28 Mar 2021

Investor-economist alliance dominates media's housing response

From Mediawatch, 6:10 pm on 28 March 2021

A huge squadron of investors and economists blitzed the airwaves following the government's big housing announcement, often drowning out other voices.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and PM Jacinda Ardern unveiling the plan to help first-home buyers.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and PM Jacinda Ardern unveiling the plan to help first-home buyers. Photo: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

In the hours after the government's big housing announcement on Tuesday, the top three stories on the Herald's homepage were all angled around reaction from property investors and economists.

'Bizarre, crazy: Landlords shocked at government's housing plans', one headline said.

'Chilling effect: Housing policy could hit wider economy, economist', said another.

At its competitor Stuff, the range of voices responding to the package was almost as narrow. It led on reaction from National leader Judith Collins, alongside an economic warning from ANZ chief economist Sharon Zollner and a story headlined 'Housing changes to hit investors from this weekend'. 

The homepage of nzherald.co.nz following Labour's housing announcement.

The homepage of nzherald.co.nz following Labour's housing announcement. Photo: NZME

Economists and investors continued to dominate the airwaves and column inches in the following days. 

Zollner, independent economist Cameron Bagrie, Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod Kerr, ASB chief economist Nick Tuffley, Westpac chief economist Satish Ranchod and several others were all given extensive room to deliver their views across every major media platform in the country.

Meanwhile, Property Investors' Federation president Andrew King and his colleague, the federation's chief executive Sharon Cullwick, were all but omnipresent following the announcement. They appeared in Stuff and the Herald and on several shows across the TV networks.

On the night of the announcement, Newshub carried a story headlined 'Renters could be worse off following government’s new housing package - property investors'

It quoted three sources - including King, property developer Blair Chappell, and Tony Alexander, an economist who once advised young people to hire as many “feng shui consultants, window washers, dog walkers, dog washers, [and] cat whisperers” as Boomers did if they wanted to own a home. 

No-one who rents a home was featured.

These were all legitimate voices for the discussion. Property investors in particular will be affected by the new rule barring them from claiming mortgage interest on their extra houses as a tax-deductible expense.

But it did raise the question of whether there might be other people with thoughts about one of the biggest issues facing the country. 

First home buyers, the group the government’s entire package was ostensibly supposed to help, got a little bit of attention, notably in an online story from Newshub’s Hannah Kronast.

Andrew King and Lesley Harris on The AM Show

Andrew King and Lesley Harris on The AM Show Photo: Newshub

First Home Buyers Club spokeswoman Lesley Harris also appeared in a panel on The AM Show alongside King.

But one of the most vulnerable groups affected by the changes - renters - were more seldom heard. 

When they did appear, it was often to express concern that they’d been overlooked, including in this story from TVNZ’s Breakfast, where Kāpiti grandmother Urutakai Cooper told Jenny May-Coffin rising rents meant her children were losing hope they’d ever be able to buy a house.

"It's heartbreaking because they're wonderful parents. I've got five children and all of them are wonderful parents and they do really well for their own children, and I just want them to have a future," she said. 

Newshub Nation was also notable for swimming against the media tide. Its show this weekend had Bernie O'Donnell from Manukau Urban Māori Authority in the studio alongside Mary Moeke-Te Purei, who was homeless in 2017. She said there was nothing in the government's housing announcement this week that gave her hope for her tamariki.

These shows were still the exception rather than the rule.

Some social media users said the bias toward investor voices showed newsrooms had essentially been bought off by a real estate industry which pays top dollar for glossy inserts in sections like the Herald’s OneRoof or Stuff’s Homed.

The reality is likely a bit more nuanced, but it’s possible those real estate connections inform which commentators reporters have on speed dial. 

It’s easy for Newstalk ZB, for instance, to call up property commentator Ashley Church when he features on its OneRoof Property Hour Show on Sunday afternoons.

Moneyed and powerful voices are also just easier for journalists to get a hold of in general.

Property investors have the cash to fund full-time advocates. Economists are notoriously easy to find, and reliable with a quote. Renters don’t have the same resources or representation. In this case even those who often speak for those with lower incomes, such as the Salvation Army or Māngere Budgeting Services Trust’s Darryl Evans, weren’t featured.

Those inbuilt advantages for investors can lead to the media presenting a distorted impression of what New Zealanders actually think.

To get a fuller picture that doesn’t just elevate the loudest, most well-resourced voices in the room, it’s worth taking the time to dig deeper and not default to the usual suspects.