Why is Stuff promoting right-wing propaganda?

You'd think the media would have stopped falling for the Taxpayers' Union's tactics, but no.

Why is Stuff promoting right-wing propaganda?

The way New Zealand’s Taxpayers’ Union works should be obvious by now. This fake union — which is actually a neoliberal, ultra-capitalist lobby group acting in concert with a dense network of international right-wing think tanks called the Atlas Network — advances its agenda by carefully picking divisive issues and laundering them through the news media. Every story they land in a mainstream publication is a victory for them, and thanks to the news media’s addiction to conflict and its diminishment by market forces, the fake union and its think-tank bedfellows are having an easier ride than ever.

It probably shouldn’t be this easy, though. Witness this glorified press release masquerading as a story in Stuff, published on Christmas Eve, in the heart of the silly season:

A screenshot of a Stuff news page that reads: Which council staff are earning more than $100,000? Susan Edmunds • 05:00, Dec 24 2023 PETER MEECHAM Auckland Council has the most staff earning six figures.
Merry Christmas, council workers! Your present this year is the Taxpayers’ Union talking about how you should be sacked, via the increasingly beleaguered Stuff, which has just disestablished much of its investigative journalism team.

The story itself is… boring. The first bit is based squarely on (via what looks some heroic paraphrasing to avoid outright copying) a Taxpayers’ Union press release. The fact that some council staff earn over $100,000 is framed as shocking, when in fact it’s wildly unsurprising; the people who run cities and towns are doing a demanding job and they’re (sometimes) paid well for it. And that’s what the article itself says, a third of the way through, citing Infometrics (an economic consultancy based in Wellington.)

Infometrics chief forecaster Gareth Kiernan said he would expect roles in larger councils to be paid more than equivalent roles in smaller councils, particularly at the higher levels.

Near the end comes a missive from Connor Molloy, Campaign Manager for the Taxpayers’ Union (who are not identified in the story as anything other than “the Taxpayers’ Union,” with no explanation for readers that the “union” is a right-wing lobby group.) Molloy, of course, seems to think that the best Christmas present for council staff is for them to lose their jobs:

Connor Molloy, campaigns manager for the Taxpayers’ Union, said reducing the number of highly-paid “backroom” staff was the right thing to do if councils were threatening big rate hikes.

“Rather than going straight for core services like rubbish collection and libraries, councils ought to look inwards at their own bloated bureaucracies first when looking to make savings.

From a quick scan, this story seems like merely another example of the TPU successfully “placing” a piece of its neoliberal propaganda in the media, which happens — to the media’s vast detriment — all the time. But on a closer look, things get even bleaker.

Reading the story, a little blue hyperlink in the opening paragraph caught my eye, as it’s designed to do.

A screenshot of text that reads: More than 10,000 council staff across the country earn more than $100,000 a year, and in many councils more than 20% of the staff earns six figures. The data is included in the Ratepayers' Report, which is produced by the Taxpayers' Union. It shows that, in total, at least 10,378 council workers are paid more than $100,000 a year, although some councils, such as Horizons Regional Council and Whakatäne District Council, did not provide data.

Curious! I wanted, as many readers might, to see the raw data informing the story. I was mystified as to why Stuff weren’t just hosting it themselves, or embedding the data on their page, as is standard practice for news organisations, which just made me curiouser.

I clicked through.

The page I landed on looks like this.

A screenshot of the Taxpayers' Union Ratepayers' Report

Hmm. Looks like I just need to put my email address in this handy form and I’ll get to see the report! You can even choose to be one of the three types of person: an “Elected official,” “Ratepayer,” or “Journalist (or reseracher.)1

I’ll just pop my details in and click “VIEW REPORT” and…huh? It’s just a normal webpage! No need for an email address at all!

A screenshot of the Ratepayers' Report, showing the URL

Look at that URL. That’s not a hidden or gated page: if the website was designed to be user-friendly, you could navigate straight to it. You don’t need to put in an email address to access the data, but the page is designed explicitly to make it seem like you do.

Do you at least get emailed the report? Like hell. Nothing shows up in your inbox until a few days later, when a horrifically-formatted email arrives and it’s made clear you’ve been added to a Taxpayers’ Union mailing list.

A horribly formatted email from the Taxpayer's Union, sent to unwitting users of the Ratepayers' Report

Take another look at that first form up there. There’s nothing whatsoever to indicate that you’re signing up to a mailing list. Not even a pre-checked “yes, send me Taxpayers’ Union emails,” checkbox. It’s either very poorly designed or deliberately misleading: either way, it could easily be illegal, under New Zealand’s Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act (2007).

So this is where we’re at. Stuff isn’t just parroting Taxpayers’ Union propaganda and enthusiastically leaning in to their “government = waste = fire them all” framing; they’re encouraging their readers to visit a website that harvests their emails and, unasked, signs them up for the full TPU package.

If you’re thinking “this seems bad!” well, I have more: want to know where this overtly propagandistic Ratepayers’ Report that shills for a right-wing lobby group originally comes from?

It was born as a collaboration between Stuff and the Taxpayers’ Union.

Don’t take my word for it: here’s the TPU press release.

The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, in collaboration with Fairfax Media has today launched “Ratepayers’ Report” hosted by Stuff.co.nz (…) “For the first time, New Zealanders now have an interactive online tool to compare their local council to those of the rest of the country,” says Jordan Williams, Executive Director of the Taxpayers’ Union. “Ratepayers can visit ratepayersreport.co.nz to compare their local council including average rates, debt per ratepayer and even CEO salaries.”

That was back in 2014. But at least the 2014 Ratepayers Report was hosted on Stuff’s own site, and didn’t speciously sign its users up to spam. It looked like this:

The old Ratepayers' Report site, hosted by Stuff, as it appearecd in 2014.

Nearly a decade later, the Ratepayers’ Report, together with a payload of TPU propaganda, is embedded in news cycles. The Taxpayers’ Union puts it out regularly, and media publish obligingly. A Google search of the Stuff site for “Ratepayers’ Report” shows you how entrenched it is.

A page of Google results from the Stuff.co.nz site for "Ratepayers' Report"

This is how the Atlas Network right-wing sausage factory works: their junk “think tanks” propagate their neoliberal message and exploit the decline of media by doing journalists’ work for them. They’ve been doing it for years, and it’s been wildly successful, to the point that they’ve just released a book skiting about how manipulative they are. But this — a reputable news site sending its readers to sign up directly, and probably unknowingly, for TPU propaganda — seemed beyond the pale. What was going on? I wanted to know, so I put the following questions to Stuff.

  • Why is Stuff linking to a Taxpayers’ Union email harvesting site?
  • Was Stuff aware that the function of the Ratepayer's Report was at least partially to harvest emails for the Taxpayers’ Union?
  • What is Stuff's policy on linking to external sites, especially those that may act maliciously or harvest user details?
  • In your view, was the nature of the Ratepayer's Report website (and its email-harvesting capability) sufficiently disclosed to readers?
  • What is the present nature of the relationship between Stuff and the Taxpayers’ Union?
  • Referring to the press release above, what is the past nature of the relationship between Stuff and the Taxpayers’ Union?
  • Was this a commercial relationship, i.e. did either TPU or Stuff pay each other for participation in the Ratepayer's Report? Was there contra, or an exchange of services?
  • Does the relationship between Stuff and the TPU that established the Ratepayer's Report persist today?
  • If not, when did it end, and why did it end?
  • Does Stuff have guidelines for journalists (or editors) who utilise the work of lobby groups in their stories, perhaps along the lines of the BBC? I refer to this page, which states:
Contributors' Affiliations

4.3.12 We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities and think-tanks) are unbiased. Appropriate information about their affiliations, funding and particular viewpoints should be made available to the audience, when relevant to the context.

If so, can you please provide me or point me to a copy of these guidelines?

Further to the above question, why does the story not identify for readers who the Taxpayers’ Union is, and what their work entails? I refer to these Newsroom stories that make it clear that the TPU is a neoliberal, right-wing lobby group, with links to fossil fuel and tobacco concerns, as well as being part of the international Atlas Network of neoliberal, right-wing think-tanks.

I note also that this Stuff story (correctly) identifies the Taxpayers’ Union as a "right-wing pressure group," so clearly it's possible to be upfront about the group and their motivations when writing a story about the TPU's work and the concerns they raise. Given this, why isn't this clear identification the norm across Stuff?

A day later, Stuff replied, with a comment they asked to be attributed to Keith Lynch, Editor-in-Chief of Stuff Digital:

Stuff has no formal relationship with the Taxpayer’s Union. A report from the Taxpayers Union was transparently quoted in the story alongside information from other named sources. In this case, the link to the source was included so audiences could access the information referenced in the story, should they wish.

On reflection, we have now updated the story to remove the link.

There you go, Stuff readers: four sentences and one middle finger. Wondering why Stuff saw fit to partner with the TPU? When the partnership ended? Why it ended? What their guidelines are when handling the journalistic equivalent of radioactive waste — the propaganda created by think tanks to shape society in their image? Screw you. You don’t get to know. The hyperlink to the Taxpayers’ Union site that misleadingly harvests readers’ emails is gone (without so much as an edit notice or correction on the page) because it should never have been there in the first place — but as for the merest whisper of explanation as to why the TPU so often gets such an easy ride in media?


I replied, asking Stuff if they’d be giving my other questions actual answers. I didn’t hear back. It’s amazing, really: journalists hound politicians endlessly to just Answer The Question (as they should!), but when it’s them on the hook they provide weasel words that’d do any politician proud, and then evaporate into the ether.

Going back to the Stuff story one last time, I saw this little banner above the body copy.

A banner that reads: We care about your money. How about supporting that work? Contribute to Stuff

You care about our money? I bet you do. Here’s a thought, Stuff: how about showing that you care about your audience? Stop feeding them repurposed think-tank propaganda, own your mistakes, and act with integrity. Perhaps, instead of taking the Taxpayers’ Union at their obviously-compromised word, you could talk about how the TPU used racist insinuations about “co-governance” to fight Three Waters, a government program designed to fix horrifically neglected water infrastructure while freeing councils from paying for it — the repeal of which is now being cited by councils as a key reason for massive rate hikes.

Maybe then people would be more inclined to pay you, instead of mistrusting you.

In a world where misinformation is so easily spread, the mainstream press should be fighting it, not amplifying it. It’s too bad that Stuff seems incapable of assuring its readers that it will treat think-tank content with the caution it warrants.

  1. Sic.