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Macedo and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2014-112

Members

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

Complainant

  • Dorothy Macedo of Wellington

Dated

3rd December 2014

Number

2014-112

Programme

Rural News

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


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

Rural News reported on a number of political parties ‘vowing to crack down’ on foreign ownership of farmland and contained an interview with the Federated Farmers Vice President. The Authority did not uphold the complaint that the item presented an inaccurate and unbalanced picture of the policies proposed by the Labour Party and others, and was unfair. The item was presented from the perspective of the Federated Farmers spokesperson who offered his personal views based on his experience buying land in New Zealand. The item sufficiently acknowledged alternative views, it carried high public interest, and no one was treated unfairly.

Not Upheld: Controversial Issues, Accuracy, Fairness


Introduction

[1]  Rural News reported on a number of political parties ‘vowing to crack down’ on foreign ownership of farmland. The report included comment from Federated Farmers Vice President, Andes Crowfoot, who purchased farmland after moving from the United States in the 1990s. Mr Crowfoot, who purchased the property through what was then known as the Overseas Investment Commission, expressed his opinion on the benefits of foreign ownership.

[2]  Dorothy Macedo complained that the item, including the interview with Mr Crowfoot, presented an inaccurate and unbalanced picture of the policies proposed by the Labour Party and others, and was unfair.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the controversial issues, accuracy and fairness standards, as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The news item was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 8 August 2014. The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the item and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was the item 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]  Ms Macedo argued that the item was inaccurate and misleading because ‘There is no objection to foreigners who are permanent [New Zealand] residents buying farms of the type featured, nor would the farmer who was interviewed have been prevented from buying his property under the policies of the Labour Party and others.’ She asserted that Mr Crowfoot ‘has emigrated to [New Zealand]… [so] would not have been prevented from buying the farm’.

[7]  The item was a relatively brief news report presented from the perspective of a Federated Farmers spokesperson, Mr Crowfoot. It did not purport to be an in-depth analysis of the conflicting party policies on the foreign ownership of New Zealand farmland. The item did not elaborate on the details of the policies restricting foreign ownership, and specifically it did not say anything about restricting foreigners who are permanent New Zealand residents from purchasing farmland.

[8]  It was not misleading to have Mr Crowfoot comment on the issue with reference to his personal experience. While he is now a New Zealand resident, he was not a resident at the time he acquired land in the 1990s and he had to go through the Overseas Investment Commission (now the Overseas Investment Office). Had the proposed restrictive policies been in place back then, Mr Crowfoot would have been prevented from purchasing farmland. He was presented as qualified to speak about what he considered to be the benefits of allowing foreign ownership, with reference to his perceived personal contributions to the economy.

[9]  In addition, the item was broadcast a few months before the 2014 general election. The foreign ownership of land was a major campaign issue in the lead-up to the election, which received substantial media coverage. Most listeners would have been aware, or could easily have made themselves aware, of the details of the competing party policies. The audience was not misled by the brief news item, including the interview with Mr Crowfoot.

[10]  Ms Macedo also argued that the item implied the restrictive policies indicated discrimination against Chinese buyers which was ‘outrageous’ and ‘possibly indicative of political bias’. We interpret this as an argument the item was presented in a way that was intended to make the restrictive parties appear discriminatory, and overall to make them look bad.

[11]  We are satisfied that the requirement for impartiality in news, contained in guideline 5c to the accuracy standard, was not breached. The reference to Chinese buyers was sourced to comments made by Mr Crowfoot, in accordance with the focus of the item. The reporter stated, ‘Mr Crowfoot says that the only farm sales that seem to get political parties up in arms are ones in which Chinese buyers are involved, and that on the face of it, there’s bias involved’. Reference was also made to the Green Party’s opposition to a Chinese company purchasing 14,000 hectares of farmland, as well as competition with Fonterra in the Chinese market. These comments were presented as relevant to the overall context of the debate around foreign ownership and no judgement was made by the reporter as to the merits of allowing or restricting foreign ownership. The comments did not indicate partiality.

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

Did the item discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints?

[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]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.3

[15]  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’.4 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.5

[16]  The complainant asserted that the ‘whole tenor of the item was that some parties object to foreign sales but these sales are good. There was no balance, for example by examining the actual objections to foreign sales, which would not cover the sort of purchase this farmer had made’. She stated, ‘I believe that broadcasting this item during an election campaign indicates bias and a lack of balance’.

[17]  We accept that government policy on foreign ownership of farmland is something that excites conflicting opinion and debate and which is of concern and significance to New Zealanders, particularly given the item was broadcast in the lead-up to the election.

[18]  Guideline 4a to the standard lists a number of factors that should be considered when assessing whether a broadcaster has fulfilled its obligations under Standard 4, and whether a reasonable range of views has been allowed for, including:

  • the programme introduction;
  • the approach of the programme (e.g. from a particular perspective);
  • whether viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage.

[19]  This guideline allows a departure from strict compliance with the requirements of the controversial issues standard, in certain situations. The factors listed help to determine the level of balance required, by informing the Authority on how audience members would reasonably have perceived or understood the programme, and whether they were likely to have been deceived or misinformed by the omission or treatment of a significant perspective.

[20]  The item was transparently presented as being from the perspective of Mr Crowfoot, in support of foreign ownership. This was obvious from the introduction, in which the presenter stated:

Go away, stay away – that’s the message a number of political parties are sending to foreigners who might wish to farm in New Zealand, according to a farming leader. A range of political parties, including Labour, the Greens and NZ First are vowing to crack down on the sale of farmland to people from overseas. Federate Farmers Vice President, Andes Crowfoot, bought 300,000 hectares Castle Point Station in Wairarapa after moving from the United States in the 1990s and he went through the Overseas Investment Commission, as it was known then, to do so. Mr Crowfoot says New Zealand has always thrived on the new skills immigrants have brought with them and he believed his family has added value too. [Our emphasis]

[21]  Usually it will be sufficient for an item which is obviously focused on one perspective, to acknowledge the controversy or debate and the existence of other perspectives, without discussing those perspectives in detail. This occurred here, with the reporter asking questions and alluding to the debate. For example, he referred to Labour Party and Green Party policies, as follows:

  • ‘The Labour Party’s put out its policy. It says it is sick of seeing its farms and homes sold to overseas buyers and that, you know, that it would seriously restrict foreigners from buying farmland in New Zealand’
  • ‘The Green Party would stop foreigners from buying more than 5 hectares of land but says people like Mr Crowfoot [in his position in the 1990s] could lease land until they gained residency. Green Party co-leader Russell Norman is particularly worried about the Chinese Company [name] which is looking to buy a 14,000-hectare sheep and beef farm north of Taupo’.

[22]  Given the nature of the item and of the issue, it was sufficient for the reporter to allude to the arguments for and against foreign ownership. He was not required to go into any detail about the underlying rationales of the different policies. The item also contained comment from Russell Norman, as follows, ‘I mean, just think about the economics and the economic strategy of it. Land, productive farmland is the goose that lays the golden egg for New Zealand. It is very, very important; you don’t want to lose it into overseas ownership…’

[23]  We also note that, even if a broadcaster has not complied with the requirements of Standard 4 within a particular programme, the standard allows for significant viewpoints to be presented ‘within the period of current interest’. This acknowledges that it is not always possible for broadcasters to canvass all sides of a controversial issue of public importance within one programme. The period of current interest in this particular issue was ongoing and differing perspectives, including those opposed to foreign ownership of farmland, were presented within the period of current interest, given this was a key election campaign issue.

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

Was any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[25]  The fairness standard (Standard 6) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. One of the purposes of the fairness standard is to protect individuals and organisations from broadcasts which provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.6

[26]  Ms Macedo did not specify who she considered was treated unfairly, though presumably her fairness concerns relate to the Labour Party and other political parties with restrictive policies on foreign ownership of farmland. 

[27]  The item carried high public interest because it reported on a contentious campaign issue in the lead-up to the general election. It is of value to inform the audience of these types of issues and to stimulate public debate. This item presented one viewpoint in a much larger debate that was prevalent throughout the media at the time. Given the public interest in the item and that it was presented from the perspective of Mr Crowfoot, we do not consider any political party was treated unfairly.

[28]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

Peter Radich
Chair

3 December 2014

Appendix

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

1                 Dorothy Macedo’s formal complaint – 8 August 2014

2                 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 27 August 2014

3                 Ms Macedo’s referral to the Authority – 11 September 2014

4                 RNZ’s response to the Authority – 9 October 2014


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

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

3 For 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)

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

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

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