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Ministry of Social Development and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-097 (9 March 2018)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer

Complainant

  • Ministry of Social Development

Dated

9th March 2018

Number

2017-097

Programme

Morning Report

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Te Raumawhitu Kupenga declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in determination of this complaint.


Summary

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

An item on Morning Report featured an interview with a Social Policy Advisor at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), who discussed CAB’s experience assisting the public with income support applications to Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ). The Authority did not uphold a complaint from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) that this interview was unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate. The Authority found that because of the nature of the item – which comprised a brief interview with one individual, who approached a widely reported issue from a clearly identified perspective – audiences would not have expected to hear MSD’s response to the comments made. While the interviewee’s comments were critical, MSD could expect to be subject to scrutiny, and listeners were likely to be broadly aware of MSD’s position in relation to this issue. In this context, and given the nature of the item, listeners would not have been left with an unfairly negative impression of MSD, and the broadcaster was not required to seek comment in response. Finally, it was clear that the interviewee’s comments represented her own opinion, based on the experiences of CAB clients, which were not subject to the requirements of the accuracy standard.

Not Upheld: Balance, Fairness, Accuracy  


Introduction

[1]  An item on Morning Report featured an interview with a Social Policy Advisor at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), who discussed CAB’s experience assisting the public with income support applications to Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ). The interviewee said that some WINZ staff were not helpful in letting beneficiaries know what they were entitled to, and described CAB clients’ feelings of frustration and intimidation after dealing with WINZ. She attributed some of these issues to lack of time, saying that she had been told appointments were often only 15 minutes long, which was not enough time for staff to learn about a person’s circumstances and potential entitlements.

[2]  The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) complained that this item was unbalanced and that it was not given an opportunity to respond to the comments made by the CAB representative. It also complained that the comment made during the interview about appointment duration was inaccurate.

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

[4]  The item was broadcast on RNZ National on 16 October 2017 at 8.42am. The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Overview of findings and freedom of expression

[5]  The starting point in our consideration of any broadcasting standards complaint is to acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression. This includes the right of broadcasters to impart ideas and information, and the public’s right to receive that information. Our task is to weigh the value of the broadcast (and the importance of the expression) against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast.

[6]  The broadcast subject to this complaint contained comments that were allegedly inaccurate and unfairly critical of WINZ services. MSD has complained that it was not given a fair and reasonable opportunity to comment on the allegations contained in the interview. As the government department responsible for overseeing WINZ business unit activities, it has argued it was entitled to provide its response, and as a result of this omission, the interviewee’s comments impacted negatively on MSD’s reputation and risked the safety of WINZ staff.

[7]  In an open and democratic society such as ours, broadcasts which scrutinise or which are critical of the actions of government entities are a vital component of freedom of expression. The broadcast media has a significant role to play in keeping the public informed, and holding our government bodies to account. In complaints of this kind and in previous similar decisions, we have stressed the importance of finding an appropriate balance between the public interest in ensuring that news items and similar programmes are fair, balanced and accurate, and the public interest in allowing free criticism of those who govern.1

[8]  The item complained about in this case was brief (just over three minutes long) and featured comments from only one individual, a representative of CAB, who spoke specifically about CAB clients’ experiences with WINZ. In the context of this particular broadcast, we do not consider audiences would have expected to hear MSD’s views in response to the comments made, particularly given listeners were likely to already be broadly aware of MSD’s position.

[9]  This interview covered a politically challenging issue which received coverage from RNZ and other media around the time of broadcast (see paragraph [18] below). Given the nature of the issue, MSD’s and WINZ’s responses were available in surrounding media during the period of current interest. In our view, there was value and public interest in hearing a different perspective on the allegations that WINZ staff withheld information about beneficiary entitlements. We have therefore reached the view that the alleged harm caused by this broadcast did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression, or reach the threshold for finding a breach of the nominated standards.

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

[10]  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

[11]  MSD submitted that:

  • Whether WINZ provided a good service and was responsive to the needs of 280,000 people receiving benefits was a controversial issue of public importance. This was a controversial issue with topical currency and which was the subject of ongoing public debate.
  • No effort was made, or reasonable opportunity provided, to present an alternative view during the period of current interest (within Morning Report on 16 October 2017).

[12]  RNZ submitted that:

  • The item did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance. This was a relatively short interview which formed part of overall coverage discussing the issue of beneficiaries’ experiences with WINZ. It was not intended to be an in-depth discussion or debate about services provided by MSD.
  • This was an ongoing topic, and as such the period of current interest could not be limited to one day, and listeners would have prior knowledge of the different points of view on this issue.

Our analysis

[13]  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

[14]  The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.3 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.4

[15]  We accept that, generally speaking, the issue of beneficiaries’ experiences with WINZ and the effectiveness of services provided by WINZ is an issue of legitimate concern to the New Zealand public, and one which generates public debate.

[16]  However, while the interview alluded to this wider issue, we do not consider it amounted to a discussion for the purposes of the standard. This item comprised a brief interview with one individual, who was presenting anecdotal evidence from clients of CAB and who approached the issue of WINZ service from a clearly identified perspective. The introduction to the item clearly signalled this perspective to listeners, saying:

The CAB wants WINZ to be more open in how it decides what beneficiaries are entitled to. [The interviewee] says, in the year to June, more than 7,000 people asked it for help with income support applications. She says CAB around the country reports some WINZ offices aren’t very helpful in telling beneficiaries what information they need to get what they’re entitled to.

[17]  A key consideration is what the audience would expect from the programme, and whether they were likely to have been misinformed by the omission of a particular viewpoint.5 Taking into account the narrow focus of the item, which was presented from one person’s perspective, we do not consider listeners would have expected to hear MSD’s views within this item. We therefore find that the omission of MSD’s perspective did not result in this item breaching the balance standard.

[18]  We note, however, that allegations regarding WINZ staff withholding information about entitlements were canvassed across a range of media coverage, including by RNZ, around the time of this broadcast. RNZ’s online article on this broadcast included comment from a manager in charge of frontline staff at WINZ, who said she was ‘aware of the criticism that [WINZ] lacked empathy and was working hard to change that.’ She also described the actions WINZ was taking to improve its services.6 Various other articles by RNZ on the issue also included comment in response from, for example, the Minister for Social Development, MSD and representatives of WINZ.7 A range of information was therefore available to listeners on the topic around the time of this broadcast, and in this respect we acknowledge the broadcaster’s submission that it was reasonable to expect listeners would be broadly aware of MSD’s position on the issue.

[19]  In these circumstances, we do not uphold the balance complaint.

Was MSD treated unfairly?

[20]  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.

[21]  Guideline 11a to the fairness standard states that a consideration of what is fair will depend on the nature of the programme and its context. Guideline 11d states that if a person or organisation taking part or referred to in a broadcast might be adversely affected, ‘the organisation should usually be given a fair and reasonable opportunity to comment for the programme, before the broadcast.’

[22]  However, what is fair and reasonable will depend on the circumstances, and the nature of the individual or organisation referred to. It is well-established that the threshold for finding unfairness to a public figure or organisation familiar with dealing with media will be higher, compared with a complaint involving an ordinary person with little or no media experience.8

The parties’ submissions

[23]  MSD submitted:

  • The broadcast contained a number of assertions about WINZ which could adversely affect MSD, by lowering trust and confidence in its operations and staff.
  • Comments that WINZ staff were unhelpful and intimidating often resulted in a spike of abusive and intimidating treatment of staff, and also impacted on clients, who may be fearful or hesitant to contact or visit WINZ.
  • MSD was not approached for comment or given an opportunity to respond to the claims.

[24]  RNZ submitted:

  • The interviewee’s comments were in the nature of political speech, which is a highly valued form of communication.
  • Large organisations such as government ministries should expect to receive criticism from time to time.
  • No evidence was provided to support claims of increased abuse or intimidating treatment as a result of broadcasts critical of MSD and WINZ.

Our analysis

[25]  When we determine a complaint under the fairness standard, the first question is whether the broadcast created a negative impression of the individual or organisation referred to, and alleged to have been treated unfairly. Overall, we do not consider that this broadcast in itself was likely to leave listeners with an unduly negative impression of MSD.

[26]  As noted above under the balance standard, this was a brief interview focused on the perspective of CAB and its representative. During the interview, the Social Policy Advisor was careful to use language emphasising that her comments were based on her own understanding and on reported experiences of CAB’s clients (for example, ‘it seems that’, ‘some staff’, ‘my understanding’, ‘I think’, ‘I do wonder’, ‘I’ve heard’). She also softened a number of allegations posed by the presenter. For example, when asked if WINZ withheld entitlement information, the interviewee said:

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it is being withheld, but certainly there is an expectation that people know what they’re entitled to based on the information that they can read online. And, it would seem that staff – well, some staff – don’t go out of their way to let people know what they might be entitled to.

[27]  It was clear from her interview that she did not consider this was an issue with all WINZ staff, and she understood that time constraints and workload could impact on the service provided.

[28]  Additionally, we note this was only one, brief broadcast, offering the perspective of one individual interviewed, in the context of ongoing regular coverage by media of the delivery and effectiveness of WINZ services. MSD’s response to coverage of this issue is readily available in media elsewhere (see examples in the footnotes above), and we consider listeners were likely to be broadly aware of MSD’s position given the range of information available.

[29]  In these circumstances, we do not consider the broadcaster was required, in the interests of fairness, to obtain MSD’s comment in response to this particular item.

[30]  As we have noted above, it is an important aspect of the right to freedom of expression that the public, and media, are given the ability to comment critically on those who govern, and their services to the public. We find that the alleged harm to MSD in terms of the objectives of the fairness standard, did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression in this instance.

[31]  For these reasons, we do not uphold the fairness complaint.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[32]  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

[33]  MSD submitted:

  • The interviewee’s comments regarding 15-minute appointments were incorrect.
  • The standard appointment time for a new client (to assess circumstances and find out what they were eligible for) according to MSD’s operating procedure was 45 minutes. Where a new client has multiple needs, the first appointment can be for up to 55 minutes, and follow-up appointments are 30 minutes.

[34]  RNZ submitted:

  • Comments made by the interviewee were her opinion and a summary of feedback received by CAB from clients.
  • The appointment times referred to by MSD did not reflect the reality of the day-to-day 15-minute interactions with beneficiaries.

Our analysis

[35]  For the reasons we have expressed above in relation to balance and fairness, we consider that it was clear that the interviewee was presenting her own opinion about why some WINZ staff may not be informing clients of their entitlements, based on anecdotal hearsay evidence from CAB clients about the lack of time in busy WINZ offices. Listeners would have understood that her comments represented her own analysis and opinion, attributed to the experiences of individuals at WINZ offices, and were not statements of fact of the policy for the amount of time that should be allocated for WINZ interviews. Guideline 9a states that statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact, are not subject to the requirements of the accuracy standard.

[36]  In any event, whether or not MSD’s operating procedures allow for 45-minute appointments, this does not necessarily mean that all staff are able to meet with each individual for the full prescribed appointment time, in practice. The interviewee made clear to listeners that she understood some staff and offices to be very busy, which may impact on the ability of staff to meet with clients for the full 30-55 minutes. We find that the harm alleged to have been caused by the broadcast in this respect, did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression.

[37]  We therefore do not find a breach of 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
9 March 2018

 

Appendix

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

1     Ministry of Social Development’s formal complaint – 18 October 2017
2     RNZ’s response to the complaint – 16 November 2017
3     MSD’s referral to the Authority – 27 November 2017
4     RNZ’s response to the Authority – 11 January 2018


1 Ministry of Social Development and Peterson and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2011-072, at [148]

2 Guideline 8a

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

4 As above

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

6 Citizens Advice Bureau calls for help for beneficiaries (RNZ, 18 October 2017)

7 See, for example: WINZ creating 'two classes' of Kiwis - Labour (Newshub, 9 September 2017); WINZ staff accused of withholding entitlements (RNZ, 9 September 2017); Beneficiary advocates slam WINZ (RNZ, 11 September 2017); 'I survived by stopping trying to cope' (RNZ, 11 October 2017); Insight: A Safety Net with Holes - Scout's story (RNZ, 16 October 2017); Citizens Advice Bureau calls for help for beneficiaries (RNZ, 18 October 2017)

8 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21