Keith Ng of Public Address has a long-standing commitment to improving the quality of journalism in this country. Now, he is proposing a non-partisan wiki-style forum for fact-checking politicians’ statements. It seems like a great idea. We constantly see politicians making statements that are not backed by the facts but have time to only cover a portion of them.
Too often, political statements are reported at face-value without any fact checking. It’s not the journalists’ fault; it’s the fault of the media companies who have slashed staff to cut costs and now expect too much copy from journos. The result is rote repetition of straight out lies, and â€˜ping-pong’ reporting. Just yesterday, NZPA ran an article based on a press release that claimed DoC was training rats to look for rare frogs. If NZPA had done some fact checking they would have learnt it was an obvious April Fool’s joke.
Under the title “Brownlee: Now 93.5% fact-free“, Ng relates a more serious example what happens when fact-checking is not done:
[Gerry] Brownlee said in a press release:
‘Labour’s emergency stand-by power generator at Whirinaki is running flat out burning up to one million litres of diesel every 24 hours.” [Claiming New Zealand was on the brink of black-outs.]
NZPA, the NewsTalkZB wires, and (I think) Radio New Zealand [each ran stories] pulled straight off the press release, and none of them had comment from Contact Energy (or anyone else, for that matter). According to Contact Energy, operators of the Whirinaki power plant, it was running at 6.5% of its maximum output in February. In January, it ran at 2.3%.
When questioned about his claim, Brownlee said:
‘I think you’ll find, when you see the figures, that it’s running at something like 16 hours a day at full speed.”
So “16 hours a day” means “16 hours every day”? Not the way Brownlee is using it. The figures show that it ran for 16 hours on a day – on one single day, that is – and only at full speed for 11 hours.
When presented with the figures, Brownlee backed down further. Kinda.
‘With all due respect we can terminate this interview if you want but you’ve got to sharpen up a bit here. These people are trying to put a bit of gloss on a very big turd. The deal here is that yes, across a month, it might have only run for 3% of that month. But there were days, there were hours, and there were other batches of time during that month where it had to run otherwise the lights would go out. It’s an emergency plant. It doesn’t run unless we’re deeply in the shit. I can’t put it more clearly to you than that.”
According to Kieran Devine, General Manager of System Operations at Transpower, Whirinaki kicked in because the hyrdo generators were trying to conserve water for winter and power plants were taken down for maintenance. That’s to say, if the demand for power went up further than it did, or if Whirinaki didn’t run, the hydros would have kicked in again. The lights would not have gone out.
Brownlee’s lie should have been exposed by the media before it ever got into a story. In fact, the story should have been Brownlee’s lying to score political points. The media needs to lift its game, and Ng is to be applauded for trying to make that happen.