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Nichol and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2003-130

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave

Complainant

  • Reg Nichol of Picton

Dated

4th December 2003

Number

2003-130

Programme

Checkpoint

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Checkpoint – Prostitution Reform Bill – interview with Mr Ashraf Choudhary MP who abstained from voting – reference to Muslim background and comments from representatives of Muslim communities who had expected him to vote against the Bill – blamed for passage of Bill – held up to ridicule and contempt – unfair

Findings
Principle 4 – MP given right to reply to criticism – no uphold

Principle 5 – MP not dealt with unfairly – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The Prostitution Reform Bill was passed in Parliament by one vote on 25 June 2003. In an item broadcast on Checkpoint on National Radio at 5.00pm on Thursday 26 June, comment was made that the Bill would not have passed had Mr Ashraf Choudhary MP not abstained. It was pointed out that he was a Muslim and that Muslim leaders in New Zealand were opposed to the Bill.

[2] Reg Nichol complained to Radio 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.

[3] In response, RNZ contended that as Mr Choudhary was given the immediate and extensive right to reply to the critical comments, the standards had not been breached. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response Mr Nichol 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] The passage of the Prostitution Law Reform Bill was dealt with in an item broadcast on Checkpoint on National Radio at 5.00pm on Thursday 26 June. The Bill was passed by one vote and the focus of the item was on the position taken by Mr Ashraf Choudhary MP who abstained. Mr Choudhary is the only Muslim MP and item featured representatives from the Muslim community expressing dismay at his action. It noted that if Mr Choudhary had voted against the Bill, it would not have been enacted. Mr Choudhary was also interviewed by TVNZ and TV3 and the broadcasts on One News and 3 News were also subject to formal complaints.

The Complaint

[7] Reg Nichol complained to RNZ 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.

The Standards

[8] RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 4 and 5 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] RNZ explained that the item, after the introduction, involved an interview with a representative from the Federation of Islamic Association of New Zealand (FIANZ). An extensive live interview with Mr Choudhary followed, RNZ advised, in which he was given the opportunity to reply directly to the critical comments.

[10] RNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

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

RNZ’s Response to the Authority

[12] Advising that it was unable to comprehend the basis of the referral, RNZ wrote:

It is inconceivable that the item was unbalanced as Mr Choudhary was spoken to live on the programme immediately after the criticism was levelled at him. It would place Radio New Zealand and all broadcasters in an impossible position if it were not to be allowed to broadcast a criticism of a politician’s decision to vote in a certain way, especially on legislation of such interest as the then Prostitution Bill.

[13] It was also inconceivable, RNZ added, that the item breached the standards by broadcasting the views of a representative of the Muslim Community.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[14] 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 the questions, Mr Nichol contended that the line of questioning was in itself unfair.

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

[17] 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.

Further Correspondence

[18] In response to the above comment, RNZ objected to the complainant’s contention that the broadcast involved a "disgraceful" attack on Mr Choudhary’s integrity. Mr Nichol in reply reiterated that his complaint was based on the assumption that Mr Choudhary was not in Parliament as a representative of Muslims, and that the separation of Church and state was fundamental.

The Authority’s Determination

[19] 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).

[20] The complaints were similar and alleged that each interview was unbalanced when it questioned 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.

[21] The matters of concern to Mr Nichol were evident in the interview on Checkpoint. The focus was on the angry reaction in the Muslim community. Mr Choudhary was interviewed during the item and was in effect, given the right of reply. He made the point that in abstaining he had exercised a conscience vote.

[22] The Authority acknowledges that Mr Choudhary is known as the first Muslim MP and, while not a representative of the Muslim Community, he is regarded and, as was apparent from the interview, regards himself as the community’s spokesperson in the political arena. As with all MPs who exercise a conscience vote, it is expected that Mr Choudhary will consult with the groups with which he is aligned and, if the groups’ wishes are not reflected in the vote, the MP may well be criticised. There is a freedom to criticise and there must also be a freedom to reply. In the Authority’s view that is the broadcasting standard requirement relating to balance, and it was met on this occasion.

[23] In view of the approach taken in the interview, the Authority considers that the requirements for balance and fairness were not transgressed.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
4 December 2003

Appendix

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

1.  Reg Nichol’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 9 July 2003
2. RNZ’s Response to the Complainant – 5 August 2003
3. Mr Nichol’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 2 September 2003
4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 22 September 2003
5. Mr Nichol’s Final Comment – 3 October 2003
6. RNZ’s Response to Mr Nichol’s Final Comment – 16 October 2003
7. Mr Nichol’s Response – 27 October 2003