Media is widely criticised for it’s shallowness, it’s obsession with trivia, and it’s lack of investigative reporting.
Last year Matt Nippert showed that there is still some old school investigation going on. He has detailed his series on articles on tax last year – 19 articles at NZ Herald on the topic were published through the year, in what he calls “a deliberate effort to dig into the opaque world of corporate tax avoidance and the growing Tax Gap.”
Not the most popular of topics, but far more important than much of the news we are now dished up.
The series started with package on the front page of the Herald on March 18. This included:
- a front-page splash, outlining how 20 large multinationals with $10b in reported profits paid only a net $1.8m in income tax over the year.
- a longer feature on the issue of transfer pricing,
- a visualisation showing how globally profitable companies reported barely breaking even in New Zealand,
- and a table showing profit margin differentials and the responses of of companies examined to questions about their reported results.
A pre-planned series of stories followed, including
- a probe into the low levels of tax paid by MSD, the drug-maker who was then-lobbying government for $40m to provide their expensive melanoma treatment Keytruda,
- a feature on how the issue of tax fairness had gained momentum on the back of the series,
- an investigation into how Facebook and Google booked all their New Zealand revenues in low-tax jurisdictions like Ireland and Singapore,
- and the revelation from Pfizer accounts the drug-making paid only $59,000 in tax while sending $52.5m offshore.
Nippert then looked at government policy on the issue, including
- how Inland Revenue audits of large companies had dropped precipitously,
- and New Zealand’s messy stop-start signing of an international tax-information-sharing agreement.
- and the discovery how our tax authorities had been quietly waging “trench warfare” with technology companies over with a crackdown on their aggressive tax structuring.
Some further drilling down:
- he looked at delays to implementing the OECD’s recommendation of limiting how much companies can suppress profits through debt-loading,
- and then a deeper analysis of the issue that showed the 100 largest companies operating in New Zealand could be subject to $86m in extra tax under such a limit.
Nippert: “Throughout all this, the opinions of the public and policy-maker and even the business community appeared to shift.”
- The Herald’s Mood of the Boardroom survey found concerns were now registering amongst the country’s chief executives,
- John Key took the opportunity at APEC to corner Mark Zuckerberg about tax, professional tax advisers conceded they were losing the public debate,
- the Commissioner of Inland Revenue took the unusual step of needling large corporates over their need to better explain to the public their tax arrangements.
And finally “late in the year, the government finally reacted”:
- In a front page story we outlined how cabinet had conducted an about-face on the issue and was now proposing a unilateral suite of measures to staunch the leaks of corporate tax abroad.
- An accompanying editorial hailed the move as a step in the right direction to restore public confidence in the tax system.
In a year that the Herald was heavily criticised for it’s click-bait headlines and increasing reliance trivia we should acknowledge that they retain a commitment to some in depth investigative reporting, albeit with reducing resources.
NZH bio on Nippert:
A Fulbright scholar with a masters from the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, Matt has spent the past decade in newsbreaking roles at the New Zealand Listener, National Business Review, Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times before joining the Herald in 2014. His work has won numerous awards and he is the reigning Canon reporter of the year.
His stories include horrific abuse at a state-run boys home on Great Barrier Island, malfeasance at South Canterbury Finance, systematic tax avoidance by multinational companies, and the sudden resignation of justice minister Judith Collins.
Nippert has a regular sideline as a broadcast commentator and is one of only a few journalists who honestly enjoys numbers and spreadsheets.
Last year Nippert won Canon media awards for his efforts:
- Reporter – Business Matt Nippert – The New Zealand Herald
- Reporter of the Year Matt Nippert – The New Zealand Herald