Radio Pacific – talkback – comment about interest rates – host Mark Bennett – inaccurate
Principle 6 – reference to economy or chronology – two possible interpretations – majority – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
When referring to the third recent interest rate cut in Australia, a talkback host on Radio Pacific (Mark Bennett) expressed his disgust that rates in New Zealand, until recently, had gone up. He considered that the Reserve Bank Governor’s concern about inflation had meant that New Zealand was out of step with Australia, America and Japan. The comments were made at about 6.15pm on 21 March 2001.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand complained to The RadioWorks New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster of Radio Pacific, that, as there had been no change to the interest rate between July 2000 and March 2001, the comment was inaccurate.
The broadcaster maintained that the statement which was broadcast was not incorrect and declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ decision, the Reserve Bank referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item complained about, have read a transcript, and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
The talkback host on Radio Pacific, Mark Bennett, at about 6.15pm on 21 March 2001, referred to a recent cut in the official interest rate in Australia. Radio Pacific is devoted to talkback. Australia’s actions, he said, were similar to America and Japan and had been taken because of a downturn in internal production. In New Zealand, on the other hand, he said:
This country must be the only country in the world which when caught in the middle of a savage recession increases its interest rates. There must be a better way than giving interest rate control over to the Reserve Bank. I mean I know: I know we had a reduction two weeks ago. I know the interest… 0.25, down 0.25% a couple of weeks ago. We will never forget last year, at the end of last year, when this country was virtually at a bloody standstill. It was like freeze frame on the business sector, yet Brash continued to push interest rates up, his only concern being inflation. There must be a better way.
The Reserve Bank complained to the broadcaster that the statement was inaccurate. The Official Cash Rate, it indicated, had been increased to 6.5% in May 2000 and had been held there until it had been reduced in March 2001. The Bank asked for a correction to be broadcast.
The broadcaster declined to broadcast a correction and the Reserve Bank referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. The Bank did not consider the matter trivial, it said, as the effect of the statement was to accuse the Reserve Bank "of gross negligence" and breaching its statutory duties. The Reserve Bank said that it accepted that talkback hosts were entitled to express an opinion on issues but, it added, they were required to be accurate on matters of fact.
The broadcaster’s response was accompanied by a letter from the talkback host. He maintained that his remarks had been directed at the interest rate during the entire year, pointing out that the official rate had been increased on a number of occasions between January and May 2000. He explained:
The complaint has nothing to do with accuracy or inaccuracy but is a heavy handed attempt at intimidation by a government department that has consistently attempted to stifle genuine editorial disagreement with their interest rate policies.
The Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice requires broadcasters to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. I have attacked the Banks interest rate policy consistently for at least three years so my comments are truthful and sincerely held opinions. […] The Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice is not intended as a device for government departments to stifle free and rigorous debate.
The RadioWorks argued that the host was expressing an opinion during the broadcast complained about, as permitted under guideline 7(a) of Principle 7 of the Radio Code. As for the factual dispute, the broadcaster considered that both the host’s and the Bank’s interpretations were correct. It argued that the standards had not been breached and added:
Both parties are attempting to work more closely together in the future, and we are sure that this closer working relationship will result in a better understanding between the parties.
In its final comment, the Reserve Bank insisted it was clear that the statement complained about referred to the latter part of the year, not the whole year. Moreover, as setting monetary policy was "at the absolute core of the Reserve Bank’s business", it regarded the matter as serious. The Bank disputed, first, the broadcaster’s comments that both it and the presenter could be accurate, and second, that guideline 7a was relevant. Finally, the Bank acknowledged that commentary on the Official Cash Rate was to be expected but, it said, the facts on which the comments were made, had to be accurate.
There are three procedural matters which the Authority wishes to comment on before determining the complaint.
The first concerns the absence of a written response by the broadcaster to the complaint. Apparently, the broadcaster told the complainant by telephone that it did not intend to broadcast the correction sought. While it acknowledges that some exchanges by telephone may occur in the resolution of complaints, the Authority reminds broadcasters that s.7 of the Broadcasting Act 1989 requires them to respond in writing to formal complaints. It also requires broadcasters to advise complainants of their right, if dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, to refer the complaint to the Authority.
In its subsequent response to the Authority, the broadcaster attached a written explanation, from the talkback host who made the comments complained about. The Authority notes that it has a discretion whether to accept such material. Pursuant to s.10(1)(b) of the Act, it may do so if it considers the material a "relevant submission". On this occasion, the Authority accepts the host’s submission as a "relevant submission".
The final point relates to the broadcaster’s application of the appropriate standard. The broadcaster referred to guideline 7a of Principle 7. However, as the opinion was not about an issue of denigration or discrimination as anticipated by that standard, the Authority finds that guideline 7a is not relevant.
The Authority considers the complaint under Principle 6, and guideline 6c. They read:
In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, shall be clearly distinguished.
In its assessment of the complaint, a threshold issue is whether the broadcast was a current affairs programme. The Authority repeats the observation it has made on previous occasions that, as a general rule, talkback programmes are not "news and current affairs programmes". Nevertheless, specific aspects of talkback may indeed be current affairs and, taking into account the context of the host’s editorial on this occasion, the Authority is of the opinion that the Principle 6 requirement for factual accuracy is applicable.
Editorial is clearly an expression of opinion and acceptable under guideline 6c. However, opinions need to be based on factual accuracy and the Authority now turns to the specific complaint.
The complainant, in referring to the transcript of the broadcast, argued that it reported that the Reserve Bank "continued to push rates up" " at the end of last year". It produced a chart of the changes to the Official Cash Rate which demonstrated that this was clearly wrong. The chart disclosed that there had been no changes to the Rate from July 2000 until it was reduced in March 2001.
The broadcaster also argues that "at the end of last year" the host contended that New Zealand "was virtually at a bloody standstill". The complainant does not contest that view.
If the Authority accepted the Reserve Bank’s interpretation, it would uphold the complaint. However, after a close examination, a majority of the Authority is unable to dismiss the possible interpretation advanced by the broadcaster. In view of two possible interpretations, a majority finds that a breach of Principle 6 has not been established to the required standard, the balance of probability.
The majority also observes that to find a breach of Principle 6 would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster’s statutory right to freedom of expression, specifically the right to impart opinions of any kind in any form (s.14 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990).
A minority of the Authority (Mr Rodney Bryant) does not accept that the interpretation advanced by the broadcaster is reasonable. Accordingly, as in his view the editorial was incorrect, the minority considers that Principle 6 has been breached
In reaching this decision, the minority records that it has considered whether the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, is unjustifiably infringed. The minority is satisfied that its decision to uphold this complaint is made pursuant to its empowering legislation. Section 21(1)(e) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 requires the Authority to encourage broadcasters to develop and observe codes of broadcasting practice appropriate to the type of broadcasting undertaken by such broadcaster. Principle 6 specifically addresses the objective to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
The minority argues that editorial pieces, while admissible under Principle 6, require a greater duty of care as to fact. Here, the announcer’s reference to interest rates was inadequate and served only to support his suggestion that "there must be a better way, or is it simply there must be a better person than Don Brash". It is not significant to the minority that the announcer contended his attack on interest rate policy was "consistent with similar attacks over a period of time".
For the above reasons, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for an on behalf of the Authority
23 August 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: