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Lace and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2014-111

Members

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

Complainant

  • Stephen Lace

Dated

4th March 2015

Number

2014-111

Programme

Sunday Morning

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

The Authority declined to uphold a complaint that Radio New Zealand's Sunday Morning coverage of 'Dirty Politics issues', was unbalanced, irresponsible and unfair. The broadcast covered a range of topics including Dirty Politics, and as the book was one of the political 'hot topics' in the lead-up to the 2014 general election and widely reported on, listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of other views.

Not Upheld: Controversial Issues, Fairness, Responsible Programming


Introduction

[1]  Stephen Lace complained that Radio New Zealand's Sunday Morning programme on 24 August 2014, and specifically the coverage of 'Dirty Politics issues', was unbalanced, irresponsible and unfair. He referred to a 'left wing bias' and a lack of serious analysis and discussion of proposed policy.

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

[3]  In his original complaint Mr Lace identified only the Sunday Morning broadcast, which covered five hours of programming. RNZ initially requested that the Authority decline to accept Mr Lace's referral on the basis that he did not identify specific programme content. Mr Lace subsequently specified the 'Politics and Economy', 'Insight', 'Andrew Geddis' and 'Mediawatch' segments on Sunday Morning. The members of the Authority have listened to recordings of these items and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

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

[4]  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.1

[5]  Mr Lace argued that the broadcast gave 'the persistent inference...that the other political parties never do anything unpleasant' and considered RNZ's coverage of Dirty Politics was 'relentless' in its biased presentation of the topic.

[6]  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'.2

[7]  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

[8]  We consider the then-impending general election and the allegations in the book Dirty Politics, which had been published the week before the broadcast, were issues of public importance, were controversial and were discussed widely. Dirty Politics was discussed in two of the Sunday Morning items: 'Andrew Geddis' and roughly half of the 'Mediawatch' segment. The other items focused on the upcoming election with reference to the economy, education and health care.

[9]  We are satisfied that overall the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present a balanced discussion of the book and election issues. The discussion was critical of both the political tactics alleged by Dirty Politics and of the sensationalism of the book and its contents. It is an important and legitimate role of the media to scrutinise the actions of government and those in power. In addition, the items included a number of balancing comments which did not favour any particular party, for example:

  • 'There are good people on both sides of the divide...'
  • 'By its nature, politics is a dirty business, and always has been.'
  • 'The question is how we try to structure our politics so that the good people can still operate without being killed off by both sides turning to use these kind of techniques... because this is the risk – if the right, who are predominantly using this tactic at the moment because they have the sights to do it, if they can do it, well then, the left would be stupid not to, and then you're in a race to the bottom.'

[10]  Additionally, guideline 4b to the balance standard allows us to take into account whether listeners would be aware of other views when determining whether sufficient balance was provided. The release of Dirty Politics (and the allegations contained within it) was a political 'hot topic' that was covered extensively throughout the lead-up to the election, with a range of views presented on the issue. Listeners would be aware of, and had available to them, other perspectives from other sources.

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

Were any other broadcasting standards breached?

[12]  Mr Lace also raised the fairness and responsible programming standards in his complaint but did not make specific arguments under these standards. In summary, these standards were not breached because:

  • the complainant did not specify who he considered was treated unfairly (Standard 6)
  • nothing in the segments on Sunday Morning would have distressed listeners, given they comprised legitimate political discussion and were targeted at an adult audience (Standard 8).

[13]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the complaint under these standards.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich
Chair
4 March 2015

 

Appendix

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

1      Stephen Lace's formal complaint – 24 August 2014
2      RNZ's response to the complaint – 2 September 2014
3      Mr Lace's referral to the Authority – 6 September 2014
4      RNZ's response to the Authority – 9 October 2014
5      Mr Lace's final comment – 23 October 2014

 

 


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

2 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)

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

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