Holmes – Prostitution Reform Bill – interview with Mr Ashraf Choudhary MP who abstained from voting – challenged on decision to abstain – blamed for passage of Bill – held up to ridicule and contempt – unfair
Standard 4 – MP given right to reply to criticism – no uphold
Standard 6 – as with Standard 4 – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 The Prostitution Reform Bill was passed in Parliament by one vote on 25 June 2003. In an item on Holmes, broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on Thursday 26 June, comment was made that the Bill would not have been passed had Mr Ashraf Choudhary MP not abstained. Mr Choudhary was interviewed regarding his abstention.
 Reg Nichol complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that it was unbalanced in its criticism of Mr Choudhary who was blamed for the passage of the Bill, and it was unfair and disgraceful to suggest that he was betraying his own community.
 When TVNZ did not respond to the complaint, Mr Nichol referred it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 In its later response to the Authority, TVNZ argued that it was appropriate to ask Mr Choudhary, as a Member of Parliament, to account for his actions. It declined to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
 The members of the Authority have viewed a video 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 role of Mr Ashraf Choudhary MP and the passage of the Prostitution Law Reform Bill were dealt with in an item on Holmes, broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on Thursday 26 June 2003. The Bill was passed by one vote and it was pointed out that Mr Choudhary had abstained. The item noted that if Mr Choudhary had voted against the Bill, it would not have been enacted. In the interview, the presenter challenged Mr Choudhary to explain his decision to abstain from voting. Mr Choudhary was also interviewed about his action by RNZ and TV3 on Checkpoint and 3 News and those interviews were also the subject to formal complaints.
 Reg Nichol complained to TVNZ that the item was unbalanced in its criticism of Mr Choudhary and that its attempt to blame him for the passage of the Bill held him up to ridicule and contempt. Moreover, Mr Nichol wrote, it was "unfair and disgraceful" to present him as betraying his own community.
 When TVNZ did not respond to his complaint within 20 working days, Mr Nichol referred it to the Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 TVNZ later assessed the complaint under the following standards in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Standard 4 Balance
In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining 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.
Standard 6 Fairness
In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.
 TVNZ began by apologising that it had mislaid the original complaint from Mr Nichol.
 One of the important roles of journalism in a democratic society, TVNZ wrote in responding to the complaint, was to scrutinise and question people who held public office. In that context, it continued, Mr Choudhary had been invited to appear on Holmes. Moreover, TVNZ contended, the legislation was highly controversial and Mr Choudhary’s abstention on a crucial political issue needed to be questioned. In addition, TVNZ stated that Mr Choudhary, as the lone abstainer, had ensured the passage of the Bill which was won by a single vote.
 In view of this background, TVNZ argued that:
Holmes acted correctly in taking the approach that it did. The public interest cried out for Mr Choudhary to be called to account on these matters. The point being made in the public interest by Paul Holmes was that MPs are sent to Parliament to make hard decisions. In representing that public interest, it was fair that Paul Holmes should be firm and direct with Mr Choudhary who, alone among the 120 MPs, felt unable to cast a vote at a crucial moment on a major political issue. We deny Mr Nichol’s allegation that Mr Choudhary was held up to "ridicule and contempt". The MP was firmly asked to explain himself – a proper role for the news media in a democracy – and he did so.
 As for the standards, TVNZ denied that the item lacked balance. It accepted that the questions were "sharp and insistent", but Mr Choudhary was clearly able to put his side. Further, it was not unfair as although the interview put him under the spotlight, it gave Mr Choudhary the opportunity to express his views.
 TVNZ recommended that the Authority decline to uphold the complaint.
 Mr Nichol stated that the general line taken by the interviewer was that Mr Choudhary, as a Muslim, had an obligation to oppose the Bill. While he acknowledged that Mr Choudhary had been given an opportunity to respond to that line of questions, Mr Nichol contended that the line of questioning was in itself unfair.
 Central to his complaint, Mr Nichol wrote, was the point that the vote on the Prostitution Reform Bill was a conscience vote. As such, he argued, MPs were required to consult their conscience. They were not required to consult their constituency. Nevertheless, journalists who had interviewed Mr Choudhary had emphasised the fact that he was expected to vote for criminal penalties for prostitutes "just because he was a Muslim". Mr Nichol continued:
So their position seems to be that anyone with religious affiliations has a moral obligation to make all acts that their religion considers sinful into crimes. But given that a fundamental aspect of our society is the separation of church and state, this is of course completely nonsensical.
 Moreover, Mr Nichol contended that it was wrong to assume that Mr Choudhary was in Parliament as a representative of Muslims. Rather, he was in Parliament as he was relatively high on Labour’s "party list". He was therefore a representative of Labour voters. Mr Nichol argued that journalists should be aware of such constitutional issues, rather than question Mr Choudhary’s integrity.
 As for the passage of the Bill, Mr Nichol contended that Mr Choudhary’s decision to abstain reflected the middle ground on the Bill but his thoughtful and balanced decision had resulted in personal attacks during the interview. Mr Nichol considered:
In summary, it seems that the interviewers misunderstand or chose to misrepresent why the Bill passed its Third Reading. They apparently do not understand who Mr Choudhary actually represents in parliament. They plainly do not understand the nature of a Conscience Vote. And they do not seem to grasp the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state that underlies our constitution. It seems to me, therefore, that some of our leading political journalists have an extremely poor understanding of elementary logic, which is a little surprising, and they have virtually no comprehension of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements, which is absolutely extraordinary.
 Following a conscience vote, the Prostitution Reform Bill was passed in Parliament by one vote on 25 June 2003. Mr Ashraf Choudhary MP, who had earlier voted against the Bill, was the only MP who abstained from voting on 25 June. The abstention was the subject of media comment and Mr Choudhary was interviewed by TVNZ, TV3 and RNZ. Mr Nichol complained about specific interviews conducted by each broadcaster. The decisions recording the Authority’s determination in regard to Mr Nichol’s three complaints are 2003-129 (TVNZ), 2003-130 (RNZ), and 2003-131 (TV3).
 The complaints were similar, and alleged that each interview was unbalanced when it tackled Mr Choudhary, a Muslim, for abstaining when the Muslim community groups were strongly opposed to the Bill. That approach was unbalanced, Mr Nichol argued, as MPs were required when exercising a conscience vote to consult their conscience, not their constituency. Further, the suggestion that Mr Choudhary, a list MP, was required to follow religious influences, failed to acknowledge the separation of Church and State in New Zealand.
 The matters of concern to Mr Nichol which have been addressed in the decisions regarding the complaints about the broadcasts by TV3 and RNZ were not evident in the interview on TVNZ.
 The approach taken by the presenter on Holmes when he interviewed Mr Choudhary was to ask him on a number of occasions why he had abstained. The presenter contended that an MP was elected to vote and, by abstaining, Mr Choudhary had failed to meet his responsibilities. In responding to some of the questions, Mr Choudhary referred to attitudes within the Muslim Community, but the presenter returned in his questions to the issue of an MP’s accountability when abstaining rather than in exercising a conscience vote on a controversial issue.
 The aspects which Mr Nichol considered breached the requirements for balance were not relevant to the interview on TVNZ as it focused on the abstention rather than the expectation of the Muslim community and accordingly, the nominated standards were not contravened.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
4 December 2003
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Reg Nichol’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 9 July 2003
2. Mr Nichol’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 2 September 2003
3. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 10 September 2003
4. Mr Nichol’s Final Comment – 3 October 2003