JENNY KIRK AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDThe New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint against the New Zealand Herald for its coverage of the Labour Party’s Job Search Allowance policy to help families affected by redundancy.
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.
Jenny Kirk complained to the Press Council that a story and headline in the New Zealand Herald of October 31, 2008, was inaccurate and misleading in both its headlines and facts.
Ms Kirk said the headlines over the article about Labour’s just-announced Job Search Allowance were incorrect. They said: PM puts working couples first; and $50m safety net excludes single people and workers with a stay-at-home partner. Ms Kirk said the package was for all working people, not just working couples.
The first paragraph read: “Labour’s hard-times allowance would effectively give a working couple $2000 if one of them is made redundant – but single workers and couples with a non-working partner would get nothing new.”
Ms Kirk said the proposed redundancy legislation, job allowances for retraining for workers made redundant and the Job Search Allowances were all new, and they were for all workers.
Detailing how the allowance would be paid to the partner who lost a job, whatever the income of the other working partner, the article went on to say it would not be “entirely universal,” as it would be abated against the income of the “qualifying partner” on income earned over $80 a week.
Ms Kirk said the Herald’s reporting “very cleverly obscured and misrepresented the proper meaning of the announced policy.” She quoted from the official documentation accompanying the announcement which said requirements for the allowance would be the same as for the unemployment benefit with the exception that the income of the redundant person’s spouse or partner would not affect their entitlement.
As with the unemployment benefit, the allowance would be abated if “the person’s personal income” reached a threshold of currently $80 a week, including interest on savings.
Ms Kirk said the policy indicated “that a person who is in a relationship where both partners work will not have their partner’s employment income taken into account” when receiving the allowance but other income would be.
In an email of complaint to the editor of the Herald, Ms Kirk said a fact sheet that would have been available to Herald reporters showed that single and married people, solo parents and couples with children were all included.
Ms Kirk was not satisfied with the response of the editor of the Herald, Tim Murphy, who refused to accept the Herald was mistaken.
He referred Ms Kirk to a blog of that day from the Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young, for further explanation. Ms Kirk complained to the Press Council.
The Newspaper’s Response
In his more formal response to the Council dated November 3, Mr Murphy said the Herald’s article was correct. Ms Kirk had compared a discrepancy between the Herald article and the policy releases and assumed the newspaper was wrong.
The fact sheet Ms Kirk referred to was misleading in that it referred to net and gross figures for every category of worker, giving the impression that the figures were the amounts all workers would get for the allowance.
But the allowance was available for 13 weeks only to workers made redundant with a spouse working and was at the same rate as the unemployment benefit. The Prime Minister’s office had confirmed that the allowance was for two-income families only. On the basis of the table in the fact sheet, it was not hard to see why Ms Kirk was misled.
Contrary to what Ms Kirk said, at no time had the Herald said the allowance would be income-tested against the income of a working spouse.
Mr Murphy said the Herald’s Press Gallery staff had complained loudly to the Prime Minister’s office about the “misleading nature of the material that was handed out.”
“Far from being worthy of a complaint to the Press Council, the Herald coverage of the Job Search Allowance was an excellent example of reporters doing their job properly – not accepting material presented by politicians at face value, and digging further for the facts for our readers,” Mr Murphy said.
The complaint arose against a background of the election campaign and political parties striving to present policies in the wake of financial turmoil around the world. In such circumstances, political parties seek to maximise the impact of their initiatives.
Newspapers have a duty not to accept political statements or releases at face value, and the Herald acted correctly in subjecting the Job Search Allowance to scrutiny.
It was entitled to reach the conclusions it did when reporting the initiative, even though it may not have been what the Labour Party would have wished. Without a doubt, the policy is aimed at families on two incomes. Why the press releases showed figures for single workers or solo parents who would not be eligible is something of a mystery.
A press release accompanying the material itself acknowledges, for example, that when a worker in a one-income family becomes redundant, social security assistance is already available. The new policy applies where “there is another earner in the family.”
Both the heading and the article are therefore accurate reflections of what the policy really means. The use of the term “qualifying partner” by the Herald within the article appears to have caused some confusion, and may have misled Ms Kirk, but in the context of the article as a whole, the Press Council believes the overall meaning was clear.
The complaint is not upheld.