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McEwan and The Radio Network Ltd - 2001-208

Members

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

Complainant

  • Murray McEwan of Christchurch

Dated

29th November 2001

Number

2001-208

Programme

Newstalk ZB

Channel/Station

Newstalk ZB

Broadcaster

The Radio Network Ltd


Complaint
Newstalk ZB – host Larry Williams – guest Michael Laws – New York terrorist attack – President Bush's actions described as pathetic – ignorant and offensive comments

Findings
Principle 7 – nominated by broadcaster – inappropriate

Principle 5 – correct standard – comments not unfair in context – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The terrorist attack in New York City on 11 September 2001 was the topic discussed on Newstalk ZB between host Larry Williams and commentator Michael Laws at about 6.20pm on 14 September 2001. During the discussion, Mr Laws described President George Bush’s actions as "pathetic".

[2] Murray McEwan complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that Mr Laws’ comments were "appallingly" ignorant and offensive. He deplored the host’s response who had allowed the guest’s remarks to go unchallenged.

[3] In response, TRN maintained that the remark was acceptable as the genuine expression of an opinion. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TRN’s decision, Professor McEwan 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] Newstalk ZB includes talkback and comments from regular guests. Columnist and former MP, Michael Laws, comments weekly on the Larry Williams Show. His commentary at about 6.20pm on Friday 14 September 2001 discussed the terrorist attack in New York City which had occurred that week.

The Complaint

[7] Professor Murray McEwan complained about Mr Laws’ comments in reference to President George Bush. He stated that Mr Laws’ description of the President as "pathetic" was "based purely on prejudice and ignorance". Professor McEwan briefly explained the recent situation in New York and called Mr Laws’ comments "rude, ignorant and ridiculous". Moreover, he wrote, the host had allowed the comments to go unchallenged. In Professor McEwan’s opinion, the bad judgment displayed justified an apology and the termination of Mr Laws’ services.

[8] Professor McEwan sent his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, which forwarded it to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster.

The Standard

[9] TRN assessed the complaint under Principle 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice which require broadcasters:

Principle 7

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Guideline

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:

1. factual; or

2. a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or

3. is by of legitimate humour or satire.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] TRN stated that a number of people, including Michael Laws, considered that the President’s response in the early days following the terrorism "was less than convincing". The comment from Mr Laws, it wrote, was an expression of legitimate opinion, and it declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[11] When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Professor McEwan expressed disagreement with the contention that the piece was an expression of legitimate opinion. It was, he said, only Mr Laws’ opinion and it was "disgusting, arrogant and ignorant".

[12] Pointing out that Mr Laws’ opinion was not shared by other commentators, the complainant maintained that history would show that the President’s actions at the time were appropriate.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[13] TRN explained that Newstalk ZB was not "National Radio", as the complainant implied. The weekly comments from Mr Laws, it said, were known as "hard hitting", and on this occasion had been the legitimate opinion of a commentator.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[14] Emphasising that his complaint was about good taste and not about the right of a commentators to say whatever they thought, Professor McEwan repeated that the comments were ignorant and offensive. He pointed out that no other commentator had described President Bush as a "pathetic little man " and concluded that the Mr Laws had used a "cheap shot".

The Authority’s Determination

[15] The Authority notes that broadcaster assessed the complaint about the remarks about Mr Bush as an alleged breach of Principle 7 of the Radio Code, referring specifically to Guideline 7a. However, Guideline 7a refers to encouraging denigration or discrimination against certain groups in society. The Authority does not accept that Principle 7 is the appropriate standard under which to assess a complaint which focuses on the comments made about one specific person.

[16] The Authority considers that Principle 5 is appropriate. It provides:

Principle 5

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.

[17] Under Principle 5, the context of the broadcast is relevant in determining whether the person referred to has been dealt with fairly. Principle 5 accepts that the expression of a "genuine opinion" may not be fair and, provided the opinion is genuine, the accuracy or otherwise of the comment need not be an important element. This observation is of particular relevance on this occasion as Mr Laws was participating in order to advance his perspective as a commentator.

[18] Before making the statement that he considered President Bush’s response to be "pathetic", Mr Laws had briefly summarised the President’s movements in the two to three days since the September 11 terrorist attack in New York, and referred to his earlier expressed doubts about the President’s ability to handle foreign affairs. It was in this context, and against previously expressed doubts about the President’s expertise in this area, that Mr Laws described the President’s response as pathetic.

[19] Taking these contextual issues into account, and the fact that the attack had occurred less than three days previously, the Authority considers that the comments did not deal with the President in a way which was unjust or unfair.

[20] Finally, the Authority also observes that to find a breach of Principle 5 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 reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
29 November 2001

Appendix

  1. The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
  2.  Professor Murray McEwan’s Formal Complaint addressed to the Broadcasting Standards Authority and forwarded to The Radio Network Ltd – 17 September 2001
  3. TRN’s Response to the Complaint – 25 September 2001
  4. Professor McEwan’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 September 2001
  5. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 9 October 2001
  6. Professor McEwan’s Final Comment – 15 October 2001