Responding to Tim Watkin

I blogged on the 6th of April that the latest stories on Countdown seemed to be crossing the line from legitimate criticism to a bit of a smear campaign.

Tim Watkin did a response to my post. Now I’m no longer trekking, I thought I should respond to his points as I stand by my assertion that the latest set of stories were more just putting the boot in by allowing everyone to have a whinge. I stand by my views that in relation to their treatment of suppliers, my belief is that Countdown has behaved badly – and that the action by Shane Jones in exposing this is a good thing. But just because I agree with some criticisms of Countdown doesn’t mean I think every criticism is valid.

Tim first responds to my pointing out that the Mad Butcher chain has been found to have run false and misleading ads against Countdown, so hardly qualify as a credible viewpoint.  He says:

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?

First of all Tim misses the point that having a competitor complain about another competitor is pretty worthless. The relationships between competitors is different to that between a retailer and a supplier. Competitors are competing against each other and trying to steal market share from each other. Of course they are aggressive towards competitors. You see this in numerous industries – 2 Degrees vs Telecom and Vodafone. The petrol companies against each other etc. Hotel chains. In fact a common tactic is to block resource consents for your competitors – hence Park Royal Wellington blocked a Hilton being established on the waterfront. Petrol companies used to routinely object to consents for new petrol stations for competitors. And yes both Progressives and Foodstuffs used to try and stop each other supermarkets being built. We also see these tactics in Auckland with the brothel owners fighting each other.

So having a competitor on the show to have a whine about their competitor really adds nothing of news value unless they can point to something of substance that has been done wrong. And all the Mad Butcher could do was say that Countdown complains about their ads. Well considering their ads were in fact extremely aggressive and wrong, I’m sorry if I don’t see that as a good case. The Mad Butcher ads were of a form which used to not be allowed – direct price comparisons naming a competitor. If you run an ad like that, you need to be 100% sure your claims stack up – and they didn’t for the Mad Butcher.

Morton may claim they lost for technical minor reasons, but I suggest a reading of the actual ASA decision does not support that.

I agree that the ASA complaints were mentioned on the programme. But here is where Tim gets overly defensive. I never ever mentioned the programme. I was up the mountains on an incredibly slow Internet connection and could never have watched a live stream of it. What I was commenting on is the stories on the TV3 website. If the stories don’t include key facts from the show, then that is a problem with TV3 – not with me.

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.

Again Tim misses the point. What has this got to do with Countdown allegedly bullying suppliers, or being a bully? It’ just taking some random complaints and including them together so Countdown looks bad.

And I don’t think there is a big difference between having a Lotto counter at a supermarket and having then for sale at each checkout.

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”?

Because it is an issue unrelated to the bullying issue. Has Countdown bullied Lotto into it? I bet you Lotto were keen as mustard to do this.

If one wants w wider debate on gambling, then have that wider debate. Should Lotto be banned entirely. But the debate should be on Lotto – not on Countdown – unless Countdown have done something wrong.

And my point is that you hit Countdown for the stuff they have done wrong. But that isn’t a licence to give air time to every critic of Countdown on every issue, when they have vested interests such as being a competitor. The main complaint of the Lotto sales came again from a competitor – and his concern is not gambling, but that people spend less at his stores when it is a Lotto day.  That is an issue for Lotto – not Countdown.

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?

And talking of smears, Tim did one himself against me. I’m up a mountain in Nepal and Tim thinks I’m in contact with MPs or Countdown in some secret conspiracy. The reality is I was just going on the news report on TV3’s own website that quotes Countdown saying they just asked for a record of what was said. I even linked to the story, so it seems Tim didn’t even read the stories on TV3’s own website – instead he accuses me of being in the pay of Countdown.

I’ve had zero contact with Countdown on this issue, and in fact ever. All I was doing was offering an honest opinion that the latest stories seemed unfair to Countdown, and Tim assumes I must be working for them.

Even worse he suggests MPs were briefing me and breaching the privilege of the House, when all I was doing was commenting on a report on TV3’s own website that quoted Countdown. The only breach of privilege appears to be from the Labour MPs who obviously told Shane Jones about the letter which allowed him to go out and declare it was threatening. TV3 gave great publicity to the claims it was threatening. Well the letter has now been released and is here.

It is a simple request under Standing Order 232. If anyone thinks that letter is threatening, then they are being hysterical.

But the issue here is the producer of a TV show responds to criticism of the reports based on the show by saying he assume the critic is being briefed by Countdown – with an implication that I’m perhaps getting paid by them.

Here’s the irony – not only do I have no commercial involvement with Countdown – I actually have strong ties to many of their competitors and critics. But as always, I don’t let commercial involvement influence my honest opinion on my blog.

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. 

Tim needs to read the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act. It does not give local communities the final word on what hours can be sold. It says decisions on hours (and other matters) must be related to the object of the Act and the licensing authority hears any appeals. A local authority can not just pluck any hours of the nether and state they are permitted hours. They need to be able to demonstrate that the hours will help reduce alcohol abuse.  The licensing authority decides on that issue. 

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. 

Again Tim is wrong. There is a need for evidence. Again he should S81 of the Act that requires the LAPs to be reasonable – and reasonable means a requirement for evidence.

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.

And again Tim is wrong. They don’t.

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?

Because the are under investigation by the Commerce Commission (which is a good thing) and would be morons to go on TV shows while the investigation is proceeding. Once the investigation is over, I hope they do front up. On the main allegation of bullying against suppliers I do feel there is substance to the allegations. But I don’t think the additional issues are in the same category.

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.

Morton is a competitor. He is not independent. Yule is the head of local government in NZ. I have a lot f regard for Lawrence and he does his job well. But the view of local government seems to be (and shared by Tim) is that they can decide local alcohol policies without a need for evidence. Well, they are wrong. The Act says the policies have to be “reasonable” in light of the objects of the Act.

So I’m very comfortable with my original blog post. Tim says it was factually incorrect – but it was not. He just disagrees with my conclusions. That’s fine – but to have a senior producer allege that I am being briefed by Countdown when I criticise the show – well that reflects badly on someone – but I don’t think it is me.


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