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Dunstan and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2015-052

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Complainant

  • Vicki Dunstan

Dated

10th November 2015

Number

2015-052

Programme

Saturday Morning

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
 
Saturday Morning featured an interview with a filmmaker about his recent documentary Going Clear about the Church of Scientology. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the interview was unbalanced, unfair and biased against the Church. The focus of the interview was the filmmaker's perspective and his experience making the film; it did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required a balancing viewpoint to be presented. The nature of the programme was such that the broadcaster was not required in the interests of fairness to inform the Church prior to broadcast or invite its comment in response. In any case the broadcaster did invite a Church spokesperson to appear on a future programme and the broadcast also referred listeners to the Church's website if they wished to get the Church's perspective on the film and the issues discussed.

Not Upheld: Controversial Issues, Fairness


Introduction

[1]  Saturday Morning featured an interview with a filmmaker about his recent documentary Going Clear, which explored the Church of Scientology.

[2]  Vicki Dunstan, the President of the Church of Scientology Australia, complained that the interview was unbalanced, unfair and biased against the Church.

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

[4]  The item was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 13 June 2015. The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Scope of complaint

[5]  In her original complaint Ms Dunstan explicitly nominated the good taste and decency, accuracy, fairness, discrimination and denigration and responsible programming standards. She accepted RNZ's response on the majority of these standards, and only referred her complaint to the Authority under the controversial issues and fairness standards.

[6]  The Authority's task is to review the broadcaster's decision, and it is well-established that complainants cannot raise new standards at the referral stage. RNZ submitted that Ms Dunstan only raised the controversial issues standard in her referral and not in her original complaint, and as such the Authority could not consider this aspect of her complaint.

[7]  The Authority's established approach to the issue of the scope of complaints and their determination has been to accept jurisdiction over standards raised either explicitly or implicitly in the original complaint (or, conversely, to decline jurisdiction to consider a standard where it was not raised either explicitly or implicitly in the original complaint).1 In our view Ms Dunstan implicitly raised the controversial issues standard in the body of her complaint, writing, for example that 'The announcer... gave zero balance and did not hide her own prejudice' and that it was a 'one-sided negative interview'. We therefore invited RNZ to make submissions on the controversial issues standard and have determined Ms Dunstan's complaint under both the controversial issues and fairness standards.

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

[8]  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

[9]  Ms Dunstan acknowledged that subsequent to making her complaint, RNZ read on air a statement provided by the Church relating to the documentary, and this went some way to satisfying the balance standard. However, she argued that the only viewpoint given preference during the interview was the filmmaker's and this resulted in a grossly one-sided programme. She felt the interviewer did not hide her own prejudice against the Church and any 'devil's advocate' questions she posed were not serious challenges to the filmmaker's views. Ms Dunstan considered that both the filmmaker's and the announcer's attitude towards the Church was that it was 'strange' and 'its followers deluded'.

[10]  RNZ argued that the topic of the interview, the new documentary, was not a controversial issue of public importance as it had not been the subject of any public discourse or debate. It said that even if the Authority found the interview discussed a controversial issue of public importance, the programme indicated that other points of view existed. The interviewer played 'devil's advocate' on more than one occasion and directed listeners to the Church's website if they were interested in the Scientology perspective, RNZ said. It argued that it would be unreasonable for a broadcaster, on the occasion of discussing a documentary about a particular aspect of Scientology, to have to canvass in detail its teachings, the behaviour of its officials or the complainant's wish to rebuff any criticism of the institution.

[11]  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

[12]  The broadcast complained about comprised a feature interview (around 25 minutes) with a filmmaker about his latest documentary and his experiences making the film. We do not consider that this amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance which triggered the requirement for balancing viewpoints to be presented. It would have been clear to listeners that the interview focused on the personal experience and particular perspective of the filmmaker, and in this context they would not have expected a comprehensive discussion of alternative viewpoints on the Church and its practices and beliefs.

[13]  In any event, the complainant has informed us that subsequent to this item RNZ broadcast a statement from the Church on air, the Secretary of the Church of Scientology New Zealand was invited to take part in a future Saturday Morning programme (discussed further under fairness below) and the interviewer directed listeners to further information and sources should they wish to get the Church's perspective, for example the Church's website. She also utilised 'devil's advocate' questioning from time to time which highlighted positive aspects of the Church; for example, she said, 'The question is of course how you define religion, is it not? And if I were a Scientologist... you know it helps people out, it gives them a home, it makes them feel like they belong to a family'.

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

Was the Church of Scientology treated unfairly?

[15]  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.4

[16]  Ms Dunstan argued that the interview was negative towards, and 'grossly misrepresented', Scientology practices. She asserted that Going Clear contained no input from the Church or from practising Scientologists and that the filmmaker continued to make 'outrageous claims' about the Church which he has no evidence to support, as he did during the interview. While Ms Dunstan acknowledged RNZ's offer to interview a Church spokesperson subsequent to the original broadcast, she did not feel this adequately addressed the bias and 'actions to incite hatred and discrimination against Scientology and Scientologists' in the interview.

[17]  RNZ accepted that Scientologists and the Church were the subject of some criticism during the interview, but felt no undue harm was caused by the broadcast; it considered greater harm would be caused by unnecessarily restricting an individual's freedom of speech. RNZ noted that the guidelines to the fairness standard state that broadcasters should respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions, which in its view was exactly what had occurred on this occasion. It said the interviewer had posed challenging and 'devil's advocate' questions to the filmmaker and had also made specific reference to the material and website link provided by the Church. Further, the Secretary of the Church of Scientology New Zealand was invited to take part in a future Saturday Morning programme. Overall RNZ did not believe the Church was treated unfairly.

[18]  As we have explained in relation to the balance standard, this interview was focused on the filmmaker, his recent film and his experience making the film. In our view this was not the type of programme format which required, in the interests of fairness, that the Church be informed of the interview prior to broadcast or invited to respond. Nor do we think listeners would have expected this given the nature of the programme.

[19]  Throughout the course of the interview the filmmaker was measured and moderate, and appeared to have a reasonable basis in the research undertaken for the film – much of which comprised the personal views and experiences of former members of the Church – for any statement that he made. As we have noted in relation to balance, the interviewer directed listeners to the Church's own website as a source of further information, she acted as 'devil's advocate' on occasion and RNZ invited a Church representative to participate in a future programme.

[20]  Overall we are satisfied that listeners would not have been left with an unfairly negative impression of the Church and that the broadcast enabled them to form their own views based on what they heard as well as other information available. The Church is a large, international organisation that is relatively used to media attention and to being the subject of discussion and criticism. It is well-equipped to deal with this kind of attention.

[21]  Accordingly we decline to uphold the complaint that the Church was treated unfairly.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
10 November 2015

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1      Vicki Dunstan's formal complaint – 16 June 2015
2      RNZ's response to the complaint – 13 July 2015
3      Ms Dunstan's referral to the Authority – 29 July 2015
4      RNZ's response to the Authority – 27 August 2015
5      RNZ's further comments – 30 September 2015
6      Ms Dunstan's further comments – 12 October 2015

 

 


1For example, see: Morse and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2014-094 at [3]; NZ Timber Preservation Council Inc and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-032 at [24]; and Burnby and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2009-157 at [38]

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

3For 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)

4Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014