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James and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2003-091

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa

Complainant

  • Richard F James of Whangarei

Dated

21st August 2003

Number

2003-091

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
In Touch with New Zealand interview with Dr Cabot about her book "Hormone Replacement Therapy: The Real Truth" – reference to phytoestrogens – commercial interests not acknowledged  unbalanced – inaccurate

Findings
Principle 4  other views acknowledged – no uphold

Principle 6 – not news or current affairs programme - opinions advanced – not fact – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Dr Sandra Cabot, the author of the book "Hormone Replacement Therapy: The Real Truth", was interviewed on In Touch With New Zealand at about 3.30pm on 7 May 2003. She advanced the case for natural hormones applied in the form of a cream rather than synthetic hormones in tablet form. In Touch With New Zealand is a magazine-style programme with thematic music broadcast on National Radio each weekday between 2.00–5.00pm.

[2] Richard James complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was unbalanced and inaccurate. It was unbalanced because, first, Dr Cabot denied that she was "pushing a barrow", and second, her comments about phytoestrogens were inaccurate given the research which was available.

[3] In response, RNZ said that the debate about hormone replacement therapy was ongoing. Furthermore, as the programme was neither news nor current affairs, the requirement for accuracy did not apply. If the standard did apply, RNZ added, the comments were opinion rather than fact.

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

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to 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.

The Programme

[6] In Touch With New Zealand, hosted by Wayne Mowat, is a magazine style programme broadcast by RNZ on National Radio between 2.00–5.00pm each weekday. Dr Sandra Cabot was interviewed on 7 May 2003. She is the author of "Hormone Replacement Therapy: The Real Truth", and she advanced the case for the use of natural hormones, applied in the form of a cream rubbed on the skin, rather than synthetic hormones in tablet form.

The Complaint

[7] Mr James complained to RNZ that the interview contained untrue statements and that there had been serious omissions. First, he noted that Dr Cabot had said that she was "not pushing a barrow", but said that her website offered a number of products for sale and promoted phytoestrogens. Mr James wrote:

Previous findings of the Broadcasting Standards Authority are that commercial interests must be revealed, as they go to the foundations of the impartiality of the matter being broadcast. This is particularly important in a non-commercial public radio network.

[8] Second, Mr James recalled that Dr Cabot had said the phytoestrogens were "noted for their anti-cancer effects". He wrote in response:

The truth is they are well recognised in huge volumes of medical and scientific literature for the way they cause cancers, or cause cancerous cells to multiply.

[9] Describing the two statements complained about as "repulsive", Mr James cited extensive research summaries which, he said, he had down-loaded from the National Institute of Health’s website. Mr James stated that Dr Cabot suggested that phytoestrogens were important to the immune system. However, again citing research, he argued that phytoestrogens in fact suppressed the immune system. Moreover, it was untrue to state that phytoestrogens could be used on a natural hormone treatment for menopausal relief. Citing other research, Mr James also disagreed with the claims he said that Dr Cabot had made that phytoestrogens were good for men’s health.

[10] Mr James contended that Dr Cabot, when discussing health benefits had a "moral duty" to reveal proven risks. He listed research which suggested risks attached to phytoestrogens. He concluded:

My complaint is that Dr Cabot

Did have a barrow to push

Made false claims about products she sells

Did not reveal that those claims have been found by Australian regulators to be untrue

Failed to reveal very serious risks to men and to women of the barrow she pushed.

I think equal time – or more – should be given to explain these things to Radio New Zealand’s listeners.

The Standards

[11] RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 4 and 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Principles, and relevant Guidelines, 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.

Guidelines

4a  Broadcasters will respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions.

4b  Broadcasters may have regard, when ensuring that programmes comply with Principle 4, to the following matters:

(i) An appropriate introduction to the programme; and

(ii) Any reasonable on-air opportunity for listeners to ask questions or present rebuttal within the period of current interest. Broadcasters may have regard to the views expressed by other broadcasters or in the media which listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of.

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[12] Observing that the interview complained about consisted of a conversation between Dr Cabot and the presenter and that it was not in the current affairs style, RNZ declined to uphold the aspect of the complaint that the programme was unbalanced. The period of current interest in regard to hormone replacement therapy, it wrote, was ongoing.

[13] As for the complaint that the claims Dr Cabot had made were false, RNZ questioned whether Principle 6 applied as it was confined to news and current affairs programme. Nevertheless, it added:

At best the facts you refer to in your letter could be considered to be disputed facts and it is not Radio New Zealand’s responsibility to make a determination on this point.

[14] RNZ said that these points also applied to the aspects of the complaint which referred to the findings of the Australian regulator, and which raised the issue of risks associated with phytoestrogens. Accordingly, RNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[15] Mr James reiterated the points made in his complaint that Dr Cabot had made a number of "patently untrue statements of fact" during the interview. He also contended that the programme involved current affairs in that Dr Cabot was promoting her book and the broadcast included the meeting dates of "her New Zealand road show". As further evidence of the factual inaccuracy of Dr Cabot’s claims, Mr James attached material from the Institute of the Food Safety Authority in the United Kingdom.

[16] In a letter to the broadcaster attached to the referral, Mr James criticised RNZ for what he considered was its inability to distinguish between honest differences of opinion and deliberate misrepresentation of facts. He wrote:

It is a travesty to allow Ms Cabot’s untruthful promotions, including of her own products, to stand unchallenged on publicly funded public radio. The public who pay your way are surely entitled to truth. Not to hair-splitting so you can allow lies to go unchallenged.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] In addition to its earlier response, RNZ said that Dr Cabot’s comments were preceded with the phrase "I think that…". The views advanced during discussion, it argued, were clearly Dr Cabot’s opinions. It expressed the view:

That Mr James and perhaps others of our listeners may not agree with Dr Cabot’s opinions and publications is not unique. Dr Cabot herself in the interview quoted another published doctor who identified with a different dietary regime to illustrate the point that her opinion is but one of a range held in the medical fraternity.

[18] RNZ also argued that the reference by Mr James to Dr Cabot’s internet website was irrelevant as, during the interview, Dr Cabot had not referred to it.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[19] Mr James observed that a 444-page report published by the British Government "found no evidence to support the claims made by Dr Cabot" during the broadcast. He considered it was "perverse" for RNZ to broadcast an interview which promoted Dr Cabot’s book, yet "refuse to acknowledge" the UK Food Safety Agency’s website. Mr James added:

I am staggered at the lengths Radio New Zealand is going to protect untrue opinion, and not being willing to broadcast proven scientific fact. What sort of a public service broadcaster is that?

The Authority’s Determination

[20] In Touch with New Zealand is a magazine-style programme broadcast on National Radio each weekday between 2.00–5.00pm. In view of the range of items broadcast on the programme, the Authority agrees with RNZ that the item complained about was not a "news and current affairs" style of interview, but rather a conversational style of interview which canvassed Dr Cabot’s views on a range of health issues.

[21] Principle 6 of the Radio Code requires broadcasters in the preparation and presentation of "news and current affairs programmes" to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. Taking into account its finding that In Touch with New Zealand is not a predominantly news and current affairs programme, the Authority considers that the requirement in Principle 6 does not apply. Accordingly, it declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[22] While the Authority considers that the programme is not news and current affairs, it is nevertheless of the view that specific items might deal with controversial issues of public importance. In the Authority’s opinion, HRT is a controversial issue as contemplated by the Radio Code, and the Authority has assessed the broadcast to determine whether it complies with Principle 4.

[23] To avoid any misunderstanding as to why HRT is regarded by the Authority as a controversial issue, the Authority points, first, at the recent publicity given to the research in the United States which was abandoned given the unexpected side-effects, and secondly, to the fact that Dr Cabot, the person interviewed in the item complained about, was undertaking a lecture tour on the topic of HRT.

[24] Mr James complained that Dr Cabot was pursuing commercial interests and made false claims about the products which she was promoting.

[25] As noted above, the Authority does not consider the accuracy requirement applies to the item. However, it accepts that Dr Cabot was promoting her book and her lectures, and that the questions to her, as RNZ noted, were put in a conversational style. Indeed, the Authority would describe the questions as unchallenging. However, notwithstanding the item’s format, the issue for the Authority is whether the interview, which dealt with a matter of current interest, complied with the requirements of Principle 4.

[26] The Authority concludes, despite its observation that the questions posed did not seriously advance any alternative perspectives, that the item did comply with Principle 4. It reaches this conclusion on the basis that it was apparent from Dr Cabot’s remarks made during the interview that her interest in HRT was both medical and commercial. She argued strongly that her approach to HRT was the most appropriate, but she also acknowledged that there were other points of view. In the Authority’s opinion, her views added to the ongoing HRT debate.

[27] In view of Dr Cabot’s acknowledgement that there were other significant points of view, and in view of the Authority’s understanding that the issue has had a reasonably high public profile now for some years, the Authority is of the opinion that the interview, which was not presented as an overview on this issue but rather as Dr Cabot’s contribution to the ongoing debate, did not contravene Principle 4.

[28] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
21 August 2003

Appendix

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

  1. Richard James’ Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd (with attachments) – 11 May 2003
  2. RNZ’s Interim Response to the complainant – 21 May 2003
  3. Mr James’ Initial Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 May 2003
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 11 June 2003
  5. Mr James’ Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (with attachments) – 17 June 2003
  6. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 30 June 2003
  7. Mr James’ Final Comment – 5 July 2003