Law firm Russell McVeagh instructed Auckland QC Adam Ross to write to Newsroom upbraiding us on our reporting of the allegations about the sexual abuse and harassment on its summer clerk programme two years ago.
His letter says the scandal has presented a "very difficult situation for the firm" and claims Newsroom's informants have "other agendas they are not disclosing to you".
The letter wrongly claims Newsroom has published material without knowing its validity, or knowing the unspecified "circumstances with the firm" of anonymous sources whom Russell McVeagh is trying to identify. It questions the practices and fairness of our Investigations. Newsroom rejects these claims; our team has been painstaking and meticulous in its research and confirmation of material.
This is a story of abuse of power and as such those providing information wish to distance themselves from further abuse of power. That is why we fiercely protect sources, but we would not run a story without them. It is why, in a story such as this, confidentiality is necessary.
The letter complains about Newsroom not running a further written response from Russell McVeagh on the issue of what information it provided via a reference check to a firm employing one of the two men who left Russell McVeagh after the scandal. However before the letter was received Newsroom had posted the response in full, in a new story on the matter.
And the letter claims Newsroom's reports have contained "serious errors" but fails to specify even one.
Ross' letter and a response from Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy are below.
22 February 2018
The Editors of Newsroom
For: Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy
Newsroom – Russell McVeagh
I have been instructed on behalf of Russell McVeagh. The firm has asked me to write to you about concerns it has with the reporting Melanie Reid has been responsible for, concerning the firm, in recent days.
This is a very difficult situation for the firm. The firm absolutely accepts that Newsroom and the media in general are entitled to report stories. But that must be done fairly, and the firm insists that it be treated fairly by your reporters, who need to show circumspection about what gets published as unchallenged fact (or allegation).
The women involved directly in the facts are adamant that they do not want their identifies or personal information given to the media. The firm respects that wish and is bound to observe it. There are also safety issues to take into account. These constraints make it next to impossible to answer many of the questions and allegations that are being raised. Unfortunately, some journalists seem not to appreciate that this information vacuum cannot be filled with speculation, or by relying on second or third hand - and even anonymous - sources as if their information is true, but whose accounts cannot be verified, and who in some cases have other agendas (or whose circumstances with the firm would cast quite a different light on what Ms Reid is being told) that they are not disclosing to you.
This letter is not intended to threaten Newsroom. It is, however, intended to point to serious errors that Ms Reid has been making in her articles and to express concern that the firm’s responses are not being reported. Inaccurate stories remain on the website. The fact that errors are being made suggest either an enthusiasm to publish before facts are properly understood, or disregard for the facts once they emerge.
The firm is especially aggrieved at Ms Reid’s failure to take account of a written response to her concerning a question about what Russell McVeagh told Duncan Cotterill concerning one of its former solicitors as part of an oral reference check. A PR person at Duncan Cotterill has been quoted by Ms Reid as saying that that firm was led to believe by the reference check that the particular incident being discussed was minor and that it had been resolved. This reference check issue was a new angle to the stories and ought to have been checked before it was published. It was not. Russell McVeagh representatives raised the issue with Ms Reid and they provided a written response to her.
Nevertheless, the story remains live on the website and no change has been made to it. In short, the information from Russell McVeagh has been ignored. In such a sensitive matter, it is essential that issues be properly explored prior to publication and the right people spoken to, to check facts. If facts cannot be supplied for legal, decency, and even safety reasons (safety applying at least in one case), then extra care must be shown before publishing bare allegations. At the very least, it can be said that for its part, Russell McVeagh believes that it was fully transparent with Duncan Cotterill. It may well be that there were communication issues inside Duncan Cotterill that resulted in a different message being received than the one that was sent. The PR person was not present, after all. The reference was oral, not written. The firm is not trying to disagree with Duncan Cotterill; it is quite possible for there to have been mis- communication within that firm. The real point is that more care needs to be taken before serious allegations are published.
Mr McDiarmid, the CEO of Russell McVeagh, has made himself available to Ms Reid for any questions she may have. It is important that she give adequate time to respond and not require urgent answers to questions which may have a substantial amount of fact, and legal constraints, behind their answers. Mr McDiarmid is more than happy to assist Ms Reid with those answers and indicate to her when a bit more time is needed. It would be helpful – and assist Ms Reid in her task too – if she were to appreciate the obvious limits to what can be said, consider what that might mean for reporting truthfully and fairly on a complex situation, and treat the firm fairly having regard to these impediments.
Russell McVeagh reserves its rights, but it is much more concerned to ensure that stories about it and its current and former staff are fair and based on fact, to the extent that the facts can be supplied. Because of privacy constraints, there is heightened need for care by journalists before publishing allegations and it is essential that the firm have an opportunity to respond to new allegations. The firm stands by its previous statements about how it responded to the incidents at the time and subsequently.
Adam Ross QC
Thank you for your letter, which was possibly premature.
As clearly indicated to your client yesterday, we have recently published in full the statement from Mr McDiarmid. We told him we had to put it to Duncan Cotterill, had given them a deadline and that we would certainly present RMcV’s views on our website. This happened as quickly as possible.
The previous article setting out Duncan Cotterill’s view of the reference process was a response to Russell McVeagh statements on that issue. We have now published both law firms’ further responses.
Further, Mr McDiarmid had until yesterday been emphatic with Melanie Reid that he would not be commenting further to his original press statement and to Pip Greenwood’s interview with the journalist. On February 15 he said: “We are not aware of any further incidents. We have nothing to add to your interview with Pip Greenwood.”
Only last night did he indicate by email — while accepting we had to put his reference-check statement to Duncan Cotterill — that he was available to respond to further questions from Melanie Reid.
We do not take third-hand and anonymous information and publish without a process of validation and verification of the source’s background, reliability and proximity to events. We are satisfied our sources saw and know what they have relayed to us and that their views are accurately and fairly reported.
There has been no hurry to publish. Quite the reverse. This matter has taken some months of reporting.
And we are deeply, keenly aware of the privacy concerns and sensitivities of the summer clerks and support people who were victims of your client’s workplace and processes.
Thank you again for your letter.
Tim Murphy, Co-editor, Newsroom.co.nz