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Bauld and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2011-150

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Mary Anne Shanahan

Complainant

  • Dorothy Bauld of Orewa

Dated

28th February 2012

Number

2011-150

Programme

Nine to Noon

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Nine to Noon – political discussion – allegedly unfair

Findings
Standard 6 (fairness) – robust political discussion – vital component of freedom of expression that politicians and public figures are scrutinised – panellist’s comments about Phil Goff were not “abusively personal” – Phil Goff treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  A political discussion was broadcast during Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand National on the morning of 3 October 2011.

[2]  Dorothy Bauld made a formal complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd (RNZ), the broadcaster, alleging that the broadcast breached standards relating to controversial issues, fairness and discrimination and denigration. She argued that “a better sense of fair play needs to be achieved by eliminating personal attacks” and that “there needs to be a firmer determination in keeping to the policy issues”. In particular, she considered that one of the participants in the discussion, Matthew Hooton, made a “personal attack” on the then leader of the Labour Party, Phil Goff.

[3]  RNZ considered the complaint only under Standard 6 (fairness). We agree that the fairness standard is the most relevant to the complainant’s concerns; we are satisfied that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present alternative viewpoints in accordance with Standard 4 (controversial issues), and that Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) is not relevant to the complaint, because it applies only to sections of the community and not to individuals.

[4]  The issue therefore is whether the broadcast breached Standard 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, in relation to the treatment of Mr Goff.

[5]  We have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Did the broadcaster treat Phil Goff unfairly?

[6]  Standard 6 states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme.

[7]  RNZ said that the complaint had highlighted issues under their own editorial policies, though not so serious as to have breached them. It argued that this was “a well-known timeslot of robust political debate featuring two able media performers with their discussion being moderated by the Nine to Noon presenter”. RNZ maintained that “the other programme participant... was well able to make a number of comments to ameliorate any unfairness instigated by Matthew Hooton and there were several points in the debate at which the programme presenter intervened to ensure that Mr Hooton’s comments did not go unanswered”. RNZ concluded that a high threshold had to be met to breach Standard 6, and this threshold had not been crossed.

[8]  We agree with the broadcaster that the threshold for finding a breach of the fairness standard in relation to politicians or public figures is higher than for a lay person or someone unfamiliar with dealing with the media. The Authority has previously stated, in relation to a complaint about an appointed official:1

The Authority observes that the fairness standard does not prevent criticism of public figures. Indeed, it is an essential element of free speech that even the most trenchant criticism of public figures be allowed. ...The question for the Authority is whether that criticism overstepped the boundaries of fairness, that is, whether it strayed into abusively personal territory.

[9]  We have also observed in relation to programmes broadcast during an election period that:2

...the right to free political expression is one of the founding principles of democracy and, especially during a critical time for the democratic process in the build-up to a general election, limitations upon that right must be imposed only after careful consideration.

[10]  We are not persuaded that on this occasion Mr Hooton’s comments about Mr Goff were “abusively personal”. Rather, he made remarks criticising Mr Goff’s leadership and his absence from the campaign trail in the build-up to the election. For example:

  • “I think it’s a very patronising line, by the Labour Party and by Phil Goff, which says, the voters are all too stupid to think of anything other than Dan Carter’s injury, and therefore I’m not going to campaign... It is the Labour Party line... He has been absolutely invisible and he has failed to show any leadership in the last few weeks.”
  • “...what you have is a hopeless opposition, led by Phil Goff, who is, on one hand he’s a Rogernome introducing student fees, then he’s a left wing foreign minister holding the hand of Yassar Arafat and no one believes him. Plus he’s a relic... so nobody is very inspired by him so they look at other options.”

[11]  Mr Hooton’s comments related solely to Mr Goff’s professional capacity and his performance as the Leader of the Opposition, which was legitimate in the context of a robust political discussion less than two months before the election. The comments were not abusive and did not carry any invective or amount to a “personal attack” as alleged by the complainant. 

[12]  In addition, we agree with the broadcaster that both the programme host and the third participant in the discussion had a number of opportunities to challenge Mr Hooton and counter his views, and that the host also made efforts to intervene and moderate the discussion, attempting to steer the conversation away from Mr Hooton and allow the other participant to speak. For example:

  • “Is that any better than going to visit people in hospital if you’re the Prime Minister, or being on a radio show where you’re not allowed to talk politics when the downgrade comes out?  I mean who’s doing serious campaigning at the moment?” (host)
  • “No one suggested it was. What we said Matthew – what we said Matthew – Matthew you’re not listening. What we said is that the Greens are a risk to Labour’s vote.” (host)
  • “That’s not what he’s saying at all. I’ve listened to him on the radio.” (other participant)
  •  “I think you’re protesting a bit too much actually.” (host)
  • “Oh for goodness’ sake... Don’t start talking to me about bloody sausages, for goodness’ sake. You’re saying you’re not going to patronise the public over the fact they can’t watch the rugby at the same time, and you’re now saying the Mad Butcher is the centre of the election.” (host)
  • “Let’s come back to where we started... Can someone else speak today, Matthew? Can we come back to Mike, please...” (host)
  • “Matthew, you can’t say that, you cannot say that, because I’ll tell you what did happen...” (host)

[13]  Overall, we are satisfied that the broadcast was a classic example of robust political commentary close to an election, and that the contents of that discussion did not result in Mr Goff being treated unfairly. Furthermore, the broadcaster acknowledged that the complaint highlighted some issues, and we accept that RNZ has taken appropriate steps to investigate these with reference to its editorial policies.

[14]  We therefore decline to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 6 (fairness).

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
28 February 2012

Appendix

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

1                  Dorothy Bauld’s formal complaints – 3 and 7 October 2011

2                 RNZ’s response to the complaints – 1 November 2011

3                 Ms Bauld’s referral to the Authority – 21 November 2011

4                 RNZ’s response to the Authority – 20 December 2011


1See Kiro and RadioWorks, Decision No. 2008-108 at paragraph [78]

2See, for example, Lloyd and TVWorks, Decision No. 2011-152 at paragraph [6]