HELEN KELLY AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
The New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Helen Kelly, President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, against the New Zealand Herald for details it published about party policies and KiwiSaver in an election guide.
The complaint has been dealt with under the Press Council’s fast-track procedure for dealing with complaints arising out of the general election. A decision of the Press Council weeks after an election is of little use to a complainant. The complaint met the criteria that it required prompt and timely adjudication.
Ms Kelly complained that on Saturday, November 1, 2008, the NZ Herald published some misleading information when it provided readers with a table summary of the policies of several political parties. The comparison was part of a special Vote 08 election guide of some 24 tabloid pages.
One of the policy areas covered was KiwiSaver. Ms Kelly said that KiwiSaver was a major point of policy difference between the two major parties and this difference was of great interest to the 800,000 people who had already joined the scheme. She provided for the Press Council a CTU PowerPoint which showed the impact of the policies of both National and Labour on savings.
5 The items complained of were two parts of a grid over two tabloid pages created by the Herald, giving brief details of 12 policy areas, across eight political parties.
Of Labour’s KiwiSaver policy, the details published were: “Introduced KiwiSaver scheme to encourage saving with automatic enrolment when you start a new job, voluntary opt-out, savings locked in until age 65 unless withdrawn for first house. Employees can save at 4 or 8% of gross income, others (e.g. self-employed, children) can save at any rate agreed with their scheme providers.”
Of National’s policy details published were: “Keep KiwiSaver with automatic enrolment, voluntary opt-out and lock-in until age 65 except to buy first house. Employees can save at 2, 4 or 8% of gross income, others can save at any rate agreed with their scheme providers.”
Ms Kelly said that in fact, National would cut employer contributions from 4% to 2% and limit the employee tax credit (the government contribution) also to 2% to a maximum of $1040 per year (from the current 4% up to a maximum of $1040 per year)- significantly reducing potential savings totals for KiwiSavers.
She said the Herald’s details implied that National would simply provide another saving option (a 2% option).
Ms Kelly, as required under Press Council rules, took her complaint initially to the Herald.
The newspaper’s deputy editor, David Hastings, replied that having reviewed the text in light of the complaint, he believed the summary was fair because the comparisons between National and Labour were made on exactly the same terms. The National Party summary did not drill down into the detail about employer contributions and tax because the Labour summary didn't. To include those details with the National policy would have meant adding to the Labour summary as the basic expression of the KiwiSaver scheme.
Mr Hastings said: “Not only was there insufficient space to do this but I don't think it was necessary. Most readers would understand that the spread on policies was not meant to give the full details but rather tight summaries to make comparison easier.”
13 Ms Kelly was not satisfied because she believed the Herald, having set the terms of the comparison, made it look as though there are no differences between the two parties on KiwiSaver and had provided information that was misleading.
The Newspaper’s Response
In his response to the Press Council, Mr Hastings said the Herald’s policy table in the election supplement did not make it appear there was no difference between National and Labour policies on KiwiSaver. The table had highlighted an important basic difference, one which had been widely cited and quoted.
15 It was true that it also mentioned how the policies were similar and the Herald made no apologies for that. For the sake of balance, it was just as important to remind readers of what was the same as what was different.
Ms Kelly had mentioned a number of points of difference she believed should have been included but there was insufficient space in the table to include that kind of detail.
However, most of the points she mentioned were summarised in the words of Michael Cullen and Bill English in a panel accompanying a more detailed article on KiwiSaver on page 7 of the same Vote08 supplement. That version was much fairer than either Ms Kelly's note or her CTU information because it was balanced and allowed for differing interpretations of what the policies meant.
The deputy editor said the implications of the KiwiSaver policy were complex and disputed, and the Herald had mentioned them in numerous stories over the past three weeks. “A survey of those stories should make it abundantly clear that it was not possible to encompass all the nuances to everyone's complete satisfaction.”
Ms Kelly's prescription in her emails and the CTU information was no help. The deputy editor said it would not pass the journalistic test of balance given that it took no account of the similarities between the two policies or the different ways that people might be affected.
No reasonable person would expect every last detail of any given policy to appear in the table. In this case, although the comparison drawn between the Labour and National KiwiSaver policies was necessarily brief, it was nonetheless fair and accurate.
Moreover, it was supported on Page 7 with a further panel explaining the more complex (and disputed) differences in the words of the party spokesmen for the policies. In short, Vote08 was accurate, fair and balanced.
Mr Hastings also provided for the Press Council several recent articles from the Herald in which the impact of National’s policies on KiwiSaver were more fully explained.
Graphic grids containing brief snippets of information about complex issues are often fraught for newspapers. This instance is no exception. Inevitably, in editing down policies to a few sentences, some details have to be omitted.
The Herald decided to focus on two aspects – parties’ policies about KiwiSaver and employee contribution rates. (In that, it restricted the information to key points it believed relevant for the purpose of its information guide.) It was entitled to make such a judgment.
Ms Kelly’s point that National would cut employer contributions from 4% to 2% and limit the employee tax credit (the government contribution) also to 2% to a maximum of $1040 per year and that this difference with Labour Party policy is important to voters is a valid one.
However, the deputy editor rightly points out that the article on page 7 does state National’s policy on employer contributions, although not in the direct terms that Ms Kelly and the CTU stated.
As well, recent articles in the Herald made abundantly clear the differences between the two parties on this particular point.
The question for the Press Council is whether the detail provided in the grid meets the test of accuracy, fairness and balance, and whether it is misleading because of what has been omitted.
In as far as the grid detail goes, it meets the criteria of accuracy, fairness and balance because all parties are treated the same.
Had the detail in the grid been the only information about KiwiSaver published in the supplement, the Council may have upheld the complaint. However there was additional information, including argument from both Michael Cullen and Bill English on the percentage contribution difference, in the article about KiwiSaver on page 7 of the same supplement. The Council also takes into account that the Herald has previously published a considerable amount about the detail of KiwiSaver and, in particular, National’s clearly stated intention to make a significant change to the savings scheme.
It would not be fair to uphold the complaint given this overall context. However, the Herald would have been wise to state on its double page spread that the table provided severely edited information and referred readers to other pages within the supplement or even to party websites for greater detail.
The complaint is not upheld.