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Ministry of Health and Feek and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2003-162, 2003-163

Members

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

Complainants

  • Ministry of Health
  • Dr Colin Feek of Wellington

Standards Breached

Dated

15th December 2003

Number

2003-162–163

Programme

Nine to Noon

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Nine to Noon – Ministry of Health official described as Deputy-Director of Clinical Services and “Disinformation” – unfair – inaccurate – unbalanced

Findings
Principle 4 and Principle 5 – subsumed under Principle 6

Principle 6 – use of word “disinformation” unfair to Ministry and Deputy Director-General – upheld

Order
Broadcast of statement

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Dr Colin Feek, the Ministry of Health’s Deputy Director-General of Clinical Services, was interviewed on Nine to Noon, on National Radio on 10 June 2003 about an audit on the way hospitals treated patients with heart problems. At the conclusion of the interview, he was described as the Deputy Director-General of Clinical Services “and Disinformation”.

[2] The Ministry of Health complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the comment was inaccurate, unbalanced, and unfair to both the Ministry and Dr Feek. RNZ was aware before the interview, it wrote, that Dr Feek had not read the report, the findings of which were the focus of the interview.

[3] In response, RNZ accepted that the wrong word had been used. The word, it said, should have been “uninformative” and listeners would have understood the mistake. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision the Ministry of Health referred its complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the complaints that the comment was unfair to the complainants.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape and read a transcript of the programme complained about, and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Nine to Noon, broadcast on National Radio between 9.00am–12 noon each weekday, is a magazine programme which includes music and items ranging from current affairs to book reviews.

[7] Following an audit of the way hospitals treated patients with heart problems, Dr Colin Feek, the Deputy Director-General of Clinical Services in the Ministry of Health, was interviewed on Nine to Noon on 10 June 2003. At the conclusion of the interview the presenter made the following announcement:

Colin Feek, Health Ministry’s Deputy Director-General of Clinical Services and Disinformation one suspects. I’m no clearer on that.

The Informal Complaint

[8] Shortly after the interview finished on 10 June, the Director-General of Health (Dr Karen Poutasi) faxed a letter to RNZ and sought a “full retraction and apology” for the above remark. After further correspondence, RNZ declined to act on the informal complaint.

The Formal Complaint

[9] The Ministry complained on behalf of Dr Feek and itself about the presenter’s concluding remark made after Dr Feek had put the phone down and to which he had had no opportunity to respond. It provided two definitions of “disinformation” which referred to misleading, falsifying, or obscuring the truth. Accordingly, it argued, the presenter had suggested that Dr Feek deliberately gave false information or set out to mislead. Further, the reference to Dr Feek as a ministry official had implicated the Ministry.

[10] Nevertheless, the Ministry wrote, there was no suggestion during the interview that Dr Feek had provided misinformation. It said the presenter’s comment was “ill-advised and unjustified” because:

The Statement appears to have been an ill-advised reaction by [the presenter] to the fact that other guests better placed to comment on the Report were unavailable. As [the presenter] and RNZ should have been aware, neither [the presenter] nor Dr Feek had seen the Report so they could not comment in detail.

[11] Turning to the standards, the Ministry contended that Dr Feek had been dealt with unfairly by persisting with questions based on assumptions about the report, by the reference to “disinformation”, by not giving him an opportunity to respond to the “disinformation” comment, and by implying that he had deliberately set out to give false information and to mislead listeners.

[12] The broadcast had been inaccurate, the Ministry argued, to suggest by the use of the word “disinformation” that Dr Feek and/or the Ministry were seeking to misinform or mislead the public.

[13] The Ministry also maintained that the item breached the requirement for balance as Dr Feek had no opportunity to respond to the allegations that he or the Ministry were deliberately misleading the public. RNZ, it continued, had failed to apologise despite the Ministry’s immediate request.

[14] The Ministry also recorded the efforts made to express its concerns. RNZ’s responses, it considered, did not acknowledge Dr Feek’s limited knowledge of the contents of the report despite being advised that he had not seen the report. The Ministry pointed out that there was no suggestion during the interview that Dr Feek’s replies were misleading. It added:

To the contrary, questions were asked of him that he could not answer because had not seen the Report and he repeatedly explained this.

[15] Explaining that Dr Feek understood, prior to the interview, that one of the authors of the report was to be interviewed as well, the Ministry contended that Dr Feek should not have become a “scapegoat” in their absence, noting:

Dr Feek should not have been portrayed as having misinformed or deceived [the presenter] simply because he was not in a position to answer questions in relation to the content of the Report.

[16] The Ministry argued that there was a substantial difference between a lack of information and disinformation, stating:

Even if Dr Feek was poorly informed – which is not accepted – RNZ have offered nothing to suggest that Dr Feek misinformed anyone, let alone that he deliberately sought to do so.

[17] Failure to give Dr Feek an opportunity to answer the allegation that he was deliberately misinforming the public, the Ministry said, was punching “below the belt and after the bell”.

[18] Summarising its complaint, the Ministry considered that the allegation that Dr Feek deliberately misinformed listeners was serious and cast doubt on his and the Ministry’s integrity. In its view, the appropriate action by RNZ would be the broadcast, during Nine to Noon, of a retraction and an apology.

The Standards

[19] RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 4, 5 and 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. They read:

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.

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Formal Complaint

[20] RNZ explained that the subject of the interview was outlined by the presenter when she stated during the broadcast that “The first ever audit of the way hospitals treat patients with heart problems has been released”. The report had been released at a press conference given the previous day by the Acute Coronary Syndrome Audit Group, which the Ministry of Health had attended. RNZ maintained that comment from the Ministry of Health on the audit was entirely appropriate and it noted that the report in “The Dominion Post” on 10 June included comment from Dr Feek that “the findings raised more questions than they answered”. RNZ observed:

It is not surprising, therefore, that the host understood Dr Feek would be able to comment informatively on the various issues the report raised.

[21] Dealing with the preparations for the interview, RNZ said it had been aware that Dr Feek had not read the report but it had been given no advice that he was not able “to comment informatively” on the issues. Those issues, it added, had been discussed with the Ministry’s Communications Unit and it believed that Dr Feek would make a useful contribution.

[22] RNZ noted that the interview had originally intended to include Dr North of the National Heart Foundation, but she was unable to participate. Dr White, Deputy Chair of the Audit Group was also invited but, at the last minute, he too was unavailable. Consequently, RNZ noted, a greater burden was placed on Dr Feek than had been anticipated. RNZ continued:

It soon became evident Dr Feek had no informative comment to make on the issues which the Audit Group had raised at its press conference. That fact effectively negated the purpose of the interview. In the circumstances, therefore, it is not surprising that the interview made little progress and ultimately gave rise to some frustration on the part of the host.

[23] RNZ maintained that the presenter’s attitude to Dr Feek during the 12½ minute interview was not antagonistic or unduly provocative. However, RNZ considered that his answers might have been perceived by listeners as “stonewalling”, adding:

By the time of the interview, there was, in the public domain, information additional to that contained in the Audit Group’s press release, and that was therefore a legitimate subject of questioning by the programme host. The fact that Dr Feek answered these questions by continuing to defer to the release of the report understandably caused some frustration to the host.

[24] Such frustration, RNZ wrote, led to the presenter’s “throw away line” at the end of the interview.

[25] In assessing the meaning listeners would have given to the line, RNZ argued that it was necessary to look at the interview “as a whole”. In context, RNZ maintained, neither the presenter nor listeners would have taken the meaning of “disinformation” as false information intended to mislead. Describing the phrase as an example of the presenter using the wrong word for the occasion, RNZ said that the presenter “clearly” meant that Dr Feek had provided no informative comment and declined to be drawn on the issues in the report without reading it. RNZ wrote that the presenter “undoubtedly concluded the interview was ‘uninformative’”.

[26] RNZ said it was also necessary to consider the manner in which the words were expressed. While the presenter had been frustrated at the outcome of the interview, her conclusion was without rancour or animosity directed at Dr Feek. Listeners, it added, would have been left with the impression that the Ministry knew no more than the public and, RNZ concluded:

In summary, therefore, RNZ is satisfied that, in the context in which the words complained of, “…and disinformation…”, were spoken, listeners would not have taken them to mean Dr Feek or the Ministry was providing false information intending to misled listeners. If any criticism of Dr Feek and the Ministry was conveyed, and RNZ is not satisfied it was, it was not that they have mislead listeners but that they had failed to give listeners any useful information.

[27] Turning to the standards, RNZ contended that the period of current interest during which balance had to be achieved had not expired because the Audit report had not been released. It declined to uphold the complaints that the broadcast breached Principle 4. In expanding on this point, RNZ noted that the report’s author was interviewed on Nine to Noon on the following day – June 11.

[28] As for the Principle 5 requirement to deal fairly with participants, RNZ declined to uphold the complaints in view of its finding that listeners would have understood from the context of the broadcast that the presenter had used the wrong word.

[29] The Principle 6 requirement for accuracy was not upheld, RNZ advised, as the presenter had finished her comment with “one suspects” which indicated that facts were not being asserted.

[30] RNZ included the following comment:

Although the complaint has not been upheld, RNZ is mindful of the fact that the Ministry has been particularly co-operative, when requested, in making spokespersons available to comment on issues of importance or interest to listeners. As stated by … , RNZ’s Networks Manager, in his letter of 11 June 2003, RNZ values the relationship and is anxious that it continue. It has expressed its regret that Dr Feek has taken offence at the remarks which are the subject of the complaint and is sorry that, from the lodging of the complaint, he is still unhappy. Though RNZ has dealt with the matter on the basis of what the words would have conveyed to listeners, it wishes to reiterate its regret that Dr Feek felt that the host suggested he had in some way been misleading. RNZ understands why, having that impression, Dr Feek would feel aggrieved, but it was not the host’s intention. RNZ … understands there is a mutual desire on the part of the Ministry and RNZ to arrange an informal meeting to avoid any misunderstandings in the future.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[31] Focusing on the presenter’s concluding remarks in which Dr Feek was associated with disinformation, the Ministry reiterated its concern that the statement suggested that Dr Feek deliberately gave false information to listeners and set out to mislead or deceive. Further, it considered that the Ministry had been tarred by the allegation.

[32] The Ministry pointed out that there was no suggestion during the interview that Dr Feek deliberately provided misinformation and the presenter’s comment, it proposed, was an “ill-advised” reaction to the unavailability of the other guests, who were better able to comment on the report.

[33] As for RNZ’s acknowledgement that the wrong word had been used, the Ministry noted that RNZ offered no acceptable remedy. It repeated its complaint that the “disinformation” allegation breached Principles 5 and 6, and s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act (incorporated in the Radio Code as Principle 4). It again recounted the efforts it had made immediately after the broadcast to rectify the situation. It continued to seek an on-air retraction of, and apology for, the comment. However as it had received neither, nor a satisfactory explanation for the incident, the matter had been referred to the Authority.

[34] It provided a detailed response to RNZ’s letter.

1. Contrary to RNZ’s statement, Ministry officials had not attended the press conference on 9 June for the release of the Audit report.

2. The report in “The Dominion Post” on 10 June, in which Dr Feek was quoted, also advised that the full report had not been released. Further, when interviewed on RNZ’s Checkpoint on 9 June, Dr Feek made it clear that he had not seen the report.

3. As for RNZ’s comment that the Ministry’s Communications Unit was aware of the issues to be addressed during the interview, the Ministry pointed to RNZ’s letter of 11 June when RNZ acknowledged that it would have been preferable if the Ministry had put up a spokesperson who had read the report.

4. The “consequential greater burden” which occurred because Dr North and Dr White were unavailable was, the Ministry said, “of RNZ’s own making”. The Ministry considered that RNZ should have interviewed Dr North and Dr White before speaking to Dr Feek. He would then have been able to talk about the “general circumstances of coronary care” in New Zealand.

5. In response to RNZ’s comment that the interview made little progress after it became apparent that Dr Feek had no informative comment to make on the Audit report, the Ministry contended that RNZ should have been aware of the matters on which Dr Feek was able to comment.

6. What RNZ described as “stonewalling”, the Ministry said, could also be seen as being responsible on the basis that the report had not been read.

7. RNZ said that the presenter became “understandably” frustrated when Dr Feek declined to answer questions about the contents of the report. The Ministry responded by stating that the presenter should have been aware of the limits to Dr Feek’s contribution and thus should have not become frustrated and should have not made the “throw away line”.

8. As for RNZ’s contention that the context in which the phrase was used was relevant, the Ministry said journalists were responsible for using correct words, and held others to account when words were misused.

9. The Ministry agreed with RNZ’s statement that the wrong word had been used. However, it did not accept that listeners would have attributed a completely different meaning to the word which was actually used.

10. The Ministry did not accept, as RNZ maintained, that it was evident that the presenter thought “disinformation” was a cognate of “uninformative”.

11. As the word “disinformation” was used, it was irrelevant whether the presenter said it without rancour or animosity.

12. To RNZ’s comment that listeners to the interview would be left with the impression that the interview provided no further information on the issues, the Ministry did not accept that it made the statement complained about acceptable.

13. RNZ said the comment did not provoke any response from listeners. The Ministry stated that it had received a number of comments that the statement was unacceptable and unprofessional.

14. The Ministry did not agree with RNZ’s contention that Principle 4 had not been breached because the period of current interest had not expired. The Ministry maintained that the Nine to Noon interview on 10 June was the last substantive interview with the Ministry on the issue. As an indication that the period was ending, the Ministry wrote, it had responded to the interview on 10 June. Moreover, RNZ chose not to interview the Ministry on 11 June when the report was further considered. Finally, the Ministry did not accept that the “news cycle” which would occur when the full report was released was the same period of current interest.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[35] RNZ advised that it had carefully reviewed the correspondence relating to the complaint. It noted that at a conference held by the Cardiac Society between 8 and 10 June, the New Zealand Acute Coronary Syndrome Audit Group (NZASCAG) gave presentations, issued a press release, and held a press conference. As it intended to discuss that information which had been released, Nine to Noon sought an interview with an appropriate person at the Ministry of Health, and Dr Feek had been nominated by the Ministry. RNZ observed:

As mentioned in correspondence between RNZ and the Ministry, the Nine to Noon representative who was trying to set up the interview had quite some difficulty in dealing with the Ministry’s communications division. She was repeatedly referred to other representatives only to be connected to answer phones. Throughout this laborious exercise, it is quite possible that the focus of the interview which RNZ proposed, namely a response to the detail discussed at the press conference became lost and the Ministry may have interpreted it as a request for comment on what was and still is unpublished information.

RNZ will refer to these set up circumstances later, but suffice it to say that the difficulties encountered at this early set up stage were largely attributable to the Ministry. RNZ considers that is germane to any determination relating to unfair treatment in connection to the lead up to the interview.

[36] The format for the interview first proposed, RNZ stated, was a discussion between the presenter, Dr Feek, and Dr North from the Heart Foundation. When Dr North was unavailable, Dr Harvey White from the NZASCAG was arranged as a substitute. However at the last minute, he too was unavailable. Dr Feek, RNZ added, was under no obligation to continue in these circumstances but chose to do so. RNZ then said:

The interview then proceeded in what RNZ has described as a cordial manner with an element of frustration on the part of the programme host creeping in at the end. RNZ’s analysis of the final words of the interview is repeated in part of Appendix B for the benefit of the Authority. The words which lie at the heart of the Ministry’s complaint were uttered by the programme host at the end of the interview and were:

“…it’s been very nice having you on the programme, Colin Feek, Health Ministry’s Deputy Director General of Clinical Services and disinformation one suspects, I’m no clearer on that, shall we have a bit of a track, we will.”

[37] RNZ continued:

The Ministry complained of the words used and RNZ rejected its complaint but expressed its regret that Dr Feek felt that the programme host suggested he had in some way been misleading. RNZ understood why, having that impression, Dr Feek would feel aggrieved but noted that that was not the programme host’s intention nor the impression that a reasonable listener would have been given.

[38] RNZ stated that further information was now available. It repeated the point made earlier when it had assumed that Dr Feek would have been briefed before the interview by ministry officials who had been present at both the cardiac conference and the subsequent press conference. It now accepted that the Ministry officials who were at the conference might not have been at the press conference. However, RNZ argued that it was probable that more information was released at the conference rather than at the press conference. On that basis, RNZ wrote:

It is somewhat surprising that the Ministry should criticise RNZ for what occurred when it offered Dr Feek as a person suitable to comment and had the opportunity to brief him on the subject of the interview.

[39] RNZ said that it had recently been advised of information, which it considered was of greater importance, in that:

Dr Feek received a private briefing from an NZASCAG member prior to the conference proper and prior to the NZASCAG conference presentations. On those grounds alone RNZ would, had it known at the time of the original complaint, have rejected the Ministry’s complaint.

[40] Acknowledging that Dr Feek would not have been able to release private information, RNZ reiterated that the interview was about the information released by the NZASCAG at the conference. RNZ attached a copy of the relevant information which had been released at the conference. It stated:

That would tend to justify the programme host’s frustration at Dr Feek’s reluctance to comment on any of the information released publicly by NZASCAG at the conference (the content of which he already knew) and commented on at the press conference.

[41] In conclusion, RNZ submitted that the complaint should not be upheld both on the grounds contained in paras [20] to [30] above, but also on the basis of the further information provided at this stage.

The Complainants’ Final Comment

[42] On behalf of Dr Feek and itself, the Ministry described the complaints as a “simple matter”. By suggesting that Dr Feek was the “Deputy Director of Clinical Services and Disinformation”, the Ministry wrote, the broadcast breached the standards. Furthermore, it said:

RNZ’s response has been to seek to obfuscate matters. They seek to provide an unnecessary and increasingly irrelevant array of contextual matters, which do not address the substance of the complaint. The information RNZ offers neither justifies nor establishes the truth of the comment identified above.

[43] Dealing with what it described as the “new” points recently raised by RNZ, the Ministry acknowledged that Dr Feek met with Dr Ellis (of NZASCAG) before the conference, but Dr Ellis refused his request for a copy of his full report and revealed “very little information”. Moreover, the Ministry noted, that information was not new as suggested by RNZ as Dr Feek had referred to his discussions with Dr Ellis during the broadcast. Turning to the summary in the conference report, the Ministry described it as brief and insufficient. And, it added, Ministry staff had not attended the press conference.

[44] The Ministry reiterated the point that Dr Feek had not read, nor had access to, the Audit Report before the interview and that had been made clear to RNZ by a Ministry media advisor. It wrote:

The producer and the media advisor agreed that Dr Feek would address general questions about the circumstances of coronary care in New Zealand – which he did. Further, Dr Feek made it clear during the interview itself that he hadn’t read the audit report (see the final paragraph of page 2 of the transcript). This would have been apparent to RNZ from its own Checkpoint programme the previous evening. It was well known that the audit report had not been made public. The interviewer had not read it either.

[45] The Ministry argued that it was not responsible for the interviewer’s sense of frustration towards the end of the programme, adding that the sense of frustration did not justify the comment made. It contended:

To blame the interviewer’s use of “the wrong word for the wrong occasion” (RNZ’s words) on her sense of frustration at the way the interview had progressed is simply unacceptable. [The presenter] is a senior journalist on our national programme. Each day she holds others to account for what they say. One cannot imagine that [the presenter] would let one of her interviewees explain away an inappropriate comment by reference to their sense of frustration. [The presenter’s] “bad day at the office” does not justify the comment she made here.

[46] Turning to RNZ’s response to the complaint, the Ministry maintained that it was “bizarre” that listeners would have understood the presenter to mean something else to what she had actually said. It wrote:

The ordinary and proper meaning of what [the presenter] said was that Dr Feek deliberately gave false information to listeners and set out to mislead or deceive them. This is not directly disputed. The “wrong word used but nonetheless ‘correctly’ understood by all” defence does not change. Nor is there any substance to the suggestion that, in context, the words used meant something else. The Ministry’s view is that (at least some of) RNZ’s listeners nationwide would have known what “disinformation” meant and thus have taken [the presenter’s] comments to carry their natural and ordinary meaning. That, in itself, should be sufficient for the BSA to uphold the complaints.

[47] The Ministry continued to argue that the comment breached the requirements for balance, accuracy and fairness – Principles 4, 5 and 6 of the Radio Code. RNZ’s contention that a breach had not occurred, it added, was not acceptable.

Further Correspondence

[48] RNZ responded to the Ministry’s final comment and denied that the matter was “simple” as the Ministry contended. RNZ again referred to the briefing which Dr Ellis gave to Dr Feek. In its second final comment, the Ministry argued that RNZ’s submission was an attempt to divert attention from the core issue, which was the use of the word “disinformation”.

The Authority’s Determination

[49] The Authority has reviewed the detailed and lengthy correspondence relating to these complaints and concludes that the complaints raise one issue. It agrees with the Ministry that the complaints focused on the concluding comments of the interview when Dr Feek was described as the “Deputy Director of Clinical Services and Disinformation”. The Concise Oxford defines “disinformation” as “false information, intended to mislead”.

[50] The Authority acknowledges the broadcaster’s admission that the presenter might have used the wrong word and meant to say that the interview was “uninformative”. Nevertheless, that is not what was said. What was said impugned the character of Dr Feek and called into question the integrity of his employer. In all the circumstances, the Authority considers that there was nothing about the situation which would have made it plain to listeners that the presenter did not mean what she said about Dr Feek. The Ministry’s request for a “full retraction and apology” made during the afternoon of 10 June (the day of the broadcast) was declined by RNZ as it did not believe it had done anything which called for such action.

[51] The Ministry contended that the comment breached the standards relating to balance, accuracy and fairness. In its recent correspondence to the Authority, the Ministry argued that because of the time which has passed since the broadcast, the opportunity for balance during the period of current interest had expired. In regard to accuracy, it focused on the unjust and unfair treatment to Dr Feek. It repeated the concern about unfairness in regard to Principle 5.

[52] The Authority is of the view that the complainants’ contention that the “disinformation” comment was unfair to both Dr Feek and the Ministry encapsulates the complaint. Accordingly, the issues under the requirements for balance and accuracy under Principles 4 and 6 are subsumed on this occasion into the requirement in Principle 5 for fairness. The Authority finds that the reference to “disinformation” during the broadcast was unfair to both Dr Feek and the Ministry. Accordingly, it upholds the complaints that the broadcast breached Principle 5 of the Radio Code.

[53] The Authority notes that the social objective of regulating broadcasting standards is to guard against broadcasters behaving unfairly, offensively, or otherwise excessively. The Broadcasting Act clearly limits freedom of expression. Section 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act provides that the right to freedom of expression may be limited by “such reasonable limits which are prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. For the reasons given in Decision Nos. 2002-071/072, the Authority is firmly of the opinion that the limits in the Broadcasting Act are reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. The Authority records that it has given full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 when exercising its powers under the Broadcasting Act 1990 on this occasion. For the reasons given in this decision, the Authority has taken into account all the circumstances of these complaints, including the nature of the complaints and the manner in which the material was broadcast.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority upholds the complaints that the broadcast of a comment by Radio New Zealand Ltd on Nine to Noon on 10 June 2003 breached Principle 5 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

It subsumes the other aspects of the complaints into Principle 5.

[54] Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose orders under ss.13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It invited submissions from the parties.

[55] RNZ made five points:

  • Pointing out that the Ministry’s complaint was the only formal complaint received, RNZ contended that its listeners, who were quick to complain, had not perceived any unfairness on this occasion;
  • As there were a number of disputed facts, it was not clear that all the blame should lie on one side of the dispute;
  • The interview had been conducted in a calm manner with perhaps “a small sense of frustration” towards the end;
  • The comment was made without malice or invective; and
  • The presenter, as she acknowledged, was guilty of a “malapropism”.

[56] The complainants sought the broadcast of a statement which included a “formal retraction” of the “disinformation” comment and an apology to both of them. It included the proposed wording of such a statement.

[57] In addition, the complainants sought an order requiring RNZ to make a reasonable contribution to their costs and legal expenses. They explained that the complaint had been regarded as a serious matter and they had used external legal advisers. They added, however, that if RNZ was prepared to make a donation of $1000 or more to the National Heart Foundation, they would be satisfied with the statement.

[58] The Authority has no power to order the donation suggested by the complainants. As part of its consideration about a possible order for costs, it notes that the complainants sought to have the matter resolved promptly. From the outset, however, RNZ displayed no intent to settle the complaints and, thereafter, both parties joined in extensive correspondence, some of which is repetitive and of little relevance. The Authority appreciates why the complainants have taken the matter seriously as the comment reflected on their reputations. It acknowledges too that RNZ’s stance contributed to the complainants’ numerous and repetitive responses. Nevertheless, the Authority considers that the nature of the breach does not justify the imposition of an order that includes costs. The present complaint is distinguishable from the complex complaints for which the authority has ordered costs. On this occasion, it concludes that the breach, which the “disinformation” comment gave rise to, is appropriately met by the broadcast of a summary of the decision, which includes an apology.

Order

Pursuant to section 13(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders Radio New Zealand Ltd to broadcast a statement, within two months of the date of this decision, which includes an apology, explaining why the complaints were upheld. The statement shall be approved by the Authority and broadcast on a day and at a time to be approved by the Authority.

The Authority draws the broadcaster’s attention to the requirements of section 13(3)(b) of the Act for the broadcaster to give notice to the Authority and the complainant of the manner in which the above order has been complied with.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
15 December 2003

Appendix

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

1. Ministry of Health’s Informal Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 10 June 2003

2. RNZ’s Response to the Ministry – 11 June 2003

3. The Ministry’s Response to RNZ – 12 June 2003

4. RNZ’s Response to the Ministry – 18 June 2003

5. Ministry’s Formal Complaint to RNZ – 2 July 2003

6. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 8 August 2003

7. Ministry’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 4 September 2003

8. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 9 October 2003

9. Ministry’s Final Comment – 30 October 2003

10. RNZ’s Further Response to the Authority – 7 November 2003

11. Ministry’s Second Final Comment – 19 November 2003