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Friends of the Earth (NZ) and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2018-081 (28 January 2019)

Members

  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Susie Staley

Complainant

  • Friends of the Earth (NZ)

Dated

28th January 2019

Number

2018-081

Programme

Saturday Morning

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

A complaint from environmental group Friends of the Earth (NZ) about an interview between Saturday Morning host Kim Hill and former Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman was not upheld. Ms Hill interviewed Sir Peter about his time as Chief Science Advisor and a wide range of issues, including how societies respond to scientific research, the role of science in government, activism within the scientific community and the criminal justice system. During the interview, Sir Peter made comments about the safety and history of genetic modification. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the comments were inaccurate or that the interview was unbalanced or unfair. The Authority found Sir Peter’s comments were not statements of fact, noting they were clearly established as being from Sir Peter’s perspective throughout the interview. The Authority also found that while genetic modification amounted to a controversial issue of public importance, it was not ‘discussed’ in the interview for the purposes of the balance standard. The Authority did not consider that Sir Peter’s comments were likely to mislead or misinform listeners.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy, Fairness


The broadcast

[1]  In a segment on Saturday Morning, Kim Hill interviewed former Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman about his time as Chief Science Advisor and a wide range of issues, including how societies respond to scientific research, the role of science in government, activism within the scientific community and the criminal justice system.

[2]  During a discussion about the public acceptance of scientific evidence Kim Hill asked: ‘What about genetic modification? Strongly opposed in some quarters in New Zealand, I think you’ve said that’s a refusal to accept scientific evidence?’

[3]  Sir Peter Gluckman responded:

Genetic modification in that debate is a perfectly good example. Science can do so much, but in the end society has to use that knowledge. The evidence around the genetically modified foods, around the use of GM has turned out not to be as those who have opposed it strongly have suggested. That doesn’t mean there aren’t valid reasons why a society may or may not accept a new technology. I happen to have a view but the reality is societies all the time choose which technologies they want to use, which ones they don’t and how they will use them… It may well be soon in the future that society wants to review that [our genetic modification policy] as they are seeing the sense of extreme precaution held 30 years ago is no longer warranted. On the other hand, the philosophical and other potential arguments such as economic arguments may mean that New Zealand chooses not to. [Emphasis added]

[4]  The following was then said:

Sir Peter       We’ve been modifying things genetically for thousands of years.
Ms Hill          Genetically modified crops and food is what we’re talking about really isn’t it?
Sir Peter       I think that’s what we’re talking about at the moment, but you could also consider like Kauri dieback, issues like our stoats and possums and so forth, there’s many ways it [genetic modification] can be looked at….

[5]  The interview aired on 30 June 2018 on RNZ National.

The complaint

[6]  Environmental group Friends of the Earth (NZ) complained that the interview breached the balance, accuracy and fairness standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice for the following reasons:

Balance

  • The subject matter of genetically modified crops and food is a controversial issue of public importance which was discussed in the interview, just as it is regularly the topic of media and specifically RNZ coverage.
  • As such, Ms Hill should have challenged Sir Peter on his comments about genetic modification or allowed for alternative views about the risks and dangers of genetic modification to be presented.

Accuracy

  • Sir Peter made statements to the effect that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were safe and that human beings had been carrying out genetic modification for ‘thousands of years’. These statements are inaccurate as he did not name any GMOs that have shown no adverse effects.
  • There are ‘genuine and well-founded concerns’ about the modern techniques of genetic modification.
  • The selective breeding of plants and animals (which Sir Peter was referring to when stating humans had been carrying out genetic modification for thousands of years) is not equivalent to genetic modification.
  • The statement ‘we've been modifying things genetically for thousands of years’ was a statement of fact, considering Sir Peter’s position as former Chief Science Advisor.

Fairness

  • While the broadcast did not deal unfairly with anyone taking part in the programme, it was ‘unfair to many researchers and scientists who could not vigorously challenge the falsehoods promulgated on the programme.’

The broadcaster’s response

[7]  RNZ submitted that the nominated broadcasting standards had not been breached, for the following reasons:

Balance

  • It is not clear that genetic modification is a controversial issue of public importance.
  • The topic was raised in the context of a much broader discussion of the issues dealt with by Sir Peter in his tenure and in the ‘context of the value and applicability of scientific knowledge, particularly with the ongoing ‘sugar tax’ issue.’
  • The topic of genetic modification was raised briefly in the context of this overall discussion. The interview did not purport to be an in-depth discussion of genetic modification or its merits.
  • In addition, what was meant by Sir Peter’s comment ‘…modifying things genetically…’, was clarified immediately after the comment was made.

Accuracy

  • If there was any confusion in the audience’s mind with respect to Sir Peter’s comment referring to ‘…modifying things genetically…’ this was clarified at the time by the programme host’s intervention.
  • Sir Peter’s comments amounted to his opinion on how society goes about making decisions on important issues, and he acknowledged that science and knowledge form only a part of that decision making process. As those comments were his opinion, they fall outside the accuracy standard.

Fairness

  • The complainant raised the fairness standard but then acknowledged that the standard does not apply.

The standards

[8]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming are accurate in relation to all material points of fact and do not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.

[9]  The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.1

[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 arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

[11]  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.

Our findings

[12]  When we consider a complaint that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards, we first look at the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In this case, the complainant has alleged that the broadcast had the potential to leave viewers misled about the history and safety of genetic modification, through misinformation from an authoritative source.

[13]  For reasons that we outline below, we have found that in this instance the broadcast amounted to a fair, balanced interview about Sir Peter’s views that was unlikely to mislead listeners. The interview carried a high level of public interest and explored a wide range of scientific issues with New Zealand’s previous Chief Science Advisor. We have not identified any real or potential harm arising from the interview that justifies us intervening and limiting the right to freedom of expression.

Balance

[14]  The balance standard (the obligation to present significant alternative viewpoints) applies only to news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The focus is on whether the audience would be left misinformed by the omission of a particular viewpoint.

[15]  We first considered whether the interview addressed a controversial issue of public importance which triggered the requirements of the balance standard. Considering the increasing prevalence of genetic modification in public discourse surrounding food and agriculture, and the conflicting opinions surrounding its benefits, we consider the topic of genetic modification to be a controversial issue of public importance for the purpose of this standard.

[16]  However, while we consider genetic modification to be a controversial issue of public importance, we do not consider it was ‘discussed’ in the interview in the manner contemplated under the balance standard.2 Genetic modification was raised briefly and sporadically during the interview. It was used as a New Zealand example during a discussion of the broader concept of societal decision making, alongside a potential tax on fizzy drinks.

[17]  The interview with Sir Peter was in-depth and discussed his views on a wide range of broad issues he had come across during his time as Chief Science Advisor. Topics included how societies respond to scientific research, the role of science in government, activism within the scientific community and the criminal justice system. This approach, and that the interview was to reflect Sir Peter’s perspective on these issues, was clearly signalled from the outset of the item.

[18]  While Sir Peter briefly expressed his views on genetic modification, it was not an in-depth discussion about the value of genetic modification or the modern techniques used to genetically modify food. In the extract complained about, New Zealand’s position on GMOs was simply used as an example during the discussion about research-based and value-based societal decision making. Accordingly, we do not consider that the balance standard applies.

[19]  Notwithstanding our view that the balance standard does not apply, we note Ms Hill made reasonable efforts to provide balance during the interview, through her challenging interview style and devil’s-advocate questioning. Ms Hill also made it clear to the audience that there was opposition to genetic modification in New Zealand and that Sir Peter was speaking from his own perspective. Accordingly we find it unlikely that listeners would have been left misinformed or misled as a result of this interview.

[20]  For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.

Accuracy

[21]  We note first that our role is not to determine the scientific accuracy of Sir Peter’s statements regarding the safety of genetic modification or whether selective breeding amounts to ‘genetic modification’. Rather, our role is to determine whether the accuracy standard applied to this broadcast and, if so, whether RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure that:

  • all material statements of fact were accurate; and
  • the interview did not mislead listeners.

[22]  The accuracy standard is concerned only with material inaccuracy which risks leaving the audience misled, either by the programme as a whole or by incorrect statements within the programme. As discussed above, the standard does not apply to statements of comment, analysis or opinion. An opinion is someone’s view. It is contestable, and others may hold a different view.3 However, it is not always clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact or opinion. This will depend on the context and presentation of the statements and how a reasonable listener would perceive them.4

[23]  During the introduction of the broadcast, Ms Hill established that she and Sir Peter would be discussing Sir Peter’s time as Chief Science Advisor, which was coming to an end, and his views on the issues he would be remembered for. Throughout the interview Sir Peter gave comments on broad scientific and societal matters based on his experience.

[24]  During the discussion of society’s decision-making process regarding scientific issues Ms Hill asked, ‘[w]hat about genetic modification? Strongly opposed in some quarters in New Zealand, I think you’ve said that’s a refusal to accept scientific evidence?’ This question framed Sir Peter’s subsequent statements about the safety and history of genetic modification as his personal analysis, which is consistent with the overall context and purpose of the interview.

[25]  Ultimately we agree with RNZ’s submission that ‘Sir Peter’s comments were those of his opinion on how society goes about making decisions on important issues, and he acknowledged that science and knowledge form only a part of that decision making process.’ As Sir Peter’s comments were statements of analysis and opinion and not fact, they fall outside the scope of the accuracy standard.

[26]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under this standard.

Fairness

[27]  This standard applies only to individuals or organisations taking part or referred to in a broadcast. The complainant did not identify or make submissions on any individual or organisation as being the subject of any unfairness arising from the broadcast.

[28] 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

 

Judge Bill Hastings
Chair
28 January 2019

 


Appendix

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

1      Friends of the Earth (NZ)’s original complaint – 20 July 2018
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 24 August 2018
3      Friends of the Earth (NZ)’s referral to the Authority – 25 September 2018
4      RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 17 October 2018


1 Guideline 9a

2 See Rose and Television New Zealand Limited, Decision No. 2018-078 at [20]

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

4 As above