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Trussell and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2002-024

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • B Hayward
  • J H McGregor

Complainant

  • Denys Trussell on behalf of Friends of the Earth

Dated

7th March 2002

Number

2002-024

Programme

Eureka

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
National Radio – Eureka – interview with Lord Robert Winston – critical comments about genetic modification research of Dr Arpad Pusztai – comments on cloning and transgenics – presenter failed to challenge Lord Winston – inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced

Findings
Principle 4 – period of current interest ongoing – range of views being broadcast – no uphold

Principle 5 – Dr Pusztai not dealt with unfairly – no uphold

Principle 6 – minority – decline to determine – majority – Lord Winston's legitimately held opinions – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The edition of Eureka broadcast on National Radio on Sunday 12 August 2001 at 2.00pm, and on Monday 13 August 2001 at 7.00pm, included an interview with Lord Robert Winston, who gave his views on how the media covers science and medicine.

[2] During the interview, Lord Winston commented on the research done on genetically modified potatoes by Dr Arpad Pusztai. Later in the interview, he minimised the distinction between clones and transgenics, and discounted the notion that the essence or spirit of an organism was contained in its genes.

[3] Denys Trussell, on behalf of Friends of the Earth, complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme breached broadcasting standards requiring it to deal justly and fairly with Dr Pusztai, to be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and to maintain balance.

[4] RNZ declined to uphold the complaint, stating that Dr Pusztai had recently been interviewed on National Radio, that he had not been dealt with unfairly, and that Lord Winston was entitled to express his views.

[5] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Trussell 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

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

The Programme

[7] Eureka is a weekly programme broadcast on National Radio which examines current topics in science, technology, medicine and environmental research. The edition of Eureka broadcast on Sunday 12 August 2001 at 2.00pm, and on Monday 13 August 2001 at 7.00pm, included an interview with Lord Robert Winston, who gave his views on how the media covers science and medicine.

[8] Lord Winston was introduced as the "avuncular host" of the BBC series The Human Body, and as Chairman of the House of Lords’ Science and Education Select Committee. The presenter described him as one of Europe’s leading fertility researchers who was in New Zealand to attend the Knowledge Wave Conference. He had also presented two seminars on "science and the media".

[9] Lord Winston began by giving his views on how the media covers science and medicine. He then made a distinction between pure science and technology, and the discussion moved to issues such as population growth, world food production and the availability of water on a worldwide basis.

[10] Responding to a question from the presenter as to why there was resistance in the United Kingdom and New Zealand to technologies of genetic modification, Lord Winston said he thought people did not understand the usefulness of GM technology. The interview continued as follows:

Presenter:        Is that the media's fault?

Lord Winston:  Well, yes in Britain I think it is. I can't say about New Zealand. In Britain there
                       was huge adverse, quick-fix, quick answer reporting by the media and the
                       media were intent on following scientists with bizarre results which
                       didn't follow any evidence of properly done research.

Presenter:       You're talking about work done on genetically modified potatoes in the UK by
                       a scientist named Arpad Pusztai?

Lord Winston:  Yes, Pusztai is the example. I mean, the Pusztai experiment with potatoes
                       was greatly exaggerated in the press. Every scientist who peer-reviewed
                       that work, independently many of whom were sceptical about GM
                       technology, all felt that the work was flawed in all sorts of ways. And I think
                       it was really quite shocking that certain sections of the press, not the whole
                       press, felt that this was the best way of selling copy.

[11] Later in the interview, Lord Winston commented on Nelson having declared itself a "GM Free" city, and the discussion moved to wine growing in the Nelson region. Lord Winston then said:

… but the truth is, of course, [the wine growers] are using root stocks which come from phylloxera-free vineyards and they’re using cloned grapes which come, of course, from the standard clones Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and the rest of it.

[12] The interviewer then made a distinction between using a clone and a transgenic. Lord Winston replied by minimising the difference between the two descriptions, saying that the:

… difference is much less than you think … the introduction of any crop into any environment where it was actually not there before, or any animal actually carries risks to that environment so it’s not fundamentally different …

[13] From there Lord Winston discounted the notion that the essence or spirit of an organism was contained in its genes. In this final comment, Lord Winston said he was not an advocate of human cloning and commented on the risks of such a process producing an abnormal child.

The Complaint

[14] Denys Trussell, on behalf of Friends of the Earth, complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme breached Principle 5 and Principle 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, and the requirement that broadcasters maintain balance, fairness and accuracy.

[15] The first part of Dr Trussell’s complaint concerned the way in which the work and reputation of Dr Arpad Pusztai had been treated. In reference to Lord Winston’s comments about Pusztai’s work, Mr Trussell said:

These statements by Lord Winston effectively slander Dr Pusztai, making him appear to be incompetent. They also contain errors of fact. They went unchallenged by [the presenter].

[16] Mr Trussell said Dr Pusztai was a world authority on matters pertaining to digestive physiology. He had held a responsible research position at the Rowett Institute in Scotland for 35 years and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the complainant said.

[17] He said Lord Winston had failed to note that the design of Dr Pusztai’s experiments had been peer-reviewed and found to be competent before the experiments actually began. He continued:

The results of the experiments were not bizarre as Lord Winston claims. They were unexpected; and for many scientists with a faith in the future of genetically modified foods – as also for the biotechnology companies and agri-business corporations – they were unwanted.

[18] Describing the peer-review of the results of Dr Pusztai’s research, Mr Trussell said it had been "recognised for the disgrace that it was by the editor of Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal". He enclosed a copy of the Lancet editorial, and various other supporting documentation.

[19] Mr Trussell continued:

Drs Pusztai, Ewen and Bardocz were witnesses for us [Friends of the Earth] at the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. We take very seriously any slurs that suggest they or any one of them was an incompetent or a charlatan. It is clear that their work received significant peer support, and that your editor has displayed ignorance of one of the most important scientific controversies in recent decades. There is a marked lack of professionalism in his comments, in his silence before Lord Winston and his errors.

[20] Mr Trussell said Friends of the Earth felt a "full length, intelligent interview with Pusztai regarding the intent, the structure, the vetting, the conduct and the results of his experiments" was needed on Eureka.

[21] The second part of the complaint concerned the presenter’s "lack of challenge to comments made by Lord Winston on other matters". The matters to which he referred included:

  • Lord Winston’s views on the dialogue in the United Kingdom between scientists and the public;
  • Lord Winston’s apparent "attempt to undermine the credibility of Nelson’s ‘GE free zone’";
  • Lord Winston’s minimisation of the difference between a clone and a transgenic;
  • Lord Winston’s "false analogy between human twins and human clones", which he said was "weakly supported" by the presenter; and
  • Lord Winston’s use of the word clone, which he said had the effect of "blurring distinctions and damaging facts that are central now to a major public debate".

[22] Mr Trussell said:

[The presenter’s] almost complete silence in this disgraceful and misleading exegesis we take to be his assent to it.
The assent we cannot accept and make it the basis of our complaint to you. It is the kind of assent that has no place on public radio. Such errors of fact and blurring of distinctions crucial to the public debate on biotechnology, must be corrected and elucidated. This is a formal request that such corrections and clarifications be broadcast on Eureka.

The Standards

[23] Radio New Zealand considered the complaint under Principles 4, 5 and 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those principles, and their relevant guidelines, 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.

Guidelines

4b  Broadcasters may have regard, when ensuring that programmes comply with Principle 4, to the following matters:
        ........…

(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. 

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.

Guidelines

6b  In the event of an allegation of inaccuracy, broadcasters will act promptly to check the allegation against the original broadcast, and will broadcast with similar prominence a suitable and appropriately scheduled correction if that is found to be justified.

6c  Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, shall be clearly distinguished.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[24] After traversing the subject matter of the interview, Radio New Zealand responded to the complainant that Lord Winston’s comments on Dr Pusztai’s research had "received only a fleeting mention in the interview". Referring to Guideline 4(b)(ii) of Principle 4 of the Radio Code, RNZ said:

In the context of the programme which was primarily addressing "…science, society and the media", Radio New Zealand noted that the period of current interest for these related topics is in fact open ended and the particular research to which you refer has been reported on for some time now and will continue to form part of the reporting on "…science, society and the media" well into the future.

[25] RNZ further noted that Dr Pusztai had been "interviewed extensively on a recent Nine to Noon programme on National Radio, and that the presenter of Eureka has in recent times interviewed representatives of Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics, Greenpeace and Life Sciences Network".

[26] RNZ did not accept Principle 4 had been breached.

[27] In relation to the requirement in Principle 5 that broadcasters deal justly and fairly with any person referred to in a programme, RNZ rejected the notion that any impression had been created of Dr Pusztai being an "incompetent" or a "charlatan". It further noted that Lord Winston’s comments were:

… his honestly held opinion based on a body of knowledge held personally and in the public arena from which others, notably the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification have drawn similar conclusions.

[28] RNZ continued:

… on occasions, a broadcast may seem to be "unbalanced" by some listeners but of itself, this does not confirm that a broadcast is unfair. If that were the case, broadcasters would be placed in the position of rarely being able to conduct an interview lest there be some expression of opinion upon which some person or body being referred to in the broadcast would wish to differ but have insufficient opportunity to do so.

[29] RNZ declined to uphold the aspect of the complaint that Principle 5 was breached.

[30] In relation to Principle 6, RNZ drew the complainant's attention to Guideline 6c which requires factual reports, and opinion, analysis and comment, to be clearly distinguished. The broadcaster said:

[I]t is important to note that this item very accurately presented the views of Lord Winston. While issue may be taken with the accuracy of what was said, that is a different matter.

[31] Lord Winston had been expressing views on matters which clearly fell within his area of expertise, and which he was sufficiently qualified to hold, RNZ said. It declined to uphold the Principle 6 aspect of the complaint.

The Referral to the Authority

[32] Mr Trussell referred the complaint to the Authority, stating that RNZ’s reply was a "complex and closely argued failure to address the substantive issues of our complaint".

[33] He reiterated Friends of the Earth’s view that Lord Winston’s comments on Dr Pusztai’s work were slanderous. He said:

We do not maintain that Radio New Zealand was responsible for Lord Winston’s comments. But it is responsible for their correction, for the restoration of balance and the establishment of matters of fact. That is, we presume, why a complaints procedure exists – so that redress can be achieved without dragging the matter into the courts.

[34] Mr Trussell said the context of the interview did not excuse Lord Winston’s "thoroughly erroneous statements about the peer-reviewing of the Pusztai experiments or the failure of [RNZ’s presenter] to be sufficiently informed to contradict these errors".

[35] In relation to Dr Pusztai having earlier been interviewed on Nine to Noon, Mr Trussell said to the best of his memory the issues raised in that interview did not include the peer-reviewing of Dr Pusztai’s experiments or his competence in conducting them.

[36] Mr Trussell said Lord Winston’s position as an expert, which RNZ had said put Lord Winston in a "unique position to comment on the matters he raised", could "hardly be a defence to his error". Nor did his expertise exonerate the interviewer from challenging him, Mr Trussell said.

[37] Mr Trussell concluded:

We request therefore that an opportunity be given on air for Dr Pusztai, or a speaker designated by him, to lay out the facts that are in the public record about the peer-reviewing that preceded and followed the experiments carried out by him and his colleagues. Secondly we want the inept and confused commentary of Lord Winston on matters of transgenesis, ecological disruption and cloning to be corrected and presented as a proper exegesis. Finally we want each of the foregoing to happen on National Radio’s Eureka programme.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[38] RNZ responded to the Authority that "slander" was not an issue of broadcasting standards. It enclosed an extract from the report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, a media release from the Royal Society, and an article from the Lancet, which it said might assist the Authority.

The Complainant's Final Comment

[39] In his final comment, Mr Trussell asked whether the Authority was empowered to adjudicate on alleged defamation.

[40] In relation to the Royal Society's media release forwarded to the Authority by RNZ, Mr Trussell said it was a public relations document generated by the society. He said:

We certainly do not accept the view that scientists in general and the Royal Society in particular represent some kind of touchstone of intellectual reliability and integrity.
.…
The Royal Society, in the matter of its treatment of Pusztai, has simply not observed acceptable standards of scientific behaviour. It has acted as a lobbyist for biotechnology interests and has been unquestioning in its acceptance of the "central dogma" of heredity.

[41] In relation to the extract from the report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification provided to the Authority by RNZ, Mr Trussell said it was Friends of the Earth's contention that the extract was "a tissue of error and distortion". Mr Trussell appended a paper which Friends of the Earth had prepared for the Government's consideration as a critique of the Royal Commission report.

[42] In relation to the Lancet article provided to the Authority by RNZ, Mr Trussell said the article did not vindicate Lord Winston in his statement that Pusztai's work was not properly done research. Rather, the article supported the contention that Pusztai's work deserved further scientific attention, he said.

[43] Finally, Mr Trussell said Friends of Earth repeated its request:

that opportunity be given, on Eureka for answering Lord Winston's slurs, and that this peer's extraordinarily inaccurate statements about cloning be corrected on air.

The Authority’s Determination

[44] First, the Authority will address Mr Trussell's question regarding its jurisdiction to adjudicate on alleged defamation.

[45] The Authority's function with respect to the determination of complaints is limited to a consideration of whether the broadcast complained about breached broadcasting standards. The standards are contained in the Broadcasting Act and in the codes of broadcasting practice developed by broadcasters and approved by the Authority under the Act. When it determines complaints, the Authority is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity for the benefit of the wider community. Defamation, by contrast, is the branch of the law that protects an individual's reputation against unjustifiable attack. Defamation is principally a civil wrong that gives an injured party the right to claim substantial damages through the mechanisms of civil procedure. It is not within the Authority's jurisdiction to determine matters concerning alleged defamation. Accordingly, the Authority proceeds to determine the complaint under Principles 4, 5 and 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[46] Principle 4 requires broadcasters 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.

[47] In the Authority's view, the debates surrounding genetic modification, transgenesis and cloning are "controversial issues of public importance" as contemplated by the standard. Furthermore, the Authority considers that the debates, including that aspect concerning Dr Pusztai's research, are ongoing. The "period of current interest" has been running for some time, and is likely to continue well into the future. Therefore, the Authority considers there is an ongoing requirement on broadcasters to present significant points of view regarding the debate.

[48] In the Authority's view, RNZ is currently fulfilling that requirement. While the programme complained about presented Lord Winston's particular views on various matters including Dr Pusztai's research, the Authority notes that RNZ has been covering and continues to cover a range of other views. In particular, Dr Pusztai has been interviewed on Nine to Noon. The Authority also notes that under Guideline 4b to Principle 4, broadcasters are entitled to take into account views expressed by other broadcasters or in other media on controversial issues, of which listeners can reasonably be expected to be aware. In the Authority's view, a range of views has been and is being covered both by RNZ and by other media. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the aspect of the complaint that the broadcast breached Principle 4.

[49] Principle 5 requires the broadcaster to deal justly and fairly with Dr Pusztai as a person referred to in the programme. Based on the material provided to it, it is clear to the Authority that Dr Pusztai's research is controversial. Although the Authority considers it would have been appropriate for the presenter to have challenged Lord Winston's assertions that "every scientist" who peer-reviewed Pusztai's work "all felt" it was flawed, and that there was no "evidence of properly done research", it does not consider that the failure to challenge the comments amounted to a breach of the principle. Because of the widespread public interest in genetic modification issues, and the diverse range of deeply held views, it is apparent that opinions on Dr Pusztai's research are sharply divided. In the Authority's view the criticism on this occasion did not amount to a breach of standards relating to fairness. It declines to uphold the aspect of the complaint that Principle 5 was breached.

[50] Principle 6 requires broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The first question for the Authority is whether or not Eureka is a "current affairs programme". A majority considers, as a weekly programme which examines current topics in science, technology, medicine and environmental research, that Eureka falls into the category of "current affairs" programmes. A minority (Mr Rodney Bryant), however, considers that Eureka deals with a range of science-related questions which are not necessarily "current affairs", but which may be currently newsworthy. In the minority's view, Eureka is not the type of programme contemplated by the standard and, therefore, the minority declines to determine the aspect of the complaint that the broadcast breached Principle 6.

[51] The majority considers that the broadcast did not breach Principle 6. In the majority's view, Lord Winston's assertions concerning Dr Pusztai's research, transgenesis and cloning, were his legitimately held opinions, as distinct from "points of fact" to which the principle relates.

[52] In reaching its decision not to uphold the complaint, the Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster’s statutory freedom of expression in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
7 March 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Denys Trussell’s Formal Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd made on behalf of Friends of the Earth (and attachments) – 7 September 2001
  2. RNZ’s Response to Mr Trussell – 28 September 2001
  3. Mr Trussell’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 24 October 2001
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority (and attachments) – 23 November 2001
  5. Mr Trussell’s Final Comment – 6 December 2001
  6. Mr Trussell’s Letter Again Enclosing Final Comment – 4 February 2002