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Beckers and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2018-008 (18 April 2018)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Frederik Beckers

Dated

18th April 2018

Number

2018-008

Programme

Morning 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 Morning Report reported on and discussed the introduction of ACT MP David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill 2017 to Parliament. The broadcast featured excerpts from speeches made during the first reading of the Bill, comments from RNZ’s political commentator and an interview with Mr Seymour. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that statements made by Mr Seymour that ‘[assisted dying is] becoming normal around the world’ were inaccurate. The Authority emphasised the importance of freedom of political expression and the high threshold required to justify limiting that expression. It found that the statement complained about was clearly distinguishable as Mr Seymour’s analysis and opinion, rather than a statement of fact to which the accuracy standard applied. Additionally, alternative viewpoints on the Bill were presented during the item so listeners would not have been misled.

Not Upheld: Accuracy


Introduction

[1]  An item on Morning Report reported on and discussed the introduction of ACT Party MP David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill 2017 to Parliament. The broadcast featured excerpts from speeches made during the first reading of the Bill, comments from RNZ’s political commentator and an interview with Mr Seymour. The interview focused on the addition of an amendment to the Bill that would trigger a binding public referendum, as well as the legal status of assisted dying internationally. During the interview Mr Seymour made the following comment:

…I don’t want to say this [assisted dying] is not deeply serious, but I would add that it is becoming normal around the world.

[2]  Mr Seymour went on to discuss the initial New Zealand government debate of similar legislation 20 years earlier, and the international jurisdictions that have since legalised some form of assisted dying legislation. He said:

Belgium, the Netherlands, Bolivia, several US States: Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, the entire country of Canada and recently our cousins across the ditch in Victoria. So there’s now a lot of jurisdictions who have done this. It’s [assisted dying is] becoming normal around the world...

[3]  Frederik Beckers complained that Mr Seymour’s statement that assisted dying ‘is becoming normal around the world’ was inaccurate as only ten countries have so far adopted some form of legalised euthanasia or assisted dying. Mr Beckers submitted that Mr Seymour’s statements were a ‘deliberate attempt’ to make Mr Seymour’s Bill more acceptable to the public.

[4]  The issue raised in Mr Beckers’ complaint is whether the broadcast breached the accuracy standard of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The item was broadcast on 14 December 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.

Were Mr Seymour’s statements inaccurate or misleading?

[6]  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. 

[7]  Guideline 9a to the accuracy standard states that the standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion.

The parties’ submissions

[8]  Mr Beckers submitted:

  • The statement complained about was false and farfetched.
  • Only ten countries have so far adopted some form of euthanasia or assisted dying. The states of California, Colorado and Vermont have not adopted any form of legal assisted dying, despite Mr Seymour saying so.
  • The statement was a ‘deliberate attempt’ to make Mr Seymour’s Bill more acceptable to the public and lower the perception of assisted dying as a controversial issue.
  • Mr Seymour’s false statements were an attempt to misinform the New Zealand public on the issue of euthanasia.

[9]  RNZ submitted:

  • The comment in question was an expression of Mr Seymour’s opinion based on various overseas jurisdictions.
  • Listeners would not have been misled in their understanding of the extent that similar measures have been adopted internationally and would have been able to form their own judgements based on Mr Seymour’s comments.

Our analysis

[10]  The starting point for our determination is to recognise the importance of the right to freedom of expression, and specifically in this case the importance of political speech. We may only interfere and uphold a complaint where the limitation this would impose on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society.

[11]  In deciding whether any limitation on the right to freedom of expression is justified, we assess the value and public interest in the broadcast, and then weigh that value against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. The focus of this item was Mr Seymour’s introduction to Parliament of the End of Life Choice Bill 2017, concerning the topic of assisted dying, which is both topical and controversial, and in the public interest to discuss. Given the importance of political speech and of enabling political discourse, we will generally only interfere to limit the exercise of that speech when we consider that the harm is great.

[12]  Turning to the accuracy standard, we must consider whether Mr Seymour’s statement that assisted dying ‘is becoming normal around the world’ was a statement of fact, or whether it was distinguishable as Mr Seymour’s comment and opinion. If this is not a statement of fact, then it is not a statement to which the accuracy standard applies.

[13]  In our view, a statement that something is ‘becoming normal’ necessarily rests upon a value judgement and a subjective analysis, rather than being a statement of fact which could easily be proven or disproven.1 In this instance Mr Seymour was expressing his own views regarding the trend for introduction of assisted dying legislation internationally, with reference to some examples of other jurisdictions around the world. We therefore find that the accuracy standard does not apply. 

[14]  Notwithstanding our conclusion above, we also consider that, as the MP who introduced the Bill, listeners would reasonably expect Mr Seymour to be advocating for the Bill and his reasons behind it so we do not think they would have been misled in this respect. Additionally, Mr Seymour’s view was not the only view included in the item. A wide range of viewpoints was presented, including from MPs and former MPs, some of whom were clearly opposed to the Bill.

[15]  In these circumstances we do not consider that listeners would have been misinformed by Mr Seymour’s comments or that there was any potential harm that would justify limiting freedom of speech. We therefore 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
18 April 2018 

 


Appendix

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

1      Frederik Beckers’ original complaint – 15 December 2017
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 18 December 2017
3      Mr Beckers’ referral to the Authority – 7 January 2018
4      RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 13 February 2018


 Guidance: Accuracy- Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion: Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 62