Agnes-Mary Brooke, editor of the recently published first issue of "The Best Underground Press – Critical Review" was interviewed on Kim Hill, broadcast on National Radio at 10.50am on 6 August 1999.
Ms Brooke complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the interviewer was rude and antagonistic. During the interview, she said, she had been dealt with unfairly and had not been given an opportunity to advance her opinions. Furthermore, she contended that there were some inaccuracies in the interviewer’s comments.
Denying that there were any inaccuracies, RNZ maintained that Ms Brooke was not treated unfairly, and had been given an adequate opportunity to express her opinions. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Ms Brooke referred her 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.
The members of the Authority have listened to a tape, and read both a transcript of the item complained about and the editorial to which the interview related. They have also read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. In this instance, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
The first issue of "The Best Underground Press – Critical Review" was published by Cognos Ltd in July 1999. The editor, Agnes-Mary Brooke, was interviewed between 10.50–11.00am on 6 August on the Kim Hill programme which is broadcast on National Radio between 9.00am–noon each weekday morning.
Ms Brooke complained to RNZ about "the extraordinarily aggressive, rude and unpleasant manner" in which the interviewer (presenter Kim Hill) had conducted the interview. Ms Brooke explained that she did not object to robust debate, and advised that she had received a number of calls after the broadcast from people who had been "outraged" at the interviewer’s rudeness. Ms Brooke noted that this was the third occasion on which she had been "attacked" on air by Ms Hill. On the first occasion in December 1995, she wrote, Ms Hill had misquoted a newspaper column she (Ms Brooke) had written. She added that this earlier complaint had been upheld by RNZ, and the presenter had been required to broadcast an apology on air.
The second occasion, she wrote, involved an interview in late 1998 and, in view of what she called the interviewer’s unpleasant tone and the lack of debate about the specific issue scheduled to be discussed, Ms Brooke recalled that she had telephoned RNZ to express her disappointment at the interview.
Turning to the interview broadcast on 6 August, Ms Brooke complained that it breached Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. It reads:
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.
Ms Brooke also referred to the following 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 Principle 4, to the following matters:
(i) An appropriate introduction to the programme;
Arguing that the interview attempted to ridicule her stance as a columnist and critic - a task which involved the expression of serious comment and analysis - Ms Brooke also referred to Principle 7. Principle 7 and guideline 7a provide:
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) is by way of legitimate humour or satire.
Ms Brooke also considered that the broadcast breached Principle 5 in that she had not been treated fairly during the interview. Principle 5 reads:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
Ms Brooke began her complaint about the broadcast:
I had hoped that Ms Hill might have learned from her past mistakes, and that the interview might be pleasant. However, I listened to her aggressive introduction with dismay and shock, and felt I had no option but to immediately tackle her about it, as listeners would have been under no illusion as to her antagonism – and many would be immediately induced to form a poor opinion of me.
It would take too long to note here all Ms Hill’s put-downs, what were in effect rude, aggressive and arrogant comments. I would like to draw your attention merely to the most egregious. I am sure the interview taken as a whole speaks for itself. However, I should like the complaint considered by listening to a recording of the interview, as well as – or rather than relying on – a transcript alone. Ms Hill’s tone forms part of my complaint, with its unpleasant, indeed snide overtones.
Ms Brooke listed a number of comments made by the interviewer which she described variously as factually incorrect, disparaging, sarcastic, dismissive, impertinent, unprofessional, outrageous, tart, antagonistic and gross. Ms Brooke recorded several other comments which, she maintained, reflected the interviewer’s antagonism towards both her work and towards her personally.
Ms Brooke summarised the complaint:
It is quite obvious that Ms Hill has disliked my writing in the years I wrote as a Dominion columnist. However for her to use her position on air, for the third time now, as a vehicle for that antagonism, suggests she does not appreciate the importance of impartiality, fairness and objectivity in her role as an interviewer. I must therefore question why she continues in this role. Ms Hill appears out of touch with reality, if she assumes that using her programme in this way is acceptable to fair-minded listeners, and if Radio New Zealand also thinks this is acceptable, then it, too, is out of touch with the expectations of mainstream New Zealanders.
As I mentioned earlier, I would have had no objection to robust debate. However your interviewer’s aggressive tones and comments were more than robust: they were rude, objectionable and amounted to a highly personal attack.
In conclusion, Ms Brooke stated that an on-air apology was essential, and she raised the question of whether a more balanced and objective presenter would be appropriate.
RNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards which are recorded above. In view of some aspects of the complaint, it also took Principle 6 into account. It states:
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.
RNZ began by considering whether the interview was unfair when it described Ms Brooke as "a strident critic of everything really". Noting that the presenter had listed some issues on which Ms Brooke had been critical, RNZ noted that the dictionary definition of "strident" was "loud and harsh". However, in the descriptive manner in which it was used in the interview, the broadcaster contended that it was meant to be complimentary. It expressed that view in reply to Ms Brooke’s complaint that the word was disparaging.
In dealing with the question as to whether Ms Brooke had been given reasonable opportunities to state her position, RNZ pointed out that the interview, contrary to policy, ran overtime and that the 11.00am news bulletin consequently began after 11 o’clock.
When examining the complaint under Principle 5 that Ms Brooke had not been dealt with fairly, RNZ asserted that it was necessary not only to refer to the interactions raised in the complaint, but also to the numerous exchanges and overall context. RNZ considered that the following factors had to be taken into account:
- standing of interviewee
- demeanour of the interviewee
- content of the questions
- timing of the questions
- manner in which questions were asked.
Radio New Zealand was asked to consider that the interviewee in this instance was someone of some standing given previous publications and participation both in print and other media. Your letter of complaint acknowledged the possibility of robust debate.
Moreover, RNZ wrote, the interview had referred accurately to the publication being discussed. Furthermore, it observed, while the content of the presenter’s introduction had been disputed, the interviewee had been given adequate opportunity to object. Overall, RNZ expressed the following opinion:
An examination of the bearing of the interview from that point on indicates a number of exchanges initiated by both the interviewee and the interviewer that could be defined as challenging. An analysis of those exchanges indicates that earlier in the interview they arose more from the interviewee than the interviewer and an overall count would suggest that the exchanges were in the end evenly matched. What can be reasonably concluded is that two quite capable people had a robust exchange of views and both interviewer and interviewee initiated the exchanges which occurred.
In response to Ms Brooke’s statement that she had received a number of communications from listeners outraged at the interviewer’s approach, RNZ said that it had received both correspondence and telephone calls which, by and large, were supportive of the interviewer’s approach. Returning to the specific matters raised in the complaint, RNZ did not accept that Principle 5 had been contravened.
RNZ said it had investigated the complainant’s concern about the interviewer’s reference to her as a "self-styled scourge of the politically correct" as an alleged breach of the requirement for accuracy in Principle 6. RNZ advised that the phrase followed a review of her magazine and the use of the adjective "scourge" was intended to be complimentary. RNZ did not consider the use to breach the standard.
In regard to Principle 7, RNZ did not accept the broadcast met the standard of denigration required for a breach to occur.
In summary then, given the context of the interview, the known format in which the interviewer interviews guests and the relative standing of the participants, it was considered reasonable to expect a robust exchange of views with someone known to be well able to "hold her own" when establishing a position in debating a number of wide ranging matters in the past. From the conclusions reached in the analysis of each of the alleged breaches of the four Principles of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, it was recommended to the Company [RNZ] that there had not been a breach of the Principles in this instance and that your complaint not be upheld. The Company has accepted that recommendation.
When she referred her complaint to the Authority, Ms Brooke maintained that the broadcast had breached the standards, and she referred specifically to standards R1, R4, R9 and R14 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Authority observes that the standards Ms Brooke referred to are those in the version of the Radio Code which has been replaced by the revised Code that came into effect on 1 July 1999. The standards are now Principle 6, Principle 4 and guideline 4a, and guideline 7a to Principle 7. Each of these standards was addressed by RNZ in its response to Ms Brooke. The Authority refers to the current Principles and guidelines in this decision.
On the matters which she considered to be inaccurate (and in breach of Principle 6), Ms Brooke argued that the use of the word "strident" was not meant to be complimentary. It was, she said, a "put-down". Ms Brooke maintained her objection to the description of her as a "self-styled scourge of the politically correct", and that as she rejected the description of herself as a "scourge", it was incorrect, she wrote, to describe it as "self-styled". Moreover the word was used pejoratively, not as a compliment as RNZ claimed.
Ms Brooke did not agree that the interviewer had paraphrased "accurately" the references in her editorial to the magazine "North and South".
As for guideline 4a – the right of individuals to express their own opinions – Ms Brooke described the interviewer as:
… combative and aggressive from the beginning of the interview. Her antagonism was so obvious in her choice of language and tone … that I felt I had no recourse but to defend myself.
Ms Brooke denied that she had been aggressive despite, she added, the interviewer’s "constant interruptions". In summarising this aspect, Ms Brooke wrote:
In summary – far from acknowledging my right to express my own opinions, Ms Hill attacked me because of these. I have already referred to some of her personal observations. "Practically everyone I meet is more satisfied than you" is not only a silly comment, but hardly acknowledges R4 – the rights of individuals to express their own opinions. Nor does her inaccurate accusation of "a tone of relentless cheerlessness".
Turning to the requirements for balance in Principle 4, Ms Brooke contended that she was not given sufficient time to answer the interviewer’s questions. Further, as she had only been interviewed once on the programme previously, it was inaccurate – indeed "farcical" – for RNZ to deem that "listeners and the interviewer had been able to form a clear impression of the interviewee's stance". Ms Brooke objected strongly to the interviewer's "ad hominem attack". She concluded:
I therefore include R 14 [guideline 7a] in my complaint against Radio New Zealand, as I feel that Ms Hill’s disparaging comments encouraged discrimination against the perfectly valid views I argued, which I and many mainstream New Zealanders would advance as a reasoned and legitimate expression of cultural beliefs.
RNZ declined to comment on the referral. It forwarded the Authority a copy of the journal which Ms Brooke had edited.
The first issue for the Authority is to determine the standards under which to assess the complaint.
An examination of the correspondence discloses that the complainant’s central concern is that she was dealt with unfairly. This is an allegation that the broadcaster breached Principle 5 which reads, as noted above:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
In its assessment of the complaint, the Authority has included under this Principle the allegations from the complainant that she was not allowed to express an opinion, that the broadcast contained factual inaccuracies, and that the broadcast encouraged discrimination against columnists and critics. It has taken this step as these matters are also essentially concerned with questions of fairness.
On the specific aspect raised in the complaint that the broadcast did not accurately summarise the references in Ms Brooke’s editorial to "North and South", the Authority considers that the summary included in the broadcast accurately reflected the tone of the editorial comment which was referred to. Ms Brooke and RNZ disagreed as to whether the interviewer’s use of the phrase "third time lucky" referred to the number of times a particular question was put – RNZ’s stance – or to the number of previous exchanges between the interviewer and Ms Brooke – Ms Brooke’s position and one which, she pointed out, was inaccurate. Having examined the transcript, the Authority considers that it was somewhat ambiguous in context but, on balance, accepts that it is likely that it referred to the repetition of the question - not the number of times the presenter had interviewed the complainant.
The core of Ms Brooke’s complaint was that she was treated unfairly, both in the manner in which the presenter summarised the editorial of the magazine Ms Brooke edited, and in the manner in which the presenter approached Ms Brooke. In regard to the latter aspect, Ms Brooke argued that she was dealt with rudely.
Dealing first with the issue of context, the Authority examines the two phrases used by the presenter to which Ms Brooke objected. They were that she (Ms Brooke) was a "strident critic of everything really", and a "self-styled scourge of the politically correct". Having read the editorial of the magazine under discussion (which formed the background of much of the interview) and assessed the approach taken to the matters canvassed, the Authority finds both descriptions reflected an unequivocal position taken by Ms Brooke in her advocacy of a particular perspective on events, and that consequently neither statement was unfair.
The tone of editorial, in the Authority’s opinion, could be described as "strident", but the Authority does not consider that to be a pejorative description in the context given here. While accepting that the complainant does not describe herself as a "scourge", it nonetheless accepts that this was fair journalistic shorthand for the position of a critic whose tone is frequently acknowledged to be combative. It considers that neither term was belittling nor demeaning as claimed within the context of critical evaluation, and notes that these descriptions were put to Ms Brooke who had the opportunity to counter them on air if she so wished. It would appear to the Authority, indeed, that she did so at the outset of the interview.
Turning to the presenter’s approach, the Authority notes that, given the complainant’s account of previous interactions between herself and the interviewer, it was perhaps surprising that she hoped for a "pleasant" interview on this occasion. The Authority acknowledges that the presenter’s introduction raised some contentious issues as far as Ms Brooke was concerned, but observes that Ms Brooke’s responses demonstrated that she was well able to defend her own position and to convey her opinion in a forceful and articulate manner. Thereafter, both interviewer and interviewee resorted to somewhat provocative and personalised assertions, in the Authority’s view.
However, the Authority is not persuaded that there was any threat to broadcasting standards in these exchanges. While noting the complainant’s view that she was dealt with "rudely", a matter which could be especially relevant to its interpretation of Principle 5, the Authority considers that a degree of assertiveness may be expected from an interviewer in some circumstances. Such was the case here, in its view, where a critic who did not spare other media commentators was required to debate her own perspective and to account for herself. The Authority considers that the interviewee was well able to present her point of view and to defend her critical perspective, and as a result – despite the robust nature of the interview - she was not treated unfairly.
For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
3 February 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined the complaint.
1. Ms Agnes-Mary Brooke’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 18 August 1999
2. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 8 October 1999
3. Ms Brooke’s Referral to the Authority – 31 October 1999
4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 15 November 1999