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Boyce and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2016-096 (8 March 2017)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Simon Boyce

Dated

8th March 2017

Number

2016-096

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.]

A Nine to Noon programme included a segment featuring UK correspondent Dame Ann Leslie. In response to the host’s question ‘What is on your mind this week?’, Dame Leslie commented on the British Labour Party, its leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Black Lives Matter UK organisation. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that Dame Leslie’s comments constituted an attack on Mr Corbyn, denigrated the BLM UK activists, and were inaccurate and unbalanced. Mr Corbyn and BLM UK were not treated unfairly, as both could reasonably expect to be subject to robust media scrutiny as a consequence of their public profile. While the item was a current affairs piece to which the balance standard applied, the issues were approached from Dame Leslie’s perspective and listeners would not have expected alternative views to be given. The statements complained about were clearly Dame Leslie’s opinion, and so were not subject to the requirements of the accuracy standard. The statements about the BLM UK activists did not reach the high level necessary to constitute discrimination or denigration.

Not Upheld: Fairness, Balance, Accuracy and Discrimination and Denigration


Introduction

[1]  A Nine to Noon programme included a segment featuring UK correspondent Dame Ann Leslie. In response to the host’s question, ‘What is on your mind this week?’, Dame Leslie commented on the British Labour Party, its leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Black Lives Matter UK (BLM UK) organisation.

[2]  Simon Boyce complained that Dame Leslie’s comments constituted an attack on Mr Corbyn, denigrated the BLM UK activists, and were inaccurate and unbalanced.

[3]  The issue raised in Mr Boyce’s complaint is whether the broadcast breached the fairness, balance, accuracy and discrimination and denigration standards as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 22 September 2016. 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 any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[5]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) 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 that 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.1

The parties’ submissions

[6]  Mr Boyce submitted:

  • The segment ‘consisted of a continuous ad hominem attack on, and ridicule of, Jeremy Corbyn... the whole interview involved denigration of Corbyn and his supporters’.
  • The description of BLM UK protestors as ‘nine loony Corbyn cultists’, and comments that none of them were black and were too privileged to be protestors, denigrated the protestors.
  • Standards of fairness (and accuracy) should apply to all subjects discussed on the programme, regardless of whether they are based in New Zealand.

[7]  RNZ submitted:

  • ‘It is difficult to see what unfairness arose, let alone harm that could have been inflicted, from such a satirical piece.’
  • The fact a listener took offence at the comments made in the item is insufficient to find a breach of the fairness standard.

Our analysis

Jeremy Corbyn

[8]  During the item Dame Leslie made the following comments about Jeremy Corbyn:

What really has been absorbing me and others is of course the farce of the Labour Party... it was once a great political party but... currently determined to leap off the cliff to its electoral death like a hoard of suicidal squabbling lemmings. Now Jeremy Corbyn, who is the source of all this drama and the current leader – he will be the leader, unfortunately – always says he wants a kinder, gentler politics but he does not do anything to punish those of his followers who behave like thugs. The fact is, Jeremy, much loved by his acolytes, is actually a hypocrite, a fact revealed not least by what we call ‘biscuit-gate’...

[9]  We acknowledge Dame Leslie’s segment as a whole was critical of Mr Corbyn (and the British Labour Party). However, taking into account the high value given to political commentary in terms of the right to freedom of expression, we do not consider the item was unfair to Mr Corbyn.

[10]  It is well established that the threshold for finding a breach of the fairness standard in relation to politicians or public figures is higher than for a layperson or someone unfamiliar with the media.2 Dame Leslie’s comments were directed at what she considered to be Mr Corbyn’s failings in his professional capacity, and did not stray beyond this into personal abuse or an attack on him personally. As the leader of the British Labour Party, Mr Corbyn is a high-profile politician and public figure who is the subject of international discussion and attention, and ought to expect robust scrutiny by the media and commentators. We do not think that Dame Leslie’s comments went beyond the sort of commentary that one would expect to be directed at politicians.

BLM UK

[11]  During the item, Dame Leslie made the following comments about members of BLM UK:

  • ‘Nine loony Corbyn cultists managed to bring London City Airport to a halt for six hours, thus enraging 9,000 passengers who couldn’t fly anywhere...’
  • ‘None of the City Airport protestors were black. They were all white, highly privileged, mostly not in gainful employment, living in Mummy and Daddy’s mansion and evidently not short of a bob or two judging by the huge numbers of overseas visits...’
  • ‘...one of the founders of Black Lives Matter UK... is mixed race and alleged that black women like herself face “extreme oppression” by the state, despite the fact that this oppressive British state has given her private company... 102,375 pounds of British taxpayer money to help her fly to New York and Brazil and stay in luxury hotels and attend feminist conferences’.

[12]  We recognise that Dame Leslie’s comments could be seen to reflect negatively on the BLM UK protestors, which may have had the effect of undermining the motivations for the protestors’ actions and the issues to which they were drawing attention.

[13]  That being said, the tactics employed by the BLM UK in this particular protest were controversial, and designed to attract media attention and discussion. The organisation could reasonably expect to be subject to robust criticism. In the context of current affairs commentary presented in Dame Leslie’s sharp-tongued style, we do not consider the comments reached the level necessary to constitute unfairness to BLM UK.

[14]  For the above reasons, we do not uphold the fairness complaint.

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

[15]  The balance standard (Standard 8) 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 the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.3

The parties’ submissions

[16]  Mr Boyce submitted:

  • The segment was a ‘completely partisan attack from the conservative right. RNZ obviously has no intention of putting a Labour supporter on, or commentator who is objective’.
  • Terms such as ‘loony’ and cultist’ should be rejected when they are applied to one side and not the other.
  • This segment followed other partisan coverage and ‘dubious treatment’ of Mr Corbyn on RNZ.
  • The implication of RNZ’s response is that political commentary is mere opinion, and not current affairs, meaning it could never be captured by the balance (or accuracy) standard.

[17]  RNZ submitted:

  • Dame Leslie’s satirical and sarcastic comments on a number of topics during the segment, including Jeremy Corbyn, could not be considered a news and current affairs programme to which the standard applied.

Our analysis

[18]  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 that 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’.4

Was the item news, current affairs or factual programming to which the balance standard applied?

[19]  The first question for the Authority is whether this particular segment of Nine to Noon was a news, current affairs, or factual programme. RNZ has submitted that it was not. In determining what is a news, current affairs or factual programme, the Authority takes into account what audiences would reasonably expect to be news and current affairs, and/or what would be an authoritative or truthful source of information. These sorts of programmes can be distinguished from programmes that are wholly based on opinions or ideas.5 Other common characteristics of news and current affairs programmes include:

  • programmes which are dedicated to reporting on, or informing viewers about, news and current affairs
  • programmes which discuss topical issues
  • programmes that feature real people and real stories.

[20]  Nine to Noon is a news, current affairs and lifestyle programme that features a variety of programme topics and genres. We recognise that there may be parts of the Nine to Noon programme which are not news, current affairs or factual programming. In this case, however, the item largely consisted of description of, and commentary on, recent events and political issues, which we see as falling within the category of current affairs. The purpose of featuring Dame Leslie as a correspondent in the programme was to provide listeners with commentary on topical issues arising in the UK. While the item included Dame Leslie’s opinion, it was based on recent political events, people and organisations, such as events in the British Labour Party. Further, Dame Leslie is an experienced British journalist and the audience could reasonably expect her comments to be authoritative.

[21]  We acknowledge the tone of the piece was satirical and sarcastic, as noted by the broadcaster, and the political commentary followed a segue from a light-hearted reference to the ‘Brangelina’ (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) break-up, but given the nature of the item as a whole, we do not consider this caused the item to fall outside the category of news and current affairs.

[22]  We therefore find that the segment did amount to current affairs programming which triggered the application of the balance standard.6

Did the item discuss a controversial issue of public importance?

[23]  The next question is whether the item amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, such that the presentation of alternative viewpoints was required. We do not consider that it did.

[24]  This piece was transparently framed as Dame Leslie talking about ‘what was on [her] mind this week’ (which in this instance included topics falling within the category of current affairs). The segment did not purport to be a balanced discussion of Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party, and as commentary from a particular individual, listeners would not have expected alternative views to be presented within this segment.

[25]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the balance complaint.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[26]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) 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 being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[27]  My Boyce submitted:

  • The comments about BLM UK were inaccurate, as the protestors have nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn or the British Labour Party.
  • ‘Many of Leslie’s other statements about the protest were also dubious’.

[28]  RNZ submitted:

  • The segment opened with the question to Dame Leslie, ‘What is on your mind this week?’ which clearly delineated what followed as statements of opinion, which were not subject to the accuracy standard.

Our analysis

[29]  Guideline 9a to the accuracy standard provides that the requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements that are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion. As we have said in relation to balance, this segment was clearly presented in its introduction as offering Dame Leslie’s own perspective and commentary, including on the BLM UK protest and the protestors’ motivations. We therefore find that the aspects of the programme complained about in relation to accuracy were not subject to the requirements of the standard, and we do not uphold this part of the complaint.

Did the broadcast encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community?

[30]  The objective of the discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 6) is to protect sections of the community from verbal andother attacks. The standard protects against broadcasts that encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section 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.

The parties’ submissions

[31]  Mr Boyce submitted:

  • The item denigrated Mr Corbyn’s supporters, in particular the BLM UK protestors, as Dame Leslie described them as ‘nine loony Corbyn cultists’ and said that none of them were black and were too privileged to be protestors.

[32] RNZ submitted:

  • The comments made would not affect any section of the community in New Zealand so this complaint was not upheld.

Our analysis

[33]  ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment. ‘Denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community.7 The importance of freedom of expression means that a high level of condemnation, often with an element of malice or nastiness, will be necessary to conclude that a broadcast encouraged discrimination or denigration in breach of the standard.8

[34]  Guideline 6c to the discrimination and denigration standard states that it is not intended to prevent the broadcast of a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion. The kind of political commentary offered by Dame Leslie, exercising the right to freedom of expression, is valued and protected and must not be limited unless it is justified to do so. We are satisfied her comments did not carry the high level of condemnation necessary to encourage the denigration, or different treatment, of the BLM UK protestors on account of their alleged political belief. As we have said in our consideration of fairness to BLM UK as an organisation, it could reasonably expect to be subject to robust commentary and criticism as a result of the controversial tactics it employed (see paragraphs [11] to [14]).

[35]  Accordingly, we do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.


For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
8 March 2017

 

Appendix

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

1      Simon Boyce’s formal complaint – 22 September 2016
2      Mr Boyce’s initial referral to the Authority – 9 November 2016
3      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 24 November 2016
4      Mr Boyce’s confirmation of his referral to the Authority – 20 December 2016
5      RNZ’s response to the Authority – 20 January 2017

 


1 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014
2 For example, see Kiro and RadioWorks Ltd (Decision No. 2008-108) and Craig and 4 Others and Television New Zealand Ltd (Decision No. 2013-034)
3 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014
4 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)
5 Commentary: Accuracy standard, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook at page 18
6 The Authority has also previously found that the balance (and accuracy) standards applied to certain other Nine to Noon items, for example, see Kirby and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2013-042 at paragraph [15] and Garrett and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2013-048.
7 Guideline 6a to Standard 6
8 Guideline 6b to Standard 6