Checkpoint – Waitara shooting – police officer not named – unbalanced interview with his lawyer – interviewer partial
Principle 4 – a number of viewpoints heard – not partial – balance achieved over time – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The lawyer for the police officer who shot and killed a man in Waitara was one of those interviewed in an item on the shooting broadcast on Checkpoint on National Radio on 16 August 2000 between 5.00–6.00pm. She explained some of the background to the shooting and defended the request that the officer not be named by the media.
Simon Boyce complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced and that it was "extraordinary" that the lawyer was interviewed and given an opportunity to defend the police officer. He disputed the lawyer’s interpretation of the events at Waitara and objected to the fact that RNZ had failed to name the police officer yet had permitted his lawyer to "make inflammatory public statements". Mr Boyce cited standards under the now revised Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
RNZ responded first that it had assessed the complaint under Principle 4 of the current Code. It noted that a number of points of view were expressed in the item, and that listeners would have been exposed to a variety of comments and reports in the electronic and print media during the period of interest of the incident. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Boyce 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. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
The police shooting of a man in Waitara was the subject of an item on Checkpoint broadcast on National Radio on 16 August 2000 between 5.00–6.00pm. The Police Commissioner, a representative of the victim’s family, and the lawyer for the police officer who shot and killed a man were interviewed after it was announced that the police did not intend to prosecute the officer, and that it had been determined that he had acted in self-defence. In addition, the Minister of Police and the Opposition Justice spokesperson provided comment.
Simon Boyce complained to RNZ that the item was unbalanced. He said that he found it "extraordinary" that RNZ would interview the lawyer and give her the opportunity to make "inflammatory remarks". He complained that the presenter had not challenged the lawyer’s assertions, and said he did not recall an opposing view being presented. Noting that the officer had not been named, Mr Boyce said that it seemed extraordinary that the officer’s lawyer "grandstands in the media". He suggested that RNZ had inflamed the situation by giving the lawyer a platform but not naming the police officer.
In its response, RNZ advised that it had considered the complaint under Principle 4 of the now revised 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.
4a Broadcasters will respect the right of individuals to express their own opinions.
4b Broadcasters may have regard, when ensuring that programmes comply with principle 4, to the following matters:
- An appropriate introduction to the programme;
- Any reasonable on-air opportunity for listeners to ask questions or present rebuttal within the period of current interest. Broadcasters may have regard to the views expr
RNZ noted that the broadcast had contained a number of items related to the Waitara shooting, which expressed a variety of points of view. It pointed out that this was in addition to what listeners had been exposed to in terms of comment and reportage in the electronic and print media during the period of interest of the incident.
RNZ concluded that, for these reasons, the principle had not been breached. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Mr Boyce referred the complaint to the Authority, being dissatisfied both with the substantive response, and the manner in which RNZ dealt with the complaint. He objected to RNZ’s reference to Principle 4 in preference to the standards he cited from the former Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, and contended that the broadcaster had made no substantive comment on the issues.
The Waitara shooting was, Mr Boyce observed, "obviously controversial, and no doubt the Authority members are more sympathetic to the policeman than I am." However, he questioned RNZ’s decision not to name the police officer, suggesting that it had been dictated to by the police. He concluded that this demonstrated that RNZ favoured the "partial view of the police" and he contended that RNZ’s integrity had been breached in terms of news reporting. In his view, the broadcaster’s apparent editorial policy in not naming any police officer who killed a suspect was a matter of bias.
Mr Boyce complained that RNZ’s decision to interview the officer’s lawyer illustrated the extent of its one-sidedness and he objected to its "effectively assisting in portraying the killer as a victim." He said he failed to see how coverage in other media could absolve RNZ from its apparent partiality, even if the bias towards the police had been shared by other media.
In its response to the Authority, RNZ observed that it considered the complaint to be trivial and vexatious. It objected to Mr Boyce’s suggestion that members of the Authority were more sympathetic to the policeman than he was, noting that such a proposition had nothing to do with broadcasting standards.
Next RNZ objected to Mr Boyce’s suggestion that it had been "dictated to by the police". RNZ maintained that it was vexatious to raise this point for the first time in the referral. It responded that it had been entirely consistent in its handling of this matter by following its usual policy of not naming suspects until charges had been laid.
Thirdly, RNZ advised the Authority that the complainant had been informed that the standards quoted in his complaint had been superseded by a revised Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice and that RNZ would no longer accept formal complaints referenced to the previous Code.
Fourth, RNZ maintained that it had correctly applied Principle 4 to the complaint and fifth it argued that significant other points of view were covered in the same programme.
RNZ noted that the programme contained:
- a news piece in the 5.00 pm bulletin announcing the decision not to prosecute the police constable concerned – the piece contained audio from Police Commissioner Robinson as well as a Wallace family spokesperson, Terry Wallace
- An extended interview with Police Commissioner Robinson
- An interview with family representative Terry Wallace
- An interview with the police officer’s lawyer, Susan Hughes
- Comment from the Minister of Police, George Hawkins
- Comment from the Opposition’s Justice spokesman, Tony Ryall
- A final note that the Prime Minister had declined to comment
Sixth, RNZ commented that while the circumstances and detail of the incident might be offensive to the complainant, and possibly other listeners, that should not limit the extent to which RNZ reported significant points of view. Whether an "inflammatory" viewpoint should be reported was, RNZ maintained, an editorial matter rather than one of the application of standards.
RNZ said it absolutely rejected the accusation of partiality made by the complainant. It argued that the original complaint and the subsequent referral, both couched in terms of outdated codes, and the absence of any substantive issues of broadcasting standards, led RNZ to find the referral both trivial and vexatious.
In his final comment, Mr Boyce reported that he had been advised by the Authority’s Executive Director that the previous Radio Code was not outdated and its use was not therefore precluded. He observed that the new Code did not refer to balance and impartiality, or to the integrity of news sources.
Regarding the requirement for impartiality, Mr Boyce argued that this meant that a matter could not be reported uncritically. He suggested that RNZ’s failure to report the name of the police officer was a form of bias, particularly as it had been reported in other media.
He repeated that he had lodged the complaint because he objected to the interviewer giving a paid lawyer a forum to make certain remarks unchallenged. He also objected to RNZ accepting the word of the Police Commissioner uncritically, noting that there was a discrepancy between the police view that the officer had only 64 seconds to make the decision to shoot, and the independent inquiry’s report (released some time later) that the officer had six and a half minutes in between confronting the victim and killing him.
He concluded by rejecting RNZ’s argument that his complaint was vexatious or trivial. It was, he said, to do with media ethics.
In a further comment, RNZ rejected the complainant’s contention that its reporting was biased. It emphasised that its editorial policy was that it did not have a view on matters reported. Its role, it continued, was to canvass topical issues, in part by broadcasting comments from a variety of viewpoints. RNZ acknowledged that some listeners would not agree with all that they heard, but maintained that having presented a range of significant points of view, it was the listeners’ responsibility to review what they had heard.
RNZ noted that Mr Boyce had referred to newspaper articles when he made his final comment. It said it assumed that these would not be considered by the Authority, having been introduced at such a late stage in the complaints process. However, it said, the complainant’s knowledge of what was published in the print media at the time appeared to reinforce its view that Principle 4 (the presentation of views in the period of current interest) had been correctly applied.
First, the Authority will clarify the status of the now revised Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice which was cited by Mr Boyce in his complaint. While it is correct that the Authority would still consider a complaint formulated under the former Code, it would do so by applying the standards cited to the current principles before applying them to the facts. The Authority is aware that Mr Boyce has a copy of the current Code of Practice, which became effective on 1 July 1999, which it would expect him to use to formulate his complaint. It does not agree with him that the present Code fails to encompass the concepts of balance and impartiality or refer to "integrity of news sources". It refers Mr Boyce to Principles 4 and 6, including Guideline 6d.
Turning to the substantive issues, the Authority confines its deliberation to those matters raised in the original letter of complaint.
The extended report followed the release by police of the results of their inquiry into the Waitara shooting, and the decision not to prosecute the officer involved. In Mr Boyce’s view, it was "extraordinary" to interview the police officer’s lawyer. He said that he found her views provocative.
In assessing whether the coverage was unbalanced or partial, the Authority takes into account the following matters:
- The Waitara shooting had been extensively reported in all media for some weeks prior to the broadcast of this item
- The item was based on the report by police that the officer would not be prosecuted
- Those interviewed included the Police Commissioner, a representative of the victim’s family, the Minister of Police and the Opposition Spokesperson, and the lawyer for the police officer
- The police officer was not named in broadcasting media. Only one print publication named him
Given this factual background, the Authority considers the complaint that the report was biased towards the police and that the police officer’s lawyer had given an unbalanced account of the incident. The Authority acknowledges that there was a focus on the police version of events prompted by the release of a Police report on the shooting. Inevitably, the Authority considers, the police view was given prominence. However, it does not agree that such prominence resulted in an unbalanced or partial item which breached broadcasting standards. First, it notes, other interested parties, including a representative of the victim’s family, were given an opportunity to comment on the outcome of the police investigation. The victim’s family member described the family’s disappointment with the findings of the investigation, and said that he was positive that the police officer could have used other means to subdue the victim. He admitted that he had not read the report and was unable to comment on specifics. The next interviewee was the police officer’s lawyer, who defended her client’s actions. This was followed by a brief comment from the Police Minister and the Opposition Spokesperson on Justice.
On the basis that the report focused on the results of the police investigation and the decision not to charge the officer, the Authority concludes that the report – which included a number of views – was balanced. In making this determination, it notes that the matter had been covered extensively in all media for some weeks and that different perspectives on the incident were aired in various other forums as well as this one.
The Authority does not agree with the complainant that RNZ demonstrated its bias by refusing to name the officer, and notes that other media, including broadcasters, observed the convention not to name pending outcome of the police investigation.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
6 November 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Simon Boyce’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 23 August 2000
2. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 8 September 2000
3. Mr Boyce’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 9 September 2000
4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 23 September 2000
5. Mr Boyce’s Final Comment – 26 September 2000
6. RNZ’s Further Comment – 6 October 2000