Newstalk ZB – Paul Holmes’ Breakfast Show – commentary on Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount – commentary on Middle East situation – unbalanced – inaccurate – socially irresponsible
Principle 4 – editorial piece – other significant points of view presented in period of current interest – no uphold
Principle 6 – clearly presenter’s opinion – comments not presented as fact – no uphold
Principle 7 – not denigratory to extent envisaged by principle – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
In an item on Paul Holmes’ Breakfast Show, broadcast on Newstalk ZB on 16 October 2000, the presenter commented on the Middle East situation. The presenter described Mr Ariel Sharon as a "dreadful beast" and as "mad, cynical [and] Arab-hating." He asserted that Mr Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount was solely to blame for recent violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
On behalf of the Auckland Jewish Council, the Council’s Chairperson, Wendy Ross, complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast was unbalanced, inaccurate and socially irresponsible. Describing the presenter’s criticism as "vitriolic, intemperate and biased", the complainant said it was incorrect to blame Mr Sharon for the outbreak of violence. The complainant also took exception to comments the presenter had made about the Auckland Jewish Council.
TRN declined to uphold the complaint, on the basis that it was an "editorial/opinion" piece and that Newstalk ZB had provided balance by interviewing a range of people about the Middle East situation.
Dissatisfied with TRN’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.
In an item on Newstalk ZB, broadcast on Paul Holmes’ Breakfast Show on the morning of 16 October 2000, the presenter discussed a newspaper article which had been written by a former Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, and published in Britain’s The Independent newspaper. During the course of the item, the presenter made a number of assertions about the Middle East situation.
The presenter began by reporting that, according to Mr Fisk, the word "cross-fire" almost always meant that the Israelis had killed an innocent person. Referring to Mr Fisk’s article, the presenter described Mr Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount as "the single flagrantly provocative action."
The presenter described as "absurd" comments broadcast on an earlier occasion by the editor of the Jerusalem Post to the effect that Palestinians went out to "get themselves killed in order to upset the peace process". In reference to Mr Fisk’s suggestion that journalists were "reluctant to tell the truth" about Israel and Israeli actions, the presenter said:
I’m sorry, but we are. Because the moment you criticise Israel, the Jewish Council is likely to declare you anti-Semitic. See, they get on to the Broadcasting Standards Authority and they say "you can’t possibly know the ins and outs of it all and the whole history" and so forth, and therefore you’re anti-Semitic. And of course being called anti-Semitic is only slightly better than being called a child abuser.
Further on in his commentary, the presenter referred to Mr Sharon as a "dreadful beast". In reference to recent violence in the Middle East, the presenter said:
Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian business is frightening, isn’t it. And there’s only one name you need to think about, you know, to blame the events of the last few weeks – Ariel Sharon, mad, cynical, Arab-hating Ariel Sharon. His act [of visiting Temple Mount] was one of direct provocation. Even Israelis are bothered by Sharon.
He said Mr Sharon’s visit was a "statement", designed to appeal to right wing Israelis, which had "killed the peace process."
In reference to events in the early 1990s, the presenter said:
So they had to start again, so the Palestinians had to go back and start again. … And just as it’s coming right again, just as Jerusalem might be the final sticking point, old Ariel Sharon the Beast of Lebanon goes walking to the mosque grounds in East Jerusalem, and it’s all on.
Towards the end of his commentary, the presenter said:
In the end, it’s about rich and poor. … People who have prosperity are happy. … People who are not oppressed, don’t go out and throw stones. The Palestinians are still poor and of course the thing about the power relationship there is that the Jews can restrict them or shut them down with unspeakable ease, the Palestinians.
He finished the item by asserting that the moment the Palestinians did something the Israelis did not like, or became "too assertive", the Israelis could "put the foot on the throat [of the Palestinians]."
On behalf of the Auckland Jewish Council, the Council’s Chairperson, Wendy Ross, complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast was unbalanced, inaccurate and socially irresponsible. The complainant said it breached Principles 4, 6 and 7 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 the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
6a Broadcasters will not use deceptive programme practices.
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.
6d Broadcasters shall ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
7a Broadcasters will not portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation; or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement does not extend to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i. factual; or
ii. a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion; or
iii. by way of legitimate humour or satire.
Under Principle 4, the Council acknowledged that Paul Holmes’ Breakfast Show had offered "some balance" in its coverage of Middle East events, by interviewing a range of people. However, it contended that the presenter’s editorial comments on the 16 October broadcast constituted a "gross imbalance". The complainant said:
This, given [the presenter’s] position of unrivalled power in New Zealand media, represents a most serious breach of the broadcaster’s obligations.
The complainant provided a number of examples of Palestinian violence against Israelis which had been reported in other media. It said:
One would have thought that at least some of these events would have prompted [the presenter] to react with the same indignation, fervour and moral outrage as characterised his broadcast of October 16th. … In order to provide balance, [the presenter] would have had to indulge in a similar diatribe against the Palestinians, using a similar tone and language.
The Council complained that the presenter had relied exclusively on the perspective of Mr Fisk, a journalist it described as having made a "lifetime career out of hostility to Israel." The complainant argued that Principle 4 of the Radio Code required the presenter to balance Mr Fisk’s views with those of another journalist or authority who took a different perspective.
In relation to Principle 6, the Council argued that the broadcast had breached the requirement for truth and accuracy, "principally by omission and distortion."
It said the presenter’s description of Mr Sharon’s action of walking on Temple Mount as "flagrantly provocative" had omitted to mention that Temple Mount was open to every person – "Moslem, Jew or Christian, politician or member of the public" – and that Mr Sharon’s visit had previously been cleared by both Israeli and Palestinian security services.
According to the Council, the presenter’s implication that the violence was an "immediate and spontaneous" response to Mr Sharon’s visit was incorrect. In fact, the complainant said, the violence had started the following day, when the crowd had been "incited to attack Jews praying at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, immediately below Temple Mount."
Instead, the complainant said:
… Newstalk ZB’s listeners are told, authoritatively and repetitively, that all blame rests at the feet of Ariel Sharon and the Israelis. Accurate? Truthful? No. In breach of the Act? Yes.
In relation to the presenter’s comment that "mad, cynical Arab-hating Ariel Sharon" was the only one to blame for the events of recent weeks, the Council said this was a "clear breach" of Principle 6. It said information that the Palestinians had been preparing for violence as a "political strategy" had been "in plentiful supply" well before the October 16 broadcast.
According to the complainant, Yasser Arafat had "adopted a strategy of fomenting violence" in the Palestinian territories, following his rejection of Mr Barak’s offer at Camp David in July and his failure to "drum up support for a unilateral declaration of independence." It said the international media had documented a series of midnight meetings in which Arafat was preparing his Tanzim militia for "imminent violent action." The Council also referred to a letter sent to President Clinton on 12 October by 94 of the 100 United States senators, in which they expressed deep concern at the "continuing, coordinated campaign of Palestinian violence."
Any person who presents himself as an informed commentator on these issues, as [the presenter] certainly did in his protracted lecture on October 16, should be familiar with these facts and the above analysis, which can be found in the current writings of Arab as well as Western commentators.
Instead, the complainant said, it "suited [the presenter’s] personal agenda … to simplistically and erroneously demonise one man – Ariel Sharon – in extravagant terms."
The Council argued that if the presenter considered "demonisation" was useful in informing listeners, then in the interests of balance "some history on Yasser Arafat, in similar condemnatory language, as the man responsible for countless acts of terrorism" would have been provided, either in the same programme or in the "period of current interest."
The complainant also took issue with the presenter "pour[ing] scorn" on the notion of Palestinian martyrdom as a political strategy. It said there was "ample evidence" of the phenomenon from a variety of sources, both Arab and Western, and quoted from two sources in support of her view.
The complainant said:
In all the decades Israelis have been fighting for the right to exist, they have never placed children in the front lines. … By contrast, but unremarked by [the presenter], Palestinians directing the confrontation place children among or in front of gunmen and men hurling molotov cocktails and rocks in violent confrontations.
The Palestinian Authority cynically but correctly predicts that those deaths will cause international condemnation of Israel, media frenzy, the incitement of Arabs and Moslems around the world, and demoralisation and anguish in Israel.
The Council also complained that the presenter’s comment to the effect that Mr Sharon’s visit had "killed the peace process" breached the requirement for truth and accuracy.
The complainant reiterated that there was "ample evidence" of the Palestinians preparing for the intifadah, well in advance of Mr Sharon’s visit. It said the presenter had breached standards by not clarifying for listeners the facts of the breakdown of the peace process. He had offered listeners a version of history that accorded with his prejudices, the complainant said.
In relation to the presenter’s comment that "just as Jerusalem might be the final sticking point, old Ariel Sharon the Beast of Lebanon goes walking to the mosque grounds in East Jerusalem and it’s all on," the Council said:
Is [the presenter] aware that under the despised Netanyahu’s administration, in which "mad, cynical, Arab-hating, dreadful, beast-of-Lebanon Ariel Sharon" was Foreign Minister, Israel voluntarily withdrew from a further 13 per cent of the land area of the West Bank, as a "goodwill gesture" to the Palestinians? This had not been mandated by the Oslo agreement, which provided for no further land withdrawals between the initial withdrawal and the final status negotiations.
The complainant said the presenter had entirely omitted the role of Mr Barak, whose offer to the Palestinians it said exceeded all expectations. Furthermore, the presenter’s comments about Palestinian poverty were "simplistic," it said.
In relation to the presenter’s comment that "people who are not oppressed don’t go out and throw stones", the Council said it was misleading to depict Palestinians as oppressed by the Israelis. It said:
The fact is that 95 per cent of the Palestinian population live under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction. Unless there is violence which threatens Israelis, Israeli authorities do not intervene in the Palestinian administration of their autonomous areas.
The Council complained that the presenter’s "demonisation" of Mr Sharon extended to Israel in general. It questioned how the presenter could categorise the lynching of the Israeli reservists as "assertiveness."
Under Principle 7, the Council said the presenter had "flagrantly disregarded" the principle by suggesting that the Jewish Council tried to stifle criticism of Israel by declaring such criticism to be expressions of anti-Semitism. It said:
There is a clear distinction between legitimate criticism of any country (even a country whose inhabitants have lived with an existential fear for 52 years) and criticism of such a vitriolic, intemperate and biased nature as to leave a clear impression that anti-Semitic bigotry plays a part.
The complainant highlighted the presenter’s comment that "the Jews can restrict them or shut them down with unspeakable ease, the Palestinians", and questioned why he had not talked of "Jews and Moslems" or "Israelis and Palestinians" if he had not been "so prejudiced."
The Council said the presenter had breached Principle 7 by implying that the Jewish Council was in the habit of making complaints about him to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. It said:
This pre-emption and denigration of the Jewish Council, and therefore the Jewish community which it represents, is in breach of Principle 7, and is an abuse of his position.
The Council challenged the presenter to produce evidence of repeated complaints to the Authority. It said:
The fact is that [the presenter] has a long history of criticising Israel, but the Jewish Council has exercised great restraint in the face of repeated provocation, and is very seldom drawn to making a complaint.
[The presenter] is abusing a position of great and unrivalled power in New Zealand opinion-shaping in producing a factually flawed, unbalanced diatribe, and pre-emptively attacking those who have the temerity to be offended by it.
The Council argued that the presenter’s comments were particularly offensive to the Jewish community, given that it was grieving the "evaporation of the prospect of peace in the near future." It reminded the broadcaster that many in the Jewish community in New Zealand had family and close friends in Israel, and had hoped that Israel and the future Palestinian state could enjoy the "kind of peace New Zealanders take for granted."
In relation to the alleged breach of Principle 4, The Radio Network argued that the broadcast was "an editorial/opinion piece" which was a regular feature of the Paul Holmes’ Breakfast Show in which he expressed his views on a variety of issues. TRN said:
What is important is that in addition to this broadcast, over a number of breakfast programmes, a wide variety of contributors presented views representing all sides of the Middle East issue.
The broadcaster referred to interviews with: Jeff Barak, Editor of the Jerusalem Post; Hillary Anderson, Duncan Kennedy and Paul Anderson from the BBC; the Secretary of the Auckland Zionist Council and a representative from the Auckland Palestine Community; and, Simon Williams, a Middle East Lebanon expert from the Economist International Unit. The broadcaster said regular overviews of the Middle East situation and the peace negotiation process had been provided by United States correspondents Richard Arnold and Martin Kettle.
The broadcaster said Newstalk ZB had been "exemplary" in reporting a balanced view of the Middle East situation, and added:
While this represents true balance it does not preclude Paul Holmes giving forthright opinions as well.
TRN said throughout the conflict the broadcaster received "strongly voiced, off-air comments" from both sides of the issue, which lead it to the view that "we may be getting it right." It declined to uphold the complaint that Principle 4 had been breached.
In relation to Principle 6, the broadcaster stated:
The reality is, no matter how many pages of argument you put forward, you cannot get away from international agreement that Sharon’s visit to the Haram-as-Sharif Temple Mount was a direct provocation.
The broadcaster asserted that, even if the Auckland Jewish Council disagreed with that view, [the presenter] still had "the right to agree with the vast majority of international commentators on this matter." While acknowledging that it was the presenter’s opinion, the broadcaster said it believed that opinion to be "strongly backed up by fact."
In relation to the complainant’s comments about "martyrdom", TRN stated that was also a "matter of opinion". TRN agreed the presenter’s statement that Mr Sharon’s visit had "killed the peace process" contained a "degree of conjecture", but asserted that "the peace process [had] yet to resume."
Regarding the presenter’s comments about "rich and poor" and "oppression", TRN said there was nothing there that the presenter did not have "the right to say as comment and opinion."
Accordingly, TRN declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of Principle 6.
In relation to Principle 7, TRN said the presenter’s remarks about being labelled anti-Semitic were a "genuine expression of serious comment", based on his experience of complaints when talking about the Middle East situation. It declined to uphold a breach of Principle 7.
Finally, the broadcaster referred to the complainant’s comment that the programme could have given "more valuable background or comment on the event." TRN said:
As listed previously, Newstalk ZB has canvassed and carried a wide variety of views and backgrounders of the Middle East problems. Alongside that we will also always hold the right to make a genuinely expressed stand on any given issue.
In its referral to the Authority, the Auckland Jewish Council said TRN’s response was "dismissive" and failed to address the "detailed and substantive points" raised and the facts presented in the complaint.
The complainant acknowledged that "some balance" had been offered in respect to the range of interviewees on the Paul Holmes Breakfast Show. However, it disputed the "weight of that very lengthy editorial comment which serve[d] to unbalance the effect of those interviews."
The Council did not dispute that the presenter was entitled to regard Mr Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount as "provocative" and pointed out that the Council had conceded in its letter of complaint that the visit was "ill-advised". However, it said:
Where [the presenter’s] view diverges significantly is in his emphatic, repeated insistence that the sole cause of the violence is Ariel Sharon. We analyse comment from a wide range of sources and have found no reputable commentator outside the Arab world who shares [the presenter’s] simplistic certainly on this matter. [The broadcaster] believes [the presenter’s] opinion is "strongly backed up by fact" but presents none to substantiate that belief.
The complainant said the broadcaster had "airily dismiss[ed]" over a page of material provided by the complainant regarding martyrdom with the statement that it was a "matter of opinion." It said:
We contend that there is a point at which the most strongly held opinions must be modified by facts. We would hope that a broadcasting executive might acknowledge this.
In relation to TRN’s claim that, as the peace process had yet to resume, Mr Sharon and the Likud party had killed it, the Council said the broadcaster had not attempted to refute the points provided in the initial complaint which demonstrated why the presenter’s assertion was unfounded.
The complainant said the broadcaster had similarly dismissed the complaint under Principle 7 with "no attempt to deal with the issues set out." TRN appeared not to be able to distinguish between complaints in general, and those made by the Jewish Council, and had provided no evidence of complaints received from the Jewish Council, it said.
TRN disagreed that its response to the complainant had been "dismissive" and said the response had "covered the relevant sections of the very lengthy submission from [the complainant]." TRN said the balance it had outlined was important in weighing up how Newstalk ZB covered and continued to cover the issue. It said:
The length of the [presenter’s] comment was no longer or any different from the majority of the comment pieces delivered by [the presenter] on a daily basis. It was legitimate opinion.
In relation to the complainant’s contention that TRN’s reference to complaints had been "frivolous", the broadcaster said the comment had been made to underline that "on this issue it is impossible to please both sides." The broadcaster reiterated its view that, whatever the complainant’s opinion, there was "an acceptance that the Sharon visit to Temple Mount was the pivotal action for the resumption and escalation of violence."
Regarding the complainant’s disagreement with the presenter’s opinion on martyrdom, TRN said it stood by its statement that this was "legitimate opinion." Again, the broadcaster said it was "legitimate opinion to say that Sharon’s visit was pivotal in killing the peace process."
Finally, TRN addressed the point that it had not cited specific examples of complaints from the Jewish Council. It said the presenter’s statement about complaints had been based on more than 12 years experience on both television and radio. TRN said:
His feeling was that if he delivered a view contrary to that of the Jewish Council, then he would be jumped on by that organisation.
In its final comment to the Authority, the complainant reiterated the Jewish Council’s view that TRN’s response had been "dismissive", saying there was no evidence of TRN having "carefully weighed up the facts and perspectives" contained in the original complaint.
With regard to the broadcaster’s comment that it was "impossible to please both sides", the Council said:
It is, undoubtedly, difficult, given that the crux of this matter is a tragic struggle between two peoples over one tiny piece of land. However, we have listened, over the years, to a great many broadcasts with which we disagree, without feeling obliged to lodge a formal complaint. We recognise that there is legitimate opinion which may differ from ours.
It was the excessive, intemperate, simplistic broadcast on this occasion, which led to our complaint.
The Council maintained that Mr Sharon’s visit had not been "pivotal in killing the peace process" and that it was unbalanced for the presenter to state otherwise.
The complainant said the Jewish community, as represented by the Jewish Council, was "appalled at being condemned in public for attacks on [the presenter] to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, when no such attacks have been made." TRN’s response that the presenter felt "he would be jumped on" was "hardly a defence for having made this defamatory accusation against this Council", it said.
The complainant said TRN had a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that matters of "immense complexity and consequence" were handled appropriately.
The Authority considers first whether the subject broadcast breached Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. In doing so, the Authority agrees with the broadcaster that the item was primarily an editorial/opinion piece. The Authority also notes that the principle does not require any one particular programme to provide balance by canvassing all significant points of view. Reasonable opportunities, however, must be given to present significant points of views either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.
During the course of its deliberations the Authority sought from The Radio Network clarification on the range of interviews and commentaries Newstalk ZB had broadcast during the period of current interest. TRN provided a full outline of the interviews and filed reports, the nature of the subject matter covered, and the broad stance taken, in a number of items broadcast during October. The Authority invited the Auckland Jewish Council to respond to the additional information provided by TRN. The Council stressed that it did not dispute that a number of commentators had been interviewed and that some balance had been provided. However, it reiterated its view that the tone, language and emphasis of the presenter’s editorial comments outweighed the effect of any balance offered by the range of interviews. The complainant said the presenter had "clearly set out to establish himself as a well-informed commentator on this matter" and that he had a duty to be well informed before adopting such a role. The complainant’s response referred the Authority to a number of articles offering a different view and interpretation of events in the Middle East.
The Authority has considered carefully the additional material supplied by TRN, and the complainant’s response. The Authority is satisfied that, during the period of current interest, significant points of view were aired, including those in harmony with the views of the Auckland Jewish Council. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the aspect of the complaint that the broadcast breached Principle 4 of the Radio Code.
Turning to consider whether the broadcast breached Principle 6, the Authority draws attention to Guideline 6c of the principle which requires factual reports to be clearly distinguished from opinion, analysis and comment. In the Authority’s view, the broadcast complained about was clearly an opinion piece. The particular comments to which the complainant took exception were not, in the Authority’s view, presented as fact. Rather, they were the expression of a provocative opinion. The Authority declines to uphold the complaint as a breach of Principle 6.
The Authority also notes the fundamental importance attached to the right to freedom of expression in a democratic society. That principle is now enshrined in section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, which reads:
14. Freedom of expression: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.
In the Authority’s view, to deny the broadcaster the right to express an opinion, albeit an unpopular one with some members of the community, would be to put the principle of freedom of expression in jeopardy.
The Authority notes that Principle 7 requires the broadcaster not to portray the Auckland Jewish Council in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against the Council on account of its religious, cultural or political beliefs. In the Authority’s view, while the presenter’s comments were somewhat contentious, they in no way encouraged denigration of the Council in the manner envisaged by the principle. In addition, the principle specifically is not designed to prevent the broadcast of material which is a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion. Having already found the broadcast complained about to be the expression of the presenter’s genuinely held opinion, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint as a breach of Principle 7.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
17 May 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: