A segment of Sunday Supplement included an opinion piece by a contributor called James Macky. He commented at length on a newspaper column captioned "If gay is the answer, what’s the question". The programme was broadcast on National Radio on 22 August 1999 between 8.45–9.00am.
The Credo Society Incorporated, through its secretary Mrs Barbara Faithfull, complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the segment was biased and contained unfair and inaccurate comment. The speaker employed deceitful means by using an assumed name, Mrs Faithfull wrote, and the effect of that was to mislead listeners about the speaker’s credibility.
RNZ responded that the segment was an opinion piece in Sunday Supplement which was a programme of review and opinion. Any facts were reported truthfully and accurately and in a socially responsible manner, and the views expressed were serious comment and the opinion of the speaker, it wrote. RNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Credo Society Inc referred its 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 have read the newspaper article to which the programme segment related. They have also read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
A column published in the New Zealand Herald was captioned "If gay is the answer, what’s the question". In a segment of the Sunday Supplement programme broadcast on 22 August a contributor called James Macky commented on the newspaper column. In particular, he commented on what he saw as the Christian Church’s intolerant attitude towards homosexual people.
The Credo Society Incorporated through its secretary, Mrs Barbara Faithfull, complained to RNZ that the item was not fair comment.
Mrs Faithfull also submitted that the speaker employed less than honest means in using an assumed name, the effect of which was to mislead listeners about his credibility.
Mrs Faithfull contended that the contributor had distorted and misinterpreted the "measured and frank" Christian position on homosexuality, which had been advanced in the newspaper column, by suggesting that it actually expressed hatred for all homosexuals. He also had chosen to interpret the columnist’s remarks as applicable to him personally.
The segment’s content was inherently one-sided, Mrs Faithfull wrote, because a listener would not have known the content of the newspaper column so as to be able to evaluate how fair the contributor’s interpretation was, and how valid his criticism. Further, she stressed, a listener would not have known that the contributor "far from being just a personally aggrieved homosexual" played what she described as a "prominent part in N.Z.’s alternative, ideologically-driven homosexual media".
Mrs Faithfull argued that the item was not fair comment by the contributor, but "an ideologically-driven anti-Christian rant masquerading as an innocent outpouring of injured feelings". Shallow appeals to the emotions and high drama, she said, were no substitute for fair comment and balanced, rational discussion "which should surely be the benchmark for Sunday Supplement items".
She questioned how approval had been given for:
… such fervent editorialising … let alone the approval of [the contributor’s] script…Also the misnaming of him, and for what purpose.
Mrs Faithfull concluded by asking whether the Sunday Supplement programme was equally open to views which ran counter to those of the contributor. If so, she wrote, why were such views never heard and, if not, why was that so?
RNZ considered the complaint under Principles 4, 6 and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. They read:
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.
6d Broadcasters shall ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.
6c Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, shall be clearly distinguished.
6b In the event of an 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.
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.
7d If a programme is likely to disturb, an appropriate warning should be broadcast.
RNZ began by noting that the segment consisted of an introduction by the programme presenter and an opinion piece by the contributor. The contributor, it wrote, described his reaction to the newspaper column, discussed the use of religious freedom as a defence to its publication, and concluded with comments about the anti-homosexual views held by some religious people.
In considering whether the introduction was both appropriate and thought-provoking, RNZ submitted that the genre of Sunday Supplement was well known as a series of contributors’ opinions commenting on general issues. The period of interest for its issues was quite long and could extend "to years", giving the opportunity "for other programmes to provide differing views or news", it wrote. For those reasons, it did not consider that Principle 4 had been breached.
When examining the complaint under Principle 6, RNZ emphasised that Sunday Supplement was not a news and current affairs programme. It was, it emphasised, a programme of review and opinion. Even if the principle applied - "which it didn’t", it wrote – the facts which had been referred to had been treated in an accurate and truthful manner. The contributor’s comments were a paraphrasing of the newspaper column and that was acceptable, the broadcaster observed, for the phraseology which he used accurately reflected the sentiment of the article, if not its exact wording. It therefore declined to uphold a breach of Principle 6.
In turning to Principle 7, RNZ considered that the views expressed by the contributor were an expression of his own opinion and were serious comment. It wrote:
It is perhaps unfortunate for the complainant that the views expressed were at such odds to those espoused in the newspaper column referred to, but that is not a concern of the application of broadcasting standards.
Moreover, RNZ wrote, it did not consider that the broadcast segment contained genuine elements of both portrayal and encouragement of denigration. These elements were needed to satisfy the approach which, it said, had been adopted by the Authority that denigration was to be interpreted as "severe blackening". It considered that the examples referred to by the complainant fell well short of the elements required to satisfy the test of denigration, and for that reason, the broadcaster did not consider that there had been a breach of Principle 7.
In response to Mrs Faithfull’s concluding question, RNZ said that it welcomed the submission of scripts from potential contributors to the programme at any stage.
When she referred her complaint to the Authority, Mrs Faithfull wrote that the Society considered it objectionable:
… to have someone who is a homosexual activist writer, and is well known as such … appearing on such a programme as Sunday Supplement under an assumed name, that of James Macky. Principle 6a of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice provides that broadcasters will not use deceptive programme practices, yet this item was inherently deceptive.
She repeated her comments about the use of a false name to disguise the contributor’s identity and wrote that the item was misleading and deceitful. Had listeners known the contributor’s true identity, they would have listened with a more sceptical ear, she claimed. She observed that RNZ was a party to the deception by allowing the contributor to falsely assume the persona which he had, she wrote.
In a comment to the Authority, RNZ said at all times at which Mr Macky had contacted Radio New Zealand, "it was by use of that name and no other". It was not aware that a pseudonym was being used. However, RNZ wrote, there was no evidence that such a practice was misleading in any way.
It said that it had a long held policy that the affiliations of Sunday Supplement contributors were not included in any broadcast and that items were left to stand on their own merits. The relevance of any contributor’s affiliations to a possible breach of broadcasting standards was not clear, it submitted. It allowed opinions to be broadcast, RNZ noted, and had no desire or ability to deceive its listeners who were able to form their own opinions about comments broadcast. In conclusion, it wrote, broadcasts of opinion pieces were not subject to "a standard of accuracy".
In reply, Mrs Faithfull suggested that it defied logic that the Spoken Features Department of RNZ would not have known the true identity of James Macky.
The Society said it found RNZ’s stated policy about the affiliations of contributors not being included in broadcast items, inadequate in instances such as the present. Additional information of a contextual nature was required, Mrs Faithfull urged, if listeners were to be equipped to weigh up properly the arguments being presented. In conclusion, she wrote that honesty and integrity in argument could not be evaluated when pseudonymity was assumed.
The Authority begins by observing that the item was broadcast in the context of an ongoing debate about the attitudes to homosexuality of the major churches and of society generally. It has no hesitation in finding that the item discussed a "controversial issue of public importance", as contemplated by Principle 4. The item was an opinion piece. It was given in response to a newspaper opinion column which had articulated a disapproving opinion about homosexuality. Furthermore, guideline 4a to Principle 4 requires that broadcasters respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions. Bearing these matters in mind, the Authority concludes that Principle 4 was not breached.
The Authority observes that the newspaper columnist who wrote the column which was commented on in the item entered a public debate in a public forum. In its view, a response to the column would not have been unexpected. He was treated neither unfairly nor unjustly by the Sunday Supplement contributor. The contributor offered his own highly personal opinion on the views expressed by the columnist. Accordingly the Authority finds that Principle 5 was not transgressed. As a further point on this issue, the Authority comments that the contributor’s alleged pseudonymity causes it no problem. It observes that pseudonymity is a matter for the contributor and the broadcaster, and no broadcasting standard is threatened by use of a pseudonym on this occasion.
Turning to the application of Principle 6, the Authority considers this standard is not relevant to the complaint. The item was an opinion piece and not a "news or current affairs" programme.
Finally, the Authority finds that the item did not portray the church in a way which encourages denigration of it or discrimination against it. Even if Principle 7 were threatened on its face, the Authority would have considered that no breach of standards occurred because the item presented the contributor’s opinion.
For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
2 March 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined the complaint.
1. The Credo Society Inc’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 13 September 1999
2. RNZ’s Letter to the Society – 16 September 1999
3. The Society’s Letter to RNZ – 30 September 1999
4. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 21 October 1999
5. The Society’s Referral to the Authority – 17 November 1999
6. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 8 December 1999
7. The Society’s Final Comment to the Authority – 24 December 1999