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Trussell and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2012-075

Members

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

Complainant

  • Denys Trussell of Auckland

Dated

25th September 2012

Number

2012-075

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw – host interviewed professor about his creative writing course, writers and the writing community in general – professor made comments about New Zealand poets – allegedly in breach in of controversial issues, accuracy and fairness standards

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – this episode of “Ideas” was not “factual programming” to which the standard applied – in any event professor’s comments amounted to his personal opinion and were therefore exempt from standards of accuracy under guideline 5a – programme was not inaccurate or misleading – not upheld

Standard 4 (controversial issues) – comments did not form part of a “factual programme” to which Standard 4 applied – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – standard only applies to individuals and organisations – does not apply to people who are deceased, or to a “generation of poets” – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  During a segment called “Ideas” on Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw, broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 22 April 2012, the host interviewed Professor Bill Manhire, who was introduced as “poet laureate, arts laureate, professor of English, and the inspiration of the hugely successful creative writing course at Victoria University”. During the interview, Professor Manhire made comments about a “generation” of New Zealand poets, including A.R.D Fairburn and Denis Glover.

[2]  Denys Trussell made a formal complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd (RNZ), the broadcaster, alleging that Professor Manhire’s comments about Mr Fairburn and Mr Glover, which went unchallenged by the host, “perpetuate half-truths, errors and slurs in regard to two individuals who made a real contribution to our culture”.

[3]  The issue is whether the programme, and specifically Professor Manhire’s comments, breached Standards 4 (controversial issues), 5 (accuracy), and 6 (fairness) of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Nature of the programme and freedom of expression

[5]  The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. We acknowledge the importance of the values underlying that right. In determining an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we assess the importance of the particular speech and the extent to which the values of freedom of expression are engaged, and weigh this against the level of harm in terms of the underlying objectives of the relevant standards.

[6]  The “Ideas” segment on Radio New Zealand National has been described by the broadcaster as a weekly programme that explores a range of philosophical, social, historical and environmental ideas, and is categorised on its website in the genre of “Society and People”.1Here, the segment consisted of an interview with Professor Manhire about his personal experience as a poet and a teacher, and his opinions about writing and poetry in general. The interview contained intellectual and educational speech in the discussion of an individual’s ideas and opinions, and in this sense had some value in terms of freedom of expression.

[7]  We therefore think we should be cautious about interfering with the item’s broadcast and reception.

Was the programme inaccurate or misleading?

[8]  Standard 5 (accuracy) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.2

[9]  Dr Trussell argued that the interview was conducted in an “uncritical” manner that allowed Professor Manhire to make inaccurate statements about Mr Fairburn and Mr Glover, and which extended to an entire generation of male writers. Specifically, he referred to Professor Manhire’s comment:

I mean you go back to the generation before ours, well go back to say the Denis Glover generation, and those guys who want to write poetry, Glover, Fairburn and co., they’re very embarrassed about it. They’re scared that people will think they are sissy, they’re always nasty to women and about women, they’re always having fistfights… because in some way, I mean my theory is, they have to prove they are real blokes, even though they want to do this thing which somehow the rest of society thinks might not be absolutely kosher.

Was “Ideas” a factual programme?

[10]  The first question in determining an alleged breach of Standard 5 is whether the content was “factual programming” to which the standard applied. This is not always a straightforward task, as evidenced by the Authority’s decision in Bolton and Radio New Zealand Ltd.3 In that decision, the Authority was divided as to whether the “Ideas” segment of Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw came within the ambit of “factual programming”. A majority of the Authority found that while that episode of “Ideas” contained opinion, analysis and comment, it also contained factual information that RNZ’s listeners could reasonably have trusted to be accurate and truthful. The minority considered that “Ideas” was a clear example of a forum for the expression of ideas and opinions.

[11]  With the increased convergence of programme content, categorisation of programmes has become more difficult; some programmes do not fit easily in one category, and segments within a programme may be categorised differently. This is particularly so with radio programmes spanning several hours, which contain numerous discussion topics and different segments, and which might include music, talkback, book readings or interviews. For example, a magazine-style radio show may contain a segment comprising serious factual discussion.4

[12]  Our categorisation will therefore depend on the content of the particular broadcast segment, including the segment’s introduction, the subject matter and the nature of the discussion. The key criterion is whether a reasonable viewer or listener would expect the information given in the item complained about to be truthful and authoritative, and not just opinion or hyperbole.5 Here, Professor Manhire was introduced as a “poet laureate” and “professor of English”, and the focus of the interview was his personal experience as a poet and teacher, and his opinions relating to poetry and writing. We consider that most listeners would have interpreted the programme as his personal perspective and an expression of opinions and ideas, as opposed to being a factual source of information.

[13]  We therefore find that this episode of “Ideas” was not factual programming to which Standard 5 applied.

Were the comments material points of fact?

[14]  In any event, we have gone on to consider whether the comments were material points of fact which were required to be accurate (see paragraph [8]). In our view, Professor Manhire’s comments were clearly his personal opinion, as opposed to statements of fact. Guideline 5a states that the standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion.

[15]  The comments complained about formed part of the following exchange:

Host:        What did you see lying ahead of you in this context, a full-time poet… a bit hard
                to do back then?

Manhire:   I couldn’t see any way of making a living as a poet, and again you didn’t know if
                you were good enough. I mean, the only poet of my generation who has been a
                full-time poet is Sam Hunt, who has been, you know, a wonderful sort of exemplar
                for the rest of us, because 30 years out in the public world reading poetry
                aloud… the troubadour figure and people love it
                [comments subject to complaint]

                         …

                          I think we are past it… I credit Sam [Hunt] with getting us through it, making poetry
                          seem a normal thing that normal, interesting, lively, fully alert people pay attention to.

[16]  It is clear from the context of the comments that Professor Manhire was attempting to characterise changing attitudes towards poetry as a profession among males, and in doing so, he used Mr Fairburn and Mr Glover as typical examples of a “generation” of poets. He expressed his opinion that it had become more acceptable over time, and we agree with RNZ that listeners would have understood that he was commenting on a generation of poets prior to Sam Hunt, and the focus was not Mr Fairburn or Mr Glover personally.

[17]  For these reasons, and giving full weight to the requirements of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, we consider that upholding the complaint would be an unjustifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression.

[18]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Did the programme discuss a controversial issue of public importance requiring the presentation of significant viewpoints?

[19]  Standard 4 states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[20]  As discussed above in relation to accuracy, the comments subject to complaint did not form part of a factual programme, and listeners would have understood that the interview consisted of Professor Manhire’s personal perspective and opinion.

[21]  In any event, the references to Mr Fairburn and Mr Glover did not amount to a controversial issue of public importance to which the standard applied.

[22]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Was any person or organisation referred to in the programme treated unfairly?

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

[24]  The Authority has previously stated that the requirement for fairness does not apply in respect of people who are deceased.6 Standard 6 is therefore not applicable to Mr Fairburn or Mr Glover. Nor does the standard apply to a “generation” of poets, as it is limited to individuals and organisations.

[25]  We therefore decline to uphold this part of the complaint.

Final comments

[26]  We note that Dr Trussell provided correspondence written by relatives of Mr Fairburn to RNZ following the broadcast, in relation to the comments made by Professor Manhire. Parts of this correspondence, which specifically responded to those comments, were read verbatim by the host Mr Laidlaw in the feedback section of his programme the following week.

[27]  While we have reached the conclusion that none of the standards raised by Dr Trussell was breached by the “Ideas” segment on 22 April 2012, we consider that the feedback in the subsequent week’s broadcast adequately addressed his concerns by putting forward balancing views on the topic.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
25 September 2012