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Right to Life New Zealand and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-020 (16 June 2017)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Right to Life New Zealand

Dated

16th June 2017

Number

2017-020

Programme

RNZ News

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

An item on RNZ News reported on the Voluntary Euthanasia Society NZ’s (VES) calls for government action following a recently published study that indicated strong public support for some form of lawful assisted dying. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that this item inaccurately reported the findings of the study, and lacked balance. This was a short news report which accurately conveyed the key findings of the study to the listener. In the context of the item, it was not practical or necessary to convey the detailed nuances of the study’s findings. While the item touched on the broader issue of euthanasia, it simply reported on the findings of the study and did not amount to a discussion of the wider issue which triggered the requirements of the balance standard.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance


Introduction

[1]  An item on RNZ News reported on the Voluntary Euthanasia Society NZ’s (VES) calls for government action following a recently published study that indicated strong public support for some form of lawful assisted dying.1 The item also featured comment from the former president of VES.

[2]  Right to Life New Zealand complained that the news item inaccurately reported the findings of the study, and lacked balance because it did not include any comment opposing euthanasia.

[3]  The issues raised in Right to Life’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards, as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast on 13 January 2017 on Radio New Zealand National. The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Freedom of expression and overview of findings

[5]  The right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, is the starting point in our consideration of complaints. The right we have to express ourselves in the way we choose, and to receive information, is a fundamental freedom, but it is not an absolute freedom. It is nevertheless an important right, and we may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right is reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society.2

[6]  We consider the news item in question was in the public interest and carried high value in providing information to the public about a significant and widely debated societal issue.

[7]  Our task is to weigh the value of the programme (and the importance of the expression) against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. Here, Right to Life has submitted that the broadcast caused harm to the audience by omitting relevant information, which it considered to be misleading, and also by omitting balancing viewpoints. In other words, it is alleged that the audience was left uninformed about an important issue.

[8]  For the reasons set out below, we have concluded that listeners would not have been misled or left uninformed by this broadcast, given the context in which it was aired. We have not identified any harm arising from the broadcast which would outweigh the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression and the audience’s right to receive the information broadcast.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[9]  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

[10]  Right to Life submitted:

  • The item omitted key findings of the research (such as ‘the possibility that our findings do not represent people’s support for the concept of euthanasia per se, but instead, support for assisted death in the face of severe physical pain’) and the 2014/15 date of the research, which was misleading.
  • The newsreader’s statement that, ‘The survey, carried out by Auckland University and published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, asked nearly 16,000 people if patients with painful, incurable diseases should be allowed by law to end their lives’, was incorrect.

[11]  RNZ submitted:

  • The item centred on calls by VES for government action. As the statistical results of the research were not the focus of the news item, no issue of accuracy arose. However, the figures quoted were consistent with the findings of the study.
  • The research findings were sufficiently reported to enable listeners to understand VES’s position. The level of detail in the study was not material to the item.
  • The President of VES referred to ‘...some sort of medically assisted dying’, which was consistent with the study.

Our analysis

[12]  Having reviewed the broadcast item, and the research report, we consider that the key results were accurately conveyed, and listeners would have been able to come to a correct understanding of the study. The study itself described the results of the research as, ‘The majority of New Zealanders expressed support for euthanasia’,3 and concluded that ‘there is strong public support for euthanasia...’4

[13]  In the context of a short news report which focused on VES’s calls for government action, it was not practical, nor necessary, in the interests of ensuring accuracy, for the item to include all of the detailed nuances of the study’s findings.

[14]  The newsreader’s statement that the study was conducted by asking participants ‘if patients with painful, incurable diseases should be allowed by law to end their lives’ was an adequate summation of the research. The question asked in the study was, ‘Suppose a person has a painful, incurable disease. Do you think that doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life if the patient requests it?’ The introduction to the item described the study as being about ‘assisted death’, and later in the item the President of VES also referred to ‘medically assisted dying’. This would have made it sufficiently clear to listeners that the study assessed public support for euthanasia by reference to doctors lawfully terminating a patient’s life.

[15]  We do not consider that the fact the study was conducted in 2014/15 resulted in this item being misleading. The research canvassed nearly 16,000 participants, resulting in a comprehensive report which was ultimately published at the beginning of 2017. The release of the report was newsworthy and formed the basis for this item.

[16]  For these reasons we find no breach of the accuracy standard.

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

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

[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 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’.5

The parties’ submissions

[19]  Right to Life submitted:

  • The issue of euthanasia is a very contentious social issue, particularly when at the time of broadcast a Parliamentary Select Committee was considering over 20,000 submissions on Hon Maryan Street’s petition on the subject.
  • The item was unbalanced as it did not include a statement opposing euthanasia.

[20]  RNZ submitted that, in the context of a short item in a news bulletin, the issue of euthanasia was not ‘discussed’, therefore the balance standard did not apply.

Our analysis

[21]  The Authority has previously found that news items that simply report information about what may be controversial issues, for example where there has been a newsworthy development, are not discussions which require balancing perspectives.6

[22]  This was a short news report about the findings of a recently published study. The item had a narrow focus, namely VES’s reaction to the study’s conclusion of strong public support for some form of lawful assisted dying. It simply reported a newsworthy development within the broader issue of voluntary euthanasia, including briefly stating the findings of the study. This did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance which triggered the application of the balance standard, meaning the broadcaster was not required to include a statement opposing euthanasia, as submitted by the complainant.

[23]  Accordingly, we find the balance standard was not breached.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
16 June 2017

 

Appendix

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

1      Right to Life’s formal complaint – 17 January 2017
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 21 February 2017
3      Right to Life’s referral to the Authority – 25 March 2017
4      RNZ’s response to the Authority – 27 April 2017

 


1  Demographic and psychological correlates of New Zealanders’ support for euthanasia, NZMJ 13 January 2017, Vol 130 No. 1448.
2  See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and Commentary: Freedom of Expression, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6
3  As above, page 9
4  As above
5  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)
6  E.g. Wray and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2017-014 at [10]