Morning Report – panel discussion about Biketawa Declaration – presenter biased – panellist treated unfairly
Principle 4 – reasonable efforts made to present significant points of view – no uphold
Principle 5 – discussion could have been better handled – not, however, a breach of fairness requirement – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An item on Morning Report, broadcast on National Radio on 31 October 2000 between 7.20am and 7.30am, included a panel discussion about the effects of the recently announced Biketawa Declaration, in which Pacific Islands Forum leaders agreed to change a 30-year tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, to allow the Forum to deal with regional crises.
One of the panellists, Emeritus Professor of the University of the South Pacific, Ron Crocombe, complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the "unprofessional and unethical behaviour" of the programme’s producer and presenter. Mr Crocombe said the presenter had been biased, and that he had not been given time to respond to the other panellists’ views.
RNZ responded that the time allocated to the different speakers could have been better controlled. However, it said Mr Crocombe’s point of view had been aired, and the manner in which he had been treated fell "well short" of a breach of broadcasting standards.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, the complainant referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
An item on Morning Report, broadcast on National Radio on 31 October 2000 between 7.20am and 7.30am, dealt with the effects of the recently announced Biketawa Declaration, in which Pacific Islands Forum leaders agreed to change a 30-year tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, to allow the Forum to deal with regional crises.
The item consisted of an introduction by National Radio’s presenter; an audio piece from Australian Prime Minister John Howard; an audio piece from New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark; an audio piece from Fiji’s deposed Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba; and, a three way panel discussion. The panel consisted of Emeritus Professor of the University of the South Pacific Ron Crocombe; Wellington-based International Affairs analyst Terrence O’Brien; and, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Phil Goff.
One of the panellists, Mr Crocombe, complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the "unprofessional and unethical behaviour" of the programme’s producer and presenter. He said he had appeared on television and radio "many times in many countries" and had never before had reason to complain, "nor been treated so unprofessionally."
Mr Crocombe explained that someone from RNZ had telephoned him the evening before the broadcast to ask if he would speak on a panel on security issues which had been discussed at the Pacific Islands Forum. He said he had asked who the other panellists would be, what the order of speaking would be, and what the time allocation for each panellist would be. He said he had agreed to participate on the basis of an assurance that he would be contacted again to clarify the answers to his questions. Mr Crocombe said on the morning of the broadcast the producer telephoned him just prior to the panel interview beginning, and did not answer his questions about speaking order or time allocation.
Mr Crocombe said the presenter had invited Mr O’Brien to speak first, followed by Mr Goff. He said:
I have no objection to that, although since Mr Goff is the New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs and Mr O’Brien is a retired distinguished diplomat who spent his life in New Zealand Foreign Affairs, the presenter’s approach did not seem designed to give balanced views.
Mr Crocombe objected to what he said was the presenter’s statement to him about the Declaration having to "drag the Pacific into the 21st century." He said:
Your presenter’s bias was clear. I said [to him on air that] this patronising stance was one of the causes of New Zealand’s deteriorating relations with, and deteriorating standing, in the Pacific Islands.
Mr Crocombe complained that the presenter had given "all the rest of the time to Mr Goff to make a long speech" without giving him the opportunity to reply. He said he had no objection to Mr Goff defending his government’s practices, or to Mr O’Brien stating his views. However, he said:
I do have strong objection to Radio New Zealand asking a person to participate and then simply using him for a few seconds as a straw man to allow the minister to avoid discussing the real issues and his government’s practices – the latter I believe to [be] based on a simplistic ideological stance which, if applied, will only lead to further political violence in Fiji …
According to the complainant, after hearing the broadcast a colleague had commented on "how far Radio New Zealand bent over backwards to curry favour with their political masters."
Mr Crocombe requested a recording of the panel discussion, a measurement of the length of time the presenter had given to each panellist, and an account of the number of times each panellist had been given air time. He said he wanted the information as he wished to complain to the Broadcasting Standards Authority in the hope that "appropriate action" would be taken to ensure the producer and presenter were "required to apply professional standards." He said he also wanted time to express his views on the matters RNZ’s staff had "led [him] to believe they wanted made available to [the] audience."
I believe the New Zealand cabinet’s recent patronising, neo-colonial approach is not in the best interests of either New Zealand or the Pacific region. If Radio New Zealand gives air time to a minister to defend his government’s actions, I have no objection provided that is made clear. But to ask others to participate and then ensure they cannot do so on any equitable basis is unacceptable.
Radio New Zealand’s Editorial Policy Manager responded to the complainant. He agreed that Mr Crocombe should have been given more time to respond to the other panellists’ views. He said:
However, I do not accept that you were invited on to the programme simply to be used as "a straw man" or that [the producer] or [the presenter] deliberately intended to produce a biased report. They are professionals of long-standing with a well-earned reputation for fairness.
The Editorial Policy Manager said a mistake had been made in not "adequately controlling the allocation of time more equitably between speakers." The producer would have liked the complainant to have been given the opportunity to respond to the other panellists’ views, but the 7.30am news brought the segment to an end, he said.
The Editorial Policy Manager said the producer regretted what had happened and hoped it would not preclude Mr Crocombe from taking part in future RNZ broadcasts.
Morning Report is required to provide impartial and unbiased coverage of current events. The programme seeks not to promote or denigrate any point of view. In this instance it should have done a better job and allowed you a greater share of airtime. But we strongly reject any suggestion that "Radio New Zealand bent over backwards to curry favour with their political masters."
Mr Crocombe referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, stating that although RNZ had acknowledged a mistake, no mention had been made of any action being taken to "redress the imbalance and public misunderstanding they created."
Mr Crocombe said RNZ’s response was "simply a whitewash." He said it did not address the issue that, having requested his participation, when it was clear that his opinion was not that of "the government that pays them" RNZ had then given all the rest of the time to the minister to make his "political utterances." He repeated his belief that the minister’s view was "patronising and neo-colonial."
The complainant said:
There was no balance, no fair hearing, and the panellists were not treated fairly as is required by law – or by any reasonable broadcasting ethic. The public was left only with the minister’s propaganda.
He finished by criticising what he believed to be RNZ’s "current practice of being mainly a mouth-piece for government propaganda." He suggested RNZ should "try to reach the higher standards of broadcasters like BBC which seek wider opinion and deeper understanding."
In its response to the Authority, RNZ said its evaluation of Mr Crocombe’s complaint had been "couched in terms" of Principles 4 and 5 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Those principles state:
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.
4a Broadcasters will respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions.
4b Broadcasters may have regard, when ensuring that programmes comply with Principle 4, to the following matters:
i) An appropriate introduction to the programme; and
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.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
RNZ provided an analysis of the order in which the panellists had spoken, which it said was "contrary to a number of assertions" in Mr Crocombe’s complaint.
The broadcaster said Mr O’Brien had been invited to open the panel discussion with a question about whether the Declaration signalled a new era for the Pacific. It was difficult to see what in this style of opening could suggest that the approach "did not seem designed to give balanced views," as asserted by the complainant, RNZ said.
In relation to the statement about having to "drag the Pacific into the 21st century", the broadcaster said that statement had "quite clearly" been directed at Mr Goff, not the complainant.
The broadcaster said it was not correct for the complainant to assert that the presenter had given "all the rest of the time to Mr Goff to make a long speech."
RNZ said its "long held understanding" was that it was not necessary to allocate even amounts of time to each contributor in order to achieve balance. The complainant had been given two opportunities to speak. As RNZ’s Editorial Policy Manager had acknowledged, the broadcaster would have liked to have given him a further opportunity to respond, but deadlines precluded this, the broadcaster said.
RNZ declined to uphold a breach of Principle 4. It said the programme was an extended piece, and on four occasions the complainant’s point of view had been aired "either directly or indirectly through the presenter’s attributed comments."
RNZ said it had also considered the complaint against Principle 5, to see whether the complainant had been treated unfairly. It said:
While the Editorial Policy Manager has acknowledged that both the on-air time and preparation for the panel discussion could have been handled in a better manner, that which occurred fell well short of a standard to suggest that the complainant was treated unfairly.
RNZ said the complainant, who by his own admission had appeared many times on radio and television in many countries, was well able to handle the on-air panel discussion format.
According to the broadcaster, the basis for Mr Crocombe’s original complaint appeared to be his unhappiness with what the complainant had described as "the New Zealand cabinet’s recent patronising, neo-colonialist approach." RNZ said that was not a matter of broadcasting standards.
While acknowledging that, editorially, the panel discussion could have been "better managed", there was no breach of broadcasting standards, RNZ said.
In his final comment to the Authority, Mr Crocombe said RNZ’s response was "a weak attempt to avoid responsibility and in terms of the code that expects them to act with balance and integrity." He said most of RNZ’s staff had "shallow misunderstandings of the Fiji situation" and that the panel discussion was "another projection of their biased and simplistic perspectives to the New Zealand public."
He said although the programme’s focus was on the Biketawa Declaration, the programme did not mention that
14 of the 16 heads of government in the Pacific Islands Forum did not share the views of the three people [the presenter] decided to present to the New Zealand public as representing the Forum’s views – and it was the Forum the programme was about.
He said RNZ had not taken up his request to include "at least one indigenous Pacific Islander" on the interview panel. As a consequence, of all those interviewed in the programme, he said six were "chosen to speak on one side" and one, himself, to "present a little of the more common perspectives among Fijians and other Pacific Islanders." He said he had then not been given the opportunity.
Mr Crocombe requested that the Authority be told the exact amount of time he had been allowed, as against the other two panel participants. He said he was not talking about "stop-watch journalism" but about "balanced, responsible journalism."
Mr Crocombe disputed RNZ’s contention that on four occasions his point of view had been aired. He also disputed the contention that his "real complaint" was with the New Zealand cabinet, and not with RNZ.
Following receipt of the complainant’s final comment, RNZ wrote to the Authority to address several of his points and to express concern that, in its opinion, some complainants were using the opportunity for a final comment to "raise new matters of fact (substantiated or otherwise) and/or opinions which were not the subject of or included in the initial complaint." Introducing new material was contrary to the principles of natural justice, RNZ said. It also required broadcasters to expend time, energy and resources to address submissions which were irrelevant to the original complaint, it said.
With regard to Mr Crocombe’s comment that RNZ staff had "shallow misunderstandings of the Fiji situation", RNZ said it was not clear to whom of its approximately 250 employees the complainant was referring. The broadcaster said Mr Crocombe had provided "no evidence" for his assertion, and that it "absolutely reject[ed] such a notion."
In relation to Mr Crocombe’s assertion that Terrence O’Brien was one of "six people [who] were chosen to speak on one side", RNZ said it "absolutely reject[ed]" the implication that it somehow influenced a National Radio guest to adopt a particular stance, or that it had any prior knowledge of what the guest was going to say.
As to Mr Crocombe’s assertion that "[i]f Radio New Zealand gives air time to a minister to defend his government’s actions, I have no objection provided that is made clear …", RNZ said:
Radio New Zealand finds that statement to be at odds with the reality of a live interview. It is not for Radio New Zealand to know exactly what it is that an interviewee will say prior to airtime so it would be both impractical and presumptive to foreshadow comments in the manner that the complainant envisages.
Finally, the broadcaster suggested it might be "timely for the Authority to review the manner in which broadcasters' comments are sent to a complainant for final comment by including a note to the effect that new material cannot be introduced at that time."
In the interests of natural justice, the complainant was sent a copy of RNZ’s further correspondence to the Authority. The complainant responded to the Authority that RNZ’s response "tried to avoid the issue by saying that I am introducing new material." He pointed to RNZ’s Editorial Policy Manager’s response to his original complaint, which acknowledged that the allocation of time could have been better controlled. He said:
My complaint is that he [the Editorial Policy Manager] (or RNZ) did not then take corrective action to give the public a more balanced view.
The Authority deals first with the complainant’s request that the Authority order Radio New Zealand to tell it the exact amount of time Mr Crocombe was allowed to speak during the panel discussion, in relation to the other two panel participants. The Authority declines to accede to this request. The exact amount of time participants are allotted is not a yardstick by which the Authority measures balance. The members of the Authority have listened to a full tape of the item complained about, including the introduction by National Radio’s presenter, and the audio pieces from the New Zealand and Australian Prime Ministers and Fiji’s deposed Deputy Prime Minister. The members have also read a transcript of the full item. The Authority considers it is more than adequately equipped to determine this complaint, without requesting the breakdown the complainant has requested.
Before it considers whether the broadcast complained about breached Principle 4 or Principle 5 of the Radio Code, the Authority notes that the off-air protocol adopted by broadcasters is not generally a matter of broadcasting standards. It acknowledges that RNZ’s Editorial Policy Manager accepted that the allocation of time could have been controlled more equitably between the speakers. However, the Authority agrees with RNZ that an acknowledgment that the panel discussion could have been better handled does not necessarily amount to a breach of broadcasting standards.
Turning to consider whether the broadcast breached Principle 4, the Authority draws attention to the requirement that "reasonable efforts" be made, or "reasonable opportunities" be given, to present significant points of view, either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. In its view, although the way the discussion was managed fell short of both the complainant’s and Radio New Zealand’s expectations, reasonable efforts were made to air Mr Crocombe’s point of view. In fact, in the Authority’s view, Mr Crocombe succeeded in quite forcefully getting across his view that the use of "condescending, patronising, racist sort of terminology" was not helpful to the affairs of Pacific Islands Forum members.
As to whether the broadcast breached Principle 5, the Authority accepts that the discussion could have been better managed. However, it does not accept that Mr Crocombe was treated in such a way as to amount to a breach of the requirement for fairness. In the Authority’s view, as a matter of professional journalism, it is not for Mr Crocombe to tell Radio New Zealand who should be interviewed and how much time various viewpoints should be given. If he was dissatisfied with the way RNZ was putting the item together, Mr Crocombe had the opportunity to pull out of the discussion, an opportunity he chose not to take.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
26 April 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: