The Dominion Post throws National a freebie by misrepresenting Labour's new tax policy, and by doing some scaremongering to boot.
The media in New Zealand are, in my view, pretty fair. All political parties, often with good justification, point to episodes where the media treated their ideas and leaders unfairly. In previous years, both Helen Clark and Don Brash have had their substance ignored by a media more interested in poking fun at their style. And major policies from both large parties have been subjected to concerted media campaigns of opposition, for example the Herald’s overwrought “Democracy Under Attack” campaign in 2008 and the feeding frenzy around fallout from National’s profit-making social services in the late 1990s. When everyone is complaining about you, you're usually playing tough with all of them.
Having said that, today’s Dominion Post article is one of the clearer instances of anti-Labour bias in news reporting in recent memory. Vernon Small and Tracy Watkins, who are usually fine journalists, should be pretty ashamed this morning. Here is a subset of the untruths and misinterpretations from their article, which add up to a gross distortion of Phil Goff’s policy announcement.
- The article says at the outset that Phil Goff proposes to “sock the rich.” First of all, the phrase is “soak the rich” (if you’re going to do literary references, get them right), and second Goff was careful to say that he thought a large part of the funding for his proposal would come from soaking tax avoiders, and the remaining amount would come from those on higher incomes. A better characterization would have at least included “soaking the tax avoiders.”
- The article says Goff was making “a fresh appeal to beneficiaries, the lowest paid and superannuitants with a promise of a $10 a week sweetener.” In fact, the $10/week goes to everybody, regardless of their income level or its source.
- The article says Goff “is yet to spell out where all the money will come from, leading to claims from National of a $1billion plus shortfall.” In fact Goff spelled out two areas where the money would come from, and gave preliminary estimates of how much could come from closing particular loopholes. Even taking the pricetag of the tax free zone policy ($1.2b) and the savings that could be expected from closing just one of the many remaining loopholes (Treasury estimate of $260m on offsetting rental losses) gives remaining shortfall of $940m, already less than National’s “$1billion plus” claim that the article repeated, twice, without criticism or comment.
- The article says that a new top tax rate “could cut in from as low as $120,000” and “could go as high as 45c in the dollar.” In fact Goff and his crew have made no determination at all on this and were very public in saying that those parameters were still up in the air, nor to my knowledge made any public hints about the numbers. But those are the numbers that the Dominion Post chose to highlight for its readers, with no evidence to support them. The Dominion Post writers and editorial staff are no dummies, and will have known that those particular numbers - lowest plausible threshold, highest plausible rate - would have the biggest possible scaremongering effect among voters. They will also have known that the figures speak much more loudly to readers than do the “could” qualifiers. That was the worst piece of bias in the article, carefully crafted to gain maximum anti-Labour effect.
- The second half of the article reports National’s response to Goff’s announcement, but does so without critiquing Key or English in any way, even as their hyperbole spiraled into talk of ratings downgrades. This deference is very different to the critical attitude towards Goff earlier in the article, and the amount of rebuttal space afforded to National in this article goes far beyond the normal line or two accorded to Goff in stories about government policy announcements.
As I said at the outset, I think our media is pretty fair on average. But it does not follow that each individual article is fair. This article was not. This article stank.