Skip to main content

George and The Radio Network Ltd - 2004-161

Members

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

Complainant

  • Sherril George of New Plymouth

Dated

4th November 2004

Number

2004-161

Channel/Station

Newstalk ZB

Broadcaster

The Radio Network Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Newstalk ZB – comments made by presenter and local councillor Phil Quinney on Saturday morning “garage sale” show – comments critical of complainant, fellow-councillor – allegedly unfair

Findings
Principle 5 (fairness) – comments themselves not unfair – complainant had put matter in public eye – no unfair abuse of position by presenter – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] On the morning of 31 July 2004, New Plymouth District Councillor Phil Quinney, while presenting his regular “garage sale” show on Newstalk ZB, made comments that were highly critical of fellow-councillor and complainant Sherril George. The presenter’s comments focussed in particular on the complainant’s reported statements about a recent Council meeting and the Council’s consequent agreement to sell its shares in local gas and electricity distribution company Powerco.

[2] The presenter described Ms George’s reported statements as a “flat-out lie” and went to some lengths to explain – in strong terms, such as noting that he “didn’t know where her head was” – that her views were incorrect, and that the Council had in fact made an informed decision.

Background

[3] Powerco is a large gas and electricity distribution company, and was 38% owned by The New Plymouth District Council (“NPDC”). In August 2004 the NPDC decided to sell its shares and reinvest the proceeds in a diversified portfolio.

[4] The complainant was quoted in the New Plymouth-based paper The Daily News on 31 July 2004, the morning of the broadcast, saying that she had been “railroaded” into agreeing to the share sale. The complainant was purportedly responding to comments made the previous day by the Mayor, who had stated that the Council could have blocked Powerco’s proposed merger with the Natural Gas Corporation by refusing to sell its shares. The complainant was quoted in The Daily News as saying:

I don’t remember that [the option of blocking the merger by not selling the shares] even being said. No options were put to us, it was all sell, sell, sell. I really feel we’ve been railroaded over this issue

[5] Twelve of the sixteen NPDC councillors then wrote an open letter to The Daily News, published on 3 August, three days after the broadcast, refuting the comments made about the sale by the complainant. The letter stated:

We wish to reassure the district that this statement [referring to the complainant’s “sell, sell, sell” comments] is not an accurate account of events. …

Ms George was present throughout the meetings held to discuss the Powerco issue and took a full part in the discussion and debate. For her to now suggest that we were somehow manipulated into making one decision, rather than another, is categorically false.

[6] On 4 August, the paper noted that the complainant had in fact apologised to her fellow councillors for her comments, and that she had emailed every councillor with the apology.

[7] The apology sent to Phil Quinney on the morning of August 3 read:

Hi Phil

I wish to personally apologise for any inference that may have been made over the Powerco issue, pertaining to you personally, or your part in the decision making process. It was never my intention to make this an issue between you as a councillor and myself; my concerns are with the process. Again, please accept my deepest apology and know that your views are always treated with respect.

Sherril G

Complaint

[8] Ms George complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that the presenter’s behaviour in the broadcast was “disgraceful, and appalling” and that “using his position to advertise his immense dislike for me is totally unprofessional.”

[9] Ms George noted that the presenter had:

abused his position in making derogatory remarks about myself outside of any forum that could be used. His comments in which he called me a “liar” were not acceptable to me or the general public...

Principles

[10] TRN assessed the complaint under Principle 5 (fairness) of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which states:

Principle 5
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[11] TRN declined to uphold the complaint. It said:

All statements made by Phil Quinney have been backed up by confirmation from a significant majority of the council. Importantly, you individually apologised to Phil Quinney (and all other councillors). While Mr Quinney’s condemnation of your actions was strong, this “controversial” topic was delivered in the nature of strong, frank, political exchange. They eventually gained further credence by your back down on your original Daily News comments.

Turning to the matter being raised in the Saturday morning garage sale. While this may have seemed unusual it has been a common practice by Phil Quinney, in periods of no phone traffic, to enter into discussion on current issues. This is what occurred on this particular morning.

[12] In relation to the aspect of the complaint alleging that the forum used by the presenter was inappropriate, TRN stated:

Finally the Radio Network has clear guidelines as to candidates continuing work on air in the lead up to an election.

Once nominations are confirmed, the broadcaster (candidate) is required to step aside from any work that may have a connection to the election. This means from Monday 23 August, Phil Quinney will only broadcast sport and will no longer read news or run his Wednesday 11–12 programme.

Referral to the Authority

[13] Ms George was dissatisfied with this response and referred the matter to the Authority. She noted the following points:

  • it was not an appropriate time to make these comments, and the way it was put to the public was out of line
  • the presenter continued to criticise her for a further 4 days
  • she never apologised for the comments she made to the newspaper, and she stands by the fact that the council was “railroaded”
  • she was highly offended by the attacks on her and her integrity
  • Phil Quinney did an interview with Murray Deaker on Wednesday 25 August and read the news on his 11-12 programme; this contradicted the information provided by TRN in response to the complaint
  • the broadcast was the expression of extreme views in a “violent and virulent” manner.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[14] In its response to the referral, TRN noted the following points:

  • Ms George referred to other broadcasts by Phil Quinney, but these did not form part of her original complaint
  • the tone and tenor of the broadcast were matter-of-fact and considered, and did not give the impression of being “extremely vocal and abusive”
  • the additional on-air appearances of Phil Quinney complained of by Ms George were, in relation to the Murray Deaker interview, sport, and in relation to the news-reading, as a late replacement. TRN notes that it could have kept Phil Quinney on air until 22 September when postal voting started.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[15] In her final comment, Ms George stated the following:

… I believe Phil Quinney abused his position as a radio announcer to proclaim his intense dislike of me and my actions without offering me the chance to debate this. The way this was handled offended me greatly, and under a situation where I had the opportunity to defend my statements, I would have been less offended. …If he hadn't been a councillor, and he was creating a debate, then fair enough, but he also used his position to support his decision. … it would be advisable that people in media who are also in Local Government should not be encouraged to air their views using a public situation for a private gain.

Authority's Determination

[16] 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.

[17] The Authority does not uphold the complaint. While the complainant contended that the presenter’s manner was “violent and virulent”, and that his views were “extreme”, the Authority does not agree.

[18] The criticisms made of the complainant by the presenter were strong, but his manner was not “violent and virulent” as contended. The Authority considers that to the contrary, the presenter’s tone and manner was emphatic but measured throughout the broadcast.

[19] Nor does the Authority consider that the broadcast amounted to a personal or abusive attack on the complainant; it was instead an expression of surprise and dismay at, and strong disagreement with, the public statements made by the complainant in relation to a current controversial issue of local body politics. It appears that the presenter’s views, far from being “extreme”, were in fact shared by an overwhelming majority of the other Councillors.

[20] The Authority is of the view that, having gone public with views that she must have known were likely to be controversial, the complainant must have expected to attract strong reaction and criticism from at least some of her fellow-councillors. In light of the controversial nature of the issue and the position adopted by the complainant, the presenter’s comments were not unfair.

[21] For the above reasons the Authority does not consider that the nature or content of the broadcast was unfair to the complainant.

[22] The complainant also alleged that the presenter used his “public position for private gain”, and “abused his position”, and that this was unfair to her.

[23] The Authority recognises that a political relationship between a broadcaster and the person referred to is an important contextual factor in considering whether a broadcast was unfair. However, it does not consider that this factor resulted in unfairness in the present situation, because:

  • in making her statements to the reporter for The Daily News, the complainant had put the issue of the Councillors’ attitude to the Powerco share sale firmly into the public arena
  • the issues raised by the broadcast were not initiated by the presenter and instead his comments were part of the legitimate – and expected – reaction to the complainant’s comments
  • the presenter’s comments were not overtly political, but instead stated his view that the complainant’s public portrayal of the Council’s decision-making process was inaccurate
  • the presenter’s concerns were subsequently validated by the other councillors as being materially accurate.

[24] Accordingly, in all the circumstances of the broadcast, the Authority does not consider it was unfair to the complainant.

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
4 November 2004

Appendix

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

  1. Sherril George’s formal complaint to The Radio Network – 31 July 2004
  2. TRN’s response to the formal complaint – 17 August 2004
  3. Ms George’s referral to the Authority – 26 August 2004
  4. TRN’s response to the referral – 10 September 2004
  5. Clippings from The Daily News, provided by TRN
  6. Ms George’s final comment – 5 October 2004