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Crunkhorn and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-098 (16 February 2018)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Jim Crunkhorn

Dated

16th February 2018

Number

2017-098

Programme

Midday Report

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’s Midday Report bulletin reported on increases in the price of butter and dairy products, and the impact of this on small food businesses in particular. The item included the statement: ‘The demand for butter has soared worldwide since scientists debunked research linking animal fats with heart disease.’ The Authority did not uphold a complaint that this statement breached the balance and accuracy standards. The Authority found that, as the statement was peripheral to the focus of the item, the broadcaster was not required in the interests of balance to present alternate viewpoints on the statement, and the statement was unlikely to significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the item as a whole.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy


Introduction

[1]  An item on RNZ’s Midday Report bulletin reported on increases in the price of butter and dairy products, and the impact of this on both the food price index, and small food businesses in particular. The item was introduced as follows:

The rising cost of butter and other dairy products is hitting bakeries and other small food businesses in the pocket. The food price index for August shows the cheapest 500gm block of butter was at a record high of $5.39, and on one supermarket chain’s website a number of different brands are at least six dollars. The demand for butter has soared worldwide since scientists debunked research linking animal fats with heart disease. [Our emphasis]

[2]  Jim Crunkhorn complained that the above italicised statement was inaccurate and misleading, ‘as decades of research have firmly established a causative link between the consumption of saturated and trans fats from animal sources and heart disease’. Mr Crunkhorn submitted that the statement ‘may result in people damaging their health and shortening their lives by discarding medical advice after hearing this statement’.

[3]  The issues raised in Mr Crunkhorn’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast on 12 October 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 Crunkhorn submitted:

  • ‘Contrary statements to the assertion that scientists have “debunked research linking animal fats with heart disease” can be found in many places’. Mr Crunkhorn listed a number of organisations in support of this submission.
  • The statement complained about was an integral part of the segment.
  • There is an audience expectation that statements made in RNZ news items will be factual and balanced.
  • Just because the statement was not the main thrust of the item does not eliminate the need for balance.

[7]  RNZ submitted:

  • This was a short news item focused on the rising price of butter and dairy products; the item did not examine the validity of the latest, or earlier, research with respect to animal fats and heart disease.
  • While the rising prices were newsworthy, this topic does not meet the criteria of a ‘controversial issue of public importance’ in the same sense as other wider social issues such as euthanasia or climate change are regarded under this standard.

Our analysis

[8]  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’.1

[9]  While the link between animal fats and heart disease may generally be regarded as a controversial issue of public importance, this topic was not ‘discussed’ in this news item, meaning the requirements of the balance standard were not triggered in relation to this particular topic.

[10]  The statement complained about was only a brief, peripheral point in the context of the item as a whole. The item did not purport to examine the debate or research around whether or not there is a causative link between animal fats and heart disease. Rather, the focus of this news item was reporting on the rising price of butter and other dairy products, and the impact this increase was having on bakeries and other small food businesses. The item also went on to discuss the impact of the rising prices on the food price index.

[11]  In this context, the broadcaster was not required, in the interests of balance, to present further research or information on the potential link between animal fats and heart disease.

[12]  For these reasons, we do not uphold the balance complaint.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[13]  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

[14]  Mr Crunkhorn submitted:

  • The statement complained about was presented as a statement of fact, not opinion.
  • The news item may not have been framed as an examination of the issue of the health consequences of consuming saturated fats, but it was a statement of fact ‘provided by RNZ as the sole reason for the current record price of butter’.
  • Large amounts of clinical trials and research have provided a scientific consensus around the health benefits of reducing consumption of saturated fats (the complainant provided references in his submissions).
  • The study which allegedly debunked the link between animal fats and heart disease has been the subject of controversy.
  • The statement was not incidental.
  • The rise in demand and price for dairy products is based on other factors such as lower levels of production in foreign markets.

[15]  RNZ submitted:

  • The matter raised by Mr Crunkhorn is ‘at best a disputed fact’.2
  • The reference to research no longer linking animal fats to heart disease was incidental, and would not have affected listeners’ understanding of the fact that prices for butter and other dairy products had been increasing to the point that it impacted small businesses.

Our analysis

[16]  Having regard to the submissions received from Mr Crunkhorn and RNZ, we acknowledge that the link between animal fats and heart disease remains contentious

[17]  However, the accuracy standard is concerned only with accuracy on points which are material to the programme as a whole. Technical or unimportant points unlikely to significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the programme are not material.3 The question then is whether the statement complained about amounted to a material point of fact in the context of the item.

[18]  As we have said in relation to balance, the focus of this item was the rising cost of dairy products, and the impact of the rising prices. Beyond the single, brief statement complained about, the item did not explore the cause of the rising prices. The remainder of the 1.5-minute-long item discussed the resulting effects rather than the cause, including the implications for the food price index and the experiences of small food businesses. We therefore do not think the statement was material, or that it would have significantly affected listeners’ understanding of the item as a whole.

[19]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

Peter Radich

Chair

16 February 2018

 

 

 

Appendix

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

  1.     Jim Crunkhorn’s formal complaint – 14 October 2017
  2.     RNZ’s response to the complaint – 16 November 2017
  3.     Mr Crunkhorn’s referral to the Authority – 28 November 2017
  4.     RNZ’s response to the referral – 13 December 2017
  5.     Mr Crunkhorn’s further comments – 18-21 December 2017
  6.     RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 19 December 2017

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

See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071648 (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2010) and http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/51/15/1111.full.pdf (British Journal of Sports Medicine, 25 April 2017).

Guideline 9b