BILL KEITH AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 3061

Council Meeting: JUNE 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists Opinion
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Bill Keith has complained about an opinion piece published on the New Zealand Herald’s website on February 28, 2021.

The article, written by Herald opinion writer Kerre McIvor, is critical of the Government’s response to a Covid-19 cluster at Papatoetoe High School and is broadly sympathetic to those who self-reported that they had been to a Kmart over a weekend where a staff member had tested positive for Covid-19.

The writer notes that at least one of those people regretted their decision because they were out of pocket after two weeks of self-isolation and a reliance on the Government’s wage subsidy which was less than what they could otherwise have earned, although specific amounts are not quoted.

The tone of the piece is generally critical of the Government and associated agencies such as Healthline.

The Complaint

Mr Keith argues that Kerre McIvor’s column - Latest Covid-19 outbreak reveals holes in Government’s strategy- breaches the Council’s Principle of accuracy, fairness and balance.

That principle states, in part, that: Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.

In a lengthy letter to the Herald Mr Keith complains that the column implied that the Government's Covid wage subsidy was paid direct to workers at a set rate, that workers were not getting compensated to the level of their actual income while self-isolating and that Ms McIvor had implied that under those circumstances deletion of the Covid tracing app “may be justified”.

The complainant believes the article “contradicts important facts” readily available on the IRD, Work and Income websites “and theNew Zealand Herald itself” and therefore spread misinformation about financial support during lockdowns.

He said it could also be interpreted “as condoning non-compliance with contact tracing”.

Mr Keith took particular exception to the following paragraph, saying it implied that the subsidy was paid direct to workers, as opposed to employers, and did not take into account those working part time who also qualify for the subsidy.

Ms McIvor wrote: “It might have helped if people were getting compensated to the level of their actual income while they are self-isolating. The Government subsidy of about $580 a week doesn’t cover most people’s costs.”

Mr Keith said it was likely that “many” businesses would continue to pay workers at their normal pay rates “as I have done, as the public sector does, and as other employers I know have done”.

He said the contention that workers are not getting fully compensated while self-isolating “is clearly not universally true and may be untrue in most cases”.

“I contend that this article, without evidence and with disregard for facts, creates a likely untrue impression that a majority of workers do not receive reasonable support from government schemes during lockdown, and that the spread of such misinformation and the implied condoning of non-compliance with contact tracing, is reckless and harmful to society.”

The Response

For the Herald, Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday editor Stuart Dye said the piece was clearly labelled as opinion.

“Author Kerre McIvor is entitled to her view, as are you. Just because you disagree does not make her opinion wrong.”

Mr Dye said he could not see “facts ignored or misrepresented”.

Against the complainant’s assertion that the piece created an “untrue impression” that most workers do not receive adequate support from government schemes during lockdown, Mr Dye said Ms McIvor’s view is “exactly that the majority of workers do not receive reasonable support from government schemes during lockdown”.

He said the writer’s view was the opposite of condoning non-compliance with contract tracing.

“She uses examples of people saying that is what they are doing and specifically says this is of concern”.

The Decision

The Media Council notes that this was an opinion piece so requirements for balance and fairness do not apply. The Council also notes that under Principle 4 and Principle 5, the principles relating to opinion pieces, it is accepted that the opinions expressed are the writer’s own, and that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate

The Council believes that the column meets the accuracy test for both Principles 4 and 5.

Ms McIvor was relaying the experience of callers to her radio programme that some workers were not fully compensated by the Government and /or their employers when forced to self-isolate.

Ms McIvor suggests that it would indeed “have helped if people were getting compensated to the level of their actual income while self-isolating”. There is no evidence to indicate that it was inaccurate for Ms McIvor to suggest that the subsidy of “about $580” a week doesn’t cover most people’s costs. It is simply a statement of opinion based on what some people have told her. Some employers were not topping up the government subsidy.

The veracity of these personal accounts has not been challenged by the complainant.

At the heart of the complaint is Mr Keith’s contention that the column misrepresented facts about the Government’s Covid wage subsidy.

While the Council acknowledges that Mr Keith’s actions as an employer differed from others - such as those who employed the workers discussed in the column - that does not in any way invalidate their claims or Ms McIvor’s right to express her opinion. Both situations hold true and neither situation is universally applied.

The other facet of the complaint is that the column encouraged people to delete the Covid Tracer App. The Council agrees with Mr Dye that the columnist’s intention was the opposite of condoning non -compliance with contract tracing. The Council believes that the point of the article was to point out how concerning it is if people choose to either delete the app or otherwise not comply with contact tracing or self-reporting because they might be out of pocket.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

Rosemary Barraclough stood down to maintain the public member majority.

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