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Golden and Rose and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2014-002

Members

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

Complainants

  • Allan Golden of Wellington
  • Phillip Rose of Wellington

Dated

1st April 2014

Number

2014-002

Programme

Nine to Noon

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Summary [This summary does not form part of the decision.]

During a segment on Nine to Noon, titled ‘Science with Simon Pollard’, science commentator Simon Pollard spoke about ‘the science of conspiracy theories’. The Authority did not uphold two complaints that the host allowed Mr Pollard to make one-sided, inaccurate comments that were highly critical of conspiracy theorists. This was clearly an opinion piece, on a topic of human interest, so Mr Pollard’s comments were not subject to standards of accuracy, and the broadcaster was not required to present other significant viewpoints.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Controversial Issues, Fairness, Discrimination and Denigration

Introduction

[1]  During a segment on Nine to Noon, titled ‘Science with Simon Pollard’, science commentator Simon Pollard spoke about ‘the science of conspiracy theories’. He referred to the Boston Marathon bombings, 9/11, the assassination of John F Kennedy, and the moon landings, in the context of his view that conspiracy theories are ‘immune to evidence’. The programme was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 20 November 2013.

[2]  Allan Golden and Phillip Rose made formal complaints to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the host allowed Mr Pollard to make one-sided, inaccurate comments that were highly critical of conspiracy theorists.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the accuracy, controversial issues, fairness, and discrimination and denigration standards, as set out in 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.

Was the programme inaccurate or misleading?

[5]  The accuracy standard (Standard 5) 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.1

[6]  The complainants argued that listeners would have interpreted Mr Pollard’s comments as factual as he was presented as a ‘science commentator’ speaking on the ‘science of conspiracy theories’. Mr Rose pointed to specific statements made by Mr Pollard about 9/11, and alleged ‘deliberate’ omissions in regard to the Kennedy assassination. Mr Golden acknowledged that Mr Pollard was challenged by the host, but argued that her interjections were ‘far too light-hearted in delivery’.

[7]  RNZ said the item canvassed Mr Pollard’s opinions on the psychology of how humans think about random events with an exploration of conspiracy theories. It referred to guideline 5a to Standard 5 which says that it does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion.

[8]  Mr Pollard has a regular segment on Radio New Zealand National in which he speaks about science topics. This discussion was introduced as follows:

Host:               It seems slightly contradictory to have the ‘science’ of conspiracy theories, slightly
                       oxymoronic…

Mr Pollard:       It is, rather… I think that, you know, we’ve talked on this show before about the
                       way our brain works and that we have a propensity to make up silly things, and
                       that’s not our fault, it’s just part of how our brain is wired. …conspiracy theories
                       really are a way of us making sense of random events, especially those that
                       would scare us… any extraordinary event will be followed by conspiracy theories…

[9]  It was obvious from the context of the broadcast and the topic under discussion that, despite the title of the segment (‘Science with Simon Pollard’) and this particular item (‘the science of conspiracy theories’), this was an opinion piece on a human interest topic. The introduction recognised that it was ‘contradictory’ and ‘slightly oxymoronic’ to put conspiracy theories in the realm of ‘science’. The non-technical, chatty discussion which followed made it clear that Mr Pollard was actually expressing his personal perspective on conspiracy theories and his views on the underlying thought patterns of conspiracy theorists. His comments were therefore exempt from the accuracy standard under guideline 5a, as commentary and opinion.

[10]  In addition, the host challenged Mr Pollard on occasion, reinforcing that his viewpoint, which was dismissive and sceptical of conspiracy theories, was not shared by everyone or based on scientific fact. Mr Pollard himself also recognised that alleged conspiracies can and have exposed cover-ups in the past. The broadcast contained the following statements:

  • ‘…what makes it a conspiracy theory? I mean, people did think the world was flat once so when the dude suggested it was round, people were [shocked]’. (host)
  • ‘If we didn’t have sceptics, though, who had that mind-set or that psychology, and looked for inconsistences and looked for patterns, there is an awful lot of truths that we would not find out… you can’t just sit there and swallow everything you are presented [with] by authority – much of it would be lies and untruths and propaganda’. (host)
  • ‘…conspiracy theories often do have components of truth because governments do cover up things, and so it’s not like you’re starting with a clean slate… if you look at Watergate, if you look at the Iran-contra thing, these were things where the government covered up things…’ (Mr Pollard)

[11]  Most listeners would have taken the broadcast as an informal and interesting discussion from one man’s perspective, and would not have been misled in any respect.

[12]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the accuracy complaint.

Was the item unbalanced in breach of the controversial issues standard?

[13]  The balance standard (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 standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.2

[14]  Mr Rose argued that conspiracy theories in general, and in particular the assassination of JFK, were controversial issues of public importance. He referred to Mr Pollard’s alleged ‘one-sided treatment’ of the JFK assassination.

[15]  RNZ said the broadcast explored Mr Pollard’s opinions around the psychology of human thought and did not focus solely on one specific theory. It disputed that the general topic of conspiracy theories was a controversial issue of public importance, but argued that in any event, the period of current interest in this topic was ongoing.

[16]  We agree with RNZ that the focus of the interview, that is, one man’s views on conspiracy theories, including the specific theories mentioned, did not amount to a controversial issue of public importance as envisaged by the standard. The general topic of conspiracy theories and in particular the assassination of JFK 50 years ago, while an interesting topic, is not something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.3

[17]  In any event, Mr Pollard’s criticism of conspiracy theories and theorists was balanced to some extent by comments which recognised that conspiracy theories have proven valuable in exposing untruths in the past (see paragraph [10] above).

[18]  For these reasons, we decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Was the item unfair to any individual or organisation taking part of referred to?

[19]  The fairness standard (Standard 6) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme.

[20]  The complainants argued, either explicitly or implicitly, that conspiracy theorists were treated unfairly. Mr Rose asserted that the broadcast treated people who held ‘non-mainstream political opinions’ as ‘mentally and psychologically deficient’. RNZ said that Mr Pollard’s comments did not focus on any particular person or organisation, were delivered without invective and were not gratuitous.

[21]  The fairness standard applies only to individuals and organisations. It does not apply to groups such as conspiracy theorists. Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Did the item encourage discrimination and denigration against any section of the community?

[22]  The discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 7) protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, a section of the community.

[23]  The complainants argued that Mr Pollard vilified conspiracy theorists, and Mr Rose said he denigrated people who held ‘non-mainstream political opinions’.

[24]  Those afforded protection under Standard 7 are limited to sections of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief. We do not agree that ‘conspiracy theorists’ are a section of the community as envisaged by the standard.

[25]  In any event, we note that guideline 7a(ii) to Standard 7 says that it is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion. As noted above, the broadcast comprised Mr Pollard’s opinions on this topic. Further, his comments did not carry any invective, which is necessary for finding a breach of this standard.

[26]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 7 complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
1 April 2014

Appendix

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

Allan Golden’s formal complaint

1                  Allan Golden’s formal complaint – 25 November 2013

2                 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 20 December 2013

3                 Mr Golden’s referral to the Authority – 4 January 2014

4                 RNZ’s response to the Authority – 16 January 2014

Phillip Rose’s formal complaint

1                  Phillip Rose’s formal complaint – 2 December 2013

2                 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 30 December 2013

3                 Mr Rose’s referral to the Authority – 21 January 2014

4                 Further comment from Mr Rose – 24 January 2014

5                 RNZ’s response to the Authority – 25 February 2013


1Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036

2Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

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