"Boy racers" were encouraged by radio station 91 ZM on 14 October to turn up at a named City Councillor’s home address and to play their car stereos loudly to protest about the Councillor’s stand on noise control in Palmerston North.
Ross Warren complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.4(1)(c) that the broadcast had disclosed the Councillor’s address and had encouraged people to harass him.
In a brief response, the station argued that it had been reasonable to disclose the Councillor’s address to enable a protesting group to make a legitimate point against a crusade by a local politician. Furthermore, it noted, the station had acted responsibly by dealing with complaints received and the protest had been cancelled. The Councillor had accepted the station’s apology and had agreed to meet with drivers at a later time, it wrote. It recommended that the complaint not be upheld.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
In response to a City Councillor’s proposal that loud stereos be banned from cars, on 14 October Palmerston North station 91 ZM encouraged boy racers to congregate at the Councillor’s home at 5.00pm that day with their stereos booming. In the event, the protest was called off after the police intervened.
Ross Warren complained that the broadcast had breached the Councillor’s privacy because it had divulged his address. He also objected to the station’s incitement of anti-social behaviour.
In its response, TRN on the station’s behalf, argued that under Privacy Principles (v) and (vi) there were reasonable grounds "that this was a disclosure to enable a protesting group to make a legitimate point against a crusade by a local politician." It also noted that the station had acted responsibly in dealing with the complaints received about the matter by cancelling the protest, and that the Councillor had accepted its apology and had agreed to attend a meeting to hear the concerns of Manawatu drivers. TRN provided an explanation from the station’s Programme Director, in which he reported that the protest had been mentioned only once during the day (at 10.40am) and that after a complaint was received, it had been cancelled. Throughout the afternoon, listeners were further advised that the protest had been cancelled.
In his final comment to the Authority, Mr Warren emphasised that the main reason for his complaint was that the disclosure of the Councillor’s address had breached his privacy. He said he understood that a radio station could not broadcast a person’s phone number or address without their consent. He also noted that the protest had been referred to on a Wellington station at about noon.
When the Authority deals with a privacy complaint, it applies its Privacy Principles to the facts. The relevant principles read:
The protection of privacy includes the protection against the disclosure by the broadcaster, without consent, of the name and/or address and/or telephone number of an identifiable person. This principle does not apply to details which are public information, or to news and current affairs reporting, and is subject to the "public interest" defence in principle (vi).
(vi) Discussing the matter in the "public interest", defined as of legitimate concern or interest to the public, is a defence to an individual’s claim for privacy.
In deciding whether the disclosure of the Councillor’s address breached his privacy, the Authority takes account of the fact that the Councillor was a public figure, and notes that his address and telephone number are listed in the local telephone directory. Apparently he had taken a strong stand on the issue of noise pollution and had recommended that "boom boxes" be banned from cars. As a public figure who had taken a strong stand on a controversial issue, the Authority’s view is that he could have expected to receive opposition to his proposal.
The disclosure on the programme of the Councillor’s address on this occasion, the Authority finds, raises an issue of privacy, notwithstanding that the address was available from a publicly available source such as the telephone book. It was an issue, in its view, because the disclosure was made for the express purpose of encouraging a public protest outside a private address. The Authority distinguishes between the address being accessible to the public on the one hand, and on the other, its becoming public knowledge because attention had been drawn to it in a broadcast, in the context of protest action being planned against the Councillor at his private residence. Accordingly, while the address was in the telephone book, the Authority considers that disclosure in these circumstances raises an issue of privacy.
In determining whether a breach occurred, the Authority takes account of possible mitigating factors, including the prompt action taken by the broadcaster in cancelling the planned protest, the apology given to and accepted by the Councillor, and the fact that, as he was a public figure who had taken a strong stance on a contentious issue, he could probably expect to receive some opposition to his plan. Overall, it concludes that while a potential breach may have occurred, it is unable – because of these extenuating circumstances – to conclude that the Councillor’s privacy was in fact breached. It declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
16 December 1999
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Ross Warren’s Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 27 October 1999
2. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 5 November 1999 (including copy of Programme
Director’s letter to TRN dated 2 November 1999)
3. Mr Warren’s Final Comment – 10 November 1999