19 Jul 2020

The fine line on lies

From Mediawatch, 8:22 am on 19 July 2020

One of the things that destroyed Todd Muller's National Party leadership was an apparent lie to reporters during the leaked Covid-19 patient data scandal. Why were so many media outlets reluctant to use the l word to describe his dishonesty?

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

On Thursday last week, Todd Muller said something which was not true, and on close examination, looked a lot like a lie.

TVNZ reporter Thomas Mead was asking the National leader if Michelle Boag was a source for his health spokesman Michael Woodhouse.

“Have you spoken to him?” Mead asked.

Muller was unequivocal. “No.”

The following day, Muller admitted he had spoken to Woodhouse before that denial.

His health spokesman had given him a “heads-up” that he’d received information from Boag, a former National Party president, on Tuesday.

They’d had another conversation on Wednesday.

Muller also deliberately omitted details during the press conference, repeating Boag’s claim to have only interacted with Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker when he knew that wasn’t true.

A transcript of Todd Muller's exchange with reporters

A transcript of Todd Muller's exchange with reporters Photo: Supplied

Despite those inconsistencies, the word “lie” didn’t appear in the TVNZ 1 News coverage on Friday.

Political reporter Maiki Sherman put Muller’s statements throughout the week in order and showed their contradictions, but stopped short of calling them deliberately dishonest.

Instead the National leader was labelled “evasive at best” and accused him of saying something he “knew wasn’t true”.

Other media also wrestled with the question of whether to directly accuse Muller of lying to them.

Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan got close to using the word but stopped just short, saying Muller suffered a "lack of honesty".

On TVNZ's Q+A, host Jack Tame put the claim in the form of a question to National’s deputy leader Nikki Kaye: “Did your leader lie?” 

The New Zealand Herald’s Amelia Wade led on Muller’s own answer to that same question.

Monday’s issue of The Bulletin by The Spinoff also zeroed in on the question of whether Muller lied.

It concluded he hadn’t, but acknowledged he had chosen not to reveal pertinent facts when given the opportunity.

BusinessDesk’s Pattrick Smellie was the only columnist to accuse Muller of dishonesty outright, saying the National leader had been “trapped in a lie” due to Mead’s persistent questioning.

Smellie told Mediawatch he had used the phrase because it was the best description of what took place.

“It was very clear what he was being asked and it was very clear he didn’t want to answer it.”

After Muller’s resignation on Tuesday, New Zealand Herald political editor Audrey Young also accused him of “blatant mistruths” in Monday's press conference.

The question of when and whether to use the word 'lie' has been a matter of heated debate in journalists' circles since the rise of Donald Trump.

Dean Bacquet, the editor of The New York Times, has ordered his reporters to use the word judiciously when describing the US president’s hurricane of misinformation and false claims. Repeatedly accusing Trump of lying opens the Times up to claims that it’s partisan, he cautioned.

The obvious counter-argument, made by commentators including the NYU journalism lecturer Jay Rosen, is that reporters should describe things accurately whether or not it’s convenient for them to do so.

National Party leader Todd Muller and National MP Hamish Walker.

National Party leader Todd Muller and National MP Hamish Walker. Photo: RNZ

CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale, who has reported extensively on Trump’s falsehoods, defends using the term 'lie'.

“It isn’t a departure from objective journalism to use these words,” he told The Washington Post. “Why should the rules of objective journalism mean we have to dance around the obvious, objective truth? If we’re going to get readers to trust us, we have to be straight with them.”

Muller's statements weren’t as clear-cut as some of Trump's more outlandish deceits.

But there may be an element of that Bacquet-style reticence, or even just human sympathy, in some journalists’ decisions not to name his comments as a lie. 

Another potential issue is proving intent. Lying implies setting out to deceive and BusinessDesk's Patrick Smellie accepted that Muller may have overstepped while trying to obfuscate.

“I used [trapped in a lie] because it seemed to me that expressed what had occurred rather than that he set out to be mendacious,” he said. 

“He just didn’t want to give that answer and he tried various ways of not giving it, and in the end he got trapped into answering in a way that made it appear he was saying he hadn’t been briefed, and then the very next day we find out he has.”

New Zealand’s strict defamation laws are also a factor influencing editorial calls on whether to use the word lie.

The Bulletin’s writer Alex Braae said the potential defamation threat influenced his decision not to apply the word to Muller’s comments.

“In my view, Muller's statements didn't meet the threshold of calling him a liar in print, which  - because of New Zealand's defamation laws  - is a real high bar. People can make their own minds up about whether he was totally honest,” he said.

These concerns also restricted the show Mediawatch, which has not directly accused Muller of lying in this story.

Other news organisations were less forthcoming with their reasons for not using the word. 1 News said it would rather keep its editorial conversations private.

However, the potential for defamation action is an ever-present factor in media decision-making. It influences the stories newsrooms choose to cover and the way their reports are presented.

Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler told Mediawatch in April that defamation laws are among the greatest threats to freedom of speech in New Zealand.

He said they don’t give enough protection to “simple opinion” and put too much emphasis on maintaining powerful people’s reputations - at the expense of free speech.

It’s unlikely it would’ve made a difference if more media outlets had accused Muller of lying. The National leader tendered his resignation on Tuesday.

But the reasoning behind their reporting may still be significant.

If news organisations didn’t want to make a call because they didn’t want to appear partisan, or out of genuine doubt, that’s at least an arguable position.

But if the threat of defamation loomed large in their decision-making, it may be worth questioning whether that law is serving as intended. 

Instead of protecting the right to free speech, could our laws be making liars of our media?