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James and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2004-080

Members

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

Complainant

  • Valerie James of Whangarei

Dated

15th July 2004

Number

2004-080

Programme

Summer Report

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Summer Report – panel discussion about healthy eating and exercise – reference to healthy food pyramid – advice given that not all fats were bad – unsaturated fat preferred to saturated fats – item alleged to be inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced

Findings
Principle 4 (balance – the safety of trans-fats not a controversial issue dealt with in the broadcast – not upheld

Principle 5 (fairness) – trans-fats peripheral – not upheld

Principle 6 (accuracy) – trans-fats not the topic of discussion – not upheld

Observation
Authority may decline to determine further complaints from Ms James when complaint only about peripheral matter dealt with in broadcast

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] A panel discussion about healthy eating and exercise was broadcast as part of Summer Report on National Radio between 8.00 to10.00am on Thursday 8 January 2004. The panel, chaired by RNZ’s health correspondent, included Dr Robin Toomath, a diabetes specialist, Professor Norman Sharp from the Heart Foundation, and Dr David Gerard, a Professor of Sports Medicine. Each of the panellists stressed the need for regular exercise. There were also references to the healthy food pyramid. It was acknowledged that not all fats were bad, and it was suggested that saturated fats be replaced by unsaturated fats.

[2] At the conclusion of the panel discussion, listeners were asked to comment by way of fax. In her faxed response, Valerie James accepted that the discussion was balanced except, she said, for the advice to substitute saturated fats with vegetable fats. Vegetable fats, she wrote, contained trans-fatty acids which caused serious health problems. Ms James advised the Authority that RNZ did not respond to her fax.

Complaint

[3] Valerie James complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate. It breached the standards, she wrote, when the speakers advocated replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats without acknowledging that trans-fats, which were contained in hydrogenated vegetable fats, increased the risk of heart disease more than saturated fats.

Principles

[4] RNZ assessed the complaint under the standards nominated by Ms James. The relevant principles in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice 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

[5] RNZ stated that the item’s introduction explained that the healthy food pyramid and guidelines for diet and exercise were being revised. RNZ did not accept that this issue was a “controversial issue of public importance” to which Principle 4 applied. Even if it was, it added, the period of current interest was ongoing and thus the principle was not contravened.

[6] As it was unable to detect any aspect of unfairness to anyone referred to on the programme, RNZ declined to uphold the Principle 5 aspect.

[7] As for the accuracy requirement in Principle 6, RNZ said that there was no evidence that any of the facts advanced by the experts, as opposed to their opinions, were in dispute. It declined to uphold that aspect as well.

Referral to the Authority

[8] When she referred her complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, Ms James focused first on the requirement for balance. RNZ, she wrote, had made no effort to present significant points of view within the period of current interest. It was nonsense, she maintained, for a broadcaster to contend that the possibility that an alternative view might be presented some time in the future amounted to compliance with the standard.

[9] Ms James said the research paper proposing a revision of the food pyramid stated that trans-fatty acids were more deleterious than carbohydrates. She referred to research which reported on health problems created by trans-fats as a result of the process of hydrogenation. Hydrogenation was a process which was used to get vegetable oils to remain solid at room temperature and Ms James enclosed articles from the medical literature which reported the dangers of trans-fats.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[10] RNZ advised that it had nothing further to add.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[11] Ms James expressed the view that RNZ had not taken her complaint seriously. She also argued that the Authority’s “Guide to Viewers and Listeners” was more valid in setting the applicable guidelines than the broadcasting standards applied by the broadcasters.

[12] Expressing the opinion that the topic of fats was a “controversial issue”, she referred to the debate in the medical journals. RNZ, she felt, just wanted her to “go away”. However, because of the importance of the matter, she believed that the public should be fully and correctly informed. Truthful presentations, she added, were essential to ensure that people were fully and appropriately aware of the health issues involved.

[13] In a second final comment, Ms James reiterated her point that New Zealanders were not aware that unsaturated fats (vegetable oils), when hydrogenated, were more dangerous than saturated fats.
Authority's Determination

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

[15] The Authority rejects Ms James’s contention that its brochure, “Television and Radio Complaints: A Guide for Viewers and Listeners”, has more validity than the broadcasting standards – described as Principles 1 to 8 – contained in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. All Codes of Broadcasting Practice are developed by broadcasters and, when approved by the Authority, are an “approved code of broadcasting practice” for the purposes of s.4(1)(e) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 which take effect as delegated legislation. The Authority’s Guide is made available to assist people to understand the complaints process and it summarises the broadcasting standards applied by the Authority. Nevertheless, the approved Codes are the authoritative documents.

[16] The Authority agrees with Ms James when she dismissed RNZ’s suggestion that the possibility that an alternative view might be presented some time in the future amounted to compliance with the balance standard.

[17] The Authority accepts that concerns about trans-fats have developed internationally and that those concerns may well in certain circumstances be a controversial issue for the purposes of the broadcasting standards. However, it does not consider that the risks associated with the consumption of trans-fats were a “controversial” issue to which the requirement for balance in Principle 4 applied on this occasion. Trans-fats were, at the most, a peripheral issue dealt with during the discussion on Summer Report on 8 January 2004.

[18] The panel discussion about healthy eating and exercise by some highly qualified health professionals that morning was wide-ranging. In the Authority’s opinion, the omission from that broad discussion of an in-depth review of trans-fats, an issue touched on only in passing, did not threaten the standards relating to balance, fairness or accuracy.

 

For the above reasons, the complaint is not upheld.

[19] The Authority observes that the current complaint arose after a lack of in-depth discussion of a matter which was peripheral to the main issues under discussion. A complaint from Ms James determined earlier this year (No: 2004-022) was similar. In that case, she contended that a reference to butter as a natural poison in a discussion about natural and artificial sugar breached the standards. The Authority disagreed and pointed out that butter/margarine issues were not being debated.

[20] The Authority considers that it is important to protect the right of the public to make complaints. However, it must also guard against the misuse of the process. Accordingly, while it supports Ms James’s right to complain, it notes that some of her complaints on occasions border on misuse of the Authority’s process. The Authority signals its intention, should it receive a similar complaint about a matter of peripheral relevance to a broadcast, that it may well decline to determine the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
15 July 2004

Appendix

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

1     Valerie James’s fax to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 8 January 2004
2    Ms James’s Formal Complaint to RNZ (plus attachments) – 31 January 2004
3    Ms James’s Additional Comments to RNZ (plus attachments) – 2 February 2004
4    RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 2 March 2004
5    Ms James’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – received 29 March 2004
6    RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 21 April 2004
7    Ms James’s First Final Comment (plus attachments) – 29 April 2004
8    Ms James’s Second Final Comment (plus attachments) – 3 May 2004