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McElwain and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2002-209

Members

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

Complainant

  • Doug McElwain of Hamilton

Dated

17th December 2002

Number

2002-209

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
National Radio – News item – Labour leader calls for support – alleged to be a party political announcement – broadcaster not independent

Findings
Principle 6, Guideline 6a – sources cited – objective presentation – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] A call from the leader of the Labour Party for party supporters to vote Labour, rather than for a potential coalition party, was reported in a news item broadcast on National Radio at 3.00am on 26 July 2002.

[2] Doug McElwain complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item sounded like a party political broadcast, and accordingly, breached the requirement for broadcasters to maintain an independent news service.

[3] In response, RNZ said the item cited the sources of information referred to and there was nothing in the item which suggested its independence had been called into question. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr McElwain referred the 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] A news item on National Radio reported a call from the leader of the Labour Party urging party members to use their party vote to support the Labour Party, rather than for a potential coalition party. The item was broadcast on the news at 3.00am on 26 July 2002.

The Complaint

[7] On the basis that the item "had all the characteristics of a Party plant", Doug McElwain complained to RNZ that National Radio’s news services lacked editorial independence.

The Standard

[8] RNZ assessed the complaint under the Principle nominated by Mr McElwain. The Principle and relevant Guideline provide:

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.

Guideline

6d  Broadcasters shall ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] RNZ provided a transcript of the item. It read:

"The Labour Leader, Helen Clark, is appealing to supporters to vote Labour, rather than try to find the party a coalition partner. Miss Clark says the party’s current polling is enough for a stable minority coalition with Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition. Polls conducted for One News and TV3 put Labour at 43 to 44 percent."

[10] On the basis that the sources of the information contained in the item had been clearly identified, RNZ maintained that there was nothing in the item which suggested that RNZ’s independence and integrity had been called into question.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[11] Pointing out that the item was broadcast the day before the general election when polls indicated voter volatility, Mr McElwain contended that it was a time when impartiality was paramount.

[12] Mr McElwain raised the possibility that the Labour Party had "fed" the item to a contact in RNZ news. RNZ, he argued, had a duty to be strictly impartial.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[13] Noting that the complainant now referred to a news item at 4.00am rather than a news item at 3.00am raised in the original complaint, RNZ stated nevertheless that Mr McElwain had not advanced any evidence of partiality.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[14] Regardless of whether the item intentionally gave the impression that RNZ was the Labour Party’s public relations body, Mr McElwain maintained that was the impression he took in view of the lack of comment from any other political party. Fairness, like justice, must be seen to be done and he considered that RNZ’s impartiality with the news item complained about was "questionable".

The Authority’s Decision

[15] When Mr McElwain forwarded the complaint to the Authority, he referred to the news on National Radio at 4.00am. In the initial complaint he had cited the news at 3.00am. In its response to the Authority, RNZ stated that a complaint about the 4.00am item was both out of time and had been made initially to the Authority, rather than to the broadcaster. Having read the correspondence, the Authority considers that Mr McElwain’s reference to the news at 4.00am was almost certainly a mistake, and that RNZ’s comments were unhelpful.

[16] Mr McElwain complained that the lead item on the news at 3.00am sounded like a Labour Party "feed", and he questioned RNZ’s impartiality.

[17] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item and have read a transcript. It notes that the item quoted sources – the Prime Minister, TVNZ and TV3 – and is written in a news style which displayed objective presentation of the matter dealt with.

[18] The Authority considers that the item does not bring RNZ’s independence or editorial integrity into question and it declines to uphold the complaint.

[19] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards and applies them in a manner which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
17 December 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Doug McElwain’s Formal Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 13 August 2002
  2. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 12 September 2002
  3. Mr McElwain’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 7 October 2002
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 24 October 2002
  5. Mr McElwain’s Final Comment – 11 November 2002