SST on Cook vs HoS

I suspect the Sunday Star-Times enjoyed getting to print this article:

REPORTERS at the Herald on Sunday newspaper were instructed to steal stories out of the Sunday Star-Times in what the tabloid paper’s former assistant editor calls “industrial espionage” on an unprecedented scale.

The revelations are included in an early draft of a brief of evidence from Steve Cook, who was assistant editor at the Herald on Sunday until he was sacked following rumours of drug dealing.

Cook has taken a case to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) claiming unjustified dismissal he was not charged by police with any offence and although the authority struck out evidence relating to the industrial espionage claims, the Star-Times has obtained a copy of the initial brief.

In it, Cook says that for a period in 2005 soon after the Herald on Sunday’s launch, reporter John Manukia would be dispatched on Saturday nights to the Fairfax presses in South Auckland to get an early copy of the Star-Times.

Manukia, later sacked for fabricating stories, would take the paper back to the Herald on Sunday offices and, acting on instructions from executive staff, “would proceed to lift stories from the SST without any attribution for publication in the following day’s Herald on Sunday”.

Cook says the practice ceased in July 2005, following a “near catastrophe”. The Star-Times had obtained exclusive extracts from a biography of All Black Justin Marshall, which its rival wanted. Manukia was dispatched to the presses to get a copy of the paper.

“That night the Fairfax presses were running late, so when Manukia eventually got his hands on a copy of the newspaper there was only time to phone through details from the book. I asked Manukia to give me the title of the book but instead he gave me the headline on the SST story.”

The Herald on Sunday went to press with the erroneous title, and when editor Shayne Currie discovered the error, “was left with no choice but to stop the presses”, Cook wrote.

Currie yesterday said the behaviour was not “standard practice”. In a statement to the Star-Times he said: “I recall this happened on two, possibly three, occasions, in 2005. It has not happened since. On one of those occasions we did a `spoiler’ story on the new Justin Marshall book, which was being extracted in the SST.”

Media commentator Jim Tully damned the practice, saying lifting stories from another media outlet without attribution was “both unethical and potentially risky as past experience has shown. It is indicative of the intense competition between the Sundays and suggests a note of desperation in not being scooped by a rival.”

I think things are less intense now, but I do know newspapers hate nothing more than missing a story their rival covers.

Cook also gave details in his early brief of “the most incredible example of industrial espionage ever seen in the newspaper industry in this country”. A Herald on Sunday reporter had rented an apartment across the road from the Star-Times offices in Auckland and had a view of the editor’s office, including a whiteboard with details of upcoming stories. Cook claims the reporter was given a telescope and told to ring through details of what the Star-Times was doing that week.

But senior Herald on Sunday reporter David Fisher put a statement on the Public Address website on Friday, saying the telescope was his, and that the so-called spying was “a joke driven by a sense of mischief”. Currie said the incident was a “silly prank” which gained nothing and he did not find out about it until later.

David Fisher’s blog on the issue is here. I trust David entirely as to this being the context to the story.

The ERA heard on Friday that Cook was dismissed from the Herald on Sunday last year after a chain of events that began with a visit to the paper by two drug squad detectives.

They told Currie that Cook and a company car had been spotted on several occasions at a property they had under surveillance.

Currie said that over the following days and weeks Cook refused to provide a satisfactory reason for being there and would not hand over notes. Cook said he wouldn’t provide the notes because he did not trust Currie, who had given his home address to the police officers.

Even I had heard about the rumoured drug involvement. But the key issue will be whether Cook was legally entitled to refuse to hand over his (alleged) notes to his editor, and also whether the HoS followed correct process in dismissing him.

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