ALLAN GOLDEN AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTIntroduction
Mr Allan Golden complained that an article commenting on the implications for external trade of fluctuations in the exchange rate which appeared in The Dominion Post on September 30, 2006 contained inaccuracies which misled or misinformed readers. The newspaper should have published, and promptly, corrections of such alleged inaccuracy.
He further complained that the newspaper had not maintained a clear distinction between the reporting of fact and the expression of opinion.
The complaints are not upheld.
The article complained about was an economics piece headlined “Trading on the exchange rate might not be enough”. It was accompanied by a graph comparing NZ’s performance, in “value of goods and services exports” with the rest of the world and with OECD countries. A foot-note summarised the expertise of the contributor, Bruce White – an “independent consulting economist and, previously, a senior advisor at the Reserve Bank”.
The columnist suggested that New Zealand, “compared with most OECD countries” had a low level of external trade relative to gdp and that extreme swings in the exchange rate were a major impediment to export producers. He posed the question: might it not be better to place greater stress on attempting to stabilise the exchange rate even if this brought greater domestic economy instability. In Mr White’s view, the economic implications of this delicate balance should be discussed and debated.
As might be expected in a daily newspaper, the article was not highly technical economic writing but couched in language that a lay reader (though certainly one interested in business or financial matters) would understand.
Allan Golden took particular issue with a sentence which read “But, irrespective of the reasons, our low level of external trade relative to gdp means we are subject to handicaps of economic insularity.”
In Mr Golden’s view, New Zealand does not have a particularly “low level of external trade relative to gdp” and he pointed out that it is “quite high” compared with Australia and the United States. He also pointed out that “economic insularity” was capable of various interpretations.
Overall, Mr Golden saw the article as deliberately misleading i.e. “an example … by vested interests to use sleight of hand tactics to try to convince the casual reader that we are under-exporting when this is not necessarily so.”
Mr Golden also noted that the graph was based on a slide from the New Zealand Institute website. He claimed that this slide, and two others, used selected statistics to misrepresent the case that NZ was under-performing in exporting, and wished to extend his complaint against this “publication”, the website. However, the Press Council does not accept complaints against websites, unless they are directly associated with hardcopy newspapers
The Newspaper’s Response
The Dominion Post replied to Mr Golden’s complaint to it by explaining that Bruce White’s article was an opinion piece and he was quite entitled to express his views.
The newspaper acknowledged that the column should have been run with “Comment” under Mr White’s name and photograph. It had been a simple oversight on this occasion. However, their response also pointed out that the piece appeared in the Saturday edition, page C2, where opinion pieces have been placed for many years. In addition, the foot-note, in italics, about Bruce White’s credentials, would have clearly indicated the piece was not by the newspaper’s regular staff but by an outside contributor.
Finally, a reply by Mr White to the criticisms of his economic analysis was sent to the complainant. The reply was courteous and in some detail.
Allan Golden rejected the newspaper’s explanation that the word “Comment” was a minor oversight, seeing instead The Dominion Post “yielding” to “certain pressure groups”. In the Press Council’s view, however, the distinction between reporting fact and passing opinion was maintained and it should have been clear, through the combination of placement and the end note about the contributor, that this was commentary. This complaint is not upheld.
Given that Mr White’s commentary is opinion, it is not necessary for the Council to determine the accuracy of his assertion that New Zealand suffers from a low level of external trade, relative to gdp. Other economists might dispute various points that he makes and other economists might dispute his overall argument that evening out fluctuations in the exchange rate is more important than domestic price stability. But that is the very nature of analysis and debate. The point is that Mr White raises the issue to stimulate such an exchange of views.
Even more importantly, daily newspapers are not, and cannot be, journals of academic scholarship.
It would be, of course, another matter if contributors deliberately, wilfully, misstate facts so as to mislead or misinform readers.
In this case, Mr Golden’s view that this was intentional misrepresentation to suit Mr White’s argument and to support “vested interests” is not accepted by the Press Council and his complaints regarding inaccuracy, and promptly correcting inaccuracy, are not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and Terry Snow.