Case Number: 2713

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2018

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: The Spinoff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy


On July 31, 2018, The Spinoff published a graphic story by Toby Morris entitled‘The Side Eye: Inequality Tower 2018’. Toby Morris enlisted the help of writer, economist and researcher Max Rashbrooke.The piece is similar to one completed three years ago using Statistics New Zealand figures and presenting in picture form (using the image of a multi-story house) income inequality data.Jim Rose complains about factual inaccuracies in the piece.

The Complaint

Mr Rose makes two points which he believes demonstrate inaccuracies in the comic.His first point is that the comic claims that ‘for those on the top [storeys of the income inequality tower building], housing rises in value all the time, and when you sell it you do not even pay tax….’.Mr Rose points out that for some property owners and for some transactions, selling their property will incur taxes.He uses the example of residential property owners incurring tax because they have bought and sold within a short period of time.He states that the comic should more accurately read “for those for those on the top, housing rises in value all the time, and when you sell it youmight not even pay tax”.

The second point Mr Rose makes is that the comic states that ‘we could try a capital gains tax…’.Mr Rose points out that New Zealand already has a capital gains tax.He suggests that Mr Morris and Mr Rashbrooke are actually and more accurately suggesting ‘an extension to the current capital gains tax’.He goes further to suggest that the wording should most accurately be ‘we could try extending the capital gains tax for a third time in three years’ as he points out there have been a number of previous extensions to the capital gains tax regime.In further correspondence, he states that the phrase could have simply been ‘we could try a comprehensive capital gains tax..”

The Response

Toby Manhire, editor of The Spinoff replies that he ‘takes on board’ the comments provided by Mr Rose.In regard to the first point raised by Mr Rose, he argues that a reasonable reader would interpret that statement to describe a typical experience rather than a universal one.

In regard to the second point, he argues that the article is in comic form and necessitates a ‘comic-form commentary’.

Mr Manhire states that ‘capital gains tax’ as a phrase is commonly used as shorthand for a generally applicable capital gains tax and as such is sound for use in this form.

The Discussion

The Media Council principle of accuracy states: 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 regard to the complaint from Mr Rose about the inaccuracy of the statement about the payment of tax on properties, while technically inaccurate, the Media Council can see no attempt to deliberately mislead or misinform readers by the omission of the word ‘might’.The article at question is a long-form comic strip that attempts to convey complex information about income data in an accessible way.The comic-form also necessitates brevity.

Likewise the call for a capital gains tax. While using this phrase may be technically inaccurate when viewed from someone who has a deep understanding of tax policy, the journalistic shorthand used in the context of the comic form again does not seek to deliberately misinform readers.Instead, most readers would understand the intent of the message which is a call for a more comprehensive capital tax regime that could better address income inequality.

Minor technical inaccuracies, such as those pointed out by Mr Rose, while no doubt frustrating for the reader who has a deep technical knowledge of the subject at hand, may occur when complex information is being presented in ways to engage the non-technical reader.Taken in the context of the complete comic-strip, which relays a wide range of information, concepts and opinions, they are, on balance, immaterial.

While the Media Council expects publications to take every possible step to ensure the data and facts they present are accurate, if short-cuts, common phrases, and shorthand concepts in current widespread use are appropriate to convey the message, publications should be able to do so.

The complaint is not upheld by the majority of the Council members.

One member if the Media Council, Craig Cooper, dissented on the point re "housing rises in value all the time and when you sell it you don't even pay tax". He did not see it as being a minor technical inaccuracy, or being permissible because it was an allowable shortcut, common phrase or shorthand concept.

He also did not agree that journalistic shorthand is acceptable because of the comic form - the mode of presentation in his view is irrelevant.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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