3 News – 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
Standard 4 – MP given right to reply to criticism – 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 3 News, broadcast on TV3 at 6.00pm 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 were opposed to the Bill.
 Reg Nichol complained to TV3 Network Services 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.
 In response, TV3 contended that the item was "a model of balance" in that the reaction of the Muslim Community was explained to the viewer, to which Dr Choudhary was given the opportunity to comment. It declined to uphold the complaint.
 Dissatisfied with TV3’s response to the complaint, Mr Nichol referred it 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.
 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 passage of the Prostitution Law Reform Bill was dealt with in an item broadcast on 3 News on TV3 at 6.00pm 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 the item featured Muslim community representatives 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 about his action by TVNZ and RNZ on One News and Checkpoint and those interviews were also subject to formal complaints.
 Reg Nichol complained to TV3 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.
 TV3 assessed the complaint under Standard 4 of 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.
 Describing the item as "a model of balance", TV3 wrote:
Dr Choudhary’s actions and the effect of his actions on the Bill were explained to the viewer; the reaction of members of the Muslim community were put forward in a straightforward and impartial manner; the allegations against Dr Choudhary were explained to the viewer and Dr Choudhary was given an opportunity to comment; then his comments and explanations were put forward in the item both directly by Dr Choudhary himself and by the reporter when speaking in voiceover and direct to the camera.
 On the basis that Mr Choudhary was shown to be a thoughtful Member of Parliament, and that the item did not suggest that he had betrayed his community, TV3 declined to uphold the complaint.
 TV3 also argued that if the complaint was upheld, the freedom of expression in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 would be unreasonably and unjustifiably restricted.
 Dissatisfied with TV3’s decision, Mr Nichol referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.
 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.
 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). In view of the matters raised by Mr Nichol, TVNZ and RNZ assessed his complaint under the standards relating to balance and fairness. TV3 has confined its consideration to the balance standard. As the Authority has concluded in regard to the other complaints that the fairness standard was not contravened, its omission by TV3 is not a vital concern on this occasion. Nevertheless, the Authority reminds broadcasters that they should assist complainants, especially those who are not familiar with the Codes of Broadcasting Practice, to nominate the standards that appropriately address a complainant’s concern.
 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 were evident in the interview on 3 News. The focus was on angry reaction in the Muslim community and it was noted that Mr Choudhary had sworn on the Koran when first taking the oath of office as an MP. The Koran, it was said, was strongly against prostitution. 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.
 The Authority acknowledges that Mr Choudhary is known as the first Muslim MP and while not an elected 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 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 comprehensively on this occasion.
 In view of the approach taken in the interview, the Authority considers that the requirement for balance was not transgressed.
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 TV3 Network Services Ltd – 9 July 2003
2. TV3’s Response to Mr Nichol – 4 August 2003
3. Mr Nichol’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 2 September 2003
4. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 18 September 2003
5. Mr Nichol’s Final Comment – 3 October 2003