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Newsroom’s major stories of 2018 - and the fallout

Newsroom’s second year as an independent news organisation was as active and influential as its first. As well as in-depth reporting on politics, the economy, the environment and our work covering women’s sport, our investigative journalism continued to tell the stories that matter and effect big changes. 

Many of these stories have resulted in industry soul-searching, resignations, inquires and changes to the way organisations operate.

Here’s a look back at 2018.

FEBRUARY

Russell McVeagh and the interns 
Melanie Reid, Sasha Borissenko

The investigation into the summer interns and allegations of serious misconduct against two former Russell McVeagh lawyers led to six months of stories which unearthed a culture of bullying, sexual misconduct and exploitation within the law profession.

The story gained international attention, and prompted New Zealand’s #metoo movement. The Law Society, the Criminal Bar Association, and the Women Lawyers’ Association released surveys that looked into lawyers’ workplace environments, and the results were bleak.

So too were the results of an internal inquiry into the conduct of Russell McVeagh headed by Dame Margaret Bazley, released in July, and the results of a Law Society working group chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright, released just this week.

MARCH

Sexual assault at Labour Summer School camp
Mark Jennings and Melanie Reid

Four 16 year-olds were allegedly sexually assaulted by a 20 year-old at a Labour camp. The party, fuelled by a "mountain" of alcohol was attended by around 50, a third of whom were under 18 years old. Former party general secretary Andrew Kirton said he took a “victim-led” approach after being made aware of the allegations, and decided not to inform police, the victims’ parents, or Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

A police investigation was launched after Newsroom's report, as well as an internal Labour Party investigation. The internal report, which was not released publicly has resulted in several recommendations being implemented by the party. Andrew Kirton also apologised for his handling of the matter. The 20 year-old man, who was charged but has name suppression, has pleaded not guilty to six charges of indecent assault.

APRIL

Crackdown on mobile shopping trucks
Sarah Hall

A Newsroom investigation found mobile shopping trucks operating in poorer suburbs of Auckland and Wellington were charging excessive prices for basic food items. A 3kg pack of chicken drumsticks was priced at $59 - five times what it would cost at a normal retailer. The trucks sell everyday goods at inflated prices to people who find it difficult to get to the shops or who are attracted by the credit they offer. One truck had 35,000 customers on its books. Another turned over $22 million in revenue last year.

When shown Newsroom’s report, Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi described some of the truck operators as “reprehensible”. The Government has since announced that as part of a crackdown on loan sharks, all mobile traders will be required to pass a 'fit and proper person' test. Consumers will also get greater powers to kick uninvited salespeople off their properties when the legal status of do-not-knock stickers is strengthened.

Oyster parasite first discovered at Cawthron
David Williams

Newsroom revealed that an oyster-killing parasite was first discovered at Cawthron Aquaculture Park, a facility near Nelson run by New Zealand’s largest independently-owned science organisation. The parasite, Bonamia ostreae, burst into public view last year after it was discovered in a Stewart Island flat oyster farm, leading to the swift removal of oyster farms from the island’s Big Glory Bay. MPI failed to uncover evidence of how the parasite travelled from Marlborough to Stewart Island. Newsroom’s investigation found MPI discarded advice from scientific and technical experts to remove Marlborough’s infected farms and restrict the movement of aquaculture vessels and equipment. These experts raised concerns about “major biosecurity flaws” at Cawthron’s facility.

Compensation was slow in coming. Former oyster farmer Rodney Clark, of Bluff, said it hadn’t helped that the Ministry for Primary Industries was focused on livestock farmers battling the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis. Soon after the story ran, a compensation offer was made to Clark’s company. Contacted for an update, Clark says he’s unable to comment. Meanwhile, Southland aquaculture is set for a comeback. Half a million dollars has been earmarked from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund for a feasibility study into a proposed $100 million aquaculture facility.

JUNE

Migrant exploitation in UFB rollout
Teuila Fuatai

Newsroom’s inquiry into an Auckland based Chorus subcontractor tapped into the world of dodgy labour practices in NZ’s telco industry. Allegations against fibre-laying company 3ML proved to be a case study in exploitative practices targeting migrant workers. Allegations against the company included failing to pay wages, and paying workers less than the minimum wage.  

Newsroom’s coverage went on to highlight wider challenges around addressing migrant exploitation, and dealing with workers unfamiliar with NZ labour standards.

3ML has since been suspended from working on the Chorus network. Chorus has also commissioned its own investigation into labour issues among its subcontractors . Meanwhile, a labour inspectorate investigation into 3ML is ongoing.  

Cows abused on Northland farm
Melanie Reid, Farah Hancock

The beating of cows with a steel pipe at a Northland farm was exposed by Newsroom in June. Complaints made about a contract milker had previously been ignored by the farm owner and MPI. Farmwatch’s hidden camera footage shared with Newsroom showed the extent of the contract milker’s treatment of the cows. When confronted by journalist Melanie Reid, the contract milker said he only hit cows to “train them”.

The behaviour caught on film was condemned by many in the dairy industry and the milker's employment at the farm ended.

MPI searched the farm the day Newsroom broke the story and recently announced six charges under the Animal Welfare Act have been laid against an individual. The case is to be heard next year.

JULY

Toxic culture within the Department of Conservation
David Williams

Two Department of Conservation scientists – supported by anonymous staffers – lifted the lid on what they called its “toxic” culture, showing a tension between those working for conservation and those apparently more worried about “relationships”. The embrace of corporate management methods was another sign DOC had lost its way, some staff said. Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage was touched by the case, as Newsroom revealed a ministerial briefing by ousted ecologist Nick Head was doctored before it reached Sage. The department spent more than $20,000 on external consultants in relation to Head’s suspension.

DOC director-general Lou Sanson wrote to all staff in July saying he wanted DOC to have a ‘speak-up’ culture and reaffirming how much he valued science and technical staff. A crisis meeting for Christchurch managers and directors was held. Some staff raised concerns with Sanson. But after the way Head was, in his words, hounded out, many kept their head down, fearing a witch-hunt.

Sir Ray Avery's Lifepods
Eloise Gibson

Celebrity speaker and charity leader Sir Ray Avery had received almost universally glowing media coverage since launching his charity Medicine Mondiale in 2003, as well as millions of dollars in donated labour and money. Newsroom investigated his progress with various projects after he announced plans to raise a further $4 million from the public with a proposed concert at Eden Park.

More than a dozen former funders, volunteers, engineers and collaborators expressed concern about Avery’s methods and a perceived lack of transparency. Newsroom's story revealed none of his charitable products had made it into production, including the Lifepod infant incubator, the intended destination for the $4 million concert proceeds.

Following Newsroom's story Eden Park's Trust Board decided not to proceed with the concert. Further revelations emerged about another product Avery has been involved in, where he attempted to engineer the "quiet retraction" of a paper showing unfavourable test results from a medical journal. 

Avery lodged a complaint against Newsroom under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, a law intended to prevent cyber-bullying. This prompted MPs from several parties and the Prime Minister to comment that the law was not intended to silence media outlets.

Deadlines for delivering Lifepods have shifted repeatedly over the years. However the project now faces more intense scrutiny than it has before. Avery has said that rollout of the incubators in the Pacific Islands will start next February, and an updated delivery time will be sent to donors in January.

OCTOBER

Tourist bus safety blindspot
David Williams

The case of an American tourist run over and killed by a bus near Queenstown in 2016 thrusts tourist safety into the spotlight. The ex-bus driver’s lawyer says the Queenstown company “dodged a bullet” and a district court judge suggests the company, Southern Discoveries, would have been liable for Richard Hyde’s death under health and safety legislation – had a time limitation not lapsed. WorkSafe never investigated and the police won’t say if its investigation stumbled on any health and safety issues related to the company. The ex-bus driver, who was sentenced to community service over Richard Hyde’s death, calls the operation “cowboy-ish”. Southern Discoveries boss Tim Hunter doesn’t directly say if its documentation and procedures were appropriate, but says that safety is a priority for his company and the accident was a “pivot point” for the local industry, prompting many changes.

WorkSafe confirms it is reconsidering its role in work-related road accidents. And while a previously unreported coroner’s report recommends changes for tourist buses, the Ministry of Transport will consider changes as part of an upcoming road safety strategy. Last month, Hyde’s widow, Kate Jurow, writes to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, calling for action – a letter that sparks a flurry of media stories. Jurow’s letter accuses New Zealand of being “casual and indifferent” to victims and their families. She calls for mandatory safety standards for tour companies, their vehicles and drivers. Ardern’s office has sent Jurow a letter saying that Minister of Justice Andrew Little will respond.

Women speak out about Jami-Lee Ross
Melanie Reid, Cassandra Mason

Melanie Reid revealed serious allegations of women feeling intimidated, or being manipulated by former National MP Jami-Lee Ross. In total six women shared stories including tales of brutal sex, bullying and outbursts of rage, some of these tales had been shared with Newsroom a year before Ross's own allegations of the mishandling of donations made headlines. 

Jami-Lee Ross has now left the National Party and given his proxy vote to New Zealand First. An inquiry into sexual harassment and bullying in parliament has been launched. 

NOVEMBER

Importer tests their own cars
Thomas Coughlan

Newsroom’s investigation into the importation of used Japanese vehicles found companies Nichibo, JEVIC and VINZ had not initially disclosed to regulators they were in fact owned by the holding company Optimus Group. The lack of disclosure was important, as the structure of the companies raised questions over conflicts of interest in companies that test and certify cars they effectively own.

The story eventually lead to the NZTA announcing possible changes to regulations that would effectively outlaw the corporate structure used by the Optimus Group. NZTA conceded the current rules were a "potential risk to safety”. The Agency’s Chief Executive Fergus Gammie resigned in December, following a related scandal in which the Agency was found to have neglected its role as regulator.

Diane Maxwell and the extraordinary staff turn-over
Sam Sachdeva, Melanie Reid

Newsroom revealed bullying allegations made against Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell from over a dozen former staff. Employees spoke of having their work ripped up in front of them, being publicly shamed in meetings and walking on eggshells around Maxwell, while high turnover levels went unnoticed during her tenure.

Following Newsroom’s investigation, Maxwell was stood down while the State Services Commission carried out an inquiry into the bullying allegations. The SSC is also looking into the governance structure of Crown entities such as Maxwell’s Commission for Financial Capability, due to concerns raised during Newsroom’s investigation.

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