On 18 April, Labour and the Greens jointly launched their NZ Power energy strategy. To see how the policy launch was reported and get a sense of the arguments and evidence that would contribute to people's opinions, we analysed 480 reports from New Zealand metropolitan newspapers, major broadcast news media, major internet news outlets and blogs. We assessed whether each report was generally favourable, neutral or unfavourable towards NZ Power, and what its main focus was:
- The policy merits of NZ Power;
- its possible effects on the sharemarkets, the energy industry, or business confidence more generally; or
- the political strategy around the policy launch.
There was a lot of coverage, and it was quite balanced between favourable and unfavourable reporting. In terms of volume, there were more favourable reports than unfavourable (38% to 35%); but unfavourable coverage reached a larger share of the audience (35% to 43%).
About half the audience was reached by coverage about the policy (49%), with significantly less focused on its effect on the markets (34%) and still less on the political strategy (16%). The tone of coverage focused on each of these themes differed. Reports focused on the sharemarkets were overwhelmingly unfavourable towards NZ Power, while those focused on the policy merits or political strategy were more favourable than unfavourable.
Just counting the audience reach suggests that those opposed to NZ Power won the media battle by a nose. But because the opposition’s intent was to launch a policy that explicitly benefitted energy users, at the expense of energy companies and their shareholders, the breakdown of favourable and unfavourable coverage by focus was probably more useful to the opposition.
Chart 1: Cumulative audience/circulation reach of favourable, neutral and unfavourable coverage
The analysed reports reached a cumulative audience of more than 15 million. On two days (19 and 23 April) coverage peaked above 2 million, and total daily reach remained above 500,000 for eleven consecutive days, including two weekends. The reporting followed a fairly typical trajectory for a major policy launch.
- Initially favourable coverage framed by the opposition was met by rebuttal from the government.
- Reporting peaked again on 23 April with commentary from industry, business and other experts.
- From 29 April coverage fell away to almost nothing.
Chart 2: Cumulative audience/circulation reach of coverage focused on market, policy and strategy aspects of NZ Power
Almost all the initial coverage was focused on the policy merits. The 23 April peak marked an increase in coverage focused on the market aspects of coverage, which continued until 26 April. During this three-day period there was significant coverage of changes to the Mighty River Power float as a result of the launch, including a forecast revenue decrease of $100 million. In addition, Infratil delayed its own bond issue, and Contact Energy revised its share price downwards.
This period from 23-26 April included much of the harshest criticism of NZ Power. Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce labelled it “economic sabotage”, and a range of commentators, including market analysts, fund managers and electricity industry spokespeople, expressing concerns that the policy would “spook” prospective investors in Mighty River Power. There was almost no favourable market-focused coverage of NZ Power, and none at all in high-circulation media.
Coverage about the policy merits and the opposition strategy was more mixed, but favourable coverage reached about half the audience. These reports tended to emphasise the opposition’s framing of the policy: that it would fix an “out-of-control” sector, reduce power prices and make life easier for ordinary energy users.
Chart 3: Share of voice by tone
Two out of three publicly-released opinion polls conducted immediately before the announcement showed a sharp drop in support for the government, and a corresponding increase for the opposition. (The conventional wisdom was that the next round of opinion polling would reflect public sentiment towards NZ Power). Two weeks later, on 2 May, Roy Morgan released a poll taken mostly after the NZ Power announcement, which showed the government back up six and Labour and the Greens down a combined 6.5 points. So does this signal a rejection of the NZ Power policy by the electorate?
NZ Power has huge implications for everyone who uses power. It was launched immediately after the historic passage of the marriage equality law, so it's fair to assume people were paying attention. The coverage was reasonably balanced overall, but the way the framing of reports broke down favoured the opposition’s strategy, emphasising the split between the owners and consumers of energy. To explain a six-point swing to the government from the opposition, we would expect to see very unbalanced reporting that was predominantly critical of the policy. But we didn't. So does the Roy Morgan poll tell us that the policy was poorly-received by the electorate? Not really. It’s possible that it was – future polls will provide an indication, though the longer they take to come out, the harder it is to know. Individual polls vary, and as the last Roy Morgan poll swung towards the opposition, a correction of this sort was perhaps inevitable.
What this really shows is that the relationship between polls (as a measure of public opinion), policy merit, and media coverage are complex, and non-linear. It seems unlikely that a reasonable person with no strong opinion about the energy sector would change their voting intentions towards the government on the basis of this coverage, and very unlikely that 6% of the electorate would do so.
By Lew Stoddart, Media Analyst, iSentia