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ACCURACY UNDER ATTACK

By Steven | April 18, 2008

As an occasional critic of the Press Council in the past, it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge its robust (and unanimous) ruling in a complaint I brought on behalf of the Coalition for Open Government. The complaint was mostly about the NZ Herald’s front page editorial excoriating the Electoral Finance Bill, headed “DEMOCRACY UNDER ATTACK”.

The Herald fulminated that the bill would require anyone wanting to spend any of their own money electioneering to register with the Electoral Commission. That seemed to grossly restrict everyone’s political free speech – an impression underscored by the subhead “Speak now or next year hold your peace”. But it wasn’t true. Only those who want to spend more than $12,000 electioneering (or $1000 in an electorate) need to register. Still, much better for the Herald’s campaign to brush over the fact that this would only affect a small number of wealthy people and organisations.

Most irritating Herald argument: its mistake didn’t really matter as “it does not undermine our general view of the shortcomings of this bill.” Well, bully for the Herald. But one might have hoped that they would have felt embarrassed to advance this as a justification for failing to publish accurate information and let readers make up their own minds.

Best Herald argument: it had published the accurate information in three other stories, including one that ran on the front page. But those stories weren’t in the same issues as its misleading editorials; the correct information came toward the very bottom of those stories; and it was omitted from dozens of other stories dealing with the EFB.

The Press Council upheld the complaint, and said the Herald really should have run a correction. As COG had argued, publications are free to comment and campaign as they see fit, but they have to get their basic facts right.

To the Herald’s credit, it published the whole ruling with a teaser (not sure that’s quite the word they’d use here) on the front page. Also to the Herald’s credit, it has been very good at publishing the information accurately since COG laid its complaint.

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