Skip to main content

Benson-Pope and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2005-083

Members

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

Complainant

  • The Hon David Benson-Pope of Wellington

Standards Breached

Dated

19th October 2006

Number

2005-083

Programme

Nine to Noon

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Nine to Noon – broadcast of anonymous interviewee’s allegations that the Hon David Benson-Pope was guilty of bullying students at Bayfield High School – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Principle 5 (fairness) – broadcasting allegations by anonymous interviewee unfair – RNZ did not verify interviewee’s credibility to a high standard before granting anonymity – did not undertake sufficient independent investigations into interviewee’s story – upheld

Principle 4 (balance) – controversial issue whether Mr Benson-Pope bullied students during his time as a teacher – RNZ made reasonable efforts to present significant perspectives within period of current interest – not upheld

Principle 6 (accuracy) – one aspect subsumed under Principle 5 – decline to determine whether allegations were accurate – describing a caning as a “beating” not inaccurate – not upheld

Orders
Section 13(1)(a) – broadcast of a statement
Section 16(1) – payment of costs to the complainant $5,000
Section 16(4) – payment of costs to the Crown $2,000

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Background

[1] On 12 May 2005, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, National and Act Members of Parliament raised questions about whether the then Associate Minister of Education, the Hon David Benson-Pope, was guilty of bullying students while he was teaching at Dunedin’s Bayfield High School in the 1980s. Judith Collins and Rodney Hide asked whether Mr Benson-Pope had:

  • caned students particularly hard
  • thrown tennis balls at students if they misbehaved
  • tied boys’ hands together and jammed tennis balls into their mouths as punishment for talking
  • smacked a pupil with the back of his hand at a school camp, sufficiently hard to make the pupil’s nose bleed.

[2] Mr Benson-Pope categorically denied the allegations, but acknowledged that he had used corporal punishment in line with the school policy of the time. He said:

I am quite happy to confirm… that I have not been guilty of, or involved in, any inappropriate behaviour in my 24 years as a secondary school teacher.

Broadcast

[3] On 13 May 2005 on Nine to Noon, a magazine-style current affairs show broadcast on National Radio, the host Linda Clark interviewed an anonymous man who said that he had been bullied by Mr Benson-Pope. The man made a number of allegations, including that Mr Benson-Pope had:

  • picked on him
  • on one occasion caned him until he drew blood
  • enjoyed administering corporal punishment and had laughed while he caned the student.

[4] Following the interview, the host read out several emails from listeners who gave their feedback about the interview.

[5] A transcript of the interview is attached to this decision as Appendix 2.

Complaint

[6] Through his press secretary, Mr Benson-Pope made a formal complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the broadcast was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair. He was concerned that:

  • the interviewee was allowed to make allegations from a position of anonymity
  • the interviewee was asked a series of leading questions
  • the allegations were never challenged or tested for validity
  • the interviewer repeated or incorporated allegations into her own dialogue as the truth
  • the credibility of the interviewee was not tested
  • RNZ did not reveal how it had been put in touch with the interviewee.

[7] Specifically, Mr Benson-Pope pointed to the language used by the host in her introduction:

…but this morning I’ve spoken to one of the men who claims he was a boy beaten by Mr Benson-Pope.

[8] He stated that, as this was a pre-recorded interview, the host was aware that the interviewee’s specific allegation was that on one occasion he was caned as a punishment. The complainant argued that the man had not described an incident that most normal people would consider a “beating” in the generally accepted meaning of the word.

[9] Mr Benson-Pope was also concerned about the host’s question “why didn’t anyone go to the police at the time, do you know?”. He argued that the host was implying that there were a number of people with similar accusations that constituted criminal conduct, who should have gone to the police. This inference was especially likely, he said, in light of the host’s earlier statement that she had spoken to “one of the men” involved in the allegations.

[10] Mr Benson-Pope noted that the interviewee had described him as a “liar” after being told that he had denied any allegation that he had mistreated or bullied pupils. The interviewee had not been asked to identify which specific allegations he was lying about, the complainant said.

[11] Also of concern to the complainant was that the host did not test the interviewee’s knowledge of any other alleged incidents, even though the interviewee stated that Mr Benson-Pope had “absolutely” mistreated other pupils. Further, the host had chosen not to reiterate Mr Benson-Pope’s absolute refutation of such claims, he said.

[12] Mr Benson-Pope contended that the host had led the interviewee, having pre-determined what his response would be. He pointed out the following question to illustrate his point:

When you said earlier that he knew which boys to pick on, what do you mean by pick on, I mean okay he caned you once, but what about the rest?

[13] The complainant argued that the host had the opportunity to provide balance to the interview, but did not do so. For example, she had begun to tell listeners that the current principal had publicly stated that he had spoken to staff of that era, and their responses directly contradicted the interviewee’s claims. However, the host was cut off by the interviewee and then she did not make that point.

[14] Mr Benson-Pope considered that, in the interests of fairness, listeners deserved to know any information that might indicate that the anonymous interviewee had been running some type of campaign. As illustrated by the following question, he was concerned that the host was aware of information that went to the credibility of the interviewee, but did not offer it:

You have watched his career with interest, haven’t you? I mean this isn’t a new thing for you.

[15] Finally, the complainant submitted that listeners would have drawn a negative inference from the host’s closing remarks:

Now of course we went to David Benson-Pope and asked him to come on the programme to give his response to all of that. He refused to be interviewed.

[16] In fact, his press secretary had made it clear to the programme’s producer that Mr Benson-Pope’s response in Parliament and in the media release the day before remained his stance on the issue, and that he refuted the allegations. Further, he would be unavailable for an interview as he was going about his normal business as Associate Minister.

Principles

[17] RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 4, 5 and 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Principle 4

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.

Principle 5

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

Principle 6

In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[18] With regard to Principle 6 (accuracy), RNZ submitted that the interviewee’s statements were his accurate recall of events during his days at Bayfield College. Other statements were clearly discernible as the interviewee’s opinion, it noted, and as such they were not subject to the accuracy standard. It declined to uphold the complaint under Principle 6.

[19] Referring to Principle 4 (balance), the broadcaster said that supporters of Mr Benson-Pope had been interviewed on National Radio within the period of current interest. It considered that reasonable efforts had been made and opportunities given for other significant points of view to be aired. Consequently, RNZ found that the broadcast was balanced.

[20] The broadcaster also declined to uphold the Principle 5 (fairness) complaint. It observed that Mr Benson-Pope had declined several invitations to be interviewed on Nine to Noon. Within the interview itself, RNZ considered that the host had acted as devil’s advocate, challenging the statements made by the interviewee. She had quoted “supporters of Mr Benson-Pope” as well as the headmaster of Bayfield College who spoke in the complainant’s favour.

Referral to the Authority

[21] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Benson-Pope’s solicitor referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. In respect of Principle 6 (accuracy), the complainant noted that the requirement was not for an “accurate recall of events” as suggested by RNZ; programmes had to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. An accurate recall of inaccurate facts would fall foul of Principle 6, he said, noting the interviewee’s statement that:

…you’ve got to realise this is 20 years ago, you know, like I can’t remember, I just…I just know he was a nasty bastard to me…

[22] Mr Benson-Pope accepted that the interviewee did at times express his opinion. However, he argued that the vast majority of the interviewee’s statements were made as fact. These included that Mr Benson-Pope laughed while caning the interviewee, drew blood, was a liar, mistreated pupils, was threatening in his behaviour, belittled the interviewee and was a “nasty bastard”. The complainant maintained that these statements were not accurate or truthful, and he referred to several newspaper articles reporting the views of Mr Benson-Pope’s supporters.

[23] In terms of balance, Mr Benson-Pope submitted that it was impossible for him to make any informed or meaningful response to specific allegations made by an anonymous interviewee. It was therefore unreasonable to expect him to respond without being told the identity of his accuser. In this respect, RNZ had not given him a reasonable opportunity to present his point of view, he argued.

[24] Referring to Principle 5 (fairness), the complainant noted that he had declined the invitations to participate in the programme. However, he maintained that he could not reasonably have been expected to participate when RNZ was not prepared to divulge the identity of his accuser. Mr Benson-Pope asserted that RNZ’s approach was grossly unfair.

[25] The complainant also disagreed with RNZ’s argument that the host had acted as devil’s advocate and challenged statements made by the anonymous interviewee. Far from acting as devil’s advocate, he said, the host had assisted and encouraged the interviewee to make damning statements.

[26] Further, Mr Benson-Pope maintained that the host had not made any attempt to question or explore the interviewee’s character or motivation, or indeed whether the interviewee was the victim that he claimed to be.

[27] Mr Benson-Pope argued that an important factor to take into account when assessing fairness and balance was the host’s failure to inform listeners that the interviewee had been provided to Nine to Noon by Act MP Rodney Hide. He argued that the connection to Mr Hide should have been disclosed to the public and the interviewee should have been questioned about it.

Interlocutory Matters

[28] Mr Benson-Pope requested that the Authority exercise its powers under section 12 of the Broadcasting Act to require production of all the following material:

  • the field tape of the interview
  • all relevant pre-broadcast records and documents
  • copies of all emails received by the programme after the show was broadcast.

[29] RNZ agreed to provide a field tape of the interview, but argued that the anonymity of the interviewee should be preserved.

[30] In an interlocutory decision dated 22 September 2005 (Decision No. ID2005-083), the Authority declined to determine the issue of whether RNZ should produce the field tape because the broadcaster had already offered to provide it.

[31] The Authority considered that the name of the interviewee and the other material requested by Mr Benson-Pope were not required in order for the Authority to determine the complaint. Accordingly, the Authority declined Mr Benson-Pope’s requests for the production of additional material.

[32] However, the Authority asked RNZ to provide further information as to the steps it took to establish the credibility and integrity of the interviewee prior to the broadcast.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

Further information requested by the Authority

[33] RNZ first addressed the Authority’s question about the steps it had taken to establish the credibility of the interviewee. RNZ had received several assurances from Rodney Hide (who had provided the interviewee’s contact details), and Mr Hide had provided the details of cross checks and corroborative investigations that he had undertaken.

[34] RNZ said it had considered the fact that Mr Hide was able to identify four other students who had been spoken to and who were said to have verified the details of the interviewee’s story. Further, RNZ noted that Mr Hide had considered the interviewee to be bona fide and that previous information RNZ had sought from Mr Hide had proved to be reliable.

[35] RNZ had questioned the interviewee to satisfy itself of his credibility, and had been reassured of his credibility by a fellow student. It had also sought and obtained confirmation of details of the interviewee’s story from another student taught by Mr Benson-Pope.

Validity of the referral

[36] In response to the rest of the complaint, RNZ first questioned whether the referral to the Authority was valid. It noted that the original formal complaint to RNZ was lodged by Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary, and did not appear to be lodged on Mr Benson-Pope’s behalf. The referral was then lodged by Mr Benson-Pope’s solicitor on his behalf. Because Mr Benson-Pope was not the original complainant, in RNZ’s view, the referral was not valid.

[37] Noting the possibility that the Authority may not reject the referral, RNZ continued to provide responses to the rest of the complaint. It submitted that the Nine to Noon programme on 13 May 2005 should be considered as a whole, rather than focussing solely on the interview complained about. Otherwise, RNZ argued, it would ignore the attempts by RNZ to provide other significant points of view during the programme.

Principle 4 (balance)

[38] The broadcaster noted that Mr Benson-Pope had been given several opportunities to be interviewed by RNZ. The topic at issue in the programme was that Mr Benson-Pope “bullied boys as a teacher in Dunedin”, it said. This topic was ongoing, RNZ submitted, and police were currently investigating two complaints. In the broadcaster’s view, a finding on whether the broadcast breached Principle 4 was not possible because the period of current interest for the topic was still open.

[39] If the Authority did wish to make a ruling in regard to Principle 4, RNZ commented that other significant points of view were expressed in the same programme by several critical emails read out by the host. Further, given the extent of the ongoing media coverage, it wrote, reasonable opportunities were given to present significant points of view. The broadcaster was unable to find a significant point of view, apart from Mr Benson-Pope’s through a “self-enforced silence”, that was not aired. It considered that the lack of comment from Mr Benson-Pope was more than compensated for by comments from his supporters.

Principle 5 (fairness)

[40] With regard to fairness, RNZ referred to its previous comments regarding the steps it had taken to verify the interviewee’s credibility. It also stated that RNZ had received further feedback after the broadcast which confirmed the details given by the interviewee.

[41] The broadcaster noted Mr Benson-Pope’s assertion that he could not reasonably have been expected to participate in the programme because RNZ would not tell him the interviewee’s name. RNZ submitted that it was irrelevant which of Mr Benson-Pope’s former students made the allegations. It said:

The allegations themselves were well known; they had been aired in Parliamentary Question Time the day before with questions being put to the Minister by both Mr Hide and Ms Judith Collins. The allegations were obviously known for some time prior to the questions being put in the House that day as evidenced by the comment from one of Mr Benson-Pope’s colleagues and Labour Chief Whip in Parliament, Ms Jill Pettis, after hearing Ms Collins first question on the topic, to the effect that:

“You sat on that for months”.

[42] RNZ argued that there was precedent for broadcasters not having to “show all their cards” in a pre-interview situation when making arrangements with an interviewee. It noted the Authority’s decision on the “Corngate” complaint (Decision No. 2003-055/061), where it found that keeping pre-interview discussions “deliberately general” was not a breach of the standards.

[43] The broadcaster considered that the Authority’s previous finding had a stronger application in the context of the present complaint, when the nature of the allegations had been made known in Parliament the previous day. Mr Benson-Pope also knew that the allegations were made by a former pupil of Bayfield High School, and RNZ was of the view that this made the identity of the interviewee irrelevant.

[44] RNZ asserted that the only new aspect of the allegations was that they were being voiced publicly by the interviewee rather than by a Member of Parliament.

[45] RNZ referred to Mr Benson-Pope’s assertion that the broadcast was unfair because the host “made no attempt to question or explore the interviewee’s character or motivation”. It did not agree that the interviewee was portrayed as “a victimised and bullied student”, and noted that a number of steps were taken to establish his character and motivation. Nothing in RNZ’s enquiries had indicated anything untoward in the interviewee’s character which could have reflected on his motivation, it said.

Principle 6 (accuracy)

[46] RNZ did not dispute that “good things” were said about Mr Benson-Pope in the bundle of documents and newspaper articles supplied by the complainant. However, it considered that this did not preclude the possibility that Mr Benson-Pope behaved in the manner described by the interviewee. The two were not mutually exclusive alternatives, RNZ said.

[47] The broadcaster maintained that the interviewee had conveyed his opinion and the facts on which he had based those opinions. It noted that the complainant did not identify any particular statement of opinion which could be confused as being a statement of fact. RNZ added:

This was clearly a complaint and listeners would have seen it as such. Radio New Zealand did not misrepresent either the nature of the complaint or Mr Benson-Pope’s response to it. The fact that the matter was referred to the police, whose investigation is ongoing, makes it inappropriate for the Authority to deal with the matter further.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[48] Through his solicitor, Mr Benson-Pope provided the Authority with a copy of the police investigation file which discussed two allegations of criminal conduct against Mr Benson-Pope. He also outlined a chronology of the events leading up to the broadcast.

[49] The complainant noted that in Parliament, the allegations against him had fallen into two distinct categories – first, that he was a bully, and second, that he had committed two distinct criminal acts. The allegations of criminal conduct had been referred to the police for investigation, but the allegations made by the anonymous interviewee were not. Mr Benson-Pope noted that the criminal allegations did not form part of his formal complaint.

[50] Mr Benson-Pope turned to consider RNZ’s response.

Validity of referral

[51] The complainant stated that there was a convention that press secretaries were regarded as speaking on behalf of their Minister unless it was expressly stated otherwise. Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary did not specifically state that the formal complaint was made on his behalf, but he had signed the complaint in his capacity as press secretary to the Minister. Further, Mr Benson-Pope’s solicitor had sent a further letter on 16 May stating that “I am writing to confirm that [the press secretary’s] letter should be regarded as a formal complaint”, and that letter was clearly written on behalf of Mr Benson-Pope.

The programme

[52] The complainant accepted that the Authority should consider the Nine to Noon programme of that day in its entirety, and not restrict itself to the interview with the anonymous student.

Principle 4 (balance)

[53] Mr Benson-Pope noted RNZ’s comment that several opportunities were afforded to him to be interviewed. He accepted that RNZ had offered him an opportunity to comment on 13 May, 16 May and in a letter from its solicitor on 18 May. However, Mr Benson-Pope maintained that none of those requests were reasonable as he could not have been in a position to respond effectively and defend himself.

[54] Mr Benson-Pope agreed with RNZ that the period of current interest for the criminal allegations remained open until the conclusion of the police inquiry. However, this was not relevant because the criminal allegations were not part of the formal complaint, he said. The complainant argued that in relation to the allegations by the anonymous interviewee, the period of current interest was much shorter and would have continued, at most, for seven days after the broadcast.

[55] Mr Benson-Pope referred to RNZ’s contention that significant points of view were expressed in the programme because several emails were read out. He argued that RNZ was “clutching at straws”, adding:

It is difficult to see how the unsolicited views of the listening public…could possibly amount to the expression of other significant points of view as envisaged by the Broadcasting Standards. The listeners whose emails were read out had no particular qualification or knowledge and were in no position to respond to the specific allegations made by the anonymous student.

[56] The complainant noted that apart from the emails, RNZ had made no attempt to provide other significant points of view on the Nine to Noon programme of 13 May. With respect to the ongoing news coverage in the following week referred to by RNZ, Mr Benson-Pope observed that RNZ had not identified any specific programmes apart from a “TV3 60 Minutes”documentary.

[57] He asserted that this fell well short of what was required for the Authority to determine whether other significant views were expressed, and whether there was sufficient material to provide balance. The complainant suggested that RNZ should have broadcast interviews with other former students, with teachers who had taught at Bayfield High at the same time, and with teachers who acted as witnesses when Mr Benson-Pope administered corporal punishment to pupils. He noted that corporal punishment was always administered in the presence of a teacher witness.

[58] Mr Benson-Pope said that there had not been a 60 Minutes documentary as referred to by RNZ, but noted that an episode of Campbell Live had referred to and repeated the anonymous student’s allegations. He maintained that Campbell Live had also failed to provide significant points of view with regard to those allegations.

[59] Finally, the complainant stated that it was clear from the police investigation file that there was no substance to the allegations that he was a vicious bully. On the contrary, he said, there was a wealth of evidence from former students and teachers to the effect that he was a very caring and considerate teacher. Mr Benson-Pope noted that RNZ had been in possession of this information for some time, and had not taken any steps to report it or otherwise correct its portrayal of him on Nine to Noon.

Principle 5 (fairness)

[60] Referring to RNZ’s submission that its “own editorial policies were observed” in making Nine to Noon, the complainant noted that RNZ did not say what those policies were. He had attempted to obtain copies of RNZ’s editorial policies but had been advised that the manual was an in-house document which drew on various sources of overseas best practice, including the BBC’s. Mr Benson-Pope observed that the BBC’s “Editorial Guidelines” were freely available on the internet, and he attached parts of these to his submissions.

[61] Mr Benson-Pope contended that RNZ had been “surprisingly vague” about the steps it had taken to verify the bona fides of the anonymous student. It had not provided the dates and times of conversations, or the names of those it had spoken to. The details provided were not sufficient for the Authority to assess whether RNZ’s pre-broadcast investigations were reasonable, he said.

[62] The complainant referred to the Authority’s Decision No. 2004-115 which dealt with a complaint about an anonymous interviewee who made allegations of criminal conduct against Peter Ellis. He maintained that the steps RNZ had taken to confirm the anonymous student’s allegations in this broadcast had fallen “well short of the steps it took in the Ellis case”. Yet as in Ellis, he said, the allegations were considered by RNZ to be “very serious”.

[63] Mr Benson-Pope asserted that there could only have been a very limited time in which RNZ could have made the necessary pre-broadcast investigations. Further, the complainant said that the nature and extent of Rodney Hide’s involvement in the Nine to Noon broadcast had not become clear until after RNZ’s response to the Authority was received. There had previously been no suggestion that Mr Hide had effectively organised or been the instigator of the interview, as his involvement had not been disclosed in the programme or thereafter. Mr Benson-Pope contended that Mr Hide had used RNZ, seemingly with its full cooperation, to further his personal and political attack on him.

[64] The complainant observed that neither Mr Hide nor RNZ claimed to have spoken to the teacher witness who was present when the anonymous student was caned. He pointed out that any confirmation or corroboration obtained by Mr Hide or RNZ from other students of the day could therefore only have been based on hearsay.

[65] Further, it was not known who the four other students were that Mr Hide claimed to have spoken to, as RNZ did not provide those details. The complainant said it was obvious from the police statements that Mr Hide had not spoken either to the boy who had alleged Mr Benson-Pope put a tennis ball in his mouth, the witness to that alleged event who had been interviewed by the police, or the boy who said he had been struck on the face at school camp. Therefore, Mr Hide could not have obtained “verification” from those three students.

[66] Mr Benson-Pope noted that, of all the students interviewed by police, none had confirmed the allegations that he had enjoyed or laughed while caning the anonymous student, or any other student. He said RNZ should have treated Mr Hide’s “reassurances” with considerable caution, if not scepticism, because he stood to gain so much from his “personal campaign”. The complainant argued that RNZ should have made its own inquiries and investigations instead of relying on Mr Hide’s assurances. He said:

The allegations were too serious, and the consequences too grave for RNZ effectively to abdicate its responsibility to Mr Hide. That it was prepared to do so in such circumstances raises very serious issues as to RNZ’s editorial independence and the integrity of the Nine to Noon programme.

[67] Apart from Mr Hide’s assurances, RNZ said it had confirmed the student’s bona fides with another student and obtained confirmation from yet another student. Mr Benson-Pope asserted that it was difficult to see how reliable confirmation could have been provided. A telephone call to a friend of the anonymous interviewee (whose details could only have been provided by the interviewee or by Mr Hide) would be of little value, he said. According to the BBC’s guidelines, RNZ should have obtained independent corroboration of the anonymous interviewee’s claims. The complainant submitted that RNZ should have spoken to the interviewee’s teachers to assess his credibility, or contacted the teacher who witnessed the caning or any teachers who witnessed other canings by Mr Benson-Pope.

[68] The complainant maintained that serious issues as to the anonymous student’s credibility arose directly out of the interview itself. The interviewee had claimed to be very familiar with the incident at school camp where, he stated, Mr Benson-Pope “broke a pupil’s nose”. At the time of the interview it had not been suggested in any forum that a student’s nose had been broken, nor had it since been suggested that this occurred. Despite this, Mr Benson-Pope noted that deleted extracts from the interview showed the anonymous student was adamant that the nose had been broken.

[69] Rather than addressing the issue of the anonymous interviewee’s credibility, the complainant said, RNZ had simply deleted those parts of the interview which it knew, or should have known, were “grossly inaccurate and/or incredible”. The deleted opening section of the interview confirmed that the host did not even know that the anonymous student had not been taught by Mr Benson-Pope. This was further insight into the extent of RNZ’s investigations and the haste with which the interview was conducted, Mr Benson-Pope said.

[70] The complainant also contended that the host’s doubts about the anonymous interviewee’s credibility emerged in the deleted parts of the interview. This was confirmed when the host phoned Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary on 16 May again requesting an interview. She had referred to two other students who had come forward, stating that they were credible, “more so than” the anonymous student. The complainant provided the press secretary’s notes of that conversation to confirm this.

[71] The obvious inference, Mr Benson-Pope contended, was that in the time available to RNZ it was not possible to satisfy itself as to the anonymous student’s credibility. However, it had elected to broadcast the interview because the story was “so big” and because Mr Hide had encouraged it. He maintained that RNZ had ignored very clear indicators that the anonymous interviewee was “not all that he made out to be”, opting instead to rely on Mr Hide.

[72] The complainant referred to RNZ’s argument that it was immaterial which of the former students made the allegations as “the allegations themselves were well known; they had been aired in Parliamentary Question Time the day before”. Mr Benson-Pope stated that this was not correct, because the anonymous student’s allegations had not been raised in Parliament. Without knowing the student’s name, the date of the alleged conduct, or whether he had taught the student, the complainant argued that he could not have responded to the allegations. This was especially so given that the allegations dated back some 20 years in a teaching career that spanned 23 years from the mid 1970s to late 1990s, all of it spent at Bayfield High.

[73] Mr Benson-Pope asserted that, had he agreed to be interviewed, the host would have “ambushed” him with the new allegations. It was not a case of keeping pre-interview discussions “deliberately general”; it was a case of deliberately keeping the specific allegations from him in order to enable an ambush, he said.

[74] The complainant referred to the following paragraph from the Authority’s decision in Ellis, where it said that as a general principle:

…any programme in which unidentified accusers allege that an identified person has committed serious but unspecified criminal offences is likely to be inherently unfair to the accused. Regardless of what “opportunities” such a person might be offered to present his or her point of view, allegations of this nature are generally impossible to defend.

[75] Mr Benson-Pope contended that the same principle applied in this case. His accuser was unidentified, the allegations were both specific (caned until he bled, laughed and enjoyed caning) and non-specific (nasty and bullying personality, a liar, mistreated pupils, threatening, belittled pupils), and they were very serious allegations against an identified person with a very high public profile.

[76] As in Ellis, RNZ did not disclose to Mr Benson-Pope the nature of the allegations that were to be broadcast. He was not advised of the student’s name or the reason for the proposed interview. Without these details, Mr Benson-Pope argued that he would never have been in a position to respond to or defend the allegations. In these circumstances it was hardly surprising that he declined to be interviewed, he contended, because RNZ’s offer of an interview was not a reasonable one.

[77] Mr Benson-Pope added that because the anonymous student’s allegations were not raised in Parliament, he had not specifically refuted those allegations in the House because they were not known to him at that time. It was misleading of RNZ to suggest that the only difference was that the complaints were being voiced publicly by the complainant himself rather than Members of Parliament. The complaints were quite different, he said.

[78] The complainant referred to RNZ’s submission that the host acted as devil’s advocate “challenging the statements made by the interviewee in quoting ‘supporters of Mr Benson-Pope’ as well as the headmaster of Bayfield High who spoke in Mr Benson-Pope’s favour”. This, he said, was the only example of where RNZ considered the host challenged the interviewee. Further, the headmaster referred to was the present day headmaster, not the headmaster at the relevant time in the 1980s.

[79] Mr Benson-Pope asserted that the transcript of the interview spoke for itself. He said:

The interview was conversational and could not be said to be confrontational or challenging in any way. Throughout, the anonymous student was presented as entirely credible. His very serious assertions were not questioned or explored in any way…Linda Clark made little or no attempt to present the alternative view. She certainly did not act as devil’s advocate.

This was an interview with an unidentified interviewee who was making very serious and uncorroborated allegations about a Cabinet Minister. His story should have been challenged and tested in a forceful and incisive way. Instead he received an entirely sympathetic interview.

[80] The complainant suggested a number of questions which he believed the host should have asked the anonymous interviewee to test his claims and credibility. These included:

  • why was the student caned by other teachers, and why was he caned by Mr Benson-Pope on the one occasion that he was?
  • who witnessed the caning and would they be able to confirm the allegations?
  • had the student complained at the time about Mr Benson-Pope’s alleged bullying behaviour and, if not, why not?
  • when did the student first raise the matter with anyone, and when did he approach Mr Hide and TV3 and why?
  • what part did the student play in the allegations that were raised in Parliament the day before?
  • did the student act as a coordinator/facilitator for the other complaints and, if so, why?
  • was it correct that the student had a reputation as a bully at Bayfield High and, if so, what had he done to deserve such a reputation?
  • if the bullying had “stayed with him”, why had the student not raised it before?
  • why had the student “watched his career with interest”, and did he bear a grudge against Mr Benson-Pope?
  • why did the student not want his identity revealed?

[81] Referring to RNZ’s assertion that listeners were free to draw their own conclusions, Mr Benson-Pope maintained that the allegations had been presented as facts, and that there was no suggestion that they were anything other than true. The host’s comments prior to the interview suggested that, after the lawyers had checked the interview, what was broadcast was the truth.

[82] Mr Benson-Pope also argued that the host had used intemperate and emotive language throughout the programme, describing the interviewee’s claim as having been “beaten”, “caned until he bled”, describing the caning as “extreme” and “vicious” and Mr Benson-Pope as “mistreating pupils”. She also asked the interviewee why nobody had gone to the police at the time, suggesting that Mr Benson-Pope was behaving illegally.

[83] The complainant also objected to the host saying that he had been asked to give his response “to all of that” and had refused to give any interviews “about this”. These statements were misleading, he said, because he had not been advised of the allegations and was not asked to respond “to all of that” or “about this”.

Principle 6 (accuracy)

[84] Mr Benson-Pope contended that many of the comments made in respect of Principles 4 and 5 were also relevant to Principle 6. He noted the Authority’s comments in Ellis “that accurately reporting statements does not substantiate the accuracy of the statements. Principle 6 requires factual truth and accuracy from broadcasters in news and current affairs programmes”, and argued that those comments were equally applicable in this case.

[85] The complainant referred to his previous submissions about RNZ’s over-reliance on Mr Hide and its failure to carry out appropriate checks, stating that this called into question RNZ’s editorial independence and the integrity of the programme (guideline 6d).

[86] Mr Benson-Pope refuted RNZ’s assertion that it did not misrepresent his response to the complaint. He said that the nature of the allegations had not been put to him, and he had never responded to them.

[87] The complainant also disagreed with RNZ’s comment that the fact that the matter was referred to the police made it inappropriate for the Authority to deal with the matter further. He pointed out that the allegations made by the anonymous student were not of a criminal nature and were not pursued by the police.

[88] Finally, Mr Benson-Pope contended that the factual accuracy requirement of Principle 6 was absolute. He wrote:

In this case RNZ is not able to substantiate a number of the extravagant and exaggerated claims that the anonymous student made. It is left relying almost entirely on hearsay evidence which is not sufficient.

Further Information from RNZ

Validity of referral

[89] RNZ was unaware of any convention that press secretaries were regarded as acting on behalf of their Minister unless it was expressly stated otherwise. It did not accept that when a press secretary invoked a prescribed statutory process he must be taken, by virtue of his office, to be acting on behalf of his Minister.

[90] RNZ restated its submission that the formal complaint from Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary was written in the first person, and did not purport to be written on behalf of anyone else. The broadcaster noted that in Decision Nos. 2003-077 and 2003-091, the Prime Minister and her press secretary had both made individual formal complaints which they had each then referred to the Authority.

Nature of allegations made

[91] The broadcaster pointed out that the press release from the New Zealand Police dated 23 November 2005 – which the complainant had included in his submissions – had included the following statement:

…there was a prima facie case concerning an event where a student’s hands were taped to a desk while he had a tennis ball in his mouth and another event involving another student being struck on the face.

[92] RNZ also drew the Authority’s attention to the following questions from Rodney Hide and Judith Collins which were made during Parliamentary Question Time on 12 May 2005:

Rodney Hide:   “…is that the reason, along with throwing tennis balls in the classroom, that
                        he has the reputation of being a terrible bully…?”

Judith Collins:  “…does he believe that he has advised the Prime Minister of the allegations
                        surrounding his conduct as a teacher at Bayfield High School?”

[93] These extracts, it contended, indicated that the nature of the allegations in the House extended well beyond what had now been established as prima facie cases of criminal misconduct to include references to allegations of “bullying” and other allegations surrounding his conduct.

[94] Further, RNZ submitted that, as well as being criminal conduct involving assault, the two matters investigated by the police must also be regarded as examples of bullying. It said:

The distinction between specific allegations of criminal behaviour, on the one hand, and bullying, on the other, is therefore specious. It must follow that the reasonable radio listener would have concluded that the finding by the police of a prima facie case of such criminal conduct coupled with other questions in the House the same day amounted to accusations of bullying.

The identity of the interviewee

[95] The broadcaster observed that to divulge the identity of the interviewee would require the reporter to divulge the contents of his/her notes, and it would go to the heart of the confidential relationship between a reporter and his/her sources.

[96] Referring to Mr Benson-Pope’s assertion that he would have been “ambushed” by the nature of the allegations in the programme, RNZ noted that the Authority had previously held that broadcasters did not have to “play all their cards” when inviting people to partake in media interviews (Decision No. 2003-055/061). It argued that the allegations in this Nine to Noon programme amounted to behaviour less serious than that alleged in the House on the previous day, and were all a sub-set of that already outlined by Mr Hide and Ms Collins.

Period of current interest

[97] RNZ referred to Mr Benson-Pope’s submission that the period of current interest in respect of the more general allegations about his character as a teacher, including those by the anonymous interviewee, was much shorter and “at most would have continued for seven day after the broadcast”. The broadcaster contended that the controversy continued well beyond that period, as was evidenced by further revelations in Parliament as recently as the week commencing 27 February 2006. This, it said, established that the period of current interest still continued.

Mr Rodney Hide

[98] RNZ noted that Mr Hide had previously provided information to the Nine to Noon programme which had become the subject of on-air interviews. The fact that Mr Hide was a source of information had not placed the editorial independence of the programme in question. It said that the several steps taken in the lead up to broadcasting the edited interview with the anonymous interviewee served to reinforce editorial independence on this occasion.

Assessing of bona fides

[99] RNZ disagreed with Mr Benson-Pope’s submission that the use of telephone calls and interviews was insufficient to establish the validity of information on this occasion. It observed that the use of telephone communications was standard practice in radio, and on this occasion RNZ was completely satisfied with the bona fides which had been established by these means. It contended that it would be “extraordinary for a broadcaster to be directed by the Authority as to how its work practice should be undertaken”.

“Ambush”

[100] Having already addressed this matter, RNZ wished to emphasise again that an ambush would have involved concealment or surprise. The nature of the allegations on Nine to Noon would have come as little surprise, it said. They certainly could not have been “concealed by the shadow created by what has now been established as prima facie cases of criminal conduct towards students and what is a repetition of claims of bullying made in the House the previous day”.

Fairness

[101] RNZ contended that the Authority’s assessment of fairness must be whether “at the end of the day” Mr Benson-Pope was treated fairly. It said:

RNZ has previously submitted audio of substantial countervailing comment in support of Mr Benson-Pope which was broadcast on the programme. While some may think it was fortuitous that much of the comment came by way of feedback to Nine to Noon, RNZ nonetheless displayed a willingness to put a contrary view in the same programme, despite Mr Benson-Pope’s unwillingness to comment on the issues. Because of the lengths to which RNZ went to present the countervailing comment, no lack of fairness in fact occurred.

[102] In conclusion, RNZ noted the following exchange in Parliament at Question Time on 28 February 2006:

Judith Collins:           “Does he accept that the complaints which he denied on the 12th of
                                 May 2005, are such that they would affect his ability to carry out his
                                 job as the Minister of Social Development and Employment?”

David Benson-Pope:   “Madam Speaker….no and Madam Speaker I remain convinced that
                                 my conduct as a teacher was not inappropriate. I do accept however,
                                 that the concerns of some former students were genuinely held and
                                 to them I offer an apology for any upset”.

[103] RNZ believed that this apology must be read in the context of the range of comments and concerns raised by former pupils including the anonymous former pupil interviewed on Nine to Noon on 12 May 2005.

Further Information from Mr Benson-Pope

[104] In response to RNZ’s letter, Mr Benson-Pope noted that there were numerous statements of fact and submissions in his letter that RNZ had not addressed. He contended that the Authority was entitled to, and should, draw the inference that RNZ’s failure to respond to or rebut those matters amounted to acceptance of them.

[105] Mr Benson-Pope stated that he had highlighted a number of significant gaps in the information provided by RNZ, with the expectation that RNZ would use the opportunity afforded by its right of response to address those matters. He said:

Despite this opportunity RNZ has totally failed to provide further information or otherwise address the concerns raised. It is surprising that RNZ has chosen to respond in this way, effectively limiting for its own reasons but without explanation the material it is prepared to make available to the Authority. Again, the inference to be drawn from RNZ’s failure/refusal to make additional information available is obvious.

Validity of referral

[106] Mr Benson-Pope asserted that RNZ had deliberately misquoted him. He had not stated that press secretaries were regarded as “acting” on behalf of their Minister; rather, the convention he had described was that press secretaries were regarded as “speaking” on behalf of their Minister. The complainant noted that RNZ had otherwise failed to address the specific submissions he had made under this heading.

Nature of allegations made

[107] The complainant pointed out that he had included the full police press release with his last submissions to the Authority with the expectation that the Authority would read it. He could therefore not be criticised for failing to refer to the fact that the police had found a prima facie case with respect to the two allegations of criminal conduct.

[108] Further, Mr Benson-Pope noted that the allegations made by Mr Hide and Ms Collins in Parliament remained unsubstantiated allegations that he was a bully. The claims made by the anonymous interviewee also remained unsubstantiated, he noted, and the police statements did not support the contention that he was a bullying person. He added:

RNZ fails to acknowledge that a finding by the police that there is a prima facie case falls well short of and quite simply is not a finding of guilt; somewhat conveniently, RNZ proceeds on the basis that a finding of a prima facie case is tantamount to a finding of guilt.

[109] In any event, Mr Benson-Pope said, the allegations of criminal conduct were not the subject of the Nine to Noon programme, nor the subject of his complaint and referral to the Authority.

The identity of the interviewee

[110] The complainant asserted that it was wrong to suggest that the allegations by the anonymous interviewee were a subset of those already outlined in Parliament the previous day. He could not have foreseen the allegations made in Nine to Noon from what was said in the House the day before, or from the advice provided by RNZ when it requested an interview. Accordingly, had he agreed to such an interview, he would inevitably have been “ambushed”, he said.

Period of current interest

[111] Mr Benson-Pope referred to RNZ’s claim that the period of current interest was still open due to further revelations made in Parliament in the week commencing 27 February 2006. Noting that the broadcaster had not explained how this was relevant to the complaint, Mr Benson-Pope said:

RNZ is clutching at straws and again fails to accurately record the basis for its contention. It is difficult to respond to RNZ’s claims because it does not identify what the “further revelations” to which it refers are. In any event, RNZ must know that the subsequent allegations did not in any way relate to allegations of bullying in the early 1980s.

Mr Rodney Hide

[112] The complainant observed that RNZ had not identified the information provided by Mr Hide nor when that information was provided. Also, he said, RNZ did not seek to refute his analysis of the role Mr Hide played in ensuring the anonymous interviewee’s story was broadcast. He contended that:

…the Authority is left none the wiser as to the actuality and/or quality of “the several steps taken in the lead up to broadcasting” by RNZ. The overwhelming inference being that RNZ were more than happy to help Mr Hide out in his attack on Mr Benson-Pope, being quite content to rely on the information he provided.

Assessing of bona fides

[113] Mr Benson-Pope noted that RNZ had not addressed his detailed analysis of the adequacy of the steps it had taken to determine the interviewee’s credibility. It had not provided any further information about the steps that it had taken, nor had it addressed or refuted the account of the telephone conversation the Nine to Noon host had with his press secretary on 16 May 2005. In the absence of any response or challenge by RNZ, Mr Benson-Pope contended, the only inference open to the Authority must be that his analysis and conclusions were correct.

Ambush

[114] The complainant reiterated his submission that “it was a nonsense” to suggest that he could have foreseen or predicted the allegations made by the anonymous interviewee as a result of what had been said in the House the previous day.

Fairness

[115] Mr Benson-Pope noted RNZ’s comment about “the lengths” to which it went to present countervailing comment, and pointed out that RNZ was only referring to the emails read out in the course of the Nine to Noon programme. It provided no other information about “the lengths” it had gone to. The complainant reiterated his contention that there was a wealth of material that RNZ could and should have sourced and broadcast, but failed to do so. It had simply relied on the fortuitous receipt of emails, he said.

Conclusion

[116] Mr Benson-Pope noted RNZ’s final comment that the apology offered in Parliament on 28 February 2006 must apply to the anonymous interviewee. He contended that the quotes relied on by RNZ had been taken entirely out of context. What was being discussed at the time was the issue of a written complaint which had been made in September 1997 to the Principal of Bayfield High. He said:

It was alleged that Mr Benson-Pope had entered the girls’ showers. This was investigated by the school at the time and was found to have no substance. However it did result in a change to the relevant school policy…It is in this context that Mr Benson-Pope stated “however I do accept that the concerns of some former students were genuinely held, and to them I offer an apology for any upset”.

[117] It was therefore wrong and quite misleading and mischievous for RNZ to suggest that he was apologising to the anonymous student, Mr Benson-Pope said.

[118] Finally, Mr Benson-Pope disagreed with RNZ’s contention that the listening public would have concluded that that the finding by police of a prima facie case, coupled with other questions in the House, amounted to accusations of bullying. He pointed out that the allegations were made in the House on 12 May 2005, and the police inquiry did not conclude until 23 November 2005.

Further information from RNZ

[119] RNZ stated that the absence of any comment on Mr Benson-Pope’s first submission did not mean that it accepted the submissions. RNZ said that it did not.

[120] The broadcaster referred to articles in TheDominion Post which referred to “bullying claims” on 3 March 2006. This suggested, it said, that the bullying allegations remained a controversial issue of public importance as recently as the date of that article.

[121] RNZ asserted that it did not intend to respond to any other points raised by Mr Benson-Pope, stating that the complainant had “only prolonged the process without providing any further clarity”. This lack of response could not be read as acceptance of the points made, it said.

Further information from Mr Benson-Pope

[122] Mr Benson-Pope stated that RNZ’s failure to comment on his submission was of no assistance to the Authority. He had raised a number of issues, and said that it was not good enough for RNZ to make “a blanket claim” that it did not accept his submission. He added:

The Authority is entitled to proceed on the basis that RNZ would identify those areas or issues with which it did not agree and to put before the Authority evidence to support its position. Failure to do so can only be taken by the Authority as an acceptance by RNZ of all issues raised by me to which RNZ has deliberately chosen not to respond to.

[123] Noting that RNZ had not done so, Mr Benson-Pope attached copies of The Dominion Post articles referred to in its latest submission. He also attached a transcript of an interview conducted with him on Campbell Live on 2 March 2006.

[124] Mr Benson-Pope noted that during a 20-minute interview with him on RNZ on 2 March 2006, the host did not refer to bullying or to the allegations made by the anonymous student. He attached an “unofficial” transcript of that interview for the Authority’s information.

Authority's Determination

[125] The members of the Authority have listened to 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.

Preliminary matter

[126] Under section 8 of the Broadcasting Act 1989, a complainant may refer a complaint to the Authority where that complainant is dissatisfied with the decision of the broadcaster. The Act is clear that the original complaint and the referral must be made by the same person.

[127] RNZ has argued that the initial complaint to the broadcaster was made by Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the Associate Minister. Therefore the broadcaster contended that the referral to the Authority was not valid because it was made by Mr Benson-Pope’s solicitor.

[128] The Authority disagrees. While the formal complaint may not have explicitly stated that it was written on behalf of Mr Benson-Pope, it was signed by Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary in that capacity. It was also written on Mr Benson-Pope’s parliamentary letterhead.

[129] Furthermore, Mr Benson-Pope’s solicitor sent a follow-up letter to RNZ on 16 May 2005 which made it clear that the formal complaint had been made on behalf of Mr Benson-Pope. The Authority is in no doubt that the referral is valid, and it proceeds to determine the substantive complaint.

Principle 5 (fairness)

[130] The Authority upholds the complaint that RNZ breached the requirement in Principle 5 to treat Mr Benson-Pope justly and fairly. It finds that several factors contributed to this, including:

  • the anonymity of the former student making the claims
  • the absence of any serious challenge by the interviewer to the anonymous interviewee’s story
  • that the interviewee was allowed to make serious and unchecked allegations that Mr Benson-Pope was guilty of criminal conduct in relation to other students
  • that the interviewer’s reference to police involvement implied that the conduct alleged by the anonymous student amounted to criminal conduct.

[131] Mr Benson-Pope’s main concern relating to fairness was that the broadcast contained allegations made by an anonymous interviewee. He argued that he was unable to respond effectively to the interviewee’s claims because he had no way of identifying him.

[132] As a starting point, the Authority finds that there is inherent unfairness in allowing an accuser to remain anonymous, because anonymity deprives the accused of information with which to defend him or herself. This view is supported by various sources within New Zealand and overseas.1 Intro – A Beginner’s Guide to Professional News Journalism (published by the New Zealand Journalists Training Organisation) notes that anonymity:

…allows the interviewee to make allegations against another person without that person knowing the identity or credibility of the critic, which may be unfair to the person attacked.

[133] The Authority made the following comments in Decision No. 2004-115, which dealt with the broadcast of criminal allegations about Peter Ellis by an anonymous interviewee:

…any programme in which unidentified accusers allege that an identified person has committed serious but unspecified criminal offences is likely to be inherently unfair to the accused. Regardless of what “opportunities” such a person might be offered to present his or her point of view, allegations of this nature are generally impossible to defend.

[134] The Authority finds that the same principle applies in this case. The broadcast consisted of an interview with an unidentified man who was introduced as “a boy beaten by Mr Benson-Pope” and “a former pupil who left Bayfield College in the mid-1980s”. Although at the start of the interview the host seemed to be under the impression that the former pupil had been taught by Mr Benson-Pope, it was soon established that Mr Benson-Pope had been the dean of the interviewee’s year. During the interview the man claimed that Mr Benson-Pope had enjoyed caning him, that Mr Benson-Pope had laughed while caning him, and that he had caned him until he bled. He acknowledged that Mr Benson-Pope had caned him only once. In addition, he called Mr Benson-Pope a “nasty and bullying personality”, “a nasty bastard” and a “liar”.

[135] Although the allegations were not of a criminal nature, they were serious allegations which had significant implications with respect to Mr Benson-Pope’s standing as a Cabinet Minister. The Authority finds it relevant that Mr Benson-Pope’s teaching career spanned 23 years at Bayfield High School, in which time he would have conducted numerous canings in his role as a dean. Apart from revealing that the interviewee had been caned once by Mr Benson-Pope, the broadcast did not specify any other details about the alleged victim or any other identifying features of the occasion of the alleged misconduct. In these circumstances, the Authority finds that Mr Benson-Pope would not have had sufficient information with which to identify his accuser.

[136] The Authority considers that the broadcast was unfair because, without knowing the identity of the interviewee, Mr Benson-Pope was deprived of information which would have enabled him to challenge the interviewee’s credibility and to put his accusations into some context. In effect, the interviewee was allowed to attack Mr Benson-Pope, characterising him as “nasty”, “bullying” and “a liar”, while the interviewee’s own credibility was protected by anonymity.

[137] The Authority can discern no reasonable basis for the former student being granted anonymity, nor has it been offered one by RNZ.That the interviewee was prepared to make allegations about Mr Benson-Pope only from a position of anonymity placed an even greater obligation on RNZ to ensure his credibility, and to satisfy itself of the veracity of the information.

[138] With respect to ensuring the interviewee’s credibility, the Authority is not persuaded that RNZ met its obligation. It is apparent from the unedited version of the interview that the host had doubts about the former student’s credibility even as the interview progressed.For example, in response to the interviewee’s purported knowledge about an incident involving another student, the host said: “It seems strange doesn’t it? It all seems strange.”

[139] In an interlocutory decision dated 22 September 2005 (Decision No. ID2005-083) which determined preliminary matters relating to this complaint, the Authority asked RNZ to provide further information about the steps it took to verify the interviewee’s credibility and the veracity of his allegations prior to the broadcast. Those steps are outlined in paragraphs [33]–[35] of this decision.

[140] In his correspondence, Mr Benson-Pope examined the robustness of the steps taken by RNZ. He submitted that the details provided by RNZ were not sufficient for the Authority to assess whether RNZ’s pre-broadcast investigations were reasonable. The Authority notes that despite this challenge, RNZ has not provided any further information in its subsequent responses.

[141] The Authority observes that RNZ appears to have relied largely on the enquiries conducted by Rodney Hide (a vocal critic of Mr Benson-Pope), although it did not disclose on air that Mr Hide was the contact who put RNZ in touch with the anonymous interviewee. Had listeners been aware of this connection, the Authority considers that the interviewee would likely have been treated with more scepticism, and the impact of his allegations would have been substantially lessened.

[142] Excluding the enquiries carried out by Rodney Hide, RNZ has said that it received reassurance of the interviewee’s bona fides from a fellow student and obtained confirmation of “details of the anonymous student’s story” from another student taught by Mr Benson-Pope. RNZ has not specified what “details” of the anonymous student’s story were confirmed by this other student. The Authority questions RNZ’s statement that this student was able to verify any facts, because RNZ has not claimed that the student was present at the caning. Further, the Authority finds unpersuasive RNZ’s vague assertion that it was reassured of the interviewee’s “bona fides” by another student.

[143] The Authority recognises the difficulties inherent in corroborating allegations such as these, which relate to an incident involving only two identifiable people – the accused and the accuser. It appreciates that RNZ did make an attempt to verify the anonymous interviewee’s story. However, the Authority considers that when a broadcaster is unable to satisfy itself to a high standard that an individual and the information he is providing is credible, it should either refuse to grant that individual anonymity, or it should refrain from broadcasting the allegations altogether.

[144] In this case, the information provided by RNZ is insufficient to convince the Authority that the broadcaster undertook sufficient independent investigations into the interviewee’s credibility and his story. The Authority finds that RNZ did not meet the high threshold for verification and corroboration that is required when allowing an accuser to remain anonymous. As a result, the Authority finds that the broadcaster treated Mr Benson-Pope unfairly in allowing this interviewee to make serious allegations about him from a position of anonymity.

[145] For the avoidance of doubt, the Authority observes that this broadcast was unfair to Mr Benson-Pope even though RNZ offered him an opportunity, which he declined, to be interviewed in the broadcast. Because the broadcaster has not persuaded the Authority that it undertook sufficient investigations into the interviewee’s credibility and his story, and because RNZ then allowed the interviewee to remain anonymous, the Authority finds that the broadcast remained unfair despite the invitation to Mr Benson-Pope to participate.

[146] Finally on this matter, the Authority notes that there may be some circumstances in which a broadcaster is justified in allowing the broadcast of allegations by an anonymous interviewee – even where the broadcast may be unfair to an individual. These will be situations in which there is a high degree of public interest – meaning legitimate public concern, as opposed to being of general interest or curiosity to the public2 – in the information being disseminated. The comments of Gault P and Tipping J in Hosking v Runting3support the proposition that the broadcast of material that is in the public interest should not be restricted by the Broadcasting Codes, as that would be an unreasonable limitation on the right to free expression in the Bill of Rights Act. However, the Authority considers that there can be no public interest in broadcasting allegations from an anonymous person whose credibility and information have not been adequately verified.

Other allegations of unfairness

[147] In addition to the complaint that he was treated unfairly by the broadcast of allegations to which he could not respond, Mr Benson-Pope has also alleged that a number of other features in the broadcast were unfair.

[148] First, Mr Benson-Pope argued that the broadcast was unfair to him because the host used leading questions and did not test the interviewee’s story. As outlined in its consideration of the balance standard (see paragraph [175]), the Authority agrees with the complainant that the host did not challenge the interviewee’s version of events. It is clear from the field tape that the host did have some concerns about the credibility of the interviewee’s story, but these parts of the interview were excised from the broadcast version.

[149] In the Ellis decision, the Authority agreed that the choice of interviewing style is a matter of editorial judgement, but it did not accept that editorial style is never a matter of broadcasting standards. On this occasion, the Authority finds that the absence of any challenge to the interviewee’s story in the broadcast contributed to the breach of Principle 5.

[150] Second, the complainant submitted that the host should also have challenged the interviewee’s purported knowledge of Mr Benson-Pope’s guilt in relation to allegations of criminal conduct towards other pupils. After the host told the interviewee that Mr Benson-Pope had “denied any allegation that he mistreated or bullied pupils”, the interviewee made the following statements:

  • “There’s only one word for it and that’s liar.”
  • “[I want him] to admit that he did those things, all of them, because he did all of them.”

[151] The Authority finds that the host was under an obligation to question the interviewee’s knowledge about these other events. In the absence of this, the interviewee was allowed to make serious and unchecked allegations that Mr Benson-Pope was guilty of criminal conduct in relation to other students. The Authority finds that this also contributed to the breach of Principle 5.

[152] Third, Mr Benson-Pope argued under Principle 6 (accuracy) that the host’s question “why didn’t anyone go to the police at the time, do you know?” was misleading and inaccurate. The Authority considers that this matter is more appropriately dealt with under the fairness standard.

[153] Having listened to the field tape of the interview, the Authority observes that the question about people going to the police followed statements by the interviewee that Mr Benson-Pope assaulted a pupil at a school camp. However, these statements were not included in the broadcast. As a result, the position of the question in the broadcast implied that the conduct alleged by the anonymous interviewee amounted to criminal conduct which would have warranted police involvement. In the Authority’s view, this unfairly suggested that Mr Benson-Pope had behaved illegally by caning the student.

[154] Fourth, Mr Benson-Pope complained that the host’s closing remarks – that he had “refused” to give his response to “all of that” – were unfair, because he had not been advised of the allegations when asked for a response. In addition, he had not “refused” to be interviewed, but had been unable to attend due to his ministerial duties. In the Authority’s view, this statement fairly summarised the fact that Mr Benson-Pope had declined to participate in the programme. Further, the Authority notes that similar phrases are commonly used by journalists. While some listeners may find such statements to be slightly pejorative, the Authority considers that, in general, audiences would be unlikely to draw any negative inferences from their use.

Conclusion on fairness

[155] Overall, the Authority has found that this broadcast was inherently unfair to Mr Benson-Pope because it contained serious allegations made by an anonymous interviewee. RNZ has not satisfied the Authority that it took sufficient steps to verify the interviewee’s credibility or the information he provided before granting him anonymity.

[156] Further, the Authority has concluded that the failure of the broadcaster to challenge the interviewee’s story, and the host’s references to police involvement, contributed to the overall unfairness to the complainant.

[157] Accordingly, it upholds Mr Benson-Pope’s complaint under Principle 5.

Principle 4 (balance)

[158] Principle 4 requires broadcasters to make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. In determining whether the broadcaster complied with this principle, the Authority must determine the following questions:

  • Was a “controversial issue of public importance” discussed in the broadcast and, if so, what was it?
  • Did RNZ make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view on that issue, either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest?

Controversial issue of public importance

[159] Mr Benson-Pope and RNZ agree that a controversial issue of public importance was discussed in the programme complained about. However, they have very different views on how that issue should be framed.

[160] RNZ has argued that the allegations made by the anonymous interviewee, and the allegations of criminal conduct that were investigated by the police, were all allegations of “bullying”. In determining whether the broadcast was balanced, RNZ submitted that the media coverage relating to the entire “Benson-Pope controversy” would be relevant to the Authority’s determination.

[161] Conversely, Mr Benson-Pope has argued that the allegations made by the anonymous interviewee were separate from the wider controversy and the criminal allegations. He contended that in order to meet the requirement for balance, RNZ needed to present significant points of view in relation to the specific allegations made by the interviewee.

[162] The Authority considers that because the anonymous interviewee made allegations which had the potential to affect the reputation of a Cabinet Minister – particularly because Mr Benson-Pope was the Associate Minister of Education and the allegations related to his conduct as a teacher – a controversial issue of public importance was discussed in the broadcast. It now turns to consider how that issue should be framed.

[163] The Authority agrees with RNZ that the allegations made in Nine to Noon fell under the umbrella of the wider controversy surrounding Mr Benson-Pope’s actions. In Parliament on 12 May 2005, Mr Benson-Pope was asked whether he had put tennis balls in students’ mouths, hit a pupil at school camp, and caned students particularly hard.

[164] The next day on Nine to Noon, the interviewee alleged that Mr Benson-Pope had caned him particularly hard, and that he was a bully. There is no doubt that these allegations were of a very similar nature to those made in Parliament. In light of this similarity, the Authority considers that it would be artificial to separate out the anonymous interviewee’s allegations as an independent controversial issue.

[165] The Authority distinguishes the present case from Decision No. 2004-115, where further allegations about convicted child abuser Peter Ellis were held to constitute a controversial issue of public importance independent from the wider “Peter Ellis controversy”. In that case, the Authority noted that the allegations were “new and separate” from the wider controversy surrounding Mr Ellis’ conviction and the calls for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the case.

[166] In the present case, the scope and nature of the various allegations against Mr Benson-Pope were still being determined at the time of the broadcast. The Authority acknowledges the complainant’s submission that the anonymous interviewee’s particular allegations were not subsequently canvassed in any media coverage. Nevertheless, it finds that the anonymous interviewee’s allegations were inextricably linked to the wider “Benson-Pope controversy”. The nature of the particular allegations made fell squarely into the category of concerns surrounding Mr Benson-Pope’s conduct as a teacher.

[167] Accordingly, the Authority considers that the controversial issue discussed in the broadcast was the issue of whether Mr Benson-Pope, the Associate Minister of Education, had acted inappropriately or bullied students during his time as a teacher.

Significant points of view

[168] Having determined the controversial issue under discussion, the Authority now considers whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts or gave reasonable opportunities to present significant points of view on that issue within the Nine to Noon programme on 13 May 2005, or within the period of current interest.

[169] As noted previously, Mr Benson-Pope declined RNZ’s request to be interviewed on Nine to Noon on 13 May 2005. However, the Authority observes that Mr Benson-Pope’s absence from the programme did not diminish RNZ’s responsibility to achieve balance by other means – that is, to ensure that the programme, or other programmes within the period of current interest, included other significant viewpoints.

[170] Looking first at the 13 May broadcast, RNZ pointed to two statements made by the host which, it said, amounted to significant points of view on the controversial issue under discussion. These were:

  • “Yesterday in Parliament he faced some pretty tough questions. He categorically said any of the allegations, all of the allegations, were not true.”
  • “He has denied any allegation that he mistreated or bullied pupils.”

[171] The statements above reported Mr Benson-Pope’s refutation of allegations raised in Parliament the day before the broadcast. The Authority accepts that these statements did relate to the controversial issue of whether Mr Benson-Pope was guilty of bullying students during his time as a teacher. However, the anonymous interviewee’s allegations the following day added another element to what was clearly a developing story. The Authority considers that simply reporting Mr Benson-Pope’s previous statements – made prior to the broadcast of the anonymous interviewee’s allegations – was insufficient to satisfy the requirements of Principle 4.

[172] RNZ also argued that the emails read out by the Nine to Noon host provided “significant points of view”. The Authority, however, agrees with the complainant that “significant points of view” need to be given by people with direct knowledge of the alleged events.

[173] In this case, the majority of the emails were merely the listeners’ views about the interviewee’s credibility. However, one person indicated that she had taught with Mr Benson-Pope, and the Authority finds that she would have had direct knowledge about Mr Benson-Pope’s conduct as a teacher. This person stated that Mr Benson-Pope had actually been “too soft”, and she cautioned against believing the interviewee’s story. Accordingly, while the majority of the emails did not constitute “significant perspectives” on the controversial issue, the Authority considers that one email did contribute some balance to the discussion.

[174] Finally, the Authority notes that balance within a programme can sometimes be provided by the host. On this occasion, this could have been achieved by the host explaining the other points of view, or adopting the devil’s advocate approach.

[175] Contrary to RNZ’s assertions, the Authority is of the view that the host did not act as devil’s advocate. Having listened to the field tape of the interview, the Authority observes that any challenges the host made to the interviewee’s story were excised from the broadcast version. For example, in response to the interviewee’s purported knowledge about an incident involving another student, the host said “it seems strange doesn’t it? It all seems strange”. After these portions of the interview were removed, the end result was an interview conducted in a non-challenging manner, which did not test the credibility of the interviewee or his story. As such, the Authority finds that the host did not provide any balance to the controversial issue under discussion.

[176] The Authority acknowledges that RNZ provided some alternative perspectives on the controversial issue under discussion within the Nine to Noon programme, given the host’s reiteration of Mr Benson-Pope’s denials in Parliament, and the email in support of Mr Benson-Pope from a former colleague. However, due to the potentially damaging nature of the interviewee’s allegations, the Authority considers that these efforts to provide balance were not sufficient to meet the requirements of Principle 4.

[177] For this reason, the Authority now turns to consider whether RNZ made reasonable efforts or gave reasonable opportunities to present significant points of view within the period of current interest.

[178] Mr Benson-Pope complained that RNZ’s original offer of an interview on Nine to Noon was not a “reasonable” offer. The Authority finds it unnecessary to determine this point because it considers that the later offers made by RNZ to Mr Benson-Pope amounted to reasonable opportunities to present his point of view within the period of current interest.

[179] The Authority notes that Principle 4 exists to ensure that listeners are provided with all significant perspectives on a controversial issue. Following the 13 May broadcast of the anonymous interviewee’s allegations, RNZ made two subsequent offers to Mr Benson-Pope,on 16 and 18 May, to appear on Nine to Noon. Although RNZ continued to refuse to divulge the identity of the former student to Mr Benson-Pope, the Authority is of the view that, once Mr Benson-Pope knew the exact nature of the allegations made against him in the 13 May broadcast – and given time for reflection – he could have provided a response that dealt with the substance of the anonymous allegations, if not the credibility of the interviewee. For example, he could have explained that he was not aware of ever having caned a student until he bled, and that no complaints of that nature had ever been laid. He could also have explained that another teacher was always present when a student was caned. To a member of the Nine to Noon audience, this information would have amounted to a significant perspective on the issue under discussion.

[180] The Authority notes that Mr Benson-Pope has argued that this situation was analogous to the Ellis situation, where the Authority found that the subsequent offer of an interview was not reasonable. However, in Ellis, the nature of the allegations against Mr Ellis was never specified; the interviewee only implied that some form of sexual abuse had occurred. This is in direct contrast to the present case, where Mr Benson-Pope was made aware of the exact nature of the allegations made against him. Accordingly, the Authority considers that – unlike Ellis – Mr Benson-Pope could have made a response to listeners about the allegations made against him.

[181] Finally, the Authority notes that the issue of Mr Benson-Pope’s conduct as a teacher received a very substantial amount of media coverage. In particular, it acknowledges RNZ’s submission that it broadcast a number of items subsequent to the Nine to Noon programme, including interviews with former colleagues, former pupils and commentators who defended Mr Benson-Pope. As a result of this, the Authority finds that the public would have been well informed of the alternative perspective that Mr Benson-Pope had never acted inappropriately towards his students.

[182] While the Authority remains of the view that the broadcast of these allegations was unfair to Mr Benson-Pope, it notes that balance is assessed from the point of view of the listener, not the person affected. The Authority concludes that RNZ satisfied the requirements of Principle 4 by making reasonable efforts to present listeners with significant points of view on the issue of Mr Benson-Pope’s conduct as a teacher within the period of current interest. Accordingly, it finds that Principle 4 was not breached.

Principle 6 (accuracy)

[183] The Authority declines to determine whether the allegations made by the interviewee were inaccurate. It does not have sufficient information with which to determine the accuracy or otherwise of the interviewee’s claims.

[184] In its interlocutory decision on procedural matters (Decision No. ID2005-083), the Authority stated that the issue of the anonymous interviewee’s credibility might be relevant to its assessment of the accuracy standard. Guideline 6d states:

Broadcasters shall ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.

[185] In its assessment of Principle 5 (fairness), the Authority has already concluded that RNZ did not take sufficient steps to verify the credibility of the interviewee prior to giving him the protection of anonymity. The Authority considers that it has already dealt with this issue appropriately, and has therefore subsumed this matter into its consideration of Principle 5.

[186] Therefore, the only remaining issue to be dealt with under the accuracy standard is Mr Benson-Pope’s complaint about the host’s statement that the interviewee was a boy “beaten” by Mr Benson-Pope. In the Authority’s view, it is not inaccurate to describe a person who alleges he was caned hard by another person as having been “beaten”. Further, while the word “beaten” has more emotive connotations than the word “caned”, its intended meaning in relation to the anonymous interviewee was made very plain by the interview as a whole. Apart from the alleged caning, no other sort of physical contact between Mr Benson-Pope and the interviewee was mentioned. Accordingly, the Authority considers that listeners would not have been misled by the host’s use of the word “beaten” to describe the alleged caning. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[187] The Authority does not uphold the Principle 6 complaint.

Bill of Rights

[188] For the avoidance of doubt, the Authority records that it has given full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and taken into account all the circumstances of the complaint in reaching this determination. For the reasons given above, the Authority considers that its exercise of powers on this occasion is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Radio New Zealand Ltd of an item on Nine to Noon on 13 May 2005 breached Principle 5 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[189] Having upheld the complaint, the Authority may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act. It invited submissions on orders from the parties.

Submissions on orders

[190] Mr Benson-Pope submitted that RNZ should be ordered to broadcast a statement containing a comprehensive summary of the Authority’s decision, and also an apology to him. He also contended that RNZ should publish a statement and apology in each of the four major metropolitan daily newspapers, arguing that a single reading of a statement on radio did not have the same impact as a televised statement which could also appear in writing on screen.

[191] Mr Benson-Pope stated that his legal costs had amounted to $20,413.99, and he submitted that an award of at least $12,000 (exclusive of GST) would be appropriate. He also asked the Authority to order costs to the Crown in the amount of $5,000.

[192] RNZ contended that a broadcast statement should not be ordered, arguing that it would be “very difficult, if not impossible” for the audience to isolate the context in which the programme was broadcast. The broadcaster submitted that, to save further confusion in the public’s mind about a matter which had been put to rest, it was in Mr Benson-Pope’s best interests not to order a statement. Consequently, it argued, it followed that no public apology should be made.

[193] RNZ strongly opposed Mr Benson-Pope’s request for a partial award of $12,000 plus GST in legal costs. It argued that the complaint was not a complex one, and said that it should not be held responsible for the actions of Mr Benson-Pope’s counsel in making lengthy submissions. Noting the Authority’s guideline of awarding up to a third of legal costs, RNZ submitted that because only one out of three aspects of the complaint was upheld, the maximum the complainant could be awarded was a one-third portion of one-third of his costs. The broadcaster also disputed the reasonableness of the $18,000 costs that were incurred, stating that the matter had only been made complex by the complainant’s own submissions.

[194] RNZ argued that there were no grounds upon which the imposition of costs to the Crown could be justified. In summary, RNZ submitted that the particular circumstances of the complaint were unique and did not justify the imposition of any orders. The broadcaster said that, if the Authority declined to impose an order, RNZ would offer a letter to Mr Benson-Pope acknowledging the Authority’s findings.

Authority’s decision on orders

[195] The Authority considers it appropriate to order RNZ to broadcast a statement containing a comprehensive summary of its decision. It disagrees with RNZ’s contention that a statement would cause confusion due to the wide-ranging nature of the controversy surrounding Mr Benson-Pope. The Authority’s decision does not focus on the allegations made by the interviewee; it focuses on the fact that RNZ failed to verify the interviewee’s credibility to a high standard before granting him anonymity.

[196] However, the Authority declines to impose an order requiring RNZ to broadcast an apology to Mr Benson-Pope. While it acknowledges the complainant’s point that there are similarities between this complaint and the Ellis decision (in which an apology was ordered), the Authority also considers that there are significant differences. First, as a Cabinet Minister, Mr Benson-Pope has subsequently had opportunities to address all of the allegations made against him in the media. Mr Ellis, on the other hand, was a private citizen who had no real opportunity to respond to the allegations made against him. Second, the allegations made against Mr Benson-Pope – while serious – were not as damaging as those made against Mr Ellis.

[197] For these same reasons, the Authority considers that this complaint does not justify publication of a statement in the major daily newspapers.

[198] With respect to legal costs, the Authority does not accept RNZ’s contention that an appropriate award would be a one-third portion of one-third of the complainant’s costs. The Authority’s policy is that costs awards will be in the range of one-third of costs reasonably incurred, but it does not adjust this amount in the formulaic manner suggested by RNZ. It is the seriousness and materiality of the breaches that the Authority takes into account, not simply the proportion of the nominated standards that have been upheld.

[199] In this case, Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer has submitted that an award of at least $12,000 (exclusive of GST) would be appropriate, from a total of $20,413.99. In determining what constitutes reasonable costs in an individual case, the Authority takes into account a number of factors, including the complexity of the issues raised, the complexity of the factual background, and whether the proceeding required resolution of any interlocutory or procedural issues. Taking into account all the circumstances of this case, the Authority considers that $15,000 would represent a reasonable level of legal costs. The Authority finds that it is appropriate to award the complainant one-third of that amount, i.e. $5,000.

[200] RNZ has argued that it would be inappropriate to order a payment of costs to the Crown on this occasion. However, this is the second complaint that the Authority has upheld against RNZ where the broadcaster has failed to verify adequately the credibility of an interviewee before granting him anonymity. Accordingly, it is of the view that an order of costs to the Crown is warranted.

[201] In determining the amount of costs, however, the Authority distinguishes the current complaint from the Ellis decision. The Authority ordered $5,000 costs to the Crown in Ellis, but it does not consider that such a high award is warranted on this occasion. First, it notes that this broadcast occurred during a breaking story of significant public interest about Mr Benson-Pope’s conduct. As a result, the Authority acknowledges that – unlike in Ellis – RNZ had limited time in which to investigate the interviewee’s story. Secondly, it recognises that RNZ made more attempts to verify the interviewee’s account in Mr Benson-Pope’s case than it did in Ellis. For these reasons, the Authority considers that while RNZ made a significant error of judgment on this occasion, it did not amount to the egregious breach that occurred in Ellis. It concludes that an order of $2,000 costs to the Crown is justified.

[202] The Authority recognises that broadcasters are faced with difficult situations in the newsroom, and that they must often make important decisions within a short timeframe. The Authority does not wish to dissuade broadcasters from taking calculated risks with respect to stories of major public interest. However, one of the Authority’s key functions is to promote good journalistic practices, and it considers that its decision on this occasion is consistent with that purpose.

Orders

The Authority makes the following orders pursuant to s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989:

1. Pursuant to s.13(1)(a) of the Act, the Authority orders Radio New Zealand Ltd to broadcast a statement approved by the Authority. That statement shall:

be broadcast within one month of the date of this decision during Nine to Noon, on a date to be approved by the Authority

contain a comprehensive summary of the Authority’s decision.

The Authority draws the broadcaster’s attention to the requirement in s.13(3)(b) of the Act for the broadcaster to give notice to the Authority of the manner in which the above order has been complied with.

2. Pursuant to s.16(1) of the Act, the Authority orders Radio New Zealand Ltd to pay to the complainant costs in the amount of $5,000, within one month of the date of this decision.

3. Pursuant to s.16(4) of the Act, the Authority orders Radio New Zealand Ltd to pay to the Crown costs in the amount of $2,000, within one month of the date of this decision.

The orders for costs shall be enforceable in the Wellington District Court.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
19 October 2006

Appendix 1

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

  1. Mr Benson-Pope’s formal complaint to RNZ – 13 May 2005
  2. Mr Benson-Pope’s confirmation of the formal complaint – 16 May 2005
  3. RNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 14 June 2005
  4. Mr Benson-Pope’s referral to the Authority – 13 July 2005
  5. RNZ’s response to the Authority in light of the Interlocutory Decision – 14 October 2005
  6. RNZ’s response to the Authority on the substantive complaint – 31 October 2005
  7. Mr Benson-Pope’s final comment – 15 February 2006
  8. Further information from RNZ – 7 March 2006
  9. Further information from Mr Benson-Pope – 27 March 2006
  10. Further information from RNZ – 29 March 2006
  11. Further information from Mr Benson-Pope – 5 April 2006
  12. Further information from RNZ – 6 April 2006
  13. Submissions on orders from Mr Benson-Pope – 30 August 2006
  14. Submissions on orders from RNZ – 11 September 2006
  15. Further submissions from Mr Benson-Pope – 20 September 2006
  16. Further submissions from RNZ – 25 September 2006

Appendix 2

Transcript of interview broadcast on Nine to Noon on National Radio on 13 May 2005 between the host and the anonymous interviewee.

Host:          David Benson-Pope, the Associate Education Minister, is facing serious allegations
                  he bullied boys when he was a teacher in Dunedin. Yesterday in Parliament he faced
                  some pretty tough questions. He categorically said any of the allegations, all of the
                  allegations, were not true. This morning one of his accusers Act’s Rodney Hide said
                  on Morning Report that he accepted the Minister’s assurance. Since then I have spoken
                  to one of the men who claims he was a boy beaten by Mr Benson-Pope. We have
                  agreed not to identify this former pupil who left Bayfield College in the mid-1980s.

Interviewee:  I wasn’t taught by him but he was the dean of my year at school.

Host:            So how much did you have to do with him?

Interviewee:  More than I wanted to.

Host:            Can you explain that?

Interviewee:  Oh, I found him to be a very nasty and bullying personality and he knew which
                    people he could pick on and he made a damn good job of it.

Host:            What do you mean he knew which people he could pick on?

Interviewee:  I think he chose the people that wouldn’t fight back.

Host:            And were you one of those people?

Interviewee:  Yes.

Host:            So what was your ex…I mean what kind of…what happened to you?

Interviewee:  Oh, just…he caned me which he enjoyed doing and laughed while he did it.

Host:            You were caned by other teachers as well?

Interviewee:  Ah…god…yes.

Host:           But was the way that David Benson-Pope caned you different in any way to the
                   canings from other teachers?

Interviewee: He was the only one who enjoyed it.

Host:           How do you know he enjoyed it?

Interviewee: He wasn’t laughing because he didn’t enjoy it.

Host:            So he laughed while he caned you?

Interviewee: Yes.

Host:            And how hard did he cane you?

Interviewee: Enough to draw blood.

Host:           On your hand are we talking about?

Interviewee: No, my backside.

Host:           That sounds extreme.

Interviewee: It was legal.

Host:           Yeah well you’ve heard Benson-Pope, you’ve heard Mr Benson-Pope be challenged
                   about his attitudes to teaching and to discipline in Parliament yesterday. He has denied
                   any allegation that he mistreated or bullied pupils. What do you say to that?

Interviewee: There’s only one word for it and that’s liar.

Host:           You don’t believe him.

Interviewee: He’s a liar. It’s as simple as that I’m sorry.

Host:           So he did mistreat pupils.

Interviewee: Absolutely.

Host:           Apart from the…the time…are we talking about one time where he caned you so
                   hard he drew blood?

Interviewee: Yes.

Host:           Apart from that tell me about what dealing with David Benson-Pope was like as a young boy.

Interviewee: He made you scared which is… you don’t learn when you’re scared so I didn’t
                   learn at school.

Host:           How did he make you scared?

Interviewee: Oh, if he’s caned you once to that degree you know that when you go to see him
                   next time you’re in trouble, how would you feel?

Host:           But, so did he threaten you?

Interviewee: Oh, his whole behaviour was threatening, you know, I was a…I was a boy, I wasn’t
                   a man, you know.

Host:           When you said earlier that he knew which boys to pick on, what do you mean by pick on,
                   I mean okay he caned you once but what about the rest?

Interviewee: I think it was – think how to put this – he used to know how to make you feel small in
                   front of other people.

Host:           So he belittled you, did he?

Interviewee: Oh yeah, yeah.

Host:           So are we talking verbal, he put you down verbally?

Interviewee: Yeah, amongst other things, yeah.

Host:           What sort of things?

Interviewee: Oh like you’ve got to realise this is 20 years ago, you know, like I can’t remember,
                   I just…I just know he was a nasty bastard to me and, you know, he was particularly
                   good at what he did, you know.

Host:           But he was obviously, I mean this has stayed with you, hasn’t it?

Interviewee: Yeah I wish it hadn’t but it has, yeah.

Host:           Why do you think it has?

Interviewee: Certain things have certain effects on you I guess, you know.

Host:           And the effect of all of this?

Interviewee: Oh, very, very little respect for anyone in authority because he was a good
                   example of authority so it couldn’t be a good thing, could it?

Host:           The problem is, I guess, is that the principal of the school currently goes on the
                   radio this morning and says this was a terrific fellow and he made a great contribution
                   to the school.

Interviewee: Well the principal of the school at the moment did not teach with Mr Benson-Pope
                   so how the hell would he know?

Host:           Because four of the…

Interviewee: And the teachers that are there now, who were there when Mr Benson-Pope was
                   there, are spineless ‘cause they know what happened. When a teacher makes a
                   comment like “I’m not prepared to comment on that incident or any of the other
                   incidents involving Mr Benson-Pope” it doesn’t mean he was a bloody good fellow,
                   it means something completely different.

Host:          The supporters of Mr Benson-Pope this morning are attacking Rodney Hide and the
                  National Party saying look, this is election year stuff. This is just dirty politics.

Interviewee: What else can they say? You know, he’s…you know someone like him’s not going,
                   you know, like, if old Tamihere’s had a hiding from the journalists at least he stood up
                   and said, “Yeah, I said it. I shouldn’t have said it.” Benson-Pope hasn’t even got the
                  spine to stand up and say he did something wrong.

Host:           Would that be enough for you? Is that what you want now?

Interviewee: Well it would be…yeah it would be actually, to admit that he did those things, all of them,
                   because he did all of them. He would have to admit he did them all and then see how
                   his career goes.

Host:           You have watched his career with interest, haven’t you? I mean this isn’t a new thing
                  for you.

Interviewee: Oh, cynical interest, you know, I just, yeah…you know it’s…I just wonder how the
                   world works, put it that way.

Host:           Should he be the Minister of Education?

Interviewee: He shouldn’t be a Minister full stop.

Host:           Why didn’t anyone go to the police actually at the time, do you know?

Interviewee: When you’re a 14-year-old kid things look different. You’re supposed to respect adults.

Host:          That was, well he’s a grown man now, claims he was a boy at the school Benson-Pope,
                  David Benson-Pope, the Associate Education Minister, was his dean right through college      
                  and we agreed with the man that we would not reveal his identity. Now of course we went
                  to David Benson-Pope and asked him to come on the programme to give his response
                  to all of that. He refused to be interviewed.


1BBC Editorial Guidelines (United Kingdom), The National Public Radio NPR News Code of Ethics and Practices (USA), The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (USA).

2Paragraph 30 of  Hosking v Runting PDF317.33 KB (Court of Appeal, CA 101/03, 25 March 2004)

3Paragraphs 30 and 233