NORMAN HOPKINS AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTNorman J Hopkins complained that The Dominion Post, in an article of May 18, 2011 misled readers through inaccurate and biased information regarding the amount of tax paid by dairy farmers. He complained the headlines, the captions and the article itself failed to meet required standards of accuracy, fairness and balance.
He also complained about the inadequacy of The Dominion Post’s corrective action.
The complaint is not upheld.
On May 18 The Dominion Post devoted the upper-half of its front page to stimulating debate on whether dairy farmers in New Zealand pay enough tax. The content of the article arose from information released following a Parliamentary question to the Government Revenue Minister. The size of the headline, and its red background and with further sub-headings in a very large type, indicated that the newspaper believed it was an issue of national importance.
“IS THIS FAIR?
Average dairy farmer’ tax $1506 (income $500,000+)
Average wage earner’s tax $8020 (income $ 50,000)”
The premise of the article was inaccurate; that the two figures represented meaningful comparisons. They did not: one was revenue (dairy farmers) the other income (wage earners).
The article canvassed a broad range of opinions on this flawed “comparison”: Federated Farmers, the Revenue Minister, a farmer, a family, a retired couple and a beneficiary. Not all were given equal weighting with the farmer, the retired couple, the family and the beneficiary being photographed and quoted in separate panels.
The Federated Farmers spokesman Conor English, Revenue Minister Peter Dunne and the individual farmer were apparently aware that they were commenting on dairy farm revenue whilst the others appeared to believe they were commenting on comparable figures thereby making a nonsense of their perspective on the “It’s fair” or it’s “Absolutely not fair” debate.
The article drew strong responses along predictable lines of those identifying the basic flaw in the article and those for whom its flawed logic provided an opportunity to voice their opinion on the issue. The Dominion Post printed a range of the responses including comments from the Federated Farmers, the Deputy Prime Minister and several letters to the editor, the majority of which pointed out the major inaccuracy.
Mr Hopkins was one of many people who wrote to the newspaper responding to this article however none of his four letters was published. On June 6, he complained formally that the original article was biased, unfair, poorly researched and lacked balance. He argued that the headline was grossly deficient and he called for a retraction.
He also complained that the correction, when finally published, was very brief, not prominent and dealt inadequately with the many deficiencies of the original article.
The newspaper argued:
1. The article was balanced and fair and provided equal prominence to both sides of the debate.
2. The newspaper was “entirely neutral’ on the question of whether the amount of tax paid by dairy farmers was fair and was merely reporting the question asked by Labour revenue spokesman Stuart Nash.
3. It did not “duck” publishing further responses to the article including an array of complaining voices raised against its basic premise (specifically those of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister, Business New Zealand and farmers).
4. It rejected the claim that it misled readers and quoted various parts of the article relating to statistical analysis and those sources including the IRD.
5. The newspaper expressed surprise to receive Mr Hopkins complaint “a month after the article”.
6. The newspaper advised Mr Hopkins it would investigate and keep him informed and eventually it formed the opinion that “it was appropriate to publish a correction in relation to the [income $500,000+] headline”. The newspaper argued that under Principle 5 it “would have been preferable to use the word “revenue instead of income” in the headline even though the $500,000 figure was correctly explained in the article and in the part of the story quoting the farmer.
Mr Hopkins was thwarted in his attempt to complain about the inaccurate headline when his letters were not published. His resulting complaint, therefore, occurred several weeks after the original furore over the original article had died down.
The newspaper felt it had covered all sides of debate following the publication of the misleading headline and was surprised by the complaint coming, as it did, so long after the event.
The headline was, as the newspaper agreed, incorrect and as a result the article promoted a pointless debate. The newspaper’s willingness to publish subsequent opinions redressed the original inaccuracy by allowing accurate information to be presented upon which the issue could then be canvassed.
The newspaper’s 8-page defence is incomprehensible and confusing given its decision to run a correction accepting that the headline was inaccurate and misleading.
Specific points which do not illuminate the issue include:
The newspaper claimed to be a mere messenger in a debate initiated by a Labour spokesman yet no clear attribution was made to that spokesman and no quotation marks indicated to readers that this was a reported opinion of a third party.
The Labour revenue spokesman was not mentioned until the third paragraph of the main article, some six decks of headline into the story.
The newspaper claims the article was balanced and fair and argues that headlines must not be read in isolation, and articles need to be read “in their entirety with all aspects being considered together.” This is a heavy onus to place on readers.
The newspaper made a fundamental error in comparing income and revenue. It is clear that initially the newspaper believed it was publishing evidence that dairy farmers were escaping their fair share of the tax burden. The newspaper presented the issue as a major exposé. As issues of tax excite a great deal of public interest the onus is on the newspaper to ensure that its statistics are accurate.
However, the newspaper did shoulder its responsibility to correct the misinformation by subsequently publishing a wide range of opinions – and those given most prominence in the news columns were those of parties keen to expose the inaccuracy.
It was reasonable for the editor to believe that – after several weeks had passed – the debate was concluded and the matter closed. When the complaint was received, it was investigated, the complainant was kept informed of progress and a correction was published.
It is the Press Council’s view that the correction, and apology, could have been given more prominence in light of the prominence originally accorded the issue.
The Press Council finds the complaint is substantiated but the newspaper subsequently took sufficient steps to address the error.
The complaint is therefore not upheld.
Mr Hopkins attended the Press Council to speak to his complaint. The editor was also invited to attend but declined.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.