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Gibbs and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2016-091 (8 March 2017)

Members

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

Dated

8th March 2017

Number

2016-091

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

An item on Sunday Morning with Wallace Chapman, titled ‘Abortion and Civil Liberties – the Thames Stand-Off’, discussed ‘pro-life’ protestors, Voice for Life, and their longstanding protests outside Thames Hospital. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the presenter was biased and that his treatment of the ‘pro-life’ representative was negative, unfair and unbalanced in comparison to his treatment of the ‘pro-choice’ representative. The Authority found that Mr Chapman’s treatment of the interviewees did not result in an unbalanced broadcast, as both perspectives on the debate were adequately put forward during the programme. While Mr Chapman’s questioning of the ‘pro-life’ representative was robust, his criticisms related to the Voice for Life group as a whole, and he did not attack the interviewee personally or come across as abusive towards her, such that she was treated unfairly. The allegedly inaccurate statement made by Mr Chapman represented his interpretation of the issues discussed, and as such could be distinguished as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than a point of fact subject to the accuracy standard.

Not Upheld: Balance, Fairness, Accuracy


Introduction

[1]  An item on Sunday Morning with Wallace Chapman, titled ‘Abortion and Civil Liberties – the Thames Stand-Off’, discussed ‘pro-life’ protestors, Voice for Life (VFL), and their longstanding protests outside Thames Hospital. The item featured interviews with a representative from the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) and a protestor with VFL, as well as an Associate Professor of Law at Otago University.

[2]  David Gibbs complained that Mr Chapman’s treatment of the ALRANZ representative and the VFL representative was biased. He said that while Mr Chapman allowed ‘in a limited way’ the views of the ‘pro-life’ (VFL) representative to be aired, his treatment of her was negative, unfair and unbalanced in comparison to his treatment of the ‘pro-choice’ (ALRANZ) representative.

[3]  Mr Gibbs also complained that Mr Chapman’s comment that the debate was ‘about the right of women to do what they want with their own bodies’ was inaccurate, as a fertilised egg was a separate biological entity from a woman’s body.

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

[5]  The item was broadcast on 16 October 2016 on Radio NZ National at 10am. 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 item sufficiently balanced?

[6]  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 viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

The parties’ submissions

[7]  Mr Gibbs submitted that:

  • Mr Chapman ‘asked “soft” or leading questions’ of the ALRANZ representative, ‘allowed statements/arguments to be made mostly unchallenged’, and provided words of ‘support and/or agreement’ in relation to her views. Mr Chapman’s treatment of the VFL representative, on the other hand, was largely negative, asking ‘aggressive, negatively phrased questions’. This lead to a failure by the broadcaster ‘to provide a level playing field for both sides’.
  • The ALRANZ representative was experienced in dealing with the media, while the VFL representative ‘was clearly not as experienced or as confident’.
  • Mr Gibbs cited the Authority’s commentary on the balance standard, noting ‘the way in which a programme is presented’ was a factor, as well as whether audiences were ‘likely to be misinformed by the omission or treatment of a significant perspective (for example, where a significant perspective is presented with limited coverage, or in a manner which undermines its validity)’.1 [Mr Gibbs’ emphasis]

[8]  RNZ submitted that:

  • It did not agree with Mr Gibbs’ characterisation of Mr Chapman’s interviews, stating that the balance standard did not call for ‘stopwatch journalism’, and that it was open to broadcasters to determine how ‘other significant points of view are presented’.
  • It considered that ‘two people holding significant points of view were given extensive opportunity to speak on the programme’.

Our analysis

[9]  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’.2

[10]  The debate about the moral and legal implications of abortion between ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ groups, and each group’s right to protest, is a highly-charged issue, and the Authority has previously found that items discussing similar issues amounted to discussions of a controversial issue of public importance.3 We therefore find the requirements of the balance standard were triggered in this case.

[11]  Mr Gibbs’ primary concern is that the programme presenter was biased in his interviewing of the two representatives from either side of the debate. We agree that, at times, Mr Chapman’s treatment of the interviewees differed, and he did allow his personal views to come across. Mr Chapman adopted a more robust, ‘devil’s advocate’ or challenging questioning style during the VFL representative’s interview, and he did appear, at times, to ask the ALRANZ representative leading questions, for example:

Mr Chapman: ...do you think that... the local District Health Board does have some sort of responsibility around this, to make sure that women who are having an abortion are free from harassment, albeit silent harassment, do you think they have some sort of responsibility of duty here?

Interviewee: I think they do but I think the Thames Coromandel District Council has more...

[12]  However, Mr Chapman also challenged the ALRANZ representative, such as during the following exchange:

Mr Chapman: This is, of course, a freedom of expression issue too, isn’t it? You know, people have the right to protest down the main street... any number of things, so you accept that the VFL people also have a right to be there?

Interviewee: I accept that freedom of expression is certainly... an absolute right but it’s self-regarding, meaning it’s self-contained. It’s the freedom to express yourself as you wish to be understood, in and of yourself. It does not include the right to address a particular person at a particular time. That’s different, that’s the right to protest. The right to protest is contingent, it’s not absolute –

Mr Chapman: – but it includes the right, surely, to be able to stand there with a placard, keeping to yourself, which I presume they do, and exercise their fundamental right to speak up on the issue that they strongly believe in?

[13]  This Authority has previously noted it does not automatically follow that a current affairs item in which a presenter makes their individual views known, or advocates for a certain stance, will be unbalanced or result in a breach of standards.4 Additionally, the Authority has consistently held that ‘balance need not be achieved by the “stopwatch”, meaning that the time given to each competing party or viewpoint does not have to be mathematically balanced’.5 The question for the Authority is whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view on the issue discussed.

[14]  Assessing the item as whole, we do not consider that Mr Chapman’s treatment of the interviewees resulted in an unbalanced broadcast, or that listeners were likely to have been misinformed. Sufficient balancing perspectives were provided during the item by the interviewees.

[15]  The VFL representative came across as articulate and capable in expressing the views of VFL. She responded calmly to Mr Chapman’s challenging tone and provided clear responses to the allegations against the protest group, challenging Mr Chapman’s assumptions that the group was vocal or harassed patients, saying:

No, of course we don’t [harass women]. We try to provide them with information, with options for other choices that they can made. We want them to realise that there are plenty more choices for them and how to get access to the help and support they need if they want it. And that there are risks associated with abortion.
...
We don’t think it’s harassment. It is perhaps filling a gap that is missing in their counselling... sessions, because we’ve talked to a number of people who say that the counselling that they get is not very full and not very comprehensive...

[16]  Overall, both perspectives were put forward and presented clearly during the programme. We are satisfied that the VFL representative was given, and took, the opportunity to present her point of view on the issues discussed. While it was evident that Mr Chapman allowed his own personal views to come across, this did not result in VFL’s perspective being lost or omitted from the broadcast. Listeners would not have been left uninformed or unable to form their own views.

[17]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under Standard 8.

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

[18]  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 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

The parties’ submissions

[19]  Mr Gibbs submitted that:

  • The differing treatment of the interviewees resulted in unfairness to the VFL representative. While Mr Chapman made positive comments and allowed the ALRANZ representative to speak uninterrupted and unchallenged, Mr Gibbs said that Mr Chapman interrupted and spoke over the VFL representative, making aggressive and challenging comments in relation to her views.

[20]  RNZ submitted that:

  • The VFL representative was ‘allowed to speak at length in answering her questions and did not appear reticent in speaking nor did she sound at all intimidated by the questions put to her’.
  • The VFL representative’s position in relation to the issue of harassment was reinforced positively later in the programme by the legal expert.

Our analysis

[21]  The voicing of differing perspectives on the abortion debate, including in this item, carries high value in terms of both the exercise of freedom of expression and serving the public interest. The robust questioning of those who participate in anti-abortion protests outside hospitals is a valuable exercise of this fundamental right.

[22]  Taking this into account, we do not consider that Mr Chapman’s treatment of the VFL representative resulted in her being treated unfairly. While he adopted a challenging style of questioning and was, at times, forceful in his views, Mr Chapman’s criticisms related to the Voice for Life group as a whole, and he did not attack the interviewee personally, nor was he, in our view, abusive towards her. The VFL representative was able to calmly express her genuinely-held views and to explain why the group protested outside Thames Hospital, and how they felt they were making a difference for women there. We do not consider that audiences would have been left with an unduly negative impression of the interviewee or VFL – and as the broadcaster has noted, some of her comments were supported by the final speaker, regarding the right to freedom of expression and to protest.

[23]  We therefore do not uphold the fairness complaint.

Was the broadcast in accurate or misleading?

[24]  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

[25]  Mr Gibbs submitted that Mr Chapman’s statement, ‘...this is about the right of women to do what they want with their own bodies’, was inaccurate. He argued that it was a ‘non-controversial medical fact that the fertilised egg from the moment of conception becomes a separate biological entity from the mother’s body’. He said that Mr Chapman ‘misinformed and misled the public’ in this statement.

[26]  RNZ submitted that the complainant’s point was also made by the VFL representative during her interview, so ‘that comment was queried, and doubt was cast, at the time of broadcast’.

Our analysis

[27]  The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact. In our view, the statement made by Mr Chapman offered his own interpretation of the issues at the heart of the discussion, and would not have been interpreted as a statement of fact. He duly put his view on this to the VFL representative for her response. The VFL representative then reiterated the complainant’s argument on this point, saying:

Firstly, there is another body inside them. It’s not just their body that they’re talking about, it’s the other body that’s inside them. We don’t believe we harass them – we inform and we’re there to help them, not to judge them. Most people realise that.

[28]  We therefore do not consider that listeners would have been misled in the manner alleged, and 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      David Gibbs’ formal complaint – 16 October 2016
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 21 November 2016
3      Mr Gibbs’ referral to the Authority – 4 December 2016
4      RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 16 January 2017

 

 


1 See Commentary to the Balance Standard, page 18 of the Codebook
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 For example, Family First NZ and Right to Life Inc and Radio New Zealand Ltd (Decision No. 2013-095), Right to Life NZ and TVWorks Ltd (Decision No. 2013-062)
4 Turver and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2016-032 at [20]
5 See, for example, Keren and Radio New Zealand, Decision No. 2014-144 at [10]; Boyce and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2011-163
6 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014