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Richards and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2008-052

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Paul France
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave

Complainant

  • Vienna Richards of Auckland

Dated

18th September 2008

Number

2008-052

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item reported on the appointment of Vienna Richards as Niu FM’s news editor – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item discussed a controversial issue of public importance – focus of the item was the appointment and the perception it had created – Ms Moore’s comments were sufficient to answer the reporter’s questions – reporter did not need to interview Ms Richards or detail her experience in journalism – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – item did not misled viewers by omitting information – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – complainant treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm on Wednesday 12 March 2008, reported that the government-funded radio station Niu FM had employed Vienna Richards, the sister of a Labour candidate in the Mangere electorate, as its news editor for a six-month appointment that had not been advertised.

[2]   The presenter introduced the item by stating:

Controversy has erupted over political links to a top news job on a government-funded radio station. The sister of William Sio, Labour’s contender to be the next Mangere MP, has been employed by Niu FM as its news director, a six-month appointment that wasn’t advertised.

[3]   The item described Ms Richards as a public relations executive. It included an interview with Niu FM’s CEO, Sina Moore, who defended the appointment. During her interview, Ms Moore stated:

“The appointment of Vienna Richards to the role of news editor has nothing to do with the political landscape or the elections...”

“It’s about the best person for the job. And we don’t have a huge pool of Pacific Island broadcasters to draw on, and if I had to make a decision based on who someone was related to there’d be nobody working here.”

[4]   The item also included an interview with political commentator, Chris Trotter, who criticised Niu FM’s hiring of Ms Richards. During his interview, Mr Trotter stated:

Mr Sio is Labour’s candidate, the Labour government is funding the station, and they’ve just moved a news director aside to put in the candidate’s sister, and I think they really will have to reverse this decision...government-funded stations have to be, you know, have clean hands, but they have to be seen to have clean hands.

[5]   The item ended with the reporter saying “Niu FM is promising to show its hand – fairly – on the airwaves”.

Complaint

Through her lawyer, Ms Richards made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair.

Balance

[7]   Ms Richards stated that the focus of the item was the question of whether it was appropriate to appoint her to the position of news editor, given her “political links” with her brother. The complainant argued that the item had discussed a controversial issue of public importance and was therefore subject to the balance standard.

[8]   The complainant contended that she should have been asked for comment and that her views should have been included in the item as “the story was directly about her”. She considered that her “views were plainly significant” in the context of the story as it contained a call for her to be removed from her job, suggested that her appointment was political, raised questions about her ability to do the job objectively, portrayed her in a negative light, and had serious implications for her reputation.

[9]   Ms Richards noted that TVNZ claimed its reporter had made several attempts to contact her at the radio station, but argued that the reporter’s attempts to contact her were inadequate. She stated that the reporter had not left her a phone message at her home nor tried to email or fax her, and did not call on her at the station’s office when she came in to interview Niu FM’s CEO, even though she was present at the time. Ms Richards contended that the reporter “simply chose not to include” her views. 

[10]   The complainant also argued that the reporter should not have assumed that her views would have been properly represented by the station’s CEO. She stated that the criticisms “reflected differently” on her than they did on the station as a whole and contended that the CEO’s job was “first and foremost” to defend the station. Ms Richards said that she was in the best position to respond to allegations about her brother and her objectivity. She also stated that there was information, “such as the recent newsroom discussion about conflicts of interest” that her CEO was unaware of.

[11]   Ms Richards also considered that the item was unbalanced because the reporter had not included most of Ms Moore’s significant views. These views included the fact that Ms Richards had a strong journalistic background, that she had experience as a news editor at Niu FM, that the former news editor was moving to a current affairs role as part of a change in strategic direction, that the former news editor had agreed to the change and did not initially oppose Ms Richards’ appointment, that the position was not advertised because it was a temporary appointment, newsroom circumstances meant that the change had to be made immediately, and that policies were being put in place to manage conflicts of interest. 

Accuracy

[12]   Ms Richards noted that the Authority had held in the past that by omitting significant information, a programme could leave a misleading impression and be inaccurate as a result. She noted that, during his interview, Mr Trotter stated that the previous news editor had been “moved aside” and contended that the item had presented this statement as fact, rather than an expression of opinion. This added to the “impression that the position was opened up for political reasons” she said.

[13]   The complainant argued that the item omitted the contextual material behind the change including “the station’s change in strategic direction, the former editor’s agreement to a change of role and her acceptance of Ms Richards as interim news editor”.

[14]   Ms Richards also argued that the item had omitted so much material and was “so lop-sided as to be misleading”. She argued that the item had created the inaccurate and misleading impressions that her appointment was or may have been caused by political interference, that she had some knowledge or involvement in an improper appointment process, that she would be likely to shape the news coverage in her brother’s favour and that she was not appointed on her merits.

Fairness

[15]   Ms Richards noted that a “presenter’s introduction is crucial in shaping the focus and impact” of a story. She contended that the theme of the whole piece was that her appointment was or may well have been political, and that her appointment would advantage her brother. The complainant believed that the “unspoken premise” was that she would be likely to shape the news coverage in her brother’s favour, and that she was not appointed on her merits.

[16]   The complainant argued that the following features of the story “helped to create these unfair impressions”:

  • the presenter’s reference to “political links” suggested that the relationship between Ms Richards and her brother “was or would have been a political one, rather than a familial one”
  • the presenter’s emphasis that the station was government-funded suggested that the station may wish to curry favour with its political funders
  • the presenter’s emphasis that the appointment “wasn’t advertised” suggested that there was something improper about that fact
  • the reporter’s reference to a “political storm” stressed the political dimension to the appointment
  • the description of Ms Richards as a “public relations executive” suggested that she did not have the expertise in journalism and underscored the impression that she received the job for reasons other than her merits, such as spin doctoring
  • Mr Trotter’s reference to the former news editor being “moved aside” suggested that the former editor had been sacked or removed unwillingly for the purpose of allowing Ms Richards to be appointed
  • the inclusion of Mr Trotter’s view that the matter was so serious that Ms Richards would have to be removed from office
  • the reporter’s emphasis that Niu FM served Mangere listeners underscored the implication that important political information may be skewed.

[17]  Ms Richards contended that a number of factors meant that there was a special need for the broadcaster to be scrupulous, balanced and fair with the story. These factors included “the fact that the story broadcast a call for Ms Richards to be sacked”, “the serious harm to Ms Richards’ reputation from the obvious subtext of the story”, “the fact that one of the important and originating sources of this story was an anonymous email seen by the reporter”, “the fact...that personal tensions within the Niu FM newsroom meant that various parties had their own interests in making the allegations harmful to Niu FM” and “the fact that the reporter was broadcasting serious allegations of political improprieties”.   

[18]   The complainant argued that the item was unfair because a large amount of information was provided by Ms Moore (see paragraph [11]), but was left out of the story as broadcast. She also stated that, had she been contacted for comment, she would have added that:

  • she did not seek the appointment, but had reluctantly agreed to do it
  • she had qualifications in journalism and extensive journalistic experience including having worked as a producer for TVNZ’s One News and Breakfast programmes, as a researcher for Fair Go, a freelance columnist for the New Zealand Herald, a freelance writer for Next magazine and a contracted producer and presenter at 531pi covering the lead-up to the 2002 election.
  • one of her first acts upon taking up the interim editor post was to lead a discussion in the Niu FM newsroom on managing conflicts of interest and that she had appointed a senior political editor to cover stories relating to her brother.

[19]   Ms Richards argued that there was not a shred of evidence of any improper influence or involvement in her appointment by the government or that her appointment was made to curry favour with the government.<

[20]   The complainant said that “TVNZ may claim that the thrust of the story was simply that the appointment was a bad look, and merely raised questions about a potential conflict of interest”. However, she considered that “the story was constructed in a much more damaging way”, subtly supporting the criticisms and playing up the political dangers. Ms Richards argued that “if a broadcaster wants to suggest that there is a bad look, it needs to be careful not to omit reference to the things that make it a much less bad look”.

[21]   Ms Richards believed that it was significant that the comment from Mr Trotter was obtained before Sina Moore was interviewed to provide the full context concerning the appointment. She argued that Mr Trotter’s criticism “formed the heart of the story” and included a call for her to be removed. The complainant contended that it was incumbent on the broadcaster to ensure that such strong comment was supported by the fullest explanation of the background, and that this could not have been done prior to interviewing Ms Moore.

[22]   The complainant also asserted that there was no urgency in the story that required it to go to air before the background could be properly explained to Mr Trotter and that, as a result, Ms Richards had been treated unfairly.

[23]   Ms Richards stated that, since the broadcast, she had been subjected to widespread criticism in the Pacific Island community for her supposed role in deposing the former news editor so that she could support her brother’s candidacy. 

[24]   In conclusion, the complainant accepted that TVNZ could not broadcast every piece of relevant information, but argued that the item “fell badly short” of including enough information to be balanced, accurate and fair.   

Standards

[25]   TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining 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.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[26]   TVNZ dealt with each of the complainant’s concerns in turn, beginning with Standard 5 (accuracy).

Accuracy

[27]   The broadcaster disagreed that the impressions outlined in paragraph [15] above were caused by omitting contextual material, and that TVNZ subtly supported the criticisms. It argued “the theme of the story was to ask questions about the appropriateness of the decision of Niu FM to appoint Ms Richards to the role, given her relationship with Mr Sio, in circumstances where it was not advertised, the radio station is government-funded and it is election year”. The broadcaster considered the circumstances made the appointment newsworthy and in the public interest.

[28]   TVNZ contended that the item “did not state or suggest that Ms Richards’ appointment was in fact a political one”. It was of the view that “the conflict of interest was clearly signposted at the beginning of the item as the issue being explored”. It noted that, at the beginning of the item, Ms Moore was shown stating that the appointment had nothing to do “with the political landscape or the elections” and that this was reinforced later on in the item by Ms Moore and by Mr Trotter, who stated that it was about “being seen to have clean hands”.

[29]   The broadcaster stated that references to the position not being advertised and the former editor being “moved aside” were not directed towards Ms Richards, but towards Niu FM, and, “in the context of the item as a whole”, did not connote actual or likely political interference. Similarly, it said that there was nothing in the item that stated or suggested that Ms Richards knew of or was involved in the process that led to her appointment.

[30]   TVNZ argued that the story did not state or suggest that Ms Richards would be likely to favour her brother. It noted that the complainant had acknowledged that broadcasters were “entitled to pass comment on her appointment, and to comment on her relationship to a political candidate”. The broadcaster stated that “this is what the story did” and that “editorial independence means being seen to be without fear or favour”.

[31]   The broadcaster noted that Ms Richards was referred to as a public relations executive and contended that this was a correct description of her then-current and most recent work. It argued that this did not mean or imply that she was not qualified for the position, and that the item did not raise or question Ms Richards’ credentials. It noted that at the end of the item, Ms Moore stated “it’s about the best person for the job”. The broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint that the item was inaccurate.

General Comments

[32]   In respect of both balance and fairness, TVNZ stated that it did not accept any of the complainant’s statements as outlined in paragraph [16] above. It argued that the story did not “call for Ms Richards to be sacked” and pointed out that Mr Trotter had actually said:

Mr Sio is Labour’s candidate, the Labour government is funding the station, and they’ve just moved a news director aside to put in the candidate’s sister, and I think they really will have to reverse this decision.

[33]   The broadcaster contended that it was clear, after taking into account the context of the story as a whole, that it was not about Ms Richards, but about Niu FM.

[34]   In relation to the sources for the story, TVNZ stated that its reporter had advised it that the anonymous email referred to by the complainant (see paragraph [18] above) was not the originating source for the story. It said that its reporter confirmed that she had received three separate and independent communications, all from people who were neither present nor former employees of Niu FM, and who “had no axe to grind”.

[35]   The broadcaster stated that it did not accept that Ms Richards’ complaint contained all the relevant information about her appointment. “For example, it is understood that the former news director has lodged a personal grievance against Niu FM with respect to the decision to move her to a different role”, it said.

[36]   With respect to Ms Richards’ journalistic experience, TVNZ said that it had employed her from May 2001 to May 2002 as a trainee journalist and Breakfast assistant. It contended that the other work experience referred to by the complainant did not include “hard news experience in a newsroom” and that the description of her having “extensive” experience was her opinion.

Balance

[37]   TVNZ considered that the controversial issue of public importance discussed in the item was “whether or not it was appropriate for a government-funded radio station to appoint as news editor the sister of the Labour candidate for Mangere for a six-month term leading up to the general election”. It was of the view that both sides of that issue were canvassed and it was “satisfied that balance was achieved”.

[38]   With respect to the additional information that the complainant argued should have been included, the broadcaster maintained that it was not relevant to the story and did not relate to the controversial issue of public importance being dealt with. Therefore, it was not necessary to include the information in the item to achieve balance, it said.   

[39]   TVNZ contended that it was unrealistic and unreasonable to incorporate all the comments referred to by the complainant in the report. It argued that reasonable efforts were made to present Ms Richards’ views as its reporter went through an appropriate process to enable Niu FM to nominate who it considered to be the appropriate spokesperson. The broadcaster stated that its reporter had tried to call Ms Richards on three occasions, but had been unable to get hold of her. TVNZ said that in light of discussions with Ms Moore and the Chair of the National Pacific Radio Trust Board, Mr Tino Pereira, its reporter did not pursue those attempts any further. It also stated that Mr Pereira instructed its reporter “that Ms Moore was the only person from Niu FM authorised to comment”.

[40]   The broadcaster noted that the first notice it received of any issues with the story was a letter from Ms Richards’ lawyer dated 20 March 2008 requesting a retraction.

[41]   The broadcaster noted that Ms Richards had argued that no attempt was made after the broadcast to redress the imbalance of the original piece. It contended that this was not necessary as the item was balanced. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint that the item was unbalanced.

Fairness

[42]   TVNZ noted that the complainant had argued that the “alleged” misleading impressions created by the item had been unfair to her. It argued that the item did not create the impressions asserted by the complainant and that the item had treated her fairly.

[43]   The broadcaster argued that, while Ms Richards was not interviewed personally, a “relevant response was provided by her employer” and it was not necessary to “explore the additional matters” she raised relating to the circumstances of the appointment and her journalistic experience.

[44]   TVNZ noted the complainant’s suggestion that Mr Trotter did not have the full information when he gave his opinion. It argued that its reporter was fully aware of the background and Niu FM’s perspective before interviewing Mr Trotter, because she had spoken at length with Mr Pereira and Ms Moore. TVNZ said that Mr Trotter’s comments showed that “his views were based on the facts he described, none of which are in dispute”. It declined to uphold the complaint.                     

Referral to the Authority

[45]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Ms Richards referred her complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. She stated that the “essence of the complaint is that the story was deeply unfair” to her, and maintained that the item had also been unbalanced and inaccurate. The complainant raised a number of points with respect to the broadcaster’s decision.

The story was merely about a conflict of interest

[46]   The complainant argued that TVNZ supported its proposition that the story was “merely about a conflict of interest” by noting that the item contained comment from Ms Moore saying “the appointment...has nothing to do with the political landscape or the elections”. Ms Richards argued that, while it was true the item contained that statement from Ms Moore, the story “did nothing to endorse this view”, and by including the CEO’s denial, “the story was raising the issue of whether the appointment itself was connected with politics or the election”. 

[47]   Ms Richards questioned why, if the story was just about a conflict of interest, the item’s introduction emphasised that the appointment was not advertised and did not mention her journalism experience or that she had taken steps to ensure that she would not be reporting about her brother.

[48]   The complainant noted that TVNZ had argued that the item did not include any reference to “actual influence”. She contended that the item had contained “hints of impropriety” and that it did not acknowledge that there was no evidence pointing to political influence in the decision to appoint her.

[49]   Ms Richards maintained that “viewers could not escape the impression that there was something improper about the appointment process”. In relation to fairness, she argued that “the critical issue was whether the story reflected significantly badly” on her and that, given the item contained a call for her removal, it was “difficult to see how TVNZ resists this conclusion”. Considering the story’s negative impact, it should have been clear to the broadcaster that it needed to get a response from her, she said.

The anonymous email

[50]   The complainant noted that she had only claimed that the anonymous email was “an originating source” and that TVNZ had not denied that point.

The other sources

[51]   Ms Richards argued that “it was easy for TVNZ to assert” that the other sources were independent and had no axe to grind, and that it was impossible for her to address their motivations as she did not know who the independent sources were.   

Information in the complaint was not complete

[52]   The complainant stated that if TVNZ was going to challenge the completeness of the material contained in her complaint, then it needed to “specify all the respects in which it is alleged to be deficient”. Referring to the example provided by the broadcaster, she stated that it was true that the former news editor had lodged a personal grievance, but that at the time of her appointment the former news editor indicated that she accepted the change in role.

Ms Richards’ experience in a newsroom

[53]   Ms Richards contended that she did have “hard news experience in a newsroom” pointing out that she had filled in as acting news editor of Niu FM in 2006 and that when she worked for TVNZ “her roles were very much front-line ones”.

The omitted information

[54]   The complainant maintained that the information omitted from the story was relevant, and that from what viewers were told in the story they “could have been forgiven for regarding this as an alarming issue indeed”. She argued that it was unrealistic to suggest the omitted information would not have affected viewers’ understanding of the issue and that TVNZ had made the information relevant by the way it covered the story.

Reasonable efforts were made to present Ms Richards’ views

[55]   Ms Richards contended that it was hard to understand TVNZ’s conclusion that it had made reasonable efforts to present her views as the broadcaster did not speak with her at all, and had left out the things she felt were the most important.

[56]   The complainant argued that Ms Moore did not tell the reporter that she was speaking on behalf of her and that the reporter had not asked whether Ms Moore had discussed the matter with her.

[57]   Ms Richards considered that the reporter seemed to have accepted that her view was significant in that she tried to contact her on three separate occasions by phone. The complainant disputed TVNZ’s argument that its reporter was directed by Niu FM to treat Ms Moore as the only person authorised to comment. She contended that the reporter had not been told by anybody that she could not speak with her.  

[58]   The complainant maintained that “there was every reason to think that interviewing Ms Moore was not an adequate substitute” for talking to her directly.

It would have been unrealistic and unreasonable to include all the relevant information

[59]   Ms Richards stated that she was not arguing that all the information needed to be included, but “just enough to make the story fair”.

TVNZ first received notice of Ms Richards’ concerns a week after the story was broadcast

[60]   The complaint stated that this was true and that the letter contained “the gist” of her concerns. However, she said that “in nearly two months since then, none of those concerns have yet been broadcast”.

Chris Trotter was fully briefed on the factual background

[61]   Ms Richards stated that prior to interviewing Mr Trotter or Ms Moore, the reporter had briefly spoken with Ms Moore to organise an interview time and had a general discussion about the goings-on at Niu FM with Mr Pereira. She contended that Mr Pereira had not discussed her journalistic background, her previous work in the newsroom or the measures she had put in place to avoid a conflict of interest with her brother. The complainant maintained it was difficult to see how those important contextual matters could have been considered by Mr Trotter when he made his comment calling for her to be removed.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[62]   TVNZ submitted that Ms Richards’ complaint was based on a selective and unduly sensitive response to the story, which, when considered objectively as a whole, was unjustified. It reiterated the arguments contained in its decision on the formal complaint and denied that the story was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair.

[63]   The broadcaster stated that the item had dealt with a management decision by the radio station and did not extend to personal criticism of the appointee or her role in the appointment. TVNZ contended that “other media also covered the story, including...TV3”. It then addressed each of the issues raised by the complainant in her referral to the Authority.

The story was merely about a conflict of interest

[64]   TVNZ maintained that “this was exactly what the story was about” and stated that conflict of interest in the news media was a “significant issue, particularly in matters of politics, and especially so in election year”. It argued that all the phrases highlighted by the complainant, including the fact that the position was not advertised, that the incumbent was moved aside, that Ms Richards was a public relations executive and that the station was government-funded, were factually correct.

[65]   Responding to the complainant’s belief that the item should have referred to her journalism experience, the broadcaster contended that “it was not put in issue in the story”. This was demonstrated by the fact that, no matter how well qualified she was or how much experience she had, the issue relating to conflict of interest would remain, it said. It also argued that had Ms Richards’ experience been an issue for the story, further investigation would have been necessary, but it was not canvassed.

[66]   With respect to Ms Richards’ contention that the item should have mentioned the steps she had taken to ensure she did not report on her brother, TVNZ noted that the item concluded with the statement “Niu FM is promising to show its hand – fairly – on the airwaves”. That statement, in association with the other statements by the station defending its decision, made it clear that the station considered the conflict of interest could be handled, it said. The broadcaster maintained that “nothing more needed to be said about how that was to be achieved” and that “Ms Moore could have referred to this, but did not”.

[67]   TVNZ believed the complainant’s allegation that the item contained hints of impropriety missed the point that “the story was about the appointment not the performance, and the perception not the reality”.

[68]   The broadcaster stated that it rejected any suggestion that the story would have left viewers with any impression that Ms Richards may have been implicated in an improper process.

[69]   Responding to the complainant’s concerns about Mr Trotter’s comments, TVNZ stated that Mr Trotter had not personalised the debate and had said “[Niu FM] really will have to reverse this decision”. It contended that Mr Trotter’s comments were directed at the station and the perception, not the person.

[70]   The broadcaster rejected the claim that the story criticised Ms Richards’ judgment and her motives in accepting the job. It stated that it was satisfied that Ms Moore had defended the appointment sufficiently.

The anonymous email

[71]   TVNZ maintained that the anonymous email was not a source of the story.

The other sources

[72]   The broadcaster stated that it was a fundamental principle of journalism that a reporter would protect the anonymity of their confidential sources and that no adverse inference should be reached by not disclosing them.

Information in the complaint was not complete

[73]   TVNZ argued that its role was to explain and support the broadcast, not matters that were not broadcast. It stated that in its decision, it had pointed out that the incumbent had lodged a personal grievance against Niu FM and that this information clearly “puts quite a different perspective on the appointment to the one Ms Richards set out in the complaint”.

Ms Richards’ experience in a newsroom

[74]   The broadcaster maintained that Ms Richards’ experience was not an issue for the story and that “whether her experience is extensive is a matter of opinion, which based on the description of it as described in the complaint, others may or may not share”.

 The omitted information

[75]   TVNZ stated that the premise of the story hinged solely on the fact that Ms Richards and Mr Sio were siblings. It argued that the additional information referred to by the complainant was irrelevant.

Reasonable efforts were made to present Ms Richards’ views

[76]   The broadcaster reiterated that its reporter did not pursue her initial attempts to contact Ms Richards in light of her discussions with Mr Pereira and Ms Moore. It said that there were two reasons for this. First, the reporter considered that she had obtained an adequate response from Ms Moore to the criticism of the appointment and second, it was made clear to the reporter that she was not authorised to approach Ms Richards.  

[77]   TVNZ stated that its reporter was aware that the complainant had refused to comment in response to other media inquiries, and had understood from other confidential sources that Ms Richards had “gone to ground”. The broadcaster argued that its reporter’s experience in trying to gather information prior to the item being broadcast was consistent with Niu FM’s subsequent responses to media coverage after the item had been broadcast. To support its argument, it supplied the Authority with a copy of an email from Ms Moore dated 17 March 2008 part of which included the statement “if you wish to discuss any of this further – please contact me directly as I speak on behalf of the organisation (do not contact Vienna as she is very busy)”. It concluded that its reporter’s decision not to pursue Ms Richards was fair and understandable.

It would have been unrealistic and unreasonable to include all the relevant information

[78]   The broadcaster maintained that enough information was included in the item to make it fair.

TVNZ first received notice of Ms Richards’ concerns a week after the story was broadcast

[79]   TVNZ stated that this was correct and that the letter from Ms Richards’ lawyer contained a formal request for a retraction under section 25 of the Defamation Act 1992.

Chris Trotter was fully briefed on the factual background

[80]   The broadcaster stated that it understood that Ms Richards’ main concern was that “important contextual matters” were not put to Mr Trotter. It considered that Mr Trotter’s position was made clear and that none of the “context” as described in Ms Richards’ complaint, answered Mr Trotter’s criticism.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[81]   The complainant stated that the broadcaster seemed “to be making its standard argument: asserting that the story has an artificially narrow ‘focus’ or ‘scope’ so that TVNZ can avoid responsibility for the harm that it does to people featured in it, by characterising material necessary for balance or fairness as irrelevant”. She considered that this approach was “particularly disingenuous here”, when the story was so closely concerned with her and explicitly questioned her future as news editor at Niu FM.

[82]   The complainant maintained that she had “never refused to comment to any journalist about the matter, never switched her phone off and continued to work as usual”. She stated that she had spoken with two journalists about the matter before the story ran on TVNZ, and while there was one call from a journalist she did not return, “this hardly counts as having ‘gone to ground’”.

[83]   With respect to Ms Moore’s email requesting that Ms Richards not be contacted as she was “very busy”, the complainant noted that the email was dated five days after TVNZ had broadcast the story. She did not consider that it was relevant in the circumstances.

[84]   Ms Richards argued that at no stage had Ms Moore or Mr Pereira told her not to comment on the matter. She also reiterated that Ms Moore could not have commented on the steps which had been put in place to ensure any conflicts of interest were appropriately dealt with, as she was unaware of “the recent newsroom meeting that had set this arrangement up”. She contended that Ms Moore had told the reporter that steps would be taken to manage conflicts of interest and avoid special treatment, but that this had not been included in the broadcast.

[85]   The complainant maintained that her journalistic experience was put in issue in the item. She supplied the Authority with examples of articles she had written for several newspapers and provided details regarding her work at the radio station 531pi.

[86]   Ms Richards maintained that reasonable efforts were not made by TVNZ to present her views and that Ms Moore was “the wrong person” to speak on her behalf, especially because she had not been given “the full allegations to respond to”. She reiterated that a lot of important information about her, such as her journalistic experience, had been omitted from the item.       

[87]   With respect to Mr Trotter’s interview, the complainant argued that “it now seems clear that the briefing given to Mr Trotter was cursory at best” and that he had not been provided with the full context.

Broadcaster’s Final Comment

[88]   TVNZ stated that its position had always been that Ms Richards’ experience was not put in question in the story and that the story was about the conflict of interest through her relationship with her brother. It reiterated that Ms Moore had reinforced the complainant’s suitability for the job and that Mr Trotter had not criticised Ms Richards personally or her ability to do the job.

[89]   The broadcaster stated that Ms Richards did not have “significant journalistic responsibilities” during her time at TVNZ and, without “downplaying her journalistic roles”, it confirmed that she had been employed as a trainee and an assistant.  

Authority's Determination

[90]   The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 4 (balance)

[91]   Standard 4 requires broadcasters to provide balance when discussing controversial issues of public importance. On this occasion, the Authority agrees with TVNZ that the issue being discussed in the item was whether or not it was appropriate for a government-funded radio station to appoint as news editor the sister of the Labour candidate for Mangere for a six-month term leading up to the general election. It considers that this was a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies.

[92]   The complainant argued that it was necessary for the reporter to obtain comment from Ms Richards in order for the item to be balanced. The Authority disagrees. The story was not about Ms Richards and her qualifications, but rather focused on whether Niu FM should have appointed her given the perceived conflict of interest. Ms Richards’ appointment was a decision to be made by Niu FM’s management and for which it was accountable. For this reason, the Authority considers that Ms Moore was the appropriate person to speak to in relation to the controversial issue of public importance under discussion.

[93]   Ms Richards also contended that the item was unbalanced because the reporter had not included information such as the fact that Ms Richards had a strong background in journalism. The Authority notes that the item included Ms Moore’s comments that the appointment was not about the political landscape or the elections, that Niu FM did not have a large pool of Pacific Island journalists to draw from and, most importantly, that Niu FM believed it had hired the “best person for the job”.

[94]   The Authority finds that it was not necessary for the item to include information about Ms Richards’ journalistic experience to meet the requirements of the balance standard, as Ms Moore’s comments were sufficient to answer the reporter’s questions on the controversial issue under discussion.

[95]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item was unbalanced.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[96]   The Authority considers that the item questioned the appropriateness of the decision by Niu FM to appoint Ms Richards given her relationship with Mr Sio, in circumstances where it was not advertised, when the radio station was government-funded, and because it was an election year.

[97]   Ms Richards argued that the item was misleading because it had omitted significant information about her. The Authority disagrees. As outlined above, the item focussed on the political implications of Ms Richards' appointment rather than whether Ms Richards was qualified for the job. To the extent that her journalistic experience was relevant to the question of whether the appointment was appropriate given the current political climate, the Authority considers that, in the context of a short news item, Ms Richards’ suitability for the job was adequately represented by Ms Moore's comment that she was “the best person for the job”.

[98]   The Authority agrees with the broadcaster that Mr Trotter did not criticise Ms Richards personally or question her journalistic experience; his comments related to the perception of conflict of interest that the appointment had created.

[99]   The Authority also agrees with TVNZ that the item did not state or suggest that Ms Richards would be likely to favour her brother. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item was inaccurate and misleading.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[100]   Standard 6 requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in an item. The complainant contended that the theme of the whole piece was that her appointment was or may well have been political, and that her appointment would advantage her brother. She believed the “unspoken premise” was that she would be likely to shape the news coverage in her brother’s favour, and that she was not appointed on her merits. She argued that aspects of the story helped to create unfair impressions about her.  

[101]   The Authority acknowledges that Ms Richards must have felt some discomfort at finding herself at the centre of a political controversy. However, it does not agree that the item created unfair impressions about her. In the Authority’s view, the story was not critical of Ms Richards or her professional abilities, but of the decision by Niu FM management to appoint her, based solely on the perceived conflict of interests arising out of her family connections. That decision was most appropriately defended by Niu FM management. Further, the Authority considers that Ms Richards emerged from the story in a positive rather than negative light. It was clear that Niu FM considered her to be the most competent person for the job, and the comments from Ms Moore about there being a small pool of Pacific Island broadcasters, and potentially problematic family relationships being common in the small Pacific community, provided context that put her appointment in a more positive light. 

[102]   For these reasons, the Authority finds that the focus of the item did not require the reporter to obtain comment from Ms Richards or provide details of her journalistic experience. It considers that Ms Richards’ position was sufficiently defended by Ms Moore’s statements about her being the “best person for the job”, and that the appointment had nothing to do with the political landscape or the upcoming election.

[103]   Similarly, the Authority finds that Mr Trotter did not question Ms Richards’ abilities, but aimed his comments towards Niu FM – stating that there was a need for Niu FM to not only have clean hands, but to be seen to have clean hands. The Authority considers that it was not relevant that Mr Trotter was interviewed before Sina Moore. He was entitled to express his opinion about the appointment, and the complainant has provided no evidence that Mr Trotter was not properly briefed about the issues prior to his interview.

[104]    With respect to Mr Trotter’s statement that the previous news director had been moved aside, the Authority considers that an explanation by Niu FM of why the change was occurring was not necessary for the item to be fair to Ms Richards. Ms Moore gave sufficient information defending Niu FM’s decision to appoint Ms Richards, and an explanation of why the previous news director was no longer in the position was ancillary to the story.

[105]   The Authority concludes that viewers were left in no doubt that, in Niu FM’s view, Ms Richards was the best person for the job. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item treated the complainant unfairly.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
18 September 2008

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1.            Vienna Richards’ formal complaint – 8 April 2008
2.           TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 6 May 2008
3.           Ms Richards’ referral to the Authority – 27 May 2008
4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 27 June 2008
5.           Ms Richards’ final comment – 16 July 2008
6.           Broadcaster’s final comment – 19 August 2008