “clarification” has been kept secret, except that they can. I did not believe this to be a suitable explanation and made my thoughts clear to the Press Council on this point.

In a subsequent response to the Council, Tim Murphy wrote,

“While there seems to be an expectation that journalistic inquiry must be ‘open source’ this ignores these conditions and also the competitive nature of news gathering. The Cunliffe letter was obtained under the Official Information Act and was released to all media, so is thus automatically a public document.”
I replied that Mr Murphy had not provided solid grounds for with-holding Mr Liu “signed statement” except reference tothe competitive nature of news gathering”. This, to me, was wholly inadequate and gave only a one-sided view to this story. The public were therefore  unable to determine for themselves precisely what it was that Mr Liu has stated.

Tim Murphy stated, that I seemed “to have accepted without question MP Rick Barker’s claim he attended only a staff party in China”. He further stated that   “we do not accept this and expect  further details of the hospitality for him and others in China to be revealed in due course”. Again, after nearly two months no further details of this “hospitality for him and others” has been forthcoming.

Tim Murphy accused me of being “wilfully naïve to assume that the donation to the  rowing club associated with an MP, the day after that MP has hosted Liu in the region, is unconnected to that MP”. That can be turned on it’s head; just because a wealthy businessman tries to “curry favour” with a politician by making a donation to a third party is not a reason to believe that attempt was in any way successful.

If I made a donation to a sporting club attended by the Prime Minister’s children – would the Herald assume that I had “curried favour” with the PM? Or merely attempted to curry favour?

The Herald seems to have made a leap of faith that Donghua Liu’s attempt to curry favour had been successful.

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4. The Council’s decision

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On 21 August, a representative from the Press Council emailed the  Council’s adjudication on my complaint against the NZ Herald.  The email stated that “the decision [was] confidential to the parties until Friday 29 August“.

Upon further questioning why the necessity for a week-long embargo, the representative from the Press Council replied on 22 August,

“We allow a week post-release  so that either party can, if necessary, take up any error of fact in the Council’s decision before it is published to a wider audience.”

Thank you for telling me. (Note sarcasm.)

The Council’s deliberations yielded the following decision;

It is apparent that the Herald publications carried out an in-depth and ongoing investigation of the relationships between National and Labour and Mr Liu.

At the heart of Mr Macskasy’s complaint is the failure of the Herald in later articles to continue to repeat the date of Mr Cunliffe’s letter. The Herald has provided us with the full series of articles, which make it plain that the date was published, and a link to the full letter provided. It was a public document. We are satisfied that readers of these publications, in context, would be aware of the timing of the application for residency and the fact that Mr Cunliffe’s letter was published some time earlier. The publication of the letter only followed Mr Cunliffe’s denial of having anything to do with Mr Liu. We are not satisfied a reader would have been misled. As we have said previously where there is a series of linked stories it is not necessary in subsequent articles to repeat every detail. In any event the date of the letter and the fact it was written 11 years previously was repeated in a number of articles.

We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source. As a result the reporting about which Mrs Lyons is complaining was incorrect. We accept the statement was ambiguous and could have been read to mean Mr Liu had paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine when in fact he was attempting to convey he had spent $100,000 in total for various matters relating to the Labour Party and Mr Barker. But if a second source had been sought to confirm the story the error would not have occurred.
However, we accept that the Herald assiduously pursued Mr Liu for clarification and when it came immediately published a correction. A number of subsequent articles repeated the correction.

Principle 12 reads: “A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.” Here it was the Herald’s enquiries that revealed the error. It was corrected promptly with fair prominence and the correction was repeated. In those circumstances the Council does not uphold the complaint.

Neither complaint is upheld.

(Full text of Decision here.)

To say that I was flabbergasted at the decision and the rationalistion behind their decision, would be a wholly accurate assessment.

The Press Council’s admission – a statement which appears to conflate two semi-related issues – of the Herald’s faulty reporting is outlined with clarity;

We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source…

[…]

… But if a second source had been sought to confirm the story the error would not have occurred. “

Which is part of the nub of the issue: that the Herald relied on the uncorrobrated and unproven allegations of just one individual.

Such reliance on one person’s unsubstantiated allegations would be bad enough in normal circumstances.

But the series of articles in the Herald focused on the Leader of a major political party during a critical election year campaign. It could not have been more damaging if it had been deliberately planned for maximum damage.

After a week of collecting my thoughts, I gave my response to the Press Council, and will close with the statement I emailed to them on 28 August;

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With regards to the Press Council’s decision (2390/2391) to my complaint, the following is my response;

The PC Decision states: “At the heart of Mr Macskasy’s complaint is the failure of the Herald in later articles to continue to repeat the date of Mr Cunliffe’s letter.”

My response: Incorrect. The date of David Cunliffe’s letter was referenced twice out of six main points within my complaint. It was not the “heart of… the complaint”.

The PC Decision states: “As we have said previously where there is a series of linked stories it is not necessary in subsequent articles to repeat every detail.”

My response: The Herald repeated certain details when it came to “$100,000 bottles of wine”, “$15,000 books”, “Yangtze river boat trips”, and “rowing club donations”. It strikes me as not unreasonable to place a similar emphasis on the eleven year old provenance of a letter.

The PC Decision states “However, we accept that the Herald assiduously pursued Mr Liu for clarification and when it came immediately published a correction. A number of subsequent articles repeated the correction. “

My response: The corrections were made as one editorial and one online (?) article. I submit that this was manifestly inadequate.

It would have taken full page corrections on the front page of the Herald to undo the damage to Mr Cunliffe’s political reputation and public perception of the Labour Party during a critical election year.

I also maintain that, by then, the sensationalised headlines of “$100,000 bottles of wine”, “$15,000 books”, “Yangtze river boat trips”, and “rowing club donations” made any correction(s) almost meaningless. The damage had been done to one man’s public reputation.

The PC Decision states: “We accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement. It can correctly be distinguished from the Cunliffe letter released under the Official Information Act. We do not consider there is any obligation on a newspaper to publish it in full. While they were entitled to rely on such a statement as part of the factual basis when reporting the paper failed to adhere to a basic tenet of journalism…the need to have confirmation from a second source”

My response: The Council conflates two semi-related issues in that statement.

Firstly, failure to publish Mr Liu’s statement in full, as the Herald did with David Cunliffe’s 2003 letter.

The question remains unanswered; what is the Herald hiding? Why will they not release the text of both of Mr Liu’s statements? In the interests of full disclosures and giving the public full information – what possible justification can there be to keep these documents secrets.

The Herald’s sole justification has been: ‘because we can’.

Suspicions of selective use of Mr Liu’s statements will remain for as long as the Herald relies on secrecy. The Press Council is inexplicably enabling this secrecy.

Secondly, reliance on one one uncorroborated and unproven allegations.

The Herald’s entire “story” was based on My Liu’s lone “signed statement”, and latter a “correction”. Whilst some minor events were proven – a Yangtze Rive boat trip and rowing club donation – those two in themselves did not prove the overall points that Mr Liu made. In fact, the main, substantive allegations have never been substantiated.

It is worthwhile to remind the Council that the Herald editor, Tim Murphy, stated on 4 July, ” We stand by our report that a book was purchased and expect further ‘evidence’ of this to be made public shortly”.

Similar comments have been made elsewhere that more “evidence” will be “revealed”. It is nearly three months since Mr Murphy made that statement.

To date, no further stories on the Donghua Liu Affair have been published. Mr Murphy’s claims of “more to come” have not materialised.

This is a point that the Press Council has not taken into full consideration: where is the new evidence?

Not only was the Liu Affair based on one man’s uncorroborated allegations; not only was the Herald forced to retract part’s of Mr Liu’s allegations; but the story appears to have “run out of steam” for lack of evidence.

The Principles of the Press Council states in part,”An independent press plays a vital role in a democracy. The proper fulfilment of that role requires a fundamental responsibility to maintain high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance and public faith in those standards.”

How can “high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance” be maintained when,

* information is with-held from the public,

* unproven and uncorroborated allegations from just one individual are presented as fact,

* there is minimal attempt at balance,

* only lip-service is made to correct inaccuracies

* the media concerned makes no effort to publish an apology

* the media concerned insists that there is “more to come” – but no further evidence has been forthcoming

And worse still, though the Press Council gave a ‘nod’ to wrong-doing by stating that “we accept in part the criticism from both Mrs Lyons and Mr Macskasy regarding the reliance on information from Mr Liu only, including his signed statement” – it was not prepared to pursue the matter further by making enacting the basic principles of journalism to find out WHY the Herald did what it did.

When I considered laying a complaint with the Council, I had an understanding from other sources that it was an ineffectual organisation that was more concerned with preserving the status quo than challenging it.

Having read the Council’s decision, I see nothing to change that perception.

The Press Council refers to “public faith in those standards”.

I submit that public faith is sorely tested when poor reporting and management decisions trump sound investigative journalism.

I further submit that the raison d’etre for the Press Council is under-mined when it fails to carry our it’s core responsibilities;

“Editors have the ultimate responsibility for what appears in their publications, and for adherence to the standards of ethical journalism which the Council upholds”

Regards,
-Frank Macskasy

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5. Conclusion

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Despite Tim Murphy’s  insistence of “further evidence” and “further revelations”, no such “evidence” or “revelations” have materialised.

It is now two and a half months since the first “story” broke on 18 June. No subsequent new facts have emerged since the Herald was forced to retract, on 25 June,  it’s claims of a $100,00 bottle of wine.

It is fair to say that, despite the Press Council’s “collective wisdom”, that the Donghua Liu saga has proven to be miserable failure for the NZ Herald.

To be continued: The Donghua Liu Affair: OIA Responses from the PM; Deputy PM; the Immigration Minister, and next steps

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References

NZ Herald: David Cunliffe wrote letter supporting Liu’s residency bid

NZ Herald: Businessman gifts $150k to Labour Party

NZ Herald: Donghua Liu’s new statement on Labour donations

Frankly Speaking Archives: Complaint to NZ Press Council 5 July 2014

Press Council: Full text of Decision

Previous related blogposts

The Donghua Liu Affair – Damn lies, dirty tricks, and a docile media

The Donghua Liu Affair threatens to unravel – PM and NZ Herald caught up in a dirty trick campaign?

The Donghua Liu Affair – the impending final act and curtain-fall in this smear-campaign

The Donghua Liu Affair: The first step to a complaint to the Press Council

The Donghua Liu Affair: responses from NZ Herald and Prime Minister’s Office – Is the PM’s office fudging?

The Donghua Liu Affair: Evidence of Collusion between the NZ Herald and Immigration NZ?


 

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Forgot eleven year old letter

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 30 August 2014

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  1. Dirk
    5 September 2014 at 8:38 am

    Please provide the email for the press council so others might share our thoughts with them. Thank you.

    • 5 September 2014 at 10:58 pm

      Hi Dirk,

      Sure. The email address is: info@presscouncil.org.nz

      Hope it helps!

      • Dirk De Lu
        6 September 2014 at 7:29 am

        Sent just now to the Press Council

        Dirk De Lu [address supplied]

        Greetings:

        As a regular reader of print and online main stream media I have started to question why I spend my time and money doing so. The conclusion I came to is clear; I like to be informed, knowledgeable of the society I live in.

        The reason I spend so much time doing so is because I am not left feeling informed. Instead I regularly find reporting which is selective, slip shod, incomplete and too often misleading. This leads me to turn off. What’s the point when the information sought is lacking and the reporting sources of questionable usefulness and veracity? Without credibility the media is worse than a waste of time.

        The NZ Herald’s recent articles on the Donghua Liu Labour contributions scandal is a good case in point. The information was presented in a sensationalistic manner, was unsubstantiated and clearly meant to mislead in order to undermine Labour’s credibility.

        As well you know the role of the media is vital for the health of our democracy. That the Press Council has found the NZ Herald’s coverage in this instance to be up to the standards required is a tragedy. Tragedy is a strong word, some may say too strong. Yet; what is the loss of an informed public who can trust their media to report accurately, fully and fairly but the erosion of their ability to make well based decisions concerning the society they live in? With out high quality relevant information decision makers can, and often do, make poor decisions. In this instance we are deciding on the health of our democracy. Deciding poorly who will lead our democracy, and set the tone of its conduct can, and often has, resulted in tragedy.

        I feel not just let down by the Herald’s coverage, I feel manipulated. I feel not just let down by the Press Council’s decision that this standard of reporting is acceptable, I feel a deep sense of loss of faith and of hope for the health and future of our democratic society. You can, and must, lift your game to align it with the standards we both know you once knew and valued.

        Sincerely, Dirk De Lu

        • 7 September 2014 at 11:17 am

          Excellent letter, Dirk! Well written, and hopefully something that the Council members will consider…

  1. 16 September 2014 at 8:01 am
  2. 19 September 2014 at 5:42 am
  3. 24 September 2014 at 8:01 am
  4. 15 July 2015 at 8:03 am

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