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Ng on fact-free politics

Written By: - Date published: 1:02 pm, April 2nd, 2008 - 14 comments
Categories: activism, blogs, Media, national - Tags: , , ,

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 ‘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.


14 comments on “Ng on fact-free politics”

  1. higherstandard 1


    Too often, political statements are reported at face-value without any fact checking.

    Bit like the Standard harping on about John Key’s wages comment ?

  2. Tane 2

    Agreed Steve. Same happened today when NZPA ran this story repeating Bill English’s false allegations of illegal behaviour by the CTU without even checking the facts.

    They had to wait for the CTU to issue a press release in response before copying and pasting that and turning it into a follow-up story.

    And people wonder why the Nats’ fact-free attack lines get such a free run in the media…

  3. Steve Pierson 3

    Higherstandard. We did fact check, we contacted several people close to the story to confirm the account, and to get hold of the transcript. We then wrote to MPs, including Mr Key, asking for their responses.

    When we heard Key and APN management were forcing the journalists into ‘clarifing the story’ we investigated that too – and it is on the basis of our fact-checking that we stand by the story.

    John Key did say “we would love to see wages drop” and he was referring to New Zealand wages.

  4. insider 4

    I don’t think it is just employers’ fault. Journalists have primary responsibility for the content of their stories and not taking facts from potentailly partisan sources at face value. Google and Wiki can be incredibly helpful.

    I am entirely in agreement that fact checking is an issue in NZ and have posted a number of times that it is poor journalism to claim a story is balanced because you have he said/she said. What is more important is for a bit of editorial judgement as whether what he said had any validity at all before you actually write the story. A key part of that is checking the claimed facts. Then there would be far more interesting stories and a few embarassments like Brownlee’s would remove a lot of the crap masquerading as news from the media.

    Radio is one of the worst due to their demand for updates – just this week with the Nats announcement on victim compensation it quickly moved to Labour is criticising… well no s**t sherlock. That’s their job, it;s hardly revealing. Govt announcements get the same lazy treatment.

  5. Tane 5

    insider, agreed to an extent, but I think it’s hard to blame journos when commercial pressures mean they’re filing a dozen stories a day. IrishBill had a good piece on this a while back: http://www.thestandard.org.nz/?p=971

    Y’see, nearly every newsroom in New Zealand has had the guts ripped out of it by its owners. Back in the day a newspaper reporter might spend a day doing one story and the newsroom would be full. Nowadays you can give one journo an internet connection and a phone and expect them to churn out ten stories a day (I’ve heard stories of ZB journos doing up to 20!) and that’s nine other journos you don’t have to employ. And that means profits. APN, who owns the Herald currently makes about 13% profit on capital annually – their target is 20% and they regularly post annual profits around the $100m mark from their NZ operations alone. Fairfax generally makes twice as much or more.

    Of course the news suffers a lot when you cut frontline staff. Nothing can be investigated in depth and there’s very little time to gather balanced comment. If you’re a journo tasked with 10 stories a day and someone such as Coca Cola or a Ministry (or the National Party) offers to provide you with the “research’ and quotes you need to make one, what do you do? The answer is you use what they give you and move onto the next story ‘cos fuck it, you’re on close to minimum wage once you count your unpaid overtime anyway.

  6. Scribe 6

    Wow, this doesn’t happen very often. The Standard and DPF agree on something: http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2008/03/fact_checking.html

  7. MikeE 7

    You mean like where politicians on both sides of the spectrum refered to BZP continually as Cattle Drench and wormer (even though it was never EVER used in that way), and we now have a risk of idiot kids drinking the stuff that BZP is off the shelves.

    That sort of fact checking?

  8. MikeE 8

    Or where the police spent taxpayer money bringing over a Hawaian “drug expert” to give lectures on strawberry flavored P… a well known urban legend.

  9. Steve Pierson 9

    yup, MikeE, that kind of stuff.

  10. Uroskin 10

    P isn’t strawberry flavoured? I trust it’s available in chocolate instead then. Act’s party pill lines should offer different flavours too. Would make the Rogergnome policies go down better.

  11. Dean 11


    “Too often, political statements are reported at face-value without any fact checking.”

    I quite agree. I’d invite you to check your own facts on one of your own posts, specifically http://www.thestandard.org.nz/?p=1331

    This is where you made the statement “At 30%, the corporate tax is lower than or equal to most developed countries’, when clearly, according to the chart you yourself posted, it is not.

  12. randal 12

    well tonight I saw jessica milch in tv one news call lockwood smith and nick smith labour mp’s and after the clip simon callow just smirked

  13. Pascal's bookie 13

    And Duncan Garner last night saying that the money NZFirst is paying to charities is taxpayers money.

    It’s not, as much as I think he should stop being a clever dick he’s not legally obliged to pay it back, and the money isn’t taxpayers, it’s NZFirst’s.

    The GST that the Tories redirected to charity wasn’t taxpayers either. It was the National party’s, and they owed it to TVNZ.

  14. AncientGeek 14

    Sounds like an excellent idea. Amongst other things it would probably allow more timely analysis.

    Now I’m off to read the link.

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