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James and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2004-022

Members

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

Complainant

  • Valerie James of Whangarei

Dated

1st April 2004

Number

2004-022

Programme

Morning Report

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Morning Report – item about benefits of replacing sugar with artificial sugar – public health researcher referred to sugar and butter as “natural poisons” – implied butter more harmful than margarine – stated New Zealanders’ shift to margarine had had substantial effect on heart disease rates – item allegedly unbalanced and inaccurate – butter not a poison – studies link margarine with increased risk of death/disability

Findings
Principle 4 – item not about butter – no requirement for balance – Principle 4 not applicable

Principle 6 – not Authority’s role to decide whether butter is more or less harmful than margarine – decline to determine; “natural poison” the expression of opinion – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision


Summary

[1] Senior public health researcher Professor Rod Jackson was interviewed on Morning Report on National Radio on 24 October 2003 in relation to his call for hospitals and schools to replace sugar-based soft drinks with sugar-free soft drinks. During the interview, he referred to butter as a “natural poison”, implied that it was more harmful than margarine, and stated that New Zealanders’ shift to margarine in the 1970s had a substantial effect on heart disease rates.

[2] Valerie James complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item breached standards requiring balance and accuracy. She complained that there was no justification for calling butter a poison or claiming that New Zealanders were healthier since they increased their margarine consumption, and that a number of studies linked margarine use to increased risk of death and disability.

[3] RNZ declined to uphold the complaint, stating that the focus of the interview was Professor Jackson’s views on sugar/artificial sugar, and that his allusion to the butter/margarine argument suggested there were two sides to the view that butter was more harmful than margarine.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mrs James referred her complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Programme

[6] Professor Rod Jackson, a senior public health researcher at The University of Auckland’s School of Population Health, was interviewed on Morning Report on National Radio on 24 October 2003 in relation to his call for hospitals and schools to replace sugar-based soft drinks with sugar-free soft drinks in cafeterias and vending machines. He told the interviewer that although New Zealanders had “taken on the message about reducing the amount of animal fat in their diets”, they had replaced that fat with sugar and were “actually getting fatter”.

[7] In response to the interviewer’s question, “[A]ren’t artificial sweeteners harmful as well [as sugar]?” Professor Jackson replied:

Well, it’s an interesting argument. Sugar’s a bit like butter. It’s one of those natural poisons. It is pure, it is natural, but it’s actually more harmful than the artificial alternative, kind of like the butter/margarine argument.

[8] Professor Jackson went on to state that New Zealanders’ shift to margarine in the 1970s

… had a substantial effect on our heart disease rates and here’s another example where if we shift from natural sugar to an artificial sweetener it will also have a significant beneficial effect on our health.

Complaint

[9] Valerie James complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item breached broadcasting standards requiring balance and accuracy. She stated that the Broadcasting Act 1989 promised that “when controversial issues of public importance are discussed reasonable efforts are given to present significant points of view”. She also stated that “facts” needed to be verifiable and opinion clearly distinguished from facts.

[10] Mrs James complained that it was “outrageous” and “tantamount to ‘slander of goods’” for Professor Jackson to have

called butter a poison, advised people to switch to margarine and claimed that New Zealanders were healthier since they increased margarine consumption since the 1970s.

[11] Mrs James continued:

Professor Jackson, as a highly qualified academic, will know of the “rule” of Paracelsus, “All substances are poisons: there is none that is not. The right dose [differentiates] a poison and a remedy.” There is no justification for calling a traditional food a poison so long as it is part of a normal balanced diet. Furthermore, there are a number of studies linking margarine use to increased risk of death and disability.

[12] In support of her complaint, Mrs James provided the broadcaster with a number of articles from the scientific literature, and quoted a number of scientists and specialists. She concluded:

I hope that you will take my complaint seriously. Only if you can show that this topic is not current, nor controversial and that all the “facts” presented in the programme were completely true can you fail to agree with me that the public will be best served by telling the “other side” of the story.

Standards

[13] RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 4 and 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The principles and relevant guideline state:

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 6

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

Guideline

6c  Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, shall be clearly distinguished.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[14] RNZ noted that Professor Jackson had described butter as a “natural poison”, and not as a “poison” as Mrs James had alleged.

[15] Dealing first with the requirement for balance, RNZ stated that the focus of the interview was Professor Jackson’s view of the benefits of replacing sugar-based drinks with artificially sweetened drinks. While discussing that topic, Professor Jackson had “alluded to the ‘butter/margarine argument’”, RNZ stated. It continued:

He clearly referred to an “argument” suggesting that there were two sides to the view that butter was more harmful than an artificial alternative.

[16] RNZ did not consider that the item raised issues of balance with respect to butter, and declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of Principle 4.

[17] With regard to the aspect of the complaint that opinion and facts were not clearly distinguished, RNZ refuted Mrs James’ allegation that Professor Jackson said New Zealanders were healthier since they increased margarine consumption in the 1970s. Rather, RNZ stated, Professor Jackson:

… express[ed] a view as to the correlation between the effect on heart disease rates and the introduction of margarine in the 1970s.

[18] Accordingly, RNZ declined to uphold the aspect of the complaint that opinion and facts were not clearly distinguished.

Referral to the Authority

[19] Mrs James enclosed with her referral to the Authority a copy of the International Chamber of Commerce International Code of Advertising Practice and asked the Authority to include the code in its deliberations.

[20] In relation to RNZ’s statement that Professor Jackson had called butter a “natural poison” and not a “poison”, Mrs James stated that this was a “trivial dismissal and not at all a valid excuse”. She provided a dictionary definition of “poison” as “a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures or impairs an organism”, and argued that whether the chemical action was “natural” or not was irrelevant to whether a substance was a “poison”.

[21] Mrs James advised the Authority that she had carefully reviewed the scientific literature and there was no justification for Professor Jackson’s statement that “ New Zealanders were healthier since they increased margarine consumption in the 1970s”.

[22] In relation to RNZ declining to uphold the balance aspect of her complaint, Mrs James stated:

The topic of diet and health is an important and on-going debate. There is more than one side of the argument and merely using the word “argument” does not satisfy the need for balance and fairness in presentation.

[23] Mrs James enclosed a recent article and debate in the British Medical Journal (examining the association between intake of total fat, specific types of fat, cholesterol and risk of stroke in men). She asked:

If it is good enough for that prestigious publication to allow (and promote) open discussion about an important topic, what is wrong with Radio NZ?

[24] In a further letter to the Authority enclosing further supporting material, Mrs James stated:

I would like to add that the Authority does not need to decide which, if any, of the conflicting propositions is the correct one: Indeed such a decision would be inappropriate. Instead, its brief is to discern whether or not there is another side to that presented on Radio NZ, and if so, has the counter argument been given an airing according to the demands of the Broadcasting Act.

[25] Mrs James argued that Radio New Zealand’s listeners had the “Right to be Fully Informed” under Right 6 of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[26] RNZ advised the Authority that it had nothing further to add to its response to the complainant.

Complainant’s Final Comments

[27] Mrs James accompanied her final comments with a copy of the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority’s Code for Advertising of Food and stated she believed its principles applied to her complaint.

[28] Mrs James stated:

I fully understand that no broadcaster can be a “thought police” and pre-vet issues and comments raised by a guest speaker. The Broadcasting Act does not require that either. It merely indicates that an opportunity be given if conflicting views, facts, or opinions exist.

[28] Mrs James enclosed further articles from the scientific literature in support of her complaint. She requested that the Authority take her complaint seriously, and stated:

[I]t is not an excuse [for the Authority] to claim that a statement was short, or not the main topic, of a programme and therefore excluded from [its] jurisdiction.

Authority’s Determination

Preliminary matters

[29] The Authority deals first with Mrs James’s request that it take into account in its determination of this complaint the International Chamber of Commerce International Code of Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standards Authority’s Code for Advertising of Food. Mrs James also argued that under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights, Professor Jackson should have provided certain information to Radio New Zealand listeners.

[30] None of the codes provided by Mrs James is relevant to the Authority’s determination of this complaint. The broadcast complained about is a news and current affairs item, not an advertisement or a health service. In any event, complaints about alleged breaches of advertising standards and alleged breaches of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights are not within the Authority’s jurisdiction.

Broadcast

[31] The Authority notes that the focus of the broadcast complained about was Professor Jackson’s view that New Zealanders were eating too much sugar and getting fatter, and that one way of reducing sugar intake was to replace sugar-based soft drinks with sugar-free soft drinks. When questioned about the relative harm of artificial sweeteners compared with sugar, Professor Jackson drew an analogy with butter and artificial alternatives to butter. He said sugar was “a bit like butter”, it was “one of those natural poisons”, and it was “more harmful than the artificial alternative, kind of like the butter/margarine argument.”

[32] Mrs James complained that Professor Jackson “called butter a poison, advised people to switch to margarine and claimed that New Zealanders were healthier since they increased margarine consumption since the 1970s”. The Authority has listened to a tape of the item and notes that Professor Jackson did not advise people to switch from butter to margarine. Rather, Professor Jackson stated that the shift from butter to margarine in the 1970s had had a “substantial effect on [New Zealand’s] heart disease rates.”

Principle 6 – Accuracy

[33] T he Authority agrees with Mrs James that it would be inappropriate for the Authority to decide “which, if either, of the conflicting propositions is the correct one.” It is not the function of the Authority to decide whether butter is more or less harmful than margarine. It therefore declines to determine this aspect of the complaint.

[34] In relation to Professor Jackson’s statement that the shift from butter to margarine had a substantial effect on New Zealand’s heart disease rates, the Authority has insufficient information before it to determine the accuracy or otherwise of this statement, and it declines to determine this aspect of the complaint.

[35] In relation to Professor Jackson describing sugar and butter as “natural poisons”, the Authority considers that he was entitled to express his professional opinion in such a manner, and it declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Principle 4 – Balance

[36] Mrs James complained that the item breached the requirement in the Broadcasting Act 1989 (and in Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice) 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.

[37] In the Authority’s view, the issue being discussed was Professor Jackson’s view that one way for New Zealanders to reduce their sugar intake was to replace sugar-based soft drinks with sugar-free soft drinks. Butter and margarine and their relative harms or benefits were not issues being discussed. Rather, in the course of an interview about sugar and artificial sugar, Professor Jackson referred incidentally to the “butter/margarine argument”. As there was no discussion of that argument as envisaged by the requirement for balance in Principle 4, the Authority concludes that Principle 4 is not applicable to this complaint.

 

For the reasons given, the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
1 April 2004

Appendix

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

1.     Valerie James’s Formal Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd (and attachments) –
       28 October 2003

2.    RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 24 November 2003

3.    Mrs James’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (and attachments) –
       22 December 2003

4.    Mrs James’s Further Correspondence to the Authority (and attachments) –
       23 December 2003

5.    RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 22 January 2004

6.    Mrs James’s Final Comment (and attachment) – 28 January 2004

7.    Mrs James’s Further Correspondence to the Authority (and attachments) –
       29 January 2004

8.    Mrs James’s Further Correspondence to the Authority (and attachment) –
       7 February 2004