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Road Transport Forum New Zealand and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2012-092

Members

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

Complainant

  • Road Transport Forum New Zealand (RTFNZ) of Wellington

Dated

4th December 2012

Number

2012-092

Programme

Checkpoint

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Checkpoint – items discussed results of a “clamp down” on drug-taking truck drivers in New Zealand and Australia – interviews with CEO of the Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency and a representative of the union for road transport workers – allegedly unbalanced

Findings
Standard 4 (controversial issues) – consideration of whether drug-taking by truck drivers is a widespread problem in New Zealand, and the implications for road safety, did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance – at this stage it is not an issue that has been widely discussed or debated publicly – broadcaster nevertheless provided some balance in the items – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  Two items on Checkpoint discussed the results of a recent “clamp down” on drug-taking truck drivers in New Zealand and Australia. The items were introduced as follows:

A top police agency is sounding a warning about drug-taking truck drivers in New Zealand after a leap in the number caught in Australia. That number doubled to 140 last month during the regular trans-Tasman clamp down held each May. Most had been using ‘P’ to stay awake.

Though none of the 140 were caught in New Zealand, police warn truck crashes here are killing the same disproportionately high number of people as in Australia. And the jump has triggered a call from the Labour Party for a Government inquiry, and from the truckers’ union for new laws.

[2]  The first item contained an interview with the CEO of the Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency. Approximately an hour later, a representative of First Union, the union for road transport workers, was interviewed. The items were broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 19 June 2012.

[3]  The Road Transport Forum New Zealand (RTFNZ) made a formal complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the items were unbalanced, as they suggested that drug-taking by truck drivers was a significant cause of fatal accidents in New Zealand, and did not sufficiently obtain or present balancing comment.

[4]  The issue is whether the broadcasts breached Standard 4 (controversial issues) of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The members of the Authority have listened to recordings of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Did the items discuss a controversial issue of public importance requiring the presentation of alternative viewpoints?

[6]  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. The balance standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a listener to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.1

[7]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The question whether a broadcast amounts to such a programme is not straightforward and requires careful analysis in each case. The subject matter must be an issue “of public importance”, it must be “controversial”, and it must be “discussed”.2

[8]  The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a “significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public”.3 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.4 A “discussion” requires more than an issue being raised in a brief, peripheral, or humorous way, and will not apply to programmes which are unambiguously opinion-based, or focused solely on individual stories or experiences.5

[9]  RTFNZ argued that the items contained serious allegations – namely, that a disproportionately high rate of accidents in New Zealand was caused by drug-taking truck drivers – which was of significant concern to the public. The claim that drug use was a major issue and safety risk among New Zealand truck drivers was controversial, especially when the claim was not supported by the results of the police operation, it said. RTFNZ maintained that the police found no evidence of drug-taking by New Zealand truck drivers during the exercise, and that other police statistics indicated that drug and alcohol abuse was “virtually a non-existent factor” in heavy truck crashes in this country.

[10]  RNZ accepted that road safety in general could be a controversial issue of public importance, but doubted whether the focus of the items, which it identified as commentary on the results of the trans-Tasman operation, amounted to such an issue. It noted that there had been no other significant publicity, debate or coverage to suggest that the comments were controversial.

[11]  In our view, the focus of the Checkpoint items was the results of a recent trans-Tasman police operation which found a significant increase in the number of drug-taking truck drivers in Australia. The interviews explored the possible reasons for, and ramifications of, the results in terms of the impact on public safety, and the interviewees expressed their opinions about whether this was also happening in New Zealand. There was public interest in the items, and we accept that a consideration of whether drug-taking by truck drivers is a widespread problem in New Zealand, and the implications for road safety in New Zealand, is something that is of public importance, in the sense that it would be of concern to New Zealand listeners.

[12]  However, we are not satisfied that the subject matter of the items was controversial in terms of the criteria for the standard, in the sense that it had topical currency or excited conflicting opinion, or about which there had been ongoing public debate. The items were borne out of the trans-Tasman survey of truck drivers. As noted at paragraph [1], the items were introduced by reference to the results of the trans-Tasman “crack down”, and it was made clear that “none of the 140 [drug-taking truck drivers] were caught in New Zealand”. The items simply raised the question of whether it was an issue in New Zealand that required further investigation and inquiry. Reasonable listeners would have understood that the items were based on speculation and opinion, and presented a theory which had not yet been tested in New Zealand.

[13]  We accept that, given the question whether a similar problem to that found in Australia may exist in New Zealand, and calls by the Labour party for an inquiry, the topic may well become controversial, but at the time of broadcast it was not one that has been widely discussed or debated publicly in the manner envisaged by the standard.

[14]  In any event, we are satisfied that the broadcaster did provide some balance. The first interview established the possible reasons for, and ramifications of, drug-taking truck drivers generally, and in the second interview, questions about whether there was a problem in New Zealand were explored, and the interviewer took a devil’s advocate approach.6 We refer to the following exchange between the interviewer and the representative of First Union:

Interviewer:       What evidence do we have that this is also going on in New Zealand?

Interviewee:      The number of people who are being killed and maimed on New Zealand
                         roads in heavy traffic accidents tells us that.

Interviewer:       That might be partly because of course, truckies spend longer on the
                         roads anyway.

Interviewee:      They do, they do, but the worry is, is that the reports of substance abuse
                         by drivers to be able to stay on the road are very worrying.

Interviewer:       This is anecdotal evidence… it is not about New Zealand figures because
                         here we don’t do that kind of testing.

Interviewee:      Well the reports are that it is a combined Australian New Zealand database.

Interviewer:       We have spoken to the agency. They say the figures relate only to Australia.
                        They think it is a problem in New Zealand as well. What they want is some
                        testing done here too…

[15]  The interviewer made it clear that no hard evidence existed to support the claim that drug use by New Zealand truck drivers was directly causing deaths and injuries among other road users in this country; she clearly stated that the figures related only to Australia. In addition, the interviewer alluded to the argument that the high number of accidents involving heavy vehicles was due to the disproportionate amount of time spent by truck drivers on the road.

[16]  For these reasons, we decline to uphold the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
4 December 2012

Appendix

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

1           RTFNZ’s formal complaint – 2 July 2012

2          RNZ’s response to the complaint – 31 July 2012

3          RTFNZ’s referral to the Authority – 7 August 2012

4          RNZ’s response to the Authority – 10 September 2012

5          RTFNZ’s final comment – 20 September 2012


1Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

2For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010) and Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Radio (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2009).

3Powell and CanWest TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2005-125

4See, for example, Dewe and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-076.

6The Authority has previously held that an interviewer can present an alternative viewpoint by acting as devil’s advocate: see, for example, Brooking and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2009-012.