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Nelson and The Radio Network Ltd - 2003-120

Members

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

Complainant

  • John Nelson of Wellington

Dated

23rd October 2003

Number

2003-120

Channel/Station

Newstalk ZB

Broadcaster

The Radio Network Ltd


Complaint
Leighton Smith Morning Show Newstalk ZB – interview with Chuck Missler – evangelist from United States – advanced prophecies from the Bible including some predictions about the Antichrist – inaccurate – unfair – unbalanced – encouraged discrimination

Findings
Principle 4 – sufficient opportunities for balance – no uphold

Principle 6 – not inaccurate – no uphold

Principle 7 – denigration did not breach threshold – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] American evangelist, Chuck Missler, was a guest on the Leighton Smith Morning Show, broadcast on Newstalk ZB, between 10–11am on 18 July 2003. In response to questions from the host and from listeners, Mr Missler spoke about the Antichrist and other predictions in the Bible.

[2] John Nelson complained to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN), the broadcaster, that some of the comments were inaccurate and unbalanced, and that others encouraged discrimination against Catholics and Muslims.

[3] In response, TRN said that the host challenged some of Mr Missler’s interpretations, and listeners expressed a variety of views. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with The Radio Network’s decision, Mr Nelson 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 that part 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] American evangelist, Chuck Missler, was a guest on the Leighton Smith Morning Show, broadcast on Newstalk ZB, between 10–11am on 18 July 2003. In response to questions from the host and from listeners, Mr Missler spoke about the Antichrist and other predictions in the Bible.

The Complaint

[7] In his complaint to TRN, John Nelson said Mr Missler had been inaccurate when he contended that Iraq had been part of the Byzantine Empire. Moreover, he regarded as inaccurate Mr Missler’s description of Islam as a "warrior" religion and the prediction that the restoration by Saddam Hussein of Babylon could herald the rise of the Antichrist. Those views, he added, were not challenged or balanced by comments from the host or from callers. Mr Nelson expressed particular concern about the caller who suggested barcodes on his driver’s licence represented the "mark of the beast".

[8] Mr Missler’s suggestions that the Catholic Church was now "embracing" Islam and that the Pope could be the Antichrist, Mr Nelson continued, were offensive and likely "to stir up hostility and resentment towards Muslims and Catholics". Mr Nelson also objected to the host’s later comment that Saddam Hussein must have had weapons of mass destruction as, if that was not the case, he would have given himself up.

The Standards

[9] TRN assessed the complaint under Principles 6 and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Principles and relevant Guidelines provide:

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.

Principle 7

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Guideline

7a  Broadcasters will not portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation; or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement does not extend to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i) factual; or

ii) a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or

iii) is by way of legitimate humour or satire

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] TRN described Chuck Missler as a "high profile" evangelist. It did not uphold the complaint that Iraq had never been part of the Byzantine Empire on the basis that Mr Nelson had said in his complaint that it was "a relatively minor point". As for the speaker’s interpretation regarding the rebuilding of Babylon, TRN pointed out that Mr Missler stated "it doesn’t mean to say I’m correct", and the host added "you’ve got things wrong in your predictions". TRN said:

In listening back to this entire programme it is clear Mr Missler has a certain view that he doesn’t expect everyone to agree with.

[11] Turning to the evangelist’s comments about the Vatican embracing Islam, TRN noted that the host stated explicitly that he did not necessarily believe the comment, and a caller had stated that it was a "matter of opinion". The speaker then said:

Stand back and watch and come to your own conclusions.

[12] TRN stated that the programme provided opportunities for a range of callers to advance their views, adding that the majority of callers supported the speaker. The host’s later comments, TRN contended, were "clearly irony", and it declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[13] Mr Nelson stated that his main concern was the repeated insults that Mr Missler made about Muslims and Catholics when he referred to their leaders as possibly being the Antichrist. Mr Nelson considered that those comments were:

… inflammatory, unbalanced, unfair, untrue, in (very) bad taste, likely to cause offence to Muslims and Catholics, and likely to lead to hostility towards, and discrimination against them.

[14] Noting that he was a Catholic and that the Catholic Church did not criticise other religions, he pointed out that TRN had not responded to his complaint about the use of the words "Antichrist" and "anathemas" in reference to Islam and Catholicism.

[15] While accepting that people gave different reasons for the invasion of Iraq, Mr Nelson objected to the justification for the invasion based on the belief that Iraq was the home of the Antichrist. That, he said, moved beyond "logical and reasoned" debate.

[16] Mr Nelson repeated his contention that the programme was wrong to state that Iraq was once part of the Byzantine Empire. He provided some historical facts to support his view.

[17] Turning to the host’s comments during the session, Mr Nelson disputed TRN’s comment that the host had put forward opposing or alternative views. Describing the host’s remarks as "ambiguous and rather feeble", Mr Nelson argued that there was no adequate opportunity for viewers to question or challenge Mr Missler. He said that he had tried to telephone when it was suggested that the Pope might be the Antichrist, but was told that no more calls were being accepted.

[18] In conclusion, Mr Nelson did not accept that the host’s comments made in the following hour were "clearly ironic". Rather, he wrote, they were "quite serious" and "almost fanatical" about the claimed lack of contribution by human activity to the depletion of the ozone layer. He had mentioned those comments, he pointed out, not as part of his complaint but to show a "certain inflexibility of thought" on the host’s part.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[19] TRN argued that Mr Missler did not "repeatedly insult" members of two of the world’s leading religions. Rather, TRN said, he has quoted Osama Bin Laden when he said that the leaders "spread hate and extremism". Further, Mr Missler had declined to speculate where the Antichrist would come from, and quoted an ex-Jesuit priest that an incumbent Pope could be the "next Antichrist". TRN wrote:

Much of this is fact, some of it is opinion. Note that [the host] warns the audience that there is nothing hard and fast to all of this. This is far from the list of negative adjectives as described by the complainant.

[20] TRN said that the speaker did not state that the invasion of Iraq was based on it (Iraq) being the home of the Antichrist. Even had that view been advanced, it added, "it would be opinion".

[21] Declining to comment further on the place of Iraq in the Byzantine Empire, TRN said that the programme allowed for a number of callers to get to air. Most of the seven callers, it added, did not challenge Mr Missler. It concluded:

The broadcast featured a well-known US broadcaster and author – someone with widely known views. Some of these views are contentions. That doesn’t stop us from conducting a programme on the subject and allowing people to participate.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[22] Acknowledging that he had not heard the entire broadcast in which Mr Missler had participated, Mr Nelson maintained that, during the substantial portion that he had heard, there was no serious attempt to present a balanced view of the issues. Broadcasting the material put forward without adequate discussion, he wrote, was likely to "inflame the ideas of the more bigoted and unstable" members of society.

[23] Mr Nelson then responded in detail to the points made by TRN. He emphasised that Mr Missler repeatedly insulted Muslims and Catholics by referring to their leaders as the Antichrist. Further, while stating that he did not intend to speculate on where the Antichrist would come from, he then referred to a prophecy that it would arise in a land that was once part of the Roman Empire. He then gave a detailed response to a number of the points which Mr Missler had advanced, and concluded:

In so far as [TRN’s] statement that the broadcast is clearly opinion is concerned, this does not remove the need to show balance, and the need to try and present other points of view in as fair as way as possible. I submit that this need must be even greater than usual when such extreme views, and such inflammatory terms as "the Antichrist" and "anathemas", are broadcast.

The Authority’s Determination

[24] Mr Nelson complained about the talkback session broadcast between 10.00–11.00am on Newstalk ZB on 18 July. The host, Leighton Smith, interviewed Chuck Missler, an American Evangelist. Mr Nelson considered that the broadcast was unbalanced, encouraged denigration against Muslims and Catholics, and included a factual error.

[25] The factual error occurred, Mr Nelson wrote, when Mr Missler contended incorrectly that Iraq had once been part of the Byzantine Empire. The broadcaster, using the complainant’s words that the matter was "a relatively minor point", equated the Byzantine Empire with the Roman Empire, and declined to uphold the matter. The Authority’s enquiries disclose that Baghdad and the whole of the Mesopotamian area were once part of the Byzantine Empire and, therefore, declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[26] While the broadcaster assessed the complaint under Principles 6 and 7 (recorded in para [9] above), the Authority considers that, in view of the matters raised by Mr Nelson, he is also alleging a breach of the balance requirement in Principle 4. It reads:

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.

[27] In the Authority’s opinion, Mr Nelson raised Principle 4 when he contended that neither the host nor any callers challenged Mr Missler or put forward any alternative viewpoints.

[28] The Authority accepts that most of the seven callers did not challenge Mr Missler. However, a number of the host’s comments questioned Mr Missler’s assertions. The Authority also notes that at the end of the hour the host expressed disappointment that the callers who had participated had not contested the views advanced by Mr Missler, and hoped that the situation would change later during the morning.

[29] When a broadcast deals with a controversial issue of public importance, Principle 4 requires that reasonable efforts are made or reasonable opportunities are given to present significant points of view. While a range of significant views might not have been broadcast between 10–11am, the Authority accepts that reasonable opportunities were given during that hour, and subsequently, as required by the Principle. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect.

[30] In assessing the complaint that the broadcast encouraged denigration against Muslims and Catholics, the Authority notes that Mr Missler stated explicitly that he did not want to disparage Muslims. Having listened to the broadcast, the Authority considers that denigration against them was not encouraged. Mr Missler’s views about the possibility that an incumbent Pope could be the Antichrist were challenging. Nevertheless, the Authority has required a high threshold before deciding that a broadcast breaches Guideline 7a and encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, a specified group. It does not consider that the broadcast complained about on this occasion reached that level.

[31] The Authority has assessed the complaint against the Principles nominated by the broadcaster, Principles 6 and 7, and additionally, in view of the matters raised by the complainant, Principle 4. It concludes that the broadcast has not contravened broadcasting standards.

[32] 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
23 October 2003

Appendix

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

1. John Nelson’s Complaint to The Radio Network Ltd – 23 July 2003
2. TRN’s Response to Mr Nelson – 30 July 2003
3. Mr Nelson’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 August 2003
4. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 27 August 2003
5. Mr Nelson’s Final Comment – 15 September 2003