Russell McVeagh incident highlights complications of corporate sponsorship

KeallHauled

Chris Keall

Victoria University vice chancellor Grant Guilford (photo: Victoria University)

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.

Grown-ups?
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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13 Comments & Questions

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I think it is time ( in fact long overdue) for the Law Society and Society of Accountants to be independently regulated. Thank you for this news article

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Add the Real estate institute to your list, and politicians.

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Yes, because independent regulation stops all sexual harassment/assault behaviour.
Oh, and I'm pretty sure there hasn't been a "Society of Accountants" for 20+ years. They're now known as "Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand".

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This incident is the tip of the corporate iceberg... it won't just be law firms...

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Indeed. NBR is collecting stories from staff at other firms, and we'll have more next week.

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Real estate agents, insurance salespeople, marketing managers. You can choose any area of life this is happening and has happened, the bigger the drinkers and socialisers the sleazier it can be. Blue collared industries of course without women working there seem not to have the same issues, I am sure however wolf-whistling from construction workers would make headlines with the #metoo brigade.

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Oh Chris. *This* is NBR’s contribution to a story about one of the biggest law firms in the country and major issues among professional services firms?! Goodness.
With all due respect (and some undue given this hopeless old hobby horse of yours):
- your argument is completely disproven by the fact we did an uncomfortable story involving one of our Foundation Supporters and treated them exactly the same as any other organisation or newsmaker. Fullstop. We ran what they decided they would say in response to detailed questions we put to them.
The first story was indeed carefully written for legal reasons (as Russell rightly remarked) as of course there were lawyers on two sides of this issue - but it broke the issue open. No other approach might have succeeded in doing that.
No ‘marketing’ or ‘sponsor’ issues arose. For a moment. At all.
Good on Victoria for being ‘grown-up’ enough to handle it as they normally would when approached. Our contracts with supporters make clear that will always be the approach.
Also, our sponsor funding is only part of Newsroom’s business model. We, like NBR, have a substantial part of our income from subscriptions to Newsroom Pro.
Our sponsors had no influence on this story - and can NBR say that about its advertisers or highly-charged corporate subscribers (does Russell McVeagh advertise in print or online with you - is that why NBR’s
response to this story has been So. Universally. Lame.?)
Your hot-take on this on Twitter was silly. Your considered column is worse.
Ps - next week’s column could be ‘Newsroom is supported by Bell Gully - BG is a competitor of Russell McVeagh.’ Then you could claim a ludicrous conspiracy there that does not exist (they knew precisely nothing about our inquiries or stories) but, hell, it’s an ‘opinion’ column in a medium for business ignoring a very significant story of interest to business. Waiting for NBR’s serious attempt to get into this story.

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One wonders about the old adage of something about "Protesting too much" and then remembering when the Herald was a huge edition on Wednesdays and Saturdays back in the Wilson & Horton days when the lady had a semi-credible reputation as far as newspapers reputations go... Then fast forwarding to today, one wonders why this Sheila doth protests too much.?
Me thinks probably because so few are prepared to pay to learn of what the Kardashians had for breakfast?

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Case in point the Saturday edition where the lead story was the surrogacy of one its radio "stars', never mind the news.

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Tim
Have you actually spoken to ANY of the players in the incidents (the two interns and the partners alleged)? Or is this all hearsay and tittle tattle promoted for sensationalism? The story is old.

Yes Bell Gully are RM’s main competitor and they sponsor your website. If so you should have balanced the story with the departure of their Partner last year for reasons reported in the NBR. It looks a lot like an encouraged smear job by Bell Gully with every day. Especially given the political going’s on with a change of government and tendering out of major jobs in the Beltway.

There’s more scandal, shagging and marital upsets in the newsrooms of NZ publications to be fair than conservative law firms. Funny you don’t end up reporting that.

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Good old NBR, trying to burnish its own tarnished reputation by tarnishing the reputation of competitors. Grown-ups indeed...

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as I was present at the incident I am reluctant to comment other than in my experience there are always at least 3 sides to every story, my side your side and the truth. And they are mutually exclusive.

It always amuses me to see judges juries and executioners trying convicting and hanging before all the facts are in.

Never assume it make as ass or of me and you.

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As Bill Clinton found out, interns are and should be out of bounds.

Been at a few lawyers’ functions over the years and must say they were very civilised affairs. Guess the cloak of respectability disappears when the grog and ego kick in at staff functions?

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