Arts Week on National Radio – interview with author – unbalanced
Principle 4 – clearly author’s opinions – no controversial issue – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Frances Stonor Saunders, author of "Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War", was interviewed on Arts Week on National Radio at 10.06am on 28 May 2000. In the interview she expounded her thesis that the CIA, with the approval and knowledge of the American government, had financed a campaign to export American culture and its ideals of liberalism and democracy to Western Europe during the Cold War.
Grahame Meikle complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd that the interview was completely lacking in balance. The basis of his complaint, he said, was that listeners were not told of the author’s background, and her statements were uncritically accepted by the interviewer. In addition, he continued, there was no follow up interview to challenge her views.
RNZ responded that the interview was not unbalanced and denied that the interviewer had not challenged the author. The purpose of the interview, it said, was to elicit from the author the major themes of the book. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Meikle referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
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.
During the Arts Week programme on National Radio on 28 May 2000, the author of a book entitled "Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War" was interviewed. She expounded on the book’s thesis that during the cold war, the CIA had engaged in a covert campaign of cultural propaganda and persuasion aimed at West European and American intellectuals and designed to convince them of the rightness of American aims and ambitions, and to denigrate Communist ideals.
Grahame Meikle complained to RNZ that the interview was unbalanced. He said the basis of his complaint was that listeners were not told of the author’s background, and that all of her statements were "uncritically accepted" by the interviewer. In his view, the interview was unbalanced because no reference had been made to any follow up interview where those statements would be challenged.
RNZ’s initial informal response was written on its behalf by the interviewer. Answering Mr Meikle’s questions, he explained first that the author worked for the English periodical "The New Statesman". He continued by noting that as the story set out in the book was not particularly well-known, and was quite complex, he had decided to spend some time getting the author to set out the thesis of the book. He said he disagreed with Mr Meikle’s contention that he did not challenge the subject sufficiently. As it was his view that the interview was not unbalanced, he indicated that he saw no need to schedule another interview to balance this. He reported that the international reaction to the book had not challenged the facts which the author had unearthed, and noted that even critical commentary had focussed on justifying the CIA’s actions as necessary and on the whole beneficial.
Mr Meikle referred the complaint to the Authority as he said he was dissatisfied with the response.
When the matter was referred to RNZ, it advised that the complaint had not initially been dealt with as a formal one, and that it wished to make some additional comments. First RNZ noted, it had evaluated the programme as a possible breach of Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. That principle reads:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.
It was RNZ’s view that the programme fell short of being a controversial issue of public importance as contemplated by the principle. It considered that little had occurred in recent times to elevate the topic of the Cold War or its impact on cultural activities in Europe to one of a controversial nature. It continued with the observation that the thrust of the interview was to elicit from the author the major themes of her book. It concluded that there had been no breach of the principle.
As a final point, RNZ observed that even if the topic of the interview had been controversial, the period of current interest for the subject covered decades and would continue for years to come. For that reason, it argued there was no need to provide other significant points of view on the subject, as the principle allowed for their presentation within the period of current interest.
In his final comment, Mr Meikle advised that the basis for his complaint remained unchanged. In his view, the conclusion reached by RNZ "acting as judge and jury in their own cause" was an insult to his intelligence.
The Authority notes first that the interview was broadcast during the Arts Week segment of the Sunday morning National Radio programme. The book, which had recently been released in paperback, postulated that the CIA had been involved in a covert campaign of cultural propaganda and persuasion during the Cold War. The complainant contended that the interview with the book’s author was unbalanced.
The requirement for balance, the Authority notes, is encapsulated in Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. However, in order for the principle to apply, the matter must relate to a "controversial issue of public importance". It is the Authority’s view that the interview with the author of this book during an Arts Week segment does not breach the principle because it does not relate to a controversial issue of public importance. In reaching this conclusion, the Authority notes that the interview involved the author giving her interpretation of arguably verifiable historical events relating to the conduct of the CIA during the Cold War. Further, the interview was contained within an arts segment where, in the Authority’s view, it is customary to interview authors for the purpose of eliciting information about their work rather than requiring them to debate issues as if they were within a current affairs format. Accordingly, the Authority 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
31 August 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Grahame Meikle’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 6 June 2000
2. RNZ’s Response to the Complaint – 9 June 2000
3. Mr Meikle’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 June 2000
4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 1 August 2000
5. Mr Meikle’s Final Comment – 13 August 2000