BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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New Zealand Taxpayers' Union inc and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2020-116 (22 September 2020)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • New Zealand Taxpayers' Union inc
Number
2020-116
Broadcaster
MediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary  

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

An election advertisement for the Labour Party included the statement, ‘we’ll…make apprenticeships free to prepare for tomorrow’s jobs...’ The complainant argued that this statement was inaccurate because the apprenticeships are not free but paid for by the taxpayers. The Authority did not uphold the complaint finding that a reasonable viewer was unlikely to be misled by the programme.

Not Upheld: Election Programmes Subject to Other Standards (Accuracy)


The broadcast

[1]  The Labour Party’s election advertisement was broadcast on Three at 6.18pm on 13 September 2020. In the advertisement, Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said:

Together we went hard and early to fight COVID. Our plan now is to rebuild the economy even stronger. We’ll create new jobs with infrastructure and environmental projects, make apprenticeships free to prepare for tomorrow’s jobs, and back business and grow trade with targeted support.

[2]  In considering this complaint, we have viewed a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Overview – Election programmes

[3]  During the election period, the Election Programmes Code of Broadcasting Practice applies to election programmes which are broadcast for a political party or candidate. This year, the election period runs from 13 September 2020 to midnight on 16 October 2020. This is a complaint about an election programme broadcast for the Labour Party by MediaWorks.

[4]  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.

[5]  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 and detailed responses to our request for submissions.

The parties’ submissions

The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union’s complaint

[6]  The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union complained that the statement ‘make apprenticeships free to prepare for tomorrow’s jobs’ is inaccurate for the following reasons:

  • ‘The apprenticeships are not free. Rather they are paid for by taxpayers.’
  • ‘Ardern is presumably referring to the Government’s Trades and Apprenticeships Training Package, which is budgeted to cost taxpayers $1.6 billion. That is far from free.’
  • ‘It would not even be true to say that the apprenticeships are free for the individuals who enrol. To the extent that these individuals pay taxes through their working lives, they will contribute to the cost of their apprenticeship, and because the new government spending is borrowed, this cost will be paid with interest.’
  • ‘We believe this inaccuracy is an intentional attempt to mislead viewers into believing they will not have to pay for one of the Party’s key policies.’

The Labour Party’s response

[7]  The Labour Party responded to the complaint as follows:

  • ‘Labour’s statement of our policy is accurate. Under Labour, people who choose to undertake apprenticeships won’t have to pay any money in order to do so.
  • ‘From the point of view of the consumer the marginal cost is zero. That is a common usage of the word “free.”’
  • The Labour Party referred to other examples of this usage of the word ‘free’ including:
    • Free schooling’: The Ministry of Education uses this to describe the taxpayer funded primary education system.
    • ‘Free $1,000 handouts’: The Taxpayers’ Union uses this to describe the taxpayer-funded KiwiSaver contributions.
  • ‘This particular use of the word ‘free’ is commonplace.’
  • ‘There’s little danger of the voting public believing that Labour’s reference to “free apprenticeships” means “apprenticeships that don’t require anyone to commit any resources at all.”’

MediaWorks’ response

[8]  MediaWorks responded to the complaint as follows:

  • ‘A reasonable viewer would interpret the statement, make apprenticeships free to prepare for tomorrow’s jobs, as it was intended by the Labour Party – as a reference to apprenticeships being available to training apprentices free of fees.’
  • ‘Considering the Labour Party campaigned in the 2017 election on the ‘first-year free’ policy for tertiary students, a policy that has been in place since 2018 and is arguably understood by the electorate, the [MediaWorks Standards] Committee is confident reasonable viewers would understand that the current reference to free apprenticeships is intended to mean paying no fees.’
  • ‘We agree with the Labour Party’s assessment that this usage of free is commonplace and unlikely to mislead the audience in this context.’

The relevant standards

[9]  Under standard E1 (election programmes subject to other codes) all other standards in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, except for the balance standard (Standard 8) apply.

[10]  The purpose of the accuracy standard (Standard 9) is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.1 It states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.

Our analysis

Overview – The right to freedom of expression and political speech

[11]  The starting point in our consideration of any election programme complaint is the right to freedom of expression, and specifically the importance of political speech, which includes the right of broadcasters, political parties and candidates 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.2 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 have been caused by the broadcast. Given the high value placed on political speech in the lead up to a general election, a correspondingly high threshold must be reached to conclude that an election programme has breached any standard under this code.3

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[12]  Whether or not a statement is misleading will be guided by how a reasonable viewer would interpret it in the context of an election campaign.4

[13]  In our view, a reasonable viewer would:

  • understand the statement to mean that there will be no fees payable by those undertaking the apprenticeships
  • be aware that the funding of any election promises is allocated from government expenditure and that such expenditure is largely funded by tax revenue from the New Zealand public.5

[14]  The manner in which the apprenticeships policy was described is not dissimilar to other Government programmes which subsidise student costs (eg the fees-fee programme).6 Government expenditure on the ‘fees-free’ policy attracted considerable attention,7 which suggests viewers would not be blind to the costs associated with such programmes.

[15]  Given that election advertisements are short, highly political and often hyperbolic vehicles for advocacy, viewers would not expect them to include detailed explanations of how promises are funded. There will be more detailed media coverage and publicly available information about these policies, enabling viewers to form their own views about any given policy.8

[16]  For these reasons, we do not consider a reasonable viewer is likely to be misled by the programme.

[17]  Accordingly, we do not uphold this complaint.

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

  

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

22 September 2020

 


Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1  The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union Inc’s complaint – 14 September 2020

2  The Labour Party’s response to the complaint – 15 September 2020

3  MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 16 September 2020

4  The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union Inc’s further comments – 16 September 2020


1 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
2 See the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, ss 5 and 14, and Introduction: Freedom of Expression, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6.
3 Guideline G1a, Election Programmes Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Guideline E1b
5 <https://www.treasury.govt.nz/information-and-services/financial-management-and-advice/revenue-and-expenditure>
6 <https://www.feesfree.govt.nz/>
7 See for example, ‘Up to $50 million paid for fees-free students who either failed or withdrew’ (NZ Herald, 12 December 2018), ‘Government pulls $198m from fees free policy due to lower enrolment numbers’ (One News, 14 May 2019), ‘Fees-free policy "not a failure" but students threaten backlash’ (Your NZ, May 2019)
8 Allen and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2014-106 at [8] and [9]