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Brown and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2017-074 (22 September 2017)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Francesca Brown

Dated

22nd September 2017

Number

2017-074

Channel/Station

Three

Broadcaster

MediaWorks TV Ltd

Summary

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

A National Party campaign advertisement (an election programme for the purposes of the Election Programmes Code) parodied Labour’s campaign motto, ‘Let’s do this’ with an advertisement with the tagline, ‘Let’s tax this’. The advertisement suggested that a Labour government would impose a number of new taxes (a capital gains tax, land tax, regional fuel tax, income tax, water tax and a ‘fart tax’). A voiceover at the conclusion of the advertisement said: ‘There’s still only one way to stop Labour’s taxes. Party vote National’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the election programme was inaccurate and misleading by implying a number of ‘bad’ taxes would be introduced or raised by Labour, which was not the case. The Authority considered it would be clear to viewers that the election programme was a campaign advertisement for the National Party, which clearly advocated the National Party’s own views. As such, the advertisement reflected the National Party’s opinion and analysis of Labour’s policies and viewers would not have been misled. The Authority also emphasised the importance of political speech and concluded that, in the robust political environment leading up to the election, the high threshold for finding a breach of broadcasting standards was not met. 

Not Upheld: Distinguishing Factual Information from Opinion or Advocacy  


Introduction

[1]  A National Party campaign advertisement (an election programme for the purposes of the Election Programmes Code) parodied Labour’s campaign motto, ‘Let’s do this’ with an advertisement with the tagline, ‘Let’s tax this’. The advertisement suggested that a Labour government would impose a number of new taxes (a capital gains tax, land tax, regional fuel tax, income tax, water tax and a ‘fart tax’). A voiceover at the conclusion of the advertisement said: ‘There’s only one way to stop Labour’s taxes. Party vote National.’

[2]  On 15 September 2017, following Labour’s announcement on 14 September 2017 that it would delay implementation of recommendations for changes from its proposed tax working group (if it was elected) until after the 2020 election, National released an edited version of the campaign advertisement. A voiceover described some of the taxes as ‘delayed’, ‘coming’, and ‘still on’, and some were accompanied by, ‘yep’. The concluding voiceover said: ‘There’s still only one way to stop Labour’s taxes. Party vote National.’

[3]  Francesca Brown complained that the edited campaign advertisement had no facts to verify the claims it made about Labour’s tax policies, and that the advertisement implied these taxes were ‘bad’ for New Zealand. 

[4]  The issue raised in Ms Brown’s complaint is whether the broadcast breached Standard E2 – Distinguishing Factual Information from Opinion or Advocacy, of the Election Programmes Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The edited advertisement was broadcast at 7.35pm on 17 September 2017 on Three. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.1

Overview – Election Programmes

[6]  In an election year, the Election Programmes Code applies to election programmes which are broadcast for a political party or candidate during the election period. This year, the election period runs from 23 August to midnight on 22 September 2017. This is a complaint about an election programme broadcast for the National Party by MediaWorks TV.

[7]  Generally, broadcasting complaints will first be determined by the broadcaster. However, the Broadcasting Act 1989 requires that complaints about election programmes must come directly to the Authority for determination. This is so that any concerns about programmes that may influence voters can be determined swiftly.

[8]  When we receive a complaint about an election programme, we seek submissions from the complainant, the broadcaster and also the political party. We also seek to determine the complaint under a fast-track process. We thank the parties involved in this matter for their timely response to our request for submissions.

Did the election programme breach Standard E2?

[9]  Standard E2 of the Election Programmes Code states that an election programme may include debate, advocacy and opinion, but factual information should be clearly distinguishable from opinion or advocacy.

The parties’ submissions

[10]  Ms Brown submitted:

  •  The advertisement indicated that Labour ‘were going to introduce taxes on everything… "fart tax"… etc etc’.
  • The advertisement implied that all the taxes mentioned are ‘bad’.
  • There were no facts presented to verify either the statements that Labour was going to introduce these, or to support the view they are bad for New Zealand.

[11]  The National Party submitted:

  • Viewers of the advertisement would be under no misapprehension that this was a political campaign advertisement (evidenced by the advertisement’s authorisation and National Party vote message). The purpose of the campaign advertisement was to highlight National Party policy compared to Labour. As such, it was ‘advocacy advertising expressing an opinion which is essential and desirable for the functioning of a democratic society’.
  • The advertisement intended to present National’s view on the contrast between the parties’ approach to the tax system, by arguing that Labour’s planned changes to the tax system lacked sufficient detail for New Zealanders. All of the examples presented were true and credible, ‘based on the broad and vague proposals Labour has made’.
  • Supporting evidence of each tax category could be provided, as follows:
    o Capital Gains Tax: there was no suggestion that the house featured in the advertisement was a ‘family home’. Labour has not ruled out that a Capital Gains Tax would not apply to other housing assets.
    o Land Tax: While Labour had ruled out a tax applying to land under the family home, they had not ruled out a land tax.
    o Income Tax: Labour would reverse tax cuts announced by National which would come into effect from 1 April 2018. As such, the public would pay more tax under Labour than under National.
    o Regional Fuel Tax: Labour provided Auckland Council with the ability to implement a regional fuel tax.
    o Water Tax: A water royalty could be imposed on bottled water, and the campaign advertisement showed a range of other water-based products that this new tax could affect, such as beer and orange juice.
    o Fart tax: Including agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme would bring costs to farmers, as ‘it is widely held that emissions from livestock are significant sources of climate-altering emissions’.
  • The updated advertisement reflected Labour’s change in stance on parts of its tax policy (see paragraph [2] above), and it was on that basis that the updated advertisement argued that capital gains tax and land tax are ‘delayed’ and ‘coming’.
  • The advertisement was not broadcast after 18 September 2017.

[12]  MediaWorks submitted:

  • The advertisement was produced by the National Party, which determined its content and presentation.
  • The advertisement was a recognisable piece of advocacy.

Our analysis

[13]  The starting point in our consideration of any complaint is the right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s – and in the case of an election programme, political parties’ – right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information. This is an important right in a democratic society and is particularly important in the lead up to a general election, when political parties and candidates are seeking to influence voters, and audiences are seeking information to enable them to make informed voting decisions.

[14]  We may only interfere and uphold a complaint where to do so would impose a limitation on the right which is reasonably justified in a free and democratic society.7 In deciding whether any limitation on the right to freedom of expression is justified, we first consider the value and public interest in the broadcast, and then weigh that value against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In this case, Ms Brown has submitted that this National Party election programme contained statements that were not supported by facts, and that it misled audiences by implying that the taxes referred to are ‘bad’.

[15]  The purpose of Standard E2 is to ensure that political parties and broadcasters take care not to mislead viewers by presenting political assertions as statements of fact. The expression of opinion in advocacy advertising is a desirable and essential part of democratic society, but factual information should be clearly distinguishable from opinion or advocacy.

[16]  A fact is verifiable: something that can be proved right or wrong.8 A level of precision, or exact wording, is needed for a statement or material to be capable of being categorised as ‘factual’.

[17]  An opinion is someone’s view; it is contestable and others may hold a different view. It will not always be clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact or an opinion. It all depends on context and presentation, and the precision of the statement. It is also crucial how a reasonable viewer or listener would perceive it.9

[18]  The Authority has previously recognised that election advertisements that promote a party’s policy promises are, by their very nature, ‘highly political, often hyperbolic vehicles for advocacy’, rather than factual information.10 In a recent decision considering the original ‘Let’s Tax This’ advertisement, we reached the view that the advertisement comprised the National Party’s opinion and analysis of Labour’s policies, rather than making assertions of fact.11

[19]  We consider the same reasoning applies here. We are satisfied, in this case, that viewers would have understood that National’s updated election programme was a campaign advertisement, advocating for the National Party and its views. The advertisement promoted National’s views of Labour’s various tax announcements and, in critiquing those announcements, contrasted National with the Labour Party, with the aim of promoting its own party. As such, we consider it would have been clear to viewers that the advertisement was not making assertions of fact, but rather presenting National’s own analysis of Labour’s comments, policies and tax announcements.

[20]  In its submissions, National provided its justification for including each category of tax in the original advertisement, and its reasons for arguing that these taxes should not be introduced. National edited the campaign advertisement to take into account Labour’s announcement on 14 September 2017 on its tax policy, shortly after the announcement was made, to clarify that some of these taxes would not be implemented until after 2020. At the time both the original advertisement and the edited advertisement were broadcast, there was substantial coverage on television, radio and other platforms about the parties’ various tax policies, which provided the public with additional information to consider in making their voting decision.

[21]  For these reasons, and taking into account the public interest in election programmes and party policies, and the robust political environment in the lead up to the general election, we do not agree that the right to freedom of expression ought to be limited in this case.

[22]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

Peter Radich
Chair
22 September 2017  

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1     Francesca Brown’s election programme complaint – 18 and 20 September 2017
2     MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 20 September 2017
3     The National Party’s response to the complaint – 21 September 2017
4     Ms Brown’s final comments – 21 September 2017
5     MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comments – 21 September 2017
6     The National Party’s final comments – 21 September 2017

 


See also Cullen and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-072, regarding an earlier broadcast of the original ‘Let’s Tax This’ advertisement.
See No capital gains tax yet - Jacinda Ardern (6 August 2017, Newshub)
Labour clarifies land tax position (6 September 2017, RNZ)
See: https://www.facebook.com/RadioNewZealand/videos/vb.7759768730/10155168564518731/?type=2&thea%20ter
5 http://www.labour.org.nz/tax
See above
See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and Introduction: Freedom of Expression, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6
Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 62
As above. See also our recent decision Rameka and Māori Television Service, Decision No. 2017-070
10 Allen and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2014-106
11 Cullen and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-072