Media grapples with misinformation in Fair Pay fight

Hayden Donnell, Mediawatch producer

Workers and employers took up predictable positions over legislation to usher in Fair Pay Agreements now being scrutinised in Parliament. A concerted campaign to have them declared illegitimate has been labeled as ‘misinformation’ by critics - and it’s given the media a problem too. 

On 16 May, the New Zealand Herald carried a headline that read like bad news for the government and supporters of its main labour market reform.

It read: 'Proposal to change Fair Pay Agreements condemned by UN agency, Business NZ'.

The story went on to say that the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) had placed New Zealand on a list of ‘worst case’ breaches of international labour treaties, alongside Afghanistan and Venezuela, and just ahead of Nigeria.

But there were a few problems with the report.

New Zealand hadn’t been condemned by the ILO. It was not on a list of ‘worst case’ breaches of international labour agreements. 

And the reason it appeared ‘just ahead of Nigeria’ was that the ILO’s list was ordered alphabetically.

The headline on the actual list put out by the UN agency didn’t mention worst cases or international labour treaties at all. Its entry on Fair Pay Agreements appeared under the impenetrable title ‘Preliminary list of cases as submitted by the social partners Committee on the Application of Standards’, or in plainer English: ‘Stuff we are going to consider in future’.

It turned out the Herald had based its story on information provided by Business NZ, which created the ‘worst cases’ title and implied the ILO had already condemned Fair Pay Agreements.

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope described the list as a “naughty forty for labour relations” asserting that the legislation breaches ILO Convention 98, which says “workers' and employers' organisations shall enjoy adequate protection against any acts of interference by each other or each other's agents.” 

At that time, the Herald business editor Duncan Bridgeman told Mediawatch they accepted the information “in good faith” from Business NZ. 

“We contacted the ILO for a response to Business NZ’s comments. However, we accept we could have looked closer at the detail of the source report,” he said. 

Business NZ’s employment relations policy manager Paul Mackay admitted its headline was altered when Stuff reported this mischaracterisation, but he added: “It doesn’t have to be a past tense breach. An intention to breach is just as bad”.

This week the ILO meeting in Geneva examined that alleged intention to breach, and did not recommend any review or change to the proposed Fair Pay Agreements legislation. 

It urged the government to “continue to examine” the draft legislation in consultation with unions and employer groups while ensuring it complies with international labour treaties.

Business NZ issued a press release claiming the ILO findings indicate that the Bill currently doesn't comply with Convention 98 and “have been misinterpreted by some commentators”.

But one source with inside knowledge of the ILO’s decision told Mediawatch there’s nothing in the decision to say the current legislation breaches any labour treaties. 

“Most of the discussion of BusinessNZ’s complaint at the ILO suggested the legislation was not in breach, with the Australian government being one of those who spoke in favour of fair pay agreements,” the NBR political editor Brent Edwards reported this week. 

A billboard from Business NZ on Fair Pay Agreements legislation. Photo: Robbie Nicol

This saga is part of a concerted Business NZ campaign against Fair Pay Agreements that's been criticised as overblown or misleading by workers’ advocates and some politicians. 

Its online campaign called 'Your Work Your Way' calls on New Zealanders to reject FPAs. Business NZ has also been running digital and radio advertising with slogans including: “Fair pay agreements are like socks for Christmas. Nobody wants them".

(Fact-check: socks can be a pretty good present if they're the right socks, and some workers might see a potential pay rise as an even better one.)

Other Business NZ claims have been criticised as hyperbolic or outright false by people including Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood

One billboard says that if “10% of workers want a FPA, 100% of workers have to get one.” They won’t. Any agreement would have to be ratified by a majority of workers.

Business NZ’s opposition to FPAs is no surprise. 

Kirk Hope rejected the government’s offer to be the default bargaining party for employers six months ago, saying the “scheme will do more harm than good to businesses and employees”.

But supporters and opponents alike would have expected Business NZ’s objections to be grounded in genuine philosophical and practical differences. Instead its campaign has sometimes strayed into the type of misinformation that can damage an organisation’s reputation. 

Auckland Council requested an explanation from Business NZ and a spokesperson told Stuff its annual membership renewal would be reconsidered this month. 

All this presents a conundrum for the media too.

Business NZ counts dozens of major New Zealand companies as members and it has an important perspective on this legislation that deserves to be reported. 

But while Press Council principles require reporting should be balanced, it must also be accurate. 

If one important party is serving up information that’s not true, that puts media outlets' compliance with that standard in jeopardy even if they stick to the customary ‘both-sides’ framing.

Earlier this week TVNZ news published a story headlined: 'Employers, workers divided on Fair Pay Agreements'. 

They were certainly at odds with each other, but the story said the ILO had said “tweaks may be needed in the final legislation” - a line which isn’t actually in the organisation’s statement.

This week Mediawatch asked Business NZ whether it regrets altering the ILO’s words to say New Zealand had landed on a list of 'worst case breaches of international labour treaties', or asserting it was part of a "naughty forty".

We also asked whether it stands by its recent statement that the Fair Pay Agreements Bill in its current form is “not compliant with ILO Convention 98”. 

It hasn't responded so far. 

Rebecca Macfie, an experienced labour reporter who’s covered Fair Pay Agreements for The Listener and Newsroom, said Business NZ's campaign against the legislation was the most fervent one she's seen since the Helen Clark-led Labour government introduced the Employment Relations Act in 2000.

"I think they've glanced over the line from hard lobbying. I think it's inaccurate what they've presented, particularly in two media statements," she said. 

"Some of the ways that they've reported on what the ILO committee has ruled ... is wrong. You just need to look at the words and compare the two documents.

“I have great respect for the people who run their organization - and I deal with them on the basis of respect and that that they bring expertise to this stuff, just as I do when I'm talking to the union movement. So I think that they've made a mistake here in the way they've approached this,” she said.

Macfie said the campaign has in some cases ‘hacked’ the media, using its commitment to reflecting all sides of a debate to get it to reprint questionable or in some cases untrue statements.

Her approach has been to either disregard what she sees as inaccurate statements and report instead on the documents at hand.

"We have to report factually, and in this particular case that wasn't hard because the documents were all there."

In other words, she sticks to the old adage: if one person tells you it's fine and another says it's raining, the journalist's job isn't to report both sides - it's to look out the window.