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Op-ed: AAP needs to fact check itself

Neil MillerThe following is an op-ed by Taxpayers' Union Analyst Neil Miller.

During modern election campaigns there is an increasing emphasis on “fact checking” political statements across the spectrum. Companies have sprung up all over the world to judge the accuracy (or otherwise) of what politicians say on the campaign trail. AAP Fact Checker is the most prominent and prolific organisation of this nature in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union is aware of growing international concern that fact checkers are moving well beyond data into politics, even to the point of partisanship in some cases. We decided to analyse the last ten fact checks by AAP Fact Check to find the answers to three questions:

  1. Who did they choose to fact check?
  2. Were the criteria for judgement applied consistently and fairly?
  3. Was there any instances of partisanship or spin?

If you only looked at the numbers, you could be forgiven for thinking that Judith Collins was Prime Minister and National was the largest party in Parliament. Judith Collins was fact checked five times compared to Jacinda Ardern’s two. The other three articles all focused on National MPs (Paul Goldsmith, Jonathan Young, and Simeon Brown). No other Government MPs were fact checked.

That means that 80% of fact checks were on National MPs, and Collins received more than twice as many checks as Ardern. To an independent organisation such as the Taxpayers’ Union, that does not seem balanced.

We move now to the case that really caught our eye. Simeon Brown’s statement on renewable electricity being judged “misleading”, even though all the figures the quoted were correct to the decimal point. We may be naïve idealists, but figures which are true are facts in our book.
Not so, it seems, at AAP Fact Check. They found an academic who opined that the good results under National and poor results under Labour had “largely been independent of government policy.” That is not a fact – that is a matter for political debate around causality and the influence of Government.

However, having introduced this new causality test, we expected it to be applied rigorously. The fact check of Jacinda Ardern’s comment regarding child poverty made no reference to the Government’s power to influence the figures. The test was not applied.

Next, the Prime Minister got credit for getting the numbers “roughly right”, while Brown was called misleading for getting them exactly right, and Collins was criticised for getting state house waiting list numbers “close to the mark with both figures she quoted, but not 100 per cent accurate.” She rounded the figures up. Politicians do that. A lot. There seems to be very different standards applied here as well.

At times, the Fact Check reads more like a political press release. For example, Ardern’s office was allowed to explain what the Prime Minister actually “meant” in her child poverty comments. A luxury that was not extended to others on the list.

The Prime Minister was also fact checked on her claim that Police numbers went down when Judith Collins was Minister of Police. Despite reporting that “NZ Police data shows actual police numbers rose between 2008 and 2016, during which time Ms Collins served two distinct periods as police minister,” the AAP went out of their way to find a wrinkle.

Triumphantly they wrote “when police numbers are described as an officer to resident ratio, they show an improvement during Ms Collins’ first period as police minister (from 1/519 in 2008 to 1/507 in 2011). However, during Ms Collins’ second run as police minister, population growth in NZ largely outstripped the growth in police numbers (1/514 in 2015 to 1/526 in 2016). This is also true when you compare police to resident ratios for 2008 to the same data for 2016.”

As a result, they concluded the Prime Minister’s statement “does contain a significant element or elements of truth.” This is despite the inconvenient fact that Jacinda Ardern‘s statement which was being checked made absolutely no reference to officer to resident ratios. It talked about Police numbers which, again perhaps naively, we assumed to mean the actual number of Police which, factually speaking, went up under The Crusher.

This example is closer to political spin than fact checking. It adds in a new element never mentioned in the original quote and certainly not what the average person would think of when they heard Police numbers.

When they stick to their core job of checking facts (the company name should be a giveaway), they can do a very valuable job. AAP Fact Check looked into David Seymour’s claim that Labour took “$6 billion surplus to a billion-dollar deficit in only two years before Covid happened." They found it was “mostly true”.

Working from Treasury papers, the surplus was $5.5b (not $6b) and the deficit was $0.9b (not $1b). AAP Fact Check concluded: “While there are minor inaccuracies in the numbers he quoted, Seymour's comments were broadly in line with budget figures reported by New Zealand Treasury.”

Now that is how you fact check properly. Just the facts. Shame it was only one out of ten checks.

The AAP Fact Checker should no longer be taken as fact in this campaign.

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