CLIFF VAN EATON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2942

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Cliff Van Eaton complains about an article headed Prime Minister ‘disingenuous’ over manipulated unemployment figures and published by theNew Zealand Herald online on August 8, 2020. He considers there was a breach of Media Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 4 (comment and fact), 6 (headlines and captions) and 9 (subterfuge).

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaints.

Background

3. The article in question was written by Barry Soper, Newstalk ZB’s political editor, commenting on the release by Statistics New Zealand of unexpectedly low unemployment figures for the June 2020 quarter. The essence of his argument was that the low unemployment rate had been achieved by the decision to extend the Covid-19 wage subsidy, due to end on 10 June, for a further eight weeks, noting that the next quarter results would not be known until after the election due to take place in September. In this context he considered it disingenuous for the Prime Minister and other members of the government to claim success on a comparison of the lower figures with the higher forecast figures.

4. Specifically, Mr Soper said that “the figures had been manipulated, not by those that compile them, but by those who have the ability to control them: the political decision-makers”.

The Complaint

5. Mr Van Eaton takes issue in particular with the word “manipulation” in the title of the article. He says the use of the term is incorrect without “clear evidence of interference in the production or distribution of the statistics from a source outside Statistics New Zealand”. He notes that in the body of the article it is stated that “the figures had been manipulated, not by those who compile them, but by those who have the ability to control them”, but believes there is still an insinuation that members of the government or their staff are “able to ‘control’ either the production or distribution of those statistics”.

6. In addition, Mr Van Eaton says that in the online edition of the publication the article was not identified as comment or opinion. He believes the red header on the front page, which he describes as the “push alert” at first showed only the title of the article although it was later amended to include Mr Soper’s name. However regardless of the presence of the name, there should have been a clear indication that the article was opinion. Regular readers of theNew Zealand Herald may be aware that Mr Soper is a political reporter, but any reasonable viewer would assume he had factual evidence to support his contention about manipulation.

The Response

7. Oskar Alley, Deputy Head of News for the New Zealand Herald responded to Mr Van Eaton’s complaint. He submitted that the article was clearly identified as an opinion column. Mr Soper is an experienced and well known political commentator. The article carried his byline and was presented as opinion, being labelled “COMMENT”. It appeared in the “opinion” section of the website. The push alert consisted of the title of the article with Mr Soper’s name.

8. Mr Soper is one of NZME’s most recognisable commentators and even a casual reader of the website would be aware that he writes political commentary.

9. There was no inference that Statistics New Zealand had acted inappropriately. There was a suggestion that the government had timed the extension of the wage subsidy, at least in part, to minimise the unemployment figures that would be published shortly before the general election, but this was not a particularly sinister allegation, and was Mr Soper’s opinion; the legitimate political commentary of a political editor with considerable experience.

The Decision

10. This complaint has come to focus almost entirely on the “push alert” that accompanied the Barry Soper article. A push alert is a very brief message sent to subscribers to advise of breaking news. It seems that the item in Mr van Eaton’s complaint may have been a “breaking news strap” which appears as a red banner at the top of the relevant web page. Both are similar to a headline and should meet the requirements of Media Council Principle 6, but it is not a requirement of that principle that headlines should distinguish between fact and comment or opinion. They are merely required to convey accurately and fairly the substance or a key element of the article, which the “push alert” in this case certainly does.

11. The main question therefore is whether the Principle 4 and 5 requirements that comment or opinion should be distinguished from fact extend to the content of a push alert or breaking news strap. It is reasonably clear that they do not generally extend to headlines, but headlines are immediately associated with the articles to which they refer whereas push alerts and breaking news straps are separated from them. The Media Council is of the view that the purpose of the Principle 4 requirement is to ensure that a reader of an article understands, before beginning to read the article, whether it is being presented as fact or opinion. In this case, the article was clearly marked as “comment”, which is equivalent to opinion and there is no breach of Principle 4 or 5. The push alert or breaking news strap essentially performed the function of an index or chapter heading in that it pointed the reader in the direction of the article without forming part of it. It should be noted, however, that the Media Council does not accept it is inevitably sufficient compliance with Principle 4 to attribute an opinion article to a writer who is known to be a regular commentator. It is as important, if not more important, for occasional or new readers, unfamiliar with the regular contributors to the publication, to understand whether they are being presented with fact or opinion.

12. Principle 1 does not apply to opinion pieces except in relation to the Principle 4 requirement that opinions should be based on fact. In this case, the relevant facts are clearly stated as is the reasoning that leads the writer to conclude that there has been “manipulation”. That conclusion is a matter of opinion, and a different writer could have formed a different opinion on the basis of the same facts, but the foundation of fact is there.

13. The complaint under Principle 9 appears to be based on a misunderstanding of that principle. There is no suggestion that subterfuge, misrepresentation or dishonesty played a part in the way the information was obtained – it clearly came from sources that are publicly available.

Determination

14. The complaint is not upheld.

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