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Garrett and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-079 (28 November 2017)

Members

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

Complainant

  • David Garrett

Dated

28th November 2017

Number

2017-079

Programme

Checkpoint

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

A segment on Checkpoint featured an interview with former Green Party Co-Leader Metiria Turei. The interview occurred just after Ms Turei had announced her resignation as Co-Leader. John Campbell questioned Ms Turei about the recent allegations of benefit fraud which had recently arisen, the effect these allegations had on her and whether they ultimately led to her resignation. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the interview was unbalanced. While the subject matter amounted to a controversial issue of public importance, the Authority found alternate views were put forward through the use of ‘devil’s advocate’ questioning, and noted there was also considerable media coverage of the allegations, meaning there was a wide range of information available on the issue. The interview’s focus was Ms Turei’s response to the allegations, and as a whole would not have left the audience misinformed regarding the nature of the allegations and Ms Turei’s position.

Not Upheld: Balance  


Introduction

[1]  A segment on Checkpoint featured John Campbell interviewing former Green Party Co-Leader Metiria Turei. The interview occurred just after Ms Turei had resigned as the Co-Leader of the Green Party amidst allegations of benefit and electoral fraud.

[2]  During the interview Mr Campbell questioned Ms Turei about the reasons behind her resignation as Green Party Co-Leader and the allegations that she received financial support from relatives while also receiving the domestic purposes benefit.

[3]  David Garrett complained that the item was unbalanced because Mr Campbell did not put the same questions to Ms Turei verbally that were put to her in writing earlier that day, and Mr Campbell’s interview style was biased, ‘unctuous and extremely caring’.

[4]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the balance standard of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The interview was broadcast on 9 August 2017 on RNZ 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.

Was the item sufficiently balanced?

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

The parties’ submissions

[6]  Mr Garrett submitted:

  • Mr Campbell failed to ask Ms Turei the questions which RNZ had put to her earlier in the day in writing, regarding allegations that family members had financially supported Ms Turei while she was on the benefit – allegations which led to Ms Turei’s resignation.
  • Mr Campbell’s questions lacked a ‘level of specificity’ in contrast to questions put to Ms Turei prior to her resignation.
  • Mr Campbell’s interview style was ‘unctuous and extremely caring’.
  • Comments such as, ‘By God this is a difficult conversation to have...’ and the ‘soft questions’ Mr Campbell asked demonstrated his clear left-wing political bias.
  • Mr Campbell treated Ms Turei differently than he would a right-wing politician who was under similar media scrutiny.
  • To accurately assess this complaint the BSA must compel RNZ to provide a summary of the information received from the family members regarding Ms Turei, as well as a copy of the written questions that were put to Ms Turei prior to the interview.

[7]  RNZ submitted:

  • Questions regarding Ms Turei allegedly receiving financial support from family members were put to Ms Turei earlier in the day and again verbally in the interview.
  • Mr Garrett’s concerns about Mr Campbell’s style of interviewing are not covered by the balance standard.
  • While the balance standard could apply to the issue of Ms Turei receiving the domestic purposes benefit, this interview did not purport to be a complete discussion of this issue.
  • Questions were ultimately put to, and answered by, Ms Turei ‘on a devil’s advocacy basis’, and based on information received from people whose view countered Ms Turei.
  • Whether the questions asked by Mr Campbell regarding the receipt of financial assistance were put in specific or general terms was irrelevant as she denied the allegations.

[8] In response Mr Garrett submitted:

  • It was not possible to assess whether ‘this was a balanced interview without seeing the original questions posed which apparently prompted Ms Turei to resign rather than respond to them’.
  • ‘It is important to note that Ms Turei had resigned before the interview even began rather than respond to the questions put to her earlier’.
  • The style and substance of the item are not severable and therefore Mr Campbell’s interviewing style is relevant to the complaint.

Our analysis

[9]  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.1

[10]  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

[11]  The issue of Ms Turei’s resignation amid allegations of benefit and electoral fraud had the potential to influence New Zealanders’ views given its proximity to the 2017 general election, and the public debate it attracted. We are satisfied that this amounted to a controversial issue of public importance that was discussed during the Checkpoint segment.

[12]  The next question is whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to provide balance. A determination of whether sufficient balance has been provided on a controversial issue is context-dependent and requires consideration of the following factors:

  • the nature of the issue
  • the nature of the discussion
  • the likely expectations of the audience as to content
  • whether listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage, including coverage in other media.3

[13]  The key question in terms of the objectives of the balance standard is what listeners would have expected from the programme, and whether as a result of the broadcast listeners would be left uninformed or unable to form their own views on the issue under discussion.4

[14]  This broadcast offered a particular significant point of view (from Ms Turei herself) on the recent financial assistance allegations and the reasoning behind her resignation. It was clearly presented as being from Ms Turei’s perspective from the outset, and the issues discussed in this interview carried a high level of public interest, particularly leading up to the 2017 general election.

[15]  Balance can be achieved in a number of ways, having regard to relevant contextual factors in each case. In some cases, including where a programme is clearly presented from a particular viewpoint, as this programme was, it may be sufficient for the existence of alternative views to be acknowledged during the programme, or for alternative views to be explored in other programmes or in other media during the period of current interest.5

[16]  In this case, Mr Campbell used ‘devil’s advocate’ questioning to put the allegations and opposing views to Ms Turei. During the interview, Mr Campbell questioned Ms Turei about the specific allegations surrounding her, their veracity and whether they contributed to her resignation:

  • ‘We had no idea whether or not this [allegations about Ms Turei] was true so we put the accusations in writing and emailed them to Metiria Turei so she could respond. We would not have gone to air without a formal response. A short time ago she called us to resign.’
  •  ‘…But we have also heard from people, and by god this is a difficult conversation to have, who are telling us this [the desperation and degradation of surviving on the benefit] wasn’t your experience, you had the most beautiful and generous support from your daughter’s grandparents, in other words you told an important and relevant story but it wasn’t exactly yours, is that true?’
  •  ‘Can I put this tough question on the record so you can answer it and everyone can hear you answer it: did you get financial support from [family members]?’
  • ‘So they weren’t contributing at all to raising your daughter?’
  • ‘Did you ever live with them?’
  • ‘If it’s unfair [the allegations], and you’re able to say no to all of the questions I’m asking you, why are you going?’

[17]  The above extracts highlight how Mr Campbell used the interview to engage Ms Turei in an in-depth and thorough discussion about a sensitive issue that had the potential to personally and politically harm her and the Green Party. As the focus is on how the audience would have received the broadcast, we do not consider it necessary to obtain RNZ’s written questions or the information from Ms Turei’s relatives in order to determine the complaint. The allegations were explored by Mr Campbell during the interview and Ms Turei was questioned on a range of issues, and had a reasonable opportunity to put forward her position.

[18]  Additionally, Ms Turei’s resignation was the subject of widespread media coverage and public debate,6 so there was a wide range of information available as the story developed during the period of current interest. Through that coverage listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of significant views on the issue.

[19]  In response to Mr Garrett’s submissions regarding Mr Campbell’s interview style, we note that the balance standard is not intended to direct how questions should be asked. Rather, our task is to assess whether, overall, sufficient balance has been provided on the issue under discussion.

[20]  Taking into account the considerations we have outlined above, we find that overall the interview was consistent with audience expectations, given its focus and the way it was framed, and that listeners would not have been left uninformed as a result of this broadcast.

[21]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint

 

 

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich
Chair
28 November 2017

 



Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1       David Garrett’s formal complaint – 15 August 2017
2       RNZ’s response to the complaint – 19 September 2017
3       Mr Garrett’s referral to the Authority – 25 September 2017
4       RNZ’s response to the referral – 19 October 2017
5       Mr Garrett’s final comments – 31 October 2017


 

1 See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and Introduction: Freedom of Expression, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6

2 Commentary on the Balance Standard, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18

3 Guideline 8c, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 29

4 As above

Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18

See, for example: Metiria Turei says support from her child's grandparents wasn't financial (Stuff, 9 August 2017); Metiria Turei resigns as Green co-leader (Newshub, 8 August 2017); Why Metiria Turei has to resign (National Business Review, 5 August 2017); Speaking power to truth: The political assassination of Metiria Turei (The Pantograph Punch, 20 August 201