1. A bit of personal history…
Since I became more and more politically active, part of the growth of my political consciousness was an awareness that the media – whether print or electronic – was not always a clear reflection of what really was happening.
The first time I became starkly aware of the disconnect between a media story and reality was in 1989, when an associate and I made a submission to a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Classifications Bill. The Bill was aimed at replacing the old, antiquated Censorship Act.
There were some aspects of the Bill which we took exception to (from a liberal viewpoint) and we put together a submission, and requested an opportunity for a supporting oral submission.
We were due to ‘appear’ near the end of the day, and thus had an interesting opportunity to listen to all the submissions made by various groups, organisations, and individuals. Submitters ranged from the Nurses Organisation; Film Directors Association, NZ Law Society, etc.
I took note of the tenor of each submitter, and it was roughly 50/50 toward strengthening the proposed Classifications Act or liberalising it.
The following morning, the Dominion featured two stories on two submitters – both from the “pro-censorship” camp.
A critical submission from the NZ Law Society, regarding an aspect of the Bill which they deemed to be fatally flawed, was not reported. Neither did the Dominion report an astounding comment by then-MP, Trevor Rogers, who threatened to “change officials of the Courts” who could not, would not, implement the new law, whether flawed or not.
Had I not attended the Select Committee hearing personally, I would have assumed that all submissions were of a similar nature; would not have been aware of opposing views; would have been unaware of the Law Society’s views; and been oblivious to a Member of Parliament threatening to interfere with the judicial system of this country.
After 25 years, the incident remains vividly clear in my memory.
That was my very first lesson – not just in Select Committees – but media (mis-)reporting.
Since I began this blogging lark in July 2011, I have found no reason to lessen my wariness of media reporting, accuracy, and fairness. In fact, sadly, quite the opposite.
2. Once upon a time, in a fairy-tale land called Fairfax Media…
So begins this analysis of a recent Fairfax-Ipsos Poll which, upon closer scrutiny, is a fantasy lifted straight from the pages of Brothers Grimm.
A very recent Ipsos poll was taken over a five day period, starting from Saturday, 30 August – the day of Judith Collins’ resignation from her ministerial portfolios (though not from Parliament itself).
The infographic shows National at 54% and the Labour-Green bloc at 38%.
The above poll infographic was taken from a Research International poll, commissioned also by Fairfax Media – and released on 23 November, 2011 – three days before the General Election, three years ago.
The actual current, September 2014 poll results from Fairfax and it’s “newly” commissioned polling agent, Ipsos;
Compare the two polls above.
Two “different” polls. Two different polling companies. Three years apart. Almost exactly same figures.
Now let’s chuck in the actual election results for the 2011 Election;
In the 2011 poll, Fairfax’s polling agent over-estimated National’s support by a staggering 6.69 percentage points – well outside the stated margin of error by Research International (3.1%).
Considering that other mainstream polling companies have National ranging from 45% (Roy Morgan) to 46.4% (NZ Herald-Digipoll and TV3 News) to 50% (TVNZ News), it could be safely argued that the Fairfax-Ipsos results are in Wacky-Doodle Land.
The figures are not only dubious – but Fairfax buries an important fact;
The undecided vote remained steady at 13 per cent, which is higher than in some other polls. [my emphasis]
That statement is buried near the bottom of Vernon Small’s article, “National soars without Collins – poll“.
Incredibly, Small then adds – almost seemingly as an after-thought;
Benson said if Ipsos included those who said they were undecided, but when pressed were leaning towards a particular party, that number dropped to about 7 per cent and saw National’s vote come in about 2 percentage points lower.
Anything else we need to know, Vernon?!
The problem here is not just Fairfax presenting dodgy polling figures over two consecutive election periods – but the fact that Vernon Small, who wrote a story covering the poll, was thoroughly accepting of the results – and made no effort to question the veracity of the figures. Some comments from Small;
Two weeks out from the election National’s popularity has soared after the dumping of justice minister Judith Collins, putting John Key on course for a thumping victory on the evidence of a new Stuff.co.nz/Ipsos poll.
Assuming all the small parties hold their current seats, but independent Brendan Horan is not returned, National would have a dominant 70 seat bloc in a 125 seat Parliament.
Small also quoted Ipsos pollster Matt Benson without any real critical analysis;
Ipsos pollster Matt Benson said the poll followed the first televised leaders’ debate and straddled the resignation of Collins. ‘‘Despite a difficult week for National the poll shows support rise for the National Party, and John Key as preferred PM has also increased to 51.7 percent.’’
He said the rise may have been caused by wavering voters, uncomfortable with Collins, swinging in behind Key for finally taking action against her.
In no way could this poll and associated story be considered critical political analysis or news in the traditional sense.
Little wonder that, after only ten comments, Fairfax closed down posting on it’s comments section, at the end of Small’s article;
* Comments are now closed on this story.
The criticism of Fairfax must have been excoriating!
The problem here, as I see it;
Firstly, Ipsos is paid by Fairfax to conduct it’s polling.
Therefore, Fairfax has an inherent, undeclared financial interest in the source of “story”. Fairfax is not reporting on a story from the point of view of an impartial, disinterested party. They have a vested, commercial stake in promoting Ipsos’ findings.
As such Fairfax would be as critical of Ipsos as the Editor of the Dominion Post would commission an investigative piece on sub-editors being made redundant from his own newspaper (the redundancies happened – the story reporting the event never materialised).
In fairness, it should be pointed out that Fairfax is by no means unique in this obvious conflict of interest. The NZ Herald, TVNZ, and TV3 all have their own contracted pollsters. None of them will question the accuracy of their respective polling agents.
Secondly, because Fairfax (and other media) have a vested interest with their respective pollsters, they are locked in to using that sole company as a source for polling “news”. Hence, each media outlet’s authoritative reputation rests on pushing up the credibility of their respective polls. They must not question their own polling for fear of damaging their reputation for “authoritative political analysis”.
Regardless if their own polling is hopelessly implausible, it must be presented as factual and inarguably credible.
Even if it is clearly not.
3. Radio NZ – an oasis of information in a desert of pseudo “news”
The non-commercial Radio New Zealand not only reports polling results from various pollsters, but is currently running a Poll of Polls;
“The POLL of POLLS is an arithmetical average of the four most recent major polls since mid-June from among: TV1 Colmar Brunton, TV3 Reid Research, Fairfax Media-Ipsos, NZ Herald DigiPoll, Roy Morgan New Zealand and UMR Research, which is not published.”
– and is well worth keeping an eye on.
Off the main pollsters, the most accurate one to keep an eye on is Roy Morgan, as it alone calls respondents on cellphones. All others rely solely on landlines to contact respondents.
4. Tracy Watkins
Associated with Vernon Small’s front page article on the Dominion Post on 5 September, was a side-bar “opinion piece” by the paper’s political editor, Tracy Watkins. This is the on-line version;
“Two weeks down, two weeks to go and on today’s stuff.co.nz/Ipsos poll it’s all over bar the shouting.”
I was stunned when I read that comment. In effect, Watkins has elevated Fairfax’s 3 September public opinion poll to supplant the up-coming general election and accept a National Party victory based on Ipsos’ findings.
I put this issue to Neil Watts, blogger (Fearfactsexposed) and long-time commentator/critic of Fairfax Media and it’s policies. I asked him about the credibility of Fairfax’s polling and he replied,
“Having watched Fairfax Media make an art form of National Party propaganda for many years now, nothing they publish surprises me anymore. Their polls are notoriously, willfully unreliable, and they blatantly use them to manipulate rather than inform the electorate.”
This would certainly seem to be the case, as it should be noted that two different polling companies contracted by Fairfax consistantly over-rated National in their results. Neil had definite thoughts on why that might be. He said;
“Their political coverage is partisan, anti-opposition, anti-democratic, and their spin consistently comes from the exact same angle that the National Party are taking via Crosby Textor.
In fact, this is so reliable, that I only bother to read stuff.co.nz these days to find out what the Government’s spin will be on any given issue.”
When I pointed out Watkins’ piece, “All over bar the shouting”, Neil was scathing about her lack of impartiality;
“Political editor Tracy Watkins is clearly enamored with the Prime Minister and unprofessionally close to him. After several international trips with John Key and a substantial back catalogue of journalese ‘love letters’ to him, she really has zero credibility as an objective reporter.
To the informed reader, her copy is generally one-eyed, propagandist tripe. The weight of evidence is in their reporting, but I have heard from sources within Fairfax Media that their blatant goal is to get Key’s Government re-elected.”
If true, and the Fourth Estate has become a mouth-piece for The Political Establishment, it may explain why people are turning away from the mainstream media as well as politics. The previous general election had the lowest voter turn-out since 1887 – no feat to be proud of, and seemingly indicative of a growing malaise of alienation, apathy, and disconnection from our heretofore strong civic pride.
It simply beggars belief that a journalist such as Ms Watkins with many years experience could publish such an off-hand comment that effectively undermines current efforts by the Electoral Commission, trade unions, political parties, et al, to encourage people to enroll and to vote.
The Commission is spending tax payers’ money to encourage voter turn-out – and Watkins’ casual, flippant, remark that “it’s all over bar the shouting” undermined that campaign with half a dozen words. The fact that the Dominion Post reinforced that off-the-cuff remark by placing the Fairfax-Ipsos poll-story on the front page of the edition reinforced her comment with a subtle message; “don’t bother voting – National has won – it’s all over bar the shouting”;
Note the heading in big, black, bold lettering,
Poll sees Nats in command
“In command“? Was the election held on 5 September?! Did I miss it?
Note also the hidden subtext of an image of the PM, John Key, twice the size of his opponant, David Cunliffe. Note the victorious look on Key’s face – and the open-mouth “petulance” of ‘disappointment’ on Cunliffe’s.
The impression is clear; Key has “won” the election.
Cunliffe’s annoyance validates Key’s trimphant expression.
This is not reporting the news – it is manufacturing it.
Meanwhile, with more than a hint of irony, the real news of election-related events are buried within the newspaper;
Little wonder that Neil Watts summed up Fairfax’s agenda thusly,
“For a media corporation to be effectively aiming for oligarchical rule in New Zealand is a gross abuse of power and position. At the very least, they should be honest and open about their political loyalties, so that ordinary Kiwi voters can make an informed choice about where they source their news.”
I see nothing to disabuse me of the notion I began to develop in 1989, that a healthy dose of skepticism is required when presented with information from a media source.
Their agenda is no longer to present news.
Their agenda is to manufacture it; embellish it; use it to sell advertising; and to further political goals.
How else does one explain naked propaganda-masquerading-as-“news”?
Because looking at the full-blown story on the front page, I can see other interpretation than the conclusion I have arrived at.
According to the Dominion Post, the election is done and dusted and the Nats are “in command”. So don’t bother voting. It’s all over.
Bar the shouting.
Fairfax media: National still cosy in polls after tea break (2011)
Fairfax media: National soars without Collins – poll (2014)
Wikipedia: New Zealand 2011 General Election
TV3 News: Key could need Maori Party post-election
TVNZ News: National unscathed by Dirty Politics – poll
Radio NZ: Election 2014 – Poll of Polls
Dominion Post: All over bar the shouting
Massey University: Massey commentators preview key election issues
Dominion Post: Tracy Watkins on politics
Fairfax media: Ipsos Polling Station
Previous related blogposts
Above image acknowledgment: Francis Owen/Lurch Left Memes
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