PETER MCFARLANE AGAINST NEWSROOM

Case Number: 2914

Council Meeting: JUNE 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: NewsRoom

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Peter McFarlane has complained about a Newsroom story headlined Awkward questions from the last crisis managers published on April 2, 2020 on newsroom.co.nz.

2. The thrust of the complaint is that the story is unbalanced and breaches two Media Council principles.

3. The story is based on an interview with former finance minister Steven Joyce and a transcript of a private briefing given by former Prime Minister Sir Bill English to investment and advisory group Jarden, a week before the story was published.

4. The story is wholly devoted to a measured critique of the current government’s reaction and plans to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and associated economic fallout.

The Complaint

5. Citing NZMC Principle 1: Accuracy, fairness and balance, Mr McFarlane says Newsroom breached that principle by “simply repeating” what Mr Joyce and Sir Bill said with “no attempt to get an opposing view” and “no attempt to question obvious flaws in the logic, particularly from Mr Joyce”.

6. The complainant also says that the story carried a “tone” of the men as being “great crisis managers” and that was “far from a fair characterisation, particularly for Mr Joyce”.

7. “They were far from alone and certainly collectively they did not do a good job of managing other crises like the housing crisis and Pike River.”

8. Mr McFarlane asserts that it would be more balanced to present Mr Joyce and Sir Bill as “slightly flawed characters and part of a team”.

9. Turning to the headline - Awkward questions from the last crisis managers - Mr McFarlane said the heading breached Principle 6: Headings and captions, as the only way the questions could be regarded as awkward is if the Government had no plan to deal with the pandemic.

10. “That would require determining if there are any. However there was not even a passing attempt made to establish that.

11. “For that reason, I contend that this is misinformation, as without asking, the reporter could not possibly know…”.

12. The complaint concludes that the questions can’t be awkward “if you only present one side of the argument.”

The Response

13. For Newsroom, Tim Murphy, the co-editor, rejected the complaints under Principles 1 and 6.

14. “This was an interview, as headlined, with two politicians who were involved with the country’s response to the Global Financial Crisis when in office.

15. “It laid out their views, borne from experience from economic upheaval and did not require the journalist to seek a contrary opinion.”

16. Mr Murphy said balance was achieved over the many stories run by Newsroom and other news outlets at the time.

17. “Much time and space was properly given to the current administration’s ministers and the reasons for their actions.There can be no question that balance was fully achieved for our readership around that time.”

18. Mr Murphy said the complainant has his own views on the former ministers in question - “and that is fine” - but his complaint “seemed to presume neutral journalists ought to raise issues that he personally feels strongly about”.

19. Mr Murphy said whether or not the former National ministers did a good job managing other crises was arguable and beside the point.“The story at issue was about dealing with a major global economic crisis and disaster support packages, not a mine explosion or a systemic policy failure or otherwise.”

20. Under Principle 6: Headlines and captions, Mr Murphy rejected the complainant’s reading of the headline and that it implied that the Government did not have a plan.

21. “The two former ministers are responding to the current government’s ‘plans’ with their critique and their questioning of timing and scale of response.”

22. Mr Murphy said the piece was a “straightforward news story”.The word “awkward” was used to underline challenges that were “uncommon at the time - to what was an urgent and early acceptance by many influencers and members of the public of urgent measures unveiled by the Government.”

The Decision

23. The Council does not agree with Mr McFarlane that the story has breached Principles 1 and 6.

24. Principle 1 states, in part: In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

25. In the Council’s view this is one such instance where balance has been achieved over time. As Mr Murphy said, news organisations across the country expended much time and energy reporting the Government’s position and reaction to the Covid crisis.

26. The Council notes that the Government’s stance was broadcast to the nation every day at the 1pm press conference on radio, TV and news websites.It is unrealistic to suggest that readers would not have already been apprised of the Government’s position prior to reading the Newsroom piece.

27. Covid, and measures taken to combat it, was the major story running at the time across New Zealand and the globe. We do not accept that it is likely that readers will be left misinformed after reading theNewsroom article.

28. Similarly, the Council does not agree with Mr McFarlane that the story depicts Mr Joyce and Sir Bill as “great crisis managers” and employs a tone that elevates their status.It is legitimate for political commentary to include views from past politicians and in this instance provided significant context.

29. The Council agrees with Mr Murphy that the story is straightforward and served as a significant counterpoint to the accepted wisdom of the Government’s plans, during an unprecedented event in the nation’s history.

30. Principle 6 states: Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

31. The Council does not agree that the heading breaches Principle 6 or with Mr McFarlane’s interpretation of the heading.

32. Mr Murphy maintains that the questions are “awkward” because challenges to the accepted wisdom of the Government’s pandemic plan were uncommon at the time. The Council agrees and therefore does not find that the heading implied that the incumbent government did not have a plan for Covid-19.

Decision

33. The complaint under Principles 1 and 6 is not upheld.

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

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