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Jaspers and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2016-095 (19 April 2017)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Dated

19th April 2017

Number

2016-095

Programme

1 News

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd

Leigh Pearson declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the determination of this complaint.

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

An item on 1 News reported on the Labour Party’s ‘Ready for Work’ policy, which offered unemployed young people employment on the minimum wage in environmental and community projects for six months. The item reported that, according to Labour, the scheme would cost $60 million per year for 10,000 participants. However, the $60-million sum was actually ‘based on participants taking up the scheme for just four months, not the promised six’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the item was based on inaccurate and unsubstantiated conclusions made by the reporter featured in the item, which was misleading and damaged the credibility of the Labour Party. The reporter’s comments, while critical, were not inaccurate or misleading, and it is an important function of the media to comment critically on political party policy in the lead up to an election period. Labour was given sufficient opportunity to consider the reporter’s comments and to put forward its views, both during the 1 News item and in considerable coverage in other media at the time.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Fairness, Balance


Introduction

[1]  An item on 1 News reported on the Labour Party’s ‘Ready for Work’ policy, which offered unemployed young people employment on the minimum wage in environmental and community projects for six months. During the item, the reporter, Andrea Vance, stated that, according to Labour, the scheme would cost $60 million per year for 10,000 participants. However, she reported that the $60-million sum was actually ‘based on participants taking up the scheme for just four months, not the promised six’.

[2]  During an in-studio interview, the presenter said that Labour had ‘mucked up the numbers again’, and Ms Vance said:

They make it so easy for National to attack them on the numbers – they let this trip them up time and time again. And, you know, Labour are trying to convince the voter that they are a credible alternative to Government and this is Politics 101 – getting the numbers right.

[3]  Mike Jaspers, Chief Press Secretary for the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, complained that the item was based on ‘an inaccurate and unsubstantiated conclusion that the assumptions around cost equated to an inability to fund six months of the programme...’ He said that Ms Vance based her story on a phone conversation, during which Mr Jaspers told her that the figure was costed on participants being involved in the scheme for four months.

[4]  Mr Jaspers said Ms Vance gave no indication during their conversation as to the assumptions she would later make in the item, and that it was not always practical to provide a detailed explanation of the assumptions and factors leading to an economic costing. He submitted that the item was inaccurate, misleading and damaging to the credibility of the Labour Party.

[5]  The issues raised in Mr Jaspers’ complaint are whether the item breached the accuracy, fairness and balance standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[6]  The item was broadcast during the 6pm news on TVNZ 1, on 6 November 2016. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[7]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[8]  Mr Jaspers submitted that:

  • 1 News made multiple incorrect statements of fact on the costings for the policy and consequently misled viewers. The item implied that Labour had ‘mucked up the numbers’ and admitted that this was the case. This was inaccurate (and unfair).
  • Mr Jaspers said the numbers ‘stack[ed] up’ based on ‘offsets and participant assumption’. The costs were based on the scheme being available for six months, and ‘an explanation was provided. There was no admission’ [Mr Jaspers’ emphasis] that Labour had costed the policy in error.
  • Mr Jaspers said Ms Vance later admitted during an exchange with Labour’s Campaign Manager that she was incorrect when she said, ‘You didn’t get the numbers wrong, you just weren’t honest about how long you costed it for’.
  • The statement, ‘They make it so easy for National to attack them on the numbers – they let this trip them up time and time again’, was also inaccurate. The last time there was an issue with Labour’s policy costings was in 2014 over the Best Start policy.

[9]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • The policy document, as well as the presentation from the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little, consistently referred to six-month participation. When specifically asked about costings, Mr Little did not mention that there was an expected or built in drop-out rate of participants. Ms Vance said that it was ‘not common practice for reporters to assume policies launched by any party are costed on the basis of assumptions around participation rates’.
  • The accuracy standard was concerned with whether the broadcaster had made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy, including consideration of whether the broadcaster sought and/or presented comment, clarification or input from any relevant person or organisation, which it argued occurred here.
  • It did not agree that Ms Vance’s statement that Labour ‘weren’t honest about how long’ the scheme was costed for was an admission that she ‘got it wrong’.
  • In relation to the statement that Labour made it ‘easy for National to attack them on the numbers’, Ms Vance argued that this comment dated back to the 2011 campaign and the costings behind the ‘Best Start’ policy in 2014. She noted that ‘all parties are subject to robust analysis of their costings’. This comment, along with the comment that ‘getting the numbers right’ was ‘Politics 101’, could be distinguished as comment, analysis or opinion and the accuracy standard therefore did not apply.

Our analysis

[10]  The Authority has previously recognised that, in the lead up to an election period, politicians and political parties must expect that their policies will be analysed closely by media and by the public. In its decision Grieve and MediaWorks TV Ltd,1 the Authority noted that the introduction of a new policy, presented by the former ACT Party leader, was broadcast:2

...during a robust election environment, during which reporters routinely editorially select angles for their stories and offer political commentary on party policies...[the Act Party leader] should have expected that any comments he made to reporters, on ACT policies or other issues, would be ‘sound-bited’ or picked up on by media and closely scrutinised... Politicians have ample opportunity to discuss and clarify their policies during the lead up to an election.

[11]  In this case, when the cost of Labour’s policy was unclear to Ms Vance, she duly went to the party to clarify why. Labour put forward its reasons for why the cost differed to the reporter’s own calculation. Based on the information provided to us by the parties, we consider Ms Vance accurately reported Labour’s views. Mr Jaspers had explained that Labour had come to the $60-million figure through evidence that not all participants remain in similar schemes for six months. This analysis led Labour to believe that a majority of participants would leave the scheme after an average of four months, and the cost of the scheme was calculated on that basis.

[12]  We do not think the item implied that the scheme would not last for six months or that it was not available for the six-month period, as alleged by the complainant. Rather, it was reported that the cost of the scheme was not actually calculated based on all participants being involved in the scheme for the full six months.

[13]  We consider that viewers would have understood from the item that an assumption had been made by Labour in relation to costing for the scheme, and this assumption had not been made clear to media or to those attending the policy announcement (as it was not set out in the accompanying documentation, or detailed to media either during the party conference or in subsequent interviews with Labour). As noted during a Paul Henry item subsequent to the policy announcement,3 the assumption made by Labour would involve an increase in cost if proven to be incorrect. As such, Ms Vance considered this was a material factor to the costing of the policy, which should have been addressed publicly.

[14]  In relation to Ms Vance’s comment that Labour made it easy for National to ‘attack them on the numbers’, we note that the requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.4 We also think viewers generally expect robust political commentary from reporters in this role, which can at times include strong or provocative language.5 While Ms Vance’s comments during the in-studio interview were negative, they represented her own analysis of the issues reported in the item, and were therefore not subject to the accuracy standard (this issue is further dealt with as matter of fairness below). In any event, Ms Vance was able to provide past instances of Labour being criticised for similar issues, in support of her views.6

[15]  The information provided to us indicates that Labour was given several opportunities to clarify its position both at the time of, and following, its announcement of the policy. Ms Vance spoke with Mr Jaspers, on behalf of the party, prior to the broadcast. Mr Little addressed media immediately after the conference, and at no point clarified the assumptions made for costing the policy. Following the conference, Labour’s policy announcement attracted substantial media attention, and Mr Little appeared before media, and also on Paul Henry, to clarify the costing assumptions.7 If Labour wanted to present further information, it had adequate opportunity to do so, and was ultimately in the best position to explain the assumptions made in costing the policy in the first instance.

[16]  We therefore do not uphold the accuracy complaint.

Was any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[17]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. One of the purposes of the fairness standard is to protect individuals and organisations from broadcasts which provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.8

The parties’ submissions

[18]  Mr Jaspers submitted that:

  • Ms Vance’s comments gave an unfair representation of the policy. Taken in their entirety, the statements undermined the credibility and integrity of the Labour Party, and particularly the credibility of a future Labour-led government.
  • The comments were damaging to the Party’s reputation and were reiterated in the Paul Henry interview and by other media. The audience would have been left with an unduly negative impression of Labour, which was not given a reasonable opportunity to challenge the mistaken conclusions of the reporter.
  • When he spoke with Ms Vance prior to the broadcast, Mr Jaspers said that he told her that Labour arrived at the $60-million figure by allowing for the assumption that a significant number of people would leave the scheme after four months. Mr Jaspers said the conversation ended with his understanding that Ms Vance understood his view, and that if Ms Vance was still concerned, she had an obligation to put the allegations back to Labour, ie, that the numbers did not ‘add up’.

[19]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • Following the conference, Mr Little spoke to media about the scheme. Ms Vance asked Mr Little how Labour arrived at the $60-million figure. Mr Little did not outline the assumptions made about participation rates at that time, leaving a ‘clear impression that this was a structured six-month programme or a scheme’.
  • Ms Vance said she rang Mr Jaspers when her calculations led her to believe the costing was $35 million short. She said she was clear in her line of questioning and ‘referred to “a black hole” in the numbers on more than one occasion’.
  • The negative comments made at the end of the item represented the reporter’s analysis based on her knowledge and expertise, and did not stray beyond the policy issues, into being personally abusive. Labour was given sufficient opportunity to put its position across and it was fairly reported based on the information available.

Our analysis

[20]  As we have noted above under accuracy, in the lead up to an election period, it can be expected that politicians and political parties will be subject to intense public scrutiny in relation to introduced policies and their cost. Media reporting on these policies, particularly those policies that may be unclear or confusing, assists voters to understand what a party is proposing. Media also play an important role in providing the public with critical analysis of political affairs generally. This item therefore had high value in terms of public interest and in terms of the right to freedom of expression.

[21]  We do not consider that the item, or the angle taken, resulted in unfairness to the Labour Party, or that a misleading impression was created by Ms Vance in relation to Mr Jasper’s comments on the costing analysis. As outlined in relation to the accuracy standard, based on the information provided to us we are satisfied that Ms Vance accurately and fairly summarised Labour’s position. As Labour omitted from public disclosure assumptions in costing its policy, Ms Vance sought to draw her own conclusions about this. Her comments represented an opinion open to her and one that she was entitled to present in her role as a political reporter. Ms Vance’s comments, while critical, did not go beyond what could be expected by the Party during this period. Labour had multiple opportunities to provide clarification and give its side of the story both before and after the broadcast.

[22]  Accordingly we do not uphold the fairness complaint.

Was the item sufficiently balanced?

[23]  The balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. The standard exists to ensure that competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

The parties’ submissions

[24]  Mr Jaspers submitted that:

  • 1 News failed to explain why the numbers did not add up in its view and failed to balance the claims of the reporter with the views of the Labour Party. Viewers were therefore likely to be misinformed.
  • Labour’s view was that:
    It is standard economic modelling to allow for assumptions around participation rates. In the case of Ready for Work it was assumed that each participant on average would stay four months. This assumption is based on the existing data on young people on the Job Seeker benefit which shows about half go off the benefit after six months. The [Ministry of Social Development] budget doesn’t assume that everyone who is on the benefit at the start of the year will be at the end of the year.

[25]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • The reporting of Labour’s policy amounted to discussion of a controversial issue of public importance.
  • Significant viewpoints were adequately presented in the item and reasonable efforts were made, and reasonable opportunities given to Labour, to present its position.

Our analysis

[26]  For the reasons discussed in our consideration of the accuracy and fairness standards, we find that reasonable efforts were made, and sufficient opportunities given, to present significant points of view on the issue discussed in the item.

[27]  Labour was given ample opportunity, both prior to broadcast (during the conference, subsequent media stand-up and in Ms Vance’s phone call with Mr Jaspers), and in surrounding media after the broadcast, to disclose assumptions around participation rates and to provide balance to the reporter’s comments. In response to the item and Ms Vance’s comments in particular, balancing views were provided to audiences in surrounding media, when Mr Little explained to media how the calculations were reached and emphasised the opportunities the policy would provide for young people. For example, during Mr Little’s stand-up with media on 8 November 2016 (a transcript of which was provided to us by the broadcaster), he said:

The approach we took, the modelling we did, was orthodox, was conventional. It is what this Government does when it is looking at comparable schemes. I stand by the numbers, I stand by the policy, because it’s a brilliant policy and it will do brilliant things for young people who at the moment this Government is totally overlooking.

[28]  He also said:

When you start showing me the opportunities that you’ve taken to challenge the Government on programmes that it’s put together, with its conventional modelling, and tried to unpick it and demand that more money be spent on it, then I’ll take your questions seriously. We announced a policy on Sunday that has been put together on orthodox principles, orthodox assumptions. It is correct, it is robust.

[29]  The viewpoint argued for by Mr Jaspers – that Labour used conventional economic modelling principles in making assumptions about participation rates – was therefore put forward.

[30] We are satisfied that the requirements of the standard were met, in particular through the reporter’s phone call and efforts to seek comment from Mr Jaspers prior to the broadcast. We do not consider that viewers would have been left misled or uninformed, especially given the other information and coverage available.

[31]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under Standard 8.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
Member
19 April 2017

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1      Mike Jasper’s formal complaint – 10 November 2016
2      TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 8 December 2016
3      Mr Jasper’s referral to the Authority – 19 December 2016
4      TVNZ’s response to the referral – 27 February 2017
5      Mr Jasper’s final comments – 8 March 2017
6      TVNZ’s final comments – 9 March 2017

 

 


1 Decision No. 2014-145 

2 Above, at [25]

3 Mr Little appeared on Paul Henry on 7 November 2016 (after the item appeared on 1 News) to defend the calculations made: Andrew Little stands by cost of young people's jobs policy (Newshub, 7 November 2016) 

4 Guideline 9a 

5 See Woods and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2015-062

6 For example, see: Opinion: Labour dishonest on 'baby bonus' (Newshub, 28 January 2014); Special investigation: Auckland house prices (NZ Herald, 11 July 2015)

7 See: Labour digs in over row with One News journalist about youth work scheme costs (Stuff.co.nz, 8 November 2016); Watch: Little defends work scheme costings (NZ Herald, 8 November 2016); Andrew Little attacks media over youth unemployment policy questions (Newshub, 8 November 2016)

8 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014