Open letter to David Farrar on his erroneous Kiwiblog post re Countdown

Over at Kiwiblog David Farrar has had a crack at TV3 for the work done by the team at The Nation on the supermarket story. I lead that team and on several points Farrar is plain wrong and on other points is misleading. So here's my reply

Hi David and Kiwiblog readers,

I've had the post titled Has it turned to just mindless bashing of Countdown? pointed out to me, so in reply I wanted to alert you to a few missing facts.

It seems you either missed The Nation, haven't read the transcripts (here and here) or are being purposefully mischievous. So I'd ask you to check your facts before you criticise TV3; or don't post from Nepal. Especially when you position the piece as a chance to set the record straight and are criticising what has been days of thorough work by The Nation team.

Your argument is that yesterday the previously reasonable criticism of Progressive Enterprises "turned into almost a smear campaign against Countdown. They were accused on TV3 of everything from threatening a select committee, to bullying competitors also, to bullying Councils to shock horror selling Lotto tickets.  I think a line has been crossed, and we are now just seeing a degree of mindless bashing".

The programme on TV3 in question is The Nation. As most Pundit readers will know, I'm Executive Producer of The Nation. You have every right to defend Countdown and its owners Progressive Enterprises. But not to malign the work of others raising important questions worthy of public debate.

On the programme Mad Butcher CEO Michael Morton criticised various parts of Countdown's behaviour, including the lawyers' letters he's been getting since he started doing comparative advertising. As you rightly point out, David, the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld complaints by Progressive against the Mad Butcher. You criticised a later TV3 news story for not including that fact, yet you didn't mention the fact that Progressive has been criticised by the ASA as well. As The Nation host Lisa Owen asked of Morton on the programme, 'aren't you as bad as each other?'.

Indeed Morton was challenged a couple of times about his advertising complaints and was forced to admit that Progressive had complained to the ASA about his ads and won the fight. Morton said it was for technical, minor reasons and his argument is that a large company can use lawyers and complaints processes to suck up the time and resources of a smaller competitor. But viewers were left in no doubt about the ASA complaints and their outcomes. There was no "key fact missing" from The Nation or the video at the top of the story you link to. Did you bother to watch that?

Second, you seem to miss the crucial point of the Lotto allegations made by Labour MP Shane Jones. You wrote:

"Then the next bash was shock horror they sell Lotto tickets: ... That’s just pathetic. I’ve been buying lotto tickets at New World for over a decade.  Why is it fine at one group of supermarkets, but not another? This is just smearing Countdown."

Countdown sells Lotto tickets at the tills. Your New World does not do that. As reported on The Nation, Countdown trialled the scheme over summer, it was popular and is now being rolled out to Countdown supermarkets nationwide (currently over 100 have it). That's new this year and exclusive to Countdown for now, so it's not a matter of it being "fine at one group of supermarkets, but not another" or "xenophobic". You can certainly argue that it's a fine and helpful service for Countdown to offer, but the argument you're making is based on wrong facts. Jones is right when he makes the distinction between what Countdown does compared to other supermarkets; you can make your own mind up as to whether you think that makes Countdown more convenient or harmful.

You may say large Jackpots are fine and fun, as is selling Lotto at the till. But the Mad Butcher said sales of food – food – at his stores falls by 8-9 percent on Jackpot weeks and by up to 15 percent on Jackpot days. Other retailers tell of similar trends and budgeting agencies tell of an increased demand for foodbank parcles in the days after a Jackpot weekend.

Desperate people make bad choices, it seems. Is that purely their responsibility or are Lotto and Countdown also culpable. Remember, Countdown says it's a caring member of the communities it works in and is one of New Zealand's largest employers. It's a good issue to debate, isn't it? Something a caring society should be thinking about? Why would you mock even the debate and call it a "smear campaign"?

Third, I'm curious how you know about the contents of the letter. No-one on the select committee would release it to us or even confirm its contents; doing so would have broken privilege. So I can only assume that either an MP has leaked it to you at risk of a privileges committee hearing or that you've been briefed by Countdown on this. Isn't that something you should declare openly?

Fourth, you have every right to support Countdown in the hours it wants to sell alcohol. But that's not the point of Yule's criticism – or that of two others mayors The Nation spoke to. The purpose of the bill National passed last year was that local communities should have the final word on what hours alcohol can be sold in their community. Judith Collin could explain that to you. Countdown, as is their legal right, is challenging that. Fair enough. But the mayors' complaint is that Progressive has been particularly aggressive in its approach – more so than any other appellant. The Hauraki mayor is on the record as being especially furious on this point. Countdown deny that, but it's a perfectly legitmate claim from three independent sources.

You claim that: "All you do by restricting beer and wine sales to 9pm is annoy a lot of late night shoppers who can’t buy a bottle of wine with their groceries". That's a disputable claim, if not plain wrong. It's not "all" you do. There's evidence from both here and overseas that a restriction of alcohol sales by just two hours does reduce the social harm caused by excessive drinking. But whether you accept that evidence or not, you're missing the point. The new law is clear: it's simply up to local communities to set whatever hours they want on alcohol sales; there's no requirement for evidence, just for public consultation. And the mayors will tell you that most submitters want reduced hours. You can argue that it's a bad move and they're wrong, but that's just your opinion, not a sign of anyone smearing Countdown.

You say "Many Councils are falling into the trap of not distinguishing between specialist bottle stores and supermarkets", but again the law simply requires councils to listen to the local will. If you think that's bad law, raise it with the National government that passed it.

Finally, you "acknowledge that Countdown’s alleged behaviour towards suppliers appears to have been bad", but you don't mention that the most significant part of Morton's claims were over treatment of suppliers and the fact he has become the first person to confirm he has taken part in a complaint to the Commerce Commission on just that issue.

Oh, and one other thing. Progressive was informed of the nature of the complaints against it and repeatedly offered right of reply on the programme. Executives were free to make all the arguments you do and more, yet they repeatedly rejected the offer to appear. Why didn't you mention that in your post?

You have every right to think that the complaints by Jones, Morton and Yule are just "whining". But when several independent sources all make complaints of a similar nature about one corporate's behaviour, especially a company that is currently being investigated by the Commerce Commission for anti-competitive behaviour, I'd say that's worth a public airing and debate.

Even though Countdown bosses didn't appear, The Nation laid out their response to the allegations at length, both in the questions asked and a separate graphic containing bullet points of their arguements to provide what balance we could. I'm assuming you wouldn't argue that a current affairs show shouldn't ignore serious claims just because the side complained about refuses to take part in any debate or even give an interview.

So please, feel free to argue the content of the criticisms, but it's unreasonable and unfair to go round accusing people of a "smear campaign" based on inaccurate claims and errors of fact. Right?


Tim Watkin