RICHARD EASTHER AGAINST THE NZ HERALD
Case Number: 3388
Council Meeting: February 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Richard Easther complains about an article $100m cycling project in doubt under Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown published by
the NZ Herald on 22 October 2022. It falls to be decided under Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy Fairness and Balance. The complaint is
- The article noted that ‘a controversial $100 million programme of inner-city cycleways [was] seemingly on the skids with the election of new Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown’. It reported that the mayor had called for a change in approach at Auckland Transport, including a call for investment in cycleways to only occur when the per kilometre price was in line with other cities. It also reported that this call prompted Councillor Lee to write to the mayor requesting several cycling projects be put on hold.
- The article noted the costs and controversies associated with several cycleway projects and the views of Councillor Lee and the Mayor. It noted criticism of Auckland Transport in relation to one planned cycleway:
… which has risen in cost from $39m to $45m – the equivalent of $18m per kilometre. It is being built to a gold standard with new trees, native plantings, raised tables on side streets, upgraded street lighting, partial undergrounding of power lines, a bus land … and a separated, two-way cycle way … connecting the suburbs
- The article also records the views of Bike Auckland, which is also frustrated by the inability of Auckland Transport to deliver ‘cost-effective cycleways quicker’ but would support cost-effective ways of achieving outcomes.
- Mr Easther complains that the projects described in the article are all uncritically described as ‘cycling projects’, adopting the language used by Councillor Lee in his letter to the mayor. However, in his view this is inaccurate. While the projects may have “began life as “cycling” proposals’, they also include upgrades to bus lanes, pedestrian access, undergrounding of power and rebuilding roadways. It is misleading to refer to them simply as cycleways or cycling projects. Referring to an Auckland Transport description of one project, he states that this makes it clear that the benefits to cycling are not the sole or even primary motivation for the work.
- The article does not query or contextualise the language of cycleways. For example, it refers to one cycleway project (noted above) being built to a ‘gold standard’, when it is unlikely that even 20 per cent of the cost specifically supports cycling. Therefore, it is inaccurate to state that the costs will be $18m per kilometre. Moreover, much of the work is required regardless of whether the proposed cycleway proceeds. This framing is inaccurate implicitly provides support to the perspective that cycleways are niche projects and undertaken for the benefit of a small urban elite, when they actually have benefits for quality of life and decarbonisation. This is inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced.
- The NZ Herald notes that all three projects referred to in the article are described as ‘cycleways’ by Auckland Transport, Auckland Council and Waka Kotahi and all are funded by the Auckland Urban Cycleways Programme. This funding is set aside to build cycleways, with projects designed to encourage more people to cycle. Auckland Transport refers to the projects as “Inner-west cycleways and street improvements”.
- The NZ Herald disagrees with the complaint’s suggestion that Auckland Transport itself considers that the benefits to cycling are not the sole or even primary motivation for the work. Rather, Auckland Transport has stated in relation to three projects mentioned in the article “Protected cycleways, separated from traffic, are a key feature of each project. The routes expand Auckland’s growing cycleway network.”
- It rejects Mr Easther’s calculation that less than 20 per cent of the costs can be attributed to cycleways. It notes part of the cycleway in question is 2.5km long and the cost is $46 million. It is therefore accurate to say that the cost is $18m per kilometre.
- The NZ Herald also rejects the suggestion the article fails to contextualise that the cycleway projects feature other roading and pedestrian improvements. It points to several instances where the fact the projects will include more than cycleway features are mentioned in the article itself.
- Mr Easther is entitled to his opinion that there is a perspective that cycleways are niche projects for the urban elite, but that is not the NZ Herald’s view. A new mayor had been elected who had pledged to review the cost of cycleway projects in the city. A councillor wrote to him nominating projects that should be reviewed. It was appropriate to report on all of this. The fact is that the most important actors describe these projects as ‘cycleways’, they are funded by a ‘Cycleways Programme’. In essence, it was not inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced to describe them as such.
- Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy Fairness and Balance states that:
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 articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.
- The complainant accepts that the funding for these projects comes from budgets reserved for cycling. However, he considers that, as they deliver many positive things beyond simple ‘cycleways’, omitting that information is misleading. Doing so feeds a perspective that these projects cost too much for something that only delivers for those who use them to bike on and contributes to a view that they should not go ahead.
- The Media Council has considerable sympathy for this view. Describing these projects as simply cycleways does appear to downplay the extent of infrastructure spending and development that accompany them, and the other benefits that they will provide to both other road users and the urban space generally. We also consider that it is somewhat inaccurate to suggest that costs per metre are for cycleways, when many of those costs appear to have little to do with cycling itself. We also agree that there is a risk that underplaying the extent of work involved in these projects runs the risk of adversely affecting the public discussion of an important matter of public policy.
- Conversely, we accept the Herald’s point that officially these projects are described as cycleways and funded by the Auckland Urban Cycleways Programme. It is also the language that appears to have been adopted by the mayor and by the councillor whose letter is referred to. Although it may not be technically accurate it appears these projects have received the ‘moniker’ cycleways.
- We consider that it would have been better had the article investigated, and drawn out in greater detail, the types of costs associated with these projects. Ultimately, however, we do not consider that the NZ Herald can be criticised for adopting the language that appears to be in general usage not just by the politicians but by independent agencies and which, after all, accurately describes at least part of what is proposed. As Auckland Transport says, the cycleways are a ‘key feature of each project’. We note that in his first two mentions, the reporter refers to them as “programmes”, which suggests something bigger than mere cycle paths, as he describes later in the story.
- In reaching this conclusion we are mindful of the fact that at least some of the complainant’s concern is addressed in the body of the article, which outlines the proposed expenditure to include improvements such as planting, lighting and upgrading powerlines. The description of what these projects will do (the ‘gold standard’ quality) makes it quite clear the extent of what is involved in undertaking these projects and why they might cost so much.
- The complaint is not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (chair); Jo Cribb, Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Judi Jones, Scott Inglis, Tim Watkin, Alison Thom, Jonathan Mackenzie, Ben France-Hudson.