Radio Pacific talkback – John Banks – misleading comments about Tranz Rail – unfair treatment of complainant – misrepresentation of complainant’s position on-air
(1) Principle 5 – complainant insulted and misrepresented – uphold
(2) Principle 6 – Tranz Rail not an American company – uphold
Broadcast of statement
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Talkback host John Banks broadcast comments about Tranz Rail and its safety record on Radio Pacific during the morning of 6 April 2000. Then, during the 7 April 2000 morning show, Mr Banks broadcast comments about the complainant, who had written to Radio Pacific about the previous day’s broadcast.
Tranz Rail’s Corporate Relations Manager, F C Cockram complained to The RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the 6 April broadcast contained inaccuracies which related to Tranz Rail’s ownership and matters surrounding the death of a Tranz Rail employee. He also complained that the 7 April broadcast misrepresented his letter about the earlier broadcast, personally abused him and failed to address the inaccuracies he had complained about.
The RadioWorks responded that the host’s comments about the 7 April broadcast were not a personal attack on the complainant. It maintained that the comments were directed at Tranz Rail, and that the host was entitled to express his opinion. It also disagreed that the complainant’s letter had been misrepresented and suggested that the complainant telephone the host on-air to clarify Tranz Rail’s position.
Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ decision, Mr Cockram referred the complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority upholds the complaints.
The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the items complained about. They have also read transcripts of the items and have read the correspondence, which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.
Talkback host John Banks broadcast critical comments about Tranz Rail and its safety record on Radio Pacific during the morning of 6 April 2000. During the 7 April 2000 morning show, the host broadcast critical comments about the complainant, who had written to Radio Pacific about the previous day’s broadcast.
F C Cockram, Tranz Rail’s Corporate Relations Manager, complained to The RadioWorks that the 6 April broadcast was inaccurate. The host had referred to Tranz Rail as an American company. Mr Cockram pointed out that although the company had an American shareholder with a 23% shareholding, New Zealanders or New Zealand institutions held the majority of its shares, and its management team was from New Zealand.
Mr Cockram also maintained that the branding of Tranz Rail as "a reckless, rich and powerful multi-national company that doesn’t deserve a place in New Zealand" was excessive and inaccurate. While not disputing that the company ought to have detected inadequate repairs which led to the death of its employee, he pointed out that the repairs had been carried out when the vessel had been Government owned. He also said that the company had worked very hard to eliminate risks since it had ceased to be Government owned, and had taken additional steps following the death to ensure it had no further accidents.
Mr Cockram also complained that the 7 April broadcast misrepresented his complaint about the 6 April broadcast. He said:
I am disappointed that Mr Banks not only indulged in personal invective but he entirely misrepresented the thrust of my letter and failed to address the error of fact that I drew to your attention.
He took issue with a comment made by the host that he had made excuses for the tragic death of Tranz Rail’s employee, saying that his letter had clearly made the opposite point. He also believed he had been "personally abused in quite an extravagant manner" and that the nature of his letter had been misrepresented.
In its response to the complaints, The RadioWorks disagreed that the host’s comments were a personal attack on the complainant. It maintained that the comments were directed at Tranz Rail, and that the host was entitled to express his opinion. It also disagreed that the complainant’s letter had been misrepresented and suggested that the complainant telephone the host on-air to discuss the matter.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Cockram reiterated the matters raised in his complaints. He then said that he believed that The RadioWorks had breached at least the following Principles set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
Mr Cockram elaborated on his concerns about the 7 April broadcast; that the host had said he had made excuses for the death of a Tranz Rail employee, and that he had also led listeners to believe that he had attempted to have the host sacked. Mr Cockram said he believed that listeners would have gained a misleading impression of the approach he had made to the broadcaster, and that this was reinforced by the host referring to him as, among other things, "this lapdog", "this rooster" and "snivelling". Furthermore, he said that the host had given the impression that he was cowardly and unwilling to face the host.
Mr Cockram also complained that the host had repeated the error relating to Tranz Rail’s ownership in the 7 April broadcast, by using the term "American-owned Tranz Rail ferry".
In its response to the referral, The RadioWorks acknowledged Mr Cockram’s correspondence in which he stated that 23% of Tranz Rail’s shares were owned by an American shareholder. It argued that it believed that the fundamental issue at stake on the programme had been the company’s poor industrial safety record. The debate was centred on this, it said, not ownership. It then repeated that it had invited Mr Cockram to clarify Tranz Rail’s position by telephoning the host, noting that Mr Cockram had declined the invitation.
The RadioWorks did not agree that the broadcasts had breached either Principle 5 or Principle 6 of the Radio Code.
In Mr Cockram’s final comment, he disagreed with the broadcaster’s contention that the fundamental issue had been Tranz Rail’s poor record in industrial safety. He reiterated that his concern was the host’s repeated description of Tranz Rail as an American company. He said he believed this would have led listeners to believe that Tranz Rail was not a New Zealand company and its interests were not those of New Zealand or New Zealanders.
Mr Cockram noted that, because he had drawn the matter to the host’s attention on 6 April, he believed references to Tranz Rail being an American company in later broadcasts were deliberately wrong.
As to the offer made by The RadioWorks for him to telephone the host to discuss the issue with him on-air, Mr Cockram said:
I believe it would hardly have been the act of a sane person to have exposed himself to further abuse by making such a telephone call. I cannot agree that such a belated and inadequate invitation gave me an opportunity to balance the impression created by Mr Banks.
Mr Cockram also maintained that the host had misled viewers about the purpose of his original letter of complaint. He said it was neither truthful nor accurate to suggest that he had tried to have the host sacked or that he had made excuses for the death of a company employee. He also said he did not believe he had been dealt with justly and fairly, as he believed the host had intended to damage his credibility. Mr Cockram said this was compounded by the descriptions of him used by the host such as "lapdog", "rooster", "snivelling" and "cowardly".
The Authority deals first with Mr Cockram’s complaint under Principle 6. The complainant alleged that it was inaccurate to refer to Tranz Rail as an American company and as a reckless company, and that the nature of his complaint had been misrepresented by the host on-air. As to the first alleged inaccuracy, the Authority considers that, as the company is managed and majority owned by New Zealanders, it was inaccurate to refer to Tranz Rail as an American company, as the host did repeatedly on the 6 April and 7 April morning shows. The Authority is particularly unimpressed that this error was repeated on 7 April, despite the fact that the host had been advised of the inaccuracy by the complainant after the 6 April broadcast and should therefore have been aware of his error. It finds that Principle 6 was breached in relation to this aspect.
The next part of Mr Cockram’s complaint under Principle 6 related to the question of whether it was inaccurate for the host to describe Tranz Rail as reckless. In the Authority’s view, that description was an expression of the host’s opinion, which is not a factual matter about which there can be a breach of standards. Accordingly the Authority finds that there was no breach of Principle 6 in relation to this aspect.
The final matter to be considered under Principle 6 is the alleged on-air misrepresentation by the host of Mr Cockram’s letter of complaint on 7 April. As this aspect overlaps with matters relating to the question whether Mr Cockram was dealt with fairly, the Authority prefers to deal with this aspect of the complaint under its determination of Principle 5.
As to Principle 5, this aspect of the complaint relates to the way that the host referred to the complainant on-air on 7 April. The Authority notes that Mr Cockram’s original letter of complaint did not make excuses for the death of a Tranz Rail employee, as asserted by the host. Nor did the complainant call for the host to be sacked. The Authority considers that it was unfair to the complainant to misrepresent his complaint by making those incorrect assertions on-air. In the Authority’s view, the unfairness to the complainant was exacerbated by coupling the inaccuracies with the host’s emotive and personal verbal assault on the complainant. The Authority notes that the broadcaster’s invitation for Mr Cockram to phone the host to discuss the issue on-air and the language used in that invitation was provocative rather than constructive:
I’m going to keep a cock line open, a Cockram line open for this Mr Cockram to give me a call because I want to tear off his arms and legs publicly over this unnecessary death of the young boy on the inter-island American owned Tranz Rail ferry.
The Authority observes that, had the broadcaster wished to obtain comment from Mr Cockram, it was able to contact him directly and to offer him an option of commenting. Accordingly, the Authority upholds the complaint that Principle 5 was breached.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority upholds the complaints that broadcast by The RadioWorks Ltd of the John Banks Breakfast Show on 7 April 2000 breached Principle 5 and that an aspect of the broadcast by The RadioWorks Ltd of the John Banks Breakfast Show on 6 April and 7 April breached Principle 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose penalties under s.13(1) and 16(4) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It sought submissions from the parties as to penalty. Having considered those submissions, the Authority makes the following order:
Pursuant to s.13(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, the Authority orders The RadioWorks Ltd to broadcast a statement within one month of the date of this Decision. The statement shall be broadcast nationwide (including Auckland) on Radio Pacific between 6.30 and 9.00am on a weekday on a day approved by the Authority and shall contain a summary of this Decision in a form approved by the Authority.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
31 August 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. F C Cockram’s Formal Complaint to The RadioWorks – 6 April 2000
2. F C Cockram’s Formal Complaint to The RadioWorks – 7 April 2000
3. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Formal Complaints – 19 April 2000
4. Mr Cockram’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 19 April 2000
5. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Authority – 9 May 2000
6. Mr Cockram’s Final Comment – 22 May 2000