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Currie and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2001-205

Members

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

Complainant

  • David Currie of Wellington

Dated

22nd November 2001

Number

2001-205

Programme

Concert FM

Channel/Station

Concert FM

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Concert FM – news item on cannabis use – report that decriminalisation would lead to increased use – and heavy use could lead to criminal behaviour

Findings
Principle 4 – long period of current interest for the decriminalisation of cannabis debate – explored in other media – Guideline 4b (ii) – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] A submission that the decriminalisation of cannabis would lead to other criminal and anti-social behaviour was referred to in a news item broadcast on Concert FM at 8.00am on 23 July 2001. It was reported that the submission had been made by the Police Association to a Parliamentary Health Select Committee inquiring into the harm associated with cannabis use.

[2] David Currie complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the news item was misleading. There had been no reference to submissions which supported the use of a regulated legal market for cannabis, he wrote, and the item advanced anti-drug propaganda rather than a balanced debate.

[3] In response, RNZ understood that the complaint referred to a news item broadcast on National Radio, and advised that an item broadcast on National Radio’s Morning Report that morning had dealt with a reasonable cross-section of views on the decriminalisation of cannabis. It declined to uphold the complaint. The complainant later advised RNZ that he was referring to the bulletin on Concert FM.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Currie 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

[5] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item 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 broadcast at 8.00am on Concert FM on 19 July 2001 dealt with two of the submissions to a Parliamentary Health Select Committee which was inquiring into how to minimise the use and harm associated with cannabis. It was reported that the Police Association opposed any change in the legal status of cannabis on the grounds that decriminalisation would lead to the increase of the use of cannabis, and that heavy cannabis use went hand-in-hand with other criminal and anti-social behaviour among young people. The Drug Foundation, the report continued, also opposed decriminalisation but sought more police assistance for users, rather than prosecution.

The Complaint

[7] David Currie, a member of the Drug Policy and Education Council, complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the Police Association submission was not supported by evidence and was misleading. Moreover, he wrote, the item had not mentioned a submission from Dr Marks from the Drug Policy Forum Trust who spoke about a regulated legal market for cannabis which would take over from the present uncontrolled illegal market. Mr Currie considered that inclusion of the Police Association’s submission, and the omission of Drug Policy Forum Trust’s submission, meant that the item was unbalanced and in breach of Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

The Standard

[8] RNZ assessed the complaint under Principle 4. It reads:

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

4a  Broadcasters will respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions.

4b  Broadcasters may have regard, when ensuring that programmes comply with –

    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

The Broadcaster's First Response to the Complainant

[9] RNZ explained that the Select Committee had received many submissions and only a few could be mentioned in the news.

[10] It also pointed out that an item on National Radio’s Morning Report broadcast a further item about the hearing and had referred to a number of the submissions. RNZ acknowledged that not all opinions were canvassed but said that a reasonable cross-section had been covered.

The Complainant’s Response to the Broadcaster

[11] Mr Currie stated that he had not heard the Morning Report item which RNZ referred to. Nevertheless, in view of the organisations whose views, RNZ said, had been advanced, Mr Currie did not accept that the concept of a regulated legal market in cannabis had been covered. An illegal market, he argued, had a number of harmful effects.

The Broadcaster’s Second Response to the Complainant

[12] In response to Mr Currie’s second complaint, RNZ advised that a number of significant points of view had been covered in the news bulletins and in the piece on Morning Report. The requirements of Principle 4, it wrote, had been met.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[13] When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Currie focused on the item in the 8.00am news bulletin, observing that he did not listen to Morning Report. The item on the 8.00am news on Concert FM, he contended, gave "one heavily slanted point of view". Mr Currie maintained that the adverse effects of a law outlawing cannabis were worse than the adverse effects of cannabis. Further, previous official inquiries had recommended a reconsideration of the legal status of cannabis.

[14] However, he said, the submission dealt with in the news item presented the Police Association’s support for the status quo and overlooked the range of submissions which supported some change.

[15] In a further letter, Mr Currie explained that he listened to RNZ’s news broadcast on Concert FM, which did not include Morning Report.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[16] RNZ described as "atypical" Mr Currie’s assertion that the RNZ news broadcast on Concert FM was his only source of news. It also noted that Mr Currie, when he referred his complaint to the Authority, advised for the first time that his complaint focused solely on the bulletin broadcast on Concert FM.

[17] Turning to the specific item, RNZ argued that the Police Association’s view was newsworthy in itself given the influence held by the Association. As had been explained to Mr Currie, the letter continued:

Radio New Zealand could only touch on a few of the many submissions presented to the Committee. It was not possible, or reasonable, to expect that the whole gamut of views presented to the Committee be reported in total in any one news bulletin. In addition, a listener tuning to Concert is there primarily for the music. There should be no expectation of, and Radio New Zealand does not promote the stations as, a comprehensive news and information service.

[18] RNZ also wrote:

Even if Radio New Zealand had provided a total balance as demanded by this complainant through further detail perhaps in a later bulletin, by the complainant’s own admission the move would have been self defeating as he admitted to only listening to the 8.00am bulletin. Radio New Zealand has always understood that it is not a requirement of the broadcasting standards regime that every story in every news bulletin be required to be completely balanced. This appears to be what the complainant is requesting and is an ideal that cannot be logistically achieved within the many constraints under which news organisations work.

[19] RNZ argued that given its coverage of the issue, Principle 4 had been complied with.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[20] Mr Currie explained that he had attended the Select Committee public hearings where the Police Association and the Drug Policy Forum Trust had presented submissions. Further, at an earlier hearing, he had presented a submission proposing licensed retail outlets for cannabis. Mr Currie considered the submission from the Trust to be impressive, while that from the Police Association failed to address the Inquiry’s terms of reference. In addition, he said that the Association’s submission was misleading and he enclosed an earlier inquiry finding in support of this contention.

[21] Mr Currie stated that there was now extensive lobbying for the legalisation of cannabis, and some of the groups in support comprised highly qualified professionals. He concluded:

Because of what I think was a gross omission on the part of Radio NZ in not mentioning the large group lobbying for legalisation, is why I maintain that Radio NZ has breached Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice in its 8am news of 19.7.01. I close my case.

The Authority's Determination

[22] Mr Currie complained about a news item which reported the comments made by the Secretary of the Police Association to a Parliamentary Health Select Committee. Mr Currie believed that the Police Association had opposed decriminalisation of cannabis on the grounds that it would increase the learning difficulties of school children. Mr Currie acknowledged that he might not have given the correct grounds for the Police Association’s opposition.

[23] The item in fact stated that the Association was opposed to decriminalisation on the basis that it would lead to more young people using the drug, and that heavy use was associated with criminal and other anti-social behaviour.

[24] The Authority records this for the sake of clarification. It does not believe that it has any impact on Mr Currie’s complaint as he was concerned that the item referred only to those who for various reasons opposed decriminalisation, and not to those who also, for various reasons, supported decriminalisation.

[25] RNZ advised that about the first five minutes of the news broadcast at 8.00am on weekdays on National Radio is also carried by Concert FM. When Mr Currie complained about an item broadcast at about 8.04am on 23 July 2001, RNZ assumed that he had been listening to National Radio. It pointed out that the submissions on cannabis, referred to the news item, had been examined in greater depth during an item broadcast on Morning Report on National Radio that morning.

[26] Mr Currie then advised RNZ that he had been listening to the news on Concert FM, not National Radio. RNZ described Mr Currie as "atypical", but argued that Guideline 4b (ii) applied. This provision enables broadcasters to point to other media "listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of" when a specific item does not in itself present all significant points of view on the issue under discussion.

[27] Principle 4 does not require each news item to provide a comprehensive discussion of the newsworthy issue. Principle 4 specifically envisages that other significant views may be given on other programmes "within the period of current interest", and Guideline 4b (ii) accepts that other media may be relevant.

[28] The arguments for and against the decriminalisation of cannabis are advanced periodically in the media. The period of current interest is ongoing. The debate is complex and the Authority does not consider that Principle 4 is contravened if a brief news item touches on one side of the debate only. Accordingly, the Authority does not accept that the news item broadcast on Concert FM on 23 July breached Principle 4.

[29] Finally, the Authority also observes that to find a breach of Principle 4 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. It prefers to adopt an interpretation of the Principle which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
22 November 2001

Appendix

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

  1. David Currie’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 23 July 2001
  2. RNZ’s First Response to the Complaint – 30 July 2001
  3. Mr Currie’s Second Complaint to RNZ – 4 August 2001
  4. RNZ’s Second Response to the Complaint – 4 September 2001
  5. Mr Currie’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority v 7 and 9 September 2001
  6. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 27 September 2001
  7. Mr Currie’s Final Comment – 8 October 2001