Russell McVeagh incident highlights complications of corporate sponsorship

Corporates don't always act like grownups.

Reading it the first time, I found it hard to fathom what had happened, to whom, where and when.

"I can't recall the last time I read such a brutally-legalled story," observed media commentator Russell Brown.

Other media offered more detail in follow-up stories, and it was RNZ who first prodded Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford into detailed comment about the incidents, and deficiencies in his organisation's processes.

Prof Guilford's comments on Newsroom, which read as if they had been screened by a marketing department and lawyer, were replaced by his rage that an intern's self-confidence could be destroyed by "some arsehole in the workplace who wants to act as a predator and sexually assault them." (UPDATE: In an email to NBR, Prof Guilford stresses his "self-confidence" comment related to interns in general.)

Newsroom co-founder Tim Murphy tweeted, "Exceptional work by @ninetonoon interviewing Victoria University VC and President of Law Society on the Russell McVeagh interns story. This is a big and developing story — just needed the door pushed open by @NewsroomNZ last night."

But I was a bit surprised that ace news veteran Mr Murphy did not send his own crew rushing through the door after it was kicked in.

Where was the video footage of Melanie Reid doorstopping the top brass at Russell McVeagh and Victoria? (I should add that Newsroom did cross-post that RNZ interview, and that it has just published a damning account by an ex-Russell McVeagh staffer).

It's a legally fraught story, of course, and protecting the victims'identity was one reason to bland-out key details. But it's also one that illustrates the pros and cons, or pros and complications, of the corporate sponsorship model of news. Newsroom accepts donations from readers, but its main source of income is money from corporate partners Victoria University, Auckland University, law firm Bell Gully (which has also been involved in an inappropriate workplace behaviour scandal; read Bell Gully confirms 'incident'), Chorus, Holden, Ecostore and Kiwibank.

Corporate backing (see also The Spinoff) is one way to fund a website in this day and age when it's damn hard to finance a newsroom. It can also be a source of news tips (or cynics would say, a vehicle for releasing bad news on your own terms).

When we were both on an Auckland Social Media Club panel discussion I asked Newsroom's Troy Rawhiti-Forbes (who has since moved on), how his team could be confident of unencumbered journalism under the corporate sponsorship model.

He replied with the pithy one-liner: "Because we're grown-ups."

He didn't actually drop the mic but it was that sort of moment. It was pretty clear who the audience of 200 or so (mostly PR and social media types) thought had got the better of that exchange.

And it's true that Newsroom has some of the best grown-ups in Kiwi journalism, including Mr Murphy, Mark Jennings, Bernard Hickey and Ms Reid. They'll win awards for some of their work during their first year in business, and they'll deserve to. I read Newsroom every day.

Yet (and why do I never think of these things at the time? — lucky, Troy) I also think there are many in corporate New Zealand who don't act like grown-ups.

There are too many examples to list here but they include a major bank threatening to pull its IP (organisation-wide) subscription to NBR because of negative stories (NBR did not back down), a manager at a university business school (now departed) who did pull advertising over an editorial issue, and the appalling behaviour of EY in disqualifying an NBR investigation into fraud at FujiXerox – where EY was auditor – from the EY Business Awards. (EY was also a business category sponsor of the Canon Media Awards, where Karyn Scherer's investigation mysteriously failed to make even the shortlist), 

Universities might seem like ideal sponsors, with their academic belief in freedom of speech, but all have their share of controversy and conflict — and more so now they all have commercialisation arms. I'm thinking about NZ Rugby and AUT's spat over whether a report on head injuries should be published in full; infighting at Auckland Unversity's law school (exposed by NBR); and even What's Next the TVNZ look-into-the-future show fronted by John Campbell and Nigel Latta that featured an item on Steve Henry's startup, Kode, and its technology that looks so promising in the fight against cancer. Viewers would never know it from the careful editing (and what even seemed to be logo blurring out at one point), but Steve Henry is actually a professor at AUT, the home of Kode. Bizarrely, AUT did not get a mention. By the by, What Next's primary sponsor was AUT archrival Auckland University. And in the research world, Callaghan Innovation, bedevilled by a series of controversies, has helped to bankroll news agency BusinessDesk (yes, used by NBR at times, with disclosure where appropriate).

Corporate sponsorships always come with subtle or not so subtle pressure, particularly as renewal approach. And in my immediate experience, even when a company has mature leadership, there's often at least one manager who thinks they can leverage the situation for influence.

It's a quagmire and makes me grateful NBR has moved to a primarily reader-funded, paywall model.

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