Dobson and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2022-124 (7 March 2023)
- Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
- John Gillespie
- Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i
- Aroha Beck
- Shane Dobson
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint that an item on 1 News reporting on the Government’s financial accounts breached the accuracy standard. The complainant alleged the Political Editor’s statement in the item that “…a bigger tax take has meant the deficit is half what was predicted in the May budget, a saving of more than 9 billion” was inaccurate, as it gave the impression that the lower-than-forecast deficit was achieved entirely from a bigger tax take, when almost a third of the saving came from less Government expenditure than predicted. While acknowledging the statement may have been misleading taken in isolation, the Authority found the brief statement would not have significantly affected the audience’s understanding of the item as a whole.
Not Upheld: Accuracy
 An item on 1 News on 5 October 2022 reported on a further hike in the official cash rate due to inflation, taking the OCR to 3.5%. The item began with the host and a Business Correspondent discussing the reasons behind a fifth hike in short succession, and whether further OCR rises could be expected. The host then moved on to discuss the state of Crown revenue with Political Editor Jessica Mutch McKay. Part of the dialogue was as follows:
Host: And while the Reserve Bank was acting on what it saw, the Government was opening up the country's financial accounts. And things are looking $9 billion better off than expected. So now National and ACT are calling for tax cuts for struggling Kiwis. But Labour isn't so sure. Here's Political Editor Jessica Mutch McKay.
Mutch McKay: It may look like a storm is brewing in the capital today, but the Finance Minister says we've passed through one, heralding the end of the emergency economic response to COVID-19.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson: I can reflect on what we've been through, and I can say that I am proud of the position that we are in in.
Mutch McKay: In the last year, 9 billion has been spent on our response to COVID – a big chunk of that on business support and another 3 billion on vaccines and testing. But a bigger tax take has meant the deficit is half what was predicted in the May budget – a saving of more than 9 billion.
Economic expert: That's a substantial improvement and really down to the high levels of earnings that have happened across the country that have filled government coffers, particularly inflation hitting hard and raising prices and therefore raising the amount of money that's been coming through from GST.
 The item continued with comment from Robertson, Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon, ACT Party Leader David Seymour and an economist on the question of whether tax relief should be provided to New Zealanders as a result of the Government’s better-than-expected financial position.
 Shane Dobson complained the item breached the accuracy standard as:
- ‘The Government deficit of $9.7 billion was $9.3 billion less than forecast in the May Budget. ($19 billion).’
- ‘Jessica Mutch McKay stated that “…a bigger tax take has meant the deficit is half of what was predicted in the May Budget, a saving of more than nine billion”. This is inaccurate because the bigger tax take did not mean a saving of more than nine billion dollars. Almost a third of the saving came as a result of lower than forecast government expenditure at $2.8 Billion.’
- ‘Jessica Mutch McKay misled the viewers to think that the saving of more than nine billion was achieved entirely from a bigger tax take.’
- ‘Notably, Jessica Mutch McKay was supplied with a fact sheet in a press briefing hours before her news bulletin that spelt out the $2.8 Billion reduction in government expenditure but made no reasonable effort to report the reasons accurately for the savings of over nine billion.’
- ‘There was no clear way for the average viewer to distinguish whether this piece was opinion or news because Simon Dallow simply said, “Here’s Jessica Mutch McKay” rather than state any distinguishing introduction that made it clear that the segment was something other than news.’
The broadcaster’s response
 TVNZ did not uphold Dobson’s complaint for the following reasons:
- ‘Jessica Mutch McKay was clearly introduced as the Political Editor and it is the expected and well-known role of Political Editors to offer analysis and opinion on political issues, here the issue of the deficit, tax and tax cuts.’
- ‘The Political Editor says in the item “in the past year $9 billion has been spent on our response to Covid, a big chunk of that on business support and another $3 billion on vaccines and testing. But a bigger tax take has meant the deficit is half what was predicted in the May Budget, a saving of more than $9 billion.”’
- ‘This brief summary is in line with the “Key Results” which were outlined in the Parliamentary Media Release and in expert commentary as provided in the programme, a higher-than-expected tax revenue was achieved over the period, leading to a smaller deficit.’
- Comment was obtained from the Political Editor who noted ‘The Government has spent a lot of money in the last financial year which is why I didn’t highlight the underspend in certain areas. …Given it was a two minute story all figures cannot be included. In my role as Political Editor I made the judgement these were the most important parts to highlight for viewers at home.’
- ‘…it was reasonable for the focus to be on the principle reason for the lower-than-expected deficit (a higher tax take) in the brief summary especially as the main focus of the discussion was tax and whether there was a possibility of a tax cut for any section of taxpayers. We do not agree that this focus was misleading for viewers or that the decision to focus on this aspect was unreasonable. We note that the Political Editor did briefly mention the government’s Covid-19 spending which was the spending factor highlighted in Grant Robertson’s Media Release: and that New Zealand was in good financial shape compared to the rest of the world, also mentioned in the Media Release.’
Preliminary issue – request to decline to determine
 Dobson’s complaint is part of a group of complaints that were referred to the Authority in a similar manner. TVNZ has requested the Authority decline to determine these complaints on the basis they are vexatious (or otherwise should not be determined by the Authority):
The complaints in question here arose from a public Facebook page administered by a person who has not made a formal complaint themselves, encouraging their followers to make formal complaints, including by providing the complaint to cut and paste, and the link to complain to TVNZ and then subsequently to refer to the BSA. They also encouraged followers to directly contact the specific reporters, providing the reporters' work emails…
The publicly stated purpose of doing this was to 'put pressure on journalists.'
 Specifically in relation to this complaint referral, TVNZ further noted that Dobson had not given reasons for his referral to us, or stated that he disagreed with TVNZ’s original decision on his complaint.
 This issue was considered in detail in another recent Authority decision, to which Dobson and TVNZ were parties.2 The complainant’s and the broadcaster’s full submissions on this matter, along with our decision on the issue, are outlined in that decision. In summary, we do not consider the templated and ‘en masse’ manner in which the complaints, including this one, were submitted is, in itself, grounds to decline to determine the complaints. We therefore go on to consider the substantive complaint.
 The purpose of the accuracy standard3 is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.4 It states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure news, current affairs or factual content is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. Where a material error of fact has occurred, broadcasters should correct it within a reasonable period after they have been put on notice.
 We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 As a starting point, we considered the important right to freedom of expression. Our task is to weigh the right to freedom of expression, and the value and public interest in the broadcast, against any harm potentially caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where limiting the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society.5
 Dobson has alleged Mutch McKay’s statement in the item that “…a bigger tax take has meant the deficit is half what was predicted in the May budget, a saving of more than 9 billion” was inaccurate. The first issue for us is whether this statement constituted analysis, comment or opinion rather than a statement of fact.
Analysis, comment or opinion
 The requirement for factual accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.6 However, broadcasters should still make reasonable efforts to ensure analysis, comment or opinion is not materially misleading with respect to facts referred to, or upon which the analysis, comment or opinion is based.
 When assessing whether statements are analysis, comment or opinion, the following factors may be relevant:7
- the language used
- the type of programme
- the role or reputation of the person speaking
- the subject matter
- whether the statement is attributed to someone
- whether evidence or proof is provided.
 While we have previously recognised that viewers reasonably expect to receive commentary and analysis from political reporters and political correspondents,8 we consider Mutch McKay’s statement was a statement of fact. While, as described below, the statement was capable of different interpretations, it dealt with a verifiable matter (the tax take’s contribution to the reduced deficit, which was quantified as a dollar amount) and was expressed definitively. It also identified the factual basis for the subsequent discussion regarding the potential merits of tax cuts. On balance therefore, we consider the accuracy standard applies to the statement.
Was the statement inaccurate or misleading?
 The complainant has alleged Mutch McKay’s statement was inaccurate as it gave the impression that the lower-than-forecast deficit was achieved entirely from a bigger tax take, when actually almost a third of the saving came from less Government expenditure than predicted.
 It is clear from the figures provided in the Parliamentary media release9 which TVNZ relied on, that tax revenue accounted for $4.7 billion of the saving, and less Government expenditure for $2.8 billion.
 We accept the causative nature of the statement (‘a bigger tax take has meant…’) may have misled some members of the audience to assume that the lower-than-forecast deficit was achieved entirely from a bigger tax take, which was technically inaccurate. However, audience members could also have interpreted the statement to mean but for the bigger tax take, the deficit would not have been ‘half what was predicted’ (ie it might have been closer to budget).
 Whichever interpretation was preferred, the accuracy standard is only concerned with material inaccuracies. Technical or other points unlikely to significantly affect viewers’ understanding of the programme as a whole are not considered ‘material’.10 Context can aid the consideration of whether an aspect of a broadcast was materially accurate.11
 In the context of this programme, we do not consider the statement would have significantly affected the audience’s understanding of the item as a whole. In making this finding, we took the following contextual factors into account:
- The focus of the broader segment was on the Government’s relatively good financial position compared with what had been forecast, and the question of whether tax relief should be provided to New Zealanders as a result / how that may play into Labour’s and other Parties’ tax policies heading into the upcoming election. An exact breakdown of the reasons for the lower-than-forecast deficit was not a focus of the item.
- The statement was very brief in the context of the overall item, and was not repeated.
- In any event, a higher tax revenue than expected accounted for over half the saving and we do not consider it was significantly misleading for Mutch McKay to emphasise this aspect in her statement.
 We acknowledge clarity regarding the savings generated by lower expenditure may have been of interest to viewers in the context of the Act Party Leader David Seymour’s comment that ‘offering tax cuts without reigning in wasteful spending is dishonest and unfair on future generations’ (ie the Government had already demonstrated some ‘reigning in of spending’). However, Seymour’s call for reduction of wasteful spending was not inherently inconsistent with the fact some savings had already been achieved. In addition, as noted above, our test is whether any inaccuracy would have materially impacted viewers’ understanding of the broadcast as a whole, which we consider it did not.
 In these circumstances, we have not found harm at a level justifying regulatory intervention or restricting freedom of expression, and do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
7 March 2023
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Shane Dobson’s formal complaint to TVNZ – 6 October 2022
2 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 3 November 2022
3 Dobson’s referral to the Authority – 7 November 2022
4 TVNZ’s response to referral – 5 December 2022
5 Dobson’s final comments – 8 December 2022
1 Hon Grant Robertson “Strong Government books leave New Zealand well placed amid global challenges” (5 October 2022) Beehive.govt.nz (www.beehive.govt.nz)
2 See Dobson & Erickson and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2022-121
3 Standard 6, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
4 Commentary, Standard 6, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 16
5 Introduction, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 4
6 Guideline 6.1
7 Commentary, Standard 6, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 16
8 See: Woods and Mediaworks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2015-062, at 
9 Hon Grant Robertson “Strong Government books leave New Zealand well placed amid global challenges” (5 October 2022) Beehive.govt.nz <www.beehive.govt.nz>
10 Guideline 6.2
11 See for example: Wellington Palestinian Group and Discovery NZ Ltd, Decision No. 2022-082, at –