Atkin and The Radio Network Ltd - 2011-061
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Mary Anne Shanahan
- Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
- Mark Atkin
ProgrammeSean Plunket Morning
BroadcasterThe Radio Network Ltd # 2
Leigh Pearson declared a conflict of interest and did not take part in the determination of this complaint.
Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Sean Plunket Morning – host interviewed Dr Paul Connett about his views against fluoridation of water – allegedly in breach of controversial issues, fairness and discrimination and denigration standards
Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints) – programme discussed a controversial of public interest – period of current interest is ongoing so listeners aware of other views – Dr Connett was given ample opportunity to present his perspective – not upheld
Standard 6 (fairness) – interview was robust but reasonable and good-natured – Dr Connett treated fairly – not upheld
Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – standard only applies to sections of the community, not individuals – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 During the Sean Plunket Morning programme, broadcast on Newstalk ZB on the morning of 28 March 2011, the host Sean Plunket interviewed Dr Paul Connett who was visiting New Zealand to promote his views against the fluoridation of water, for approximately 17 minutes. The host then interviewed Dr Martin Lee from the New Zealand Dental Association about arguments in favour of water fluoridation, for approximately 11 minutes. Following this, the host opened up the discussion to listeners who were invited to call in.
 Mark Atkin made a formal complaint on behalf of Fluoride Action Network New Zealand, to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN), the broadcaster, alleging that Mr Plunket’s interview with Dr Connett breached standards relating to controversial issues, fairness and discrimination and denigration.
 Mr Atkin noted that the Ministry of Health had acknowledged that “a scientific case against fluoridation could be held on the same standard of evidence the Ministry claims to rely on for its pro-fluoridation position”. He argued that Mr Plunket inaccurately portrayed Dr Connett as a conspiracy theorist and undermined his credibility, talked over him which meant he was not able to answer the host’s questions, and accordingly denied him a fair opportunity to present his views – views which reflected a large sector of the international scientific community. Conversely, he said, the host painted the other interviewee, Dr Martin Lee, “a mere dentist, as a scientific expert, which he is not”.
 The complainant also considered that following the interview, Mr Plunket “continued to denigrate Dr Connett with baseless and factually incorrect comments and insinuations. For example, he actively perpetuated a suggestion... that because Dr Connett was retired, he had nothing better to do than fight fluoridation and simply did so to gain attention”. He maintained that Dr Connett did not get paid for his efforts and had always tried to maintain rigorous standards of science.
 Mr Atkin noted that there had not been any other media coverage of Dr Connett’s visit, so listeners would not have been aware of his scientific observations and arguments. He said, “Not only was Mr Plunket’s bullying performance unprofessional but it denied the public a balanced view on a very important subject, for which many... have only heard one side of the story.”
 Mr Atkin nominated Standards 4, 6 and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice in his complaint. These provide:
Standard 4 Controversial Issues – Viewpoints
When discussing controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or 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 assessment of whether a reasonable range of views has been allowed for takes account of some or all of the following:
- the programme introduction;
- the approach of the programme (e.g. taking a particular perspective);
- whether listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage;
- the programme type (e.g. talk or talkback which may be subject to a lesser requirement to present a range of views)
Standard 6 Fairness
Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.
6a A consideration of what is fair will depend upon the genre of the programme (e.g. talk/talk back radio, or factual, dramatic, comedic and satirical programmes).
6c Contributors and participants in any programme should be dealt with fairly and should, except as required in the public interest, be informed of the nature of their participation.
6d Broadcasters should respect the right of individuals to express their own opinions.
Standard 7 Discrimination and Denigration
Broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.
7a This standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is:
- a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion; or
- legitimate humour, drama or satire.
Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant
 TRN argued that “By the nature of the topic, the environment for the interview (a hard-hitting talkback show) and a known controversial host, the potential for a lively interview was well on the cards.” It considered that “What resulted was a good-natured host giving every opportunity to Dr Connett to express his views and beliefs and back up his claims against fluoridation.” TRN noted that Dr Connett was on air for 17 minutes, and later phoned back and was given another seven minutes of air time. It maintained that:
Given that Dr Connett was clearly capable of defending his position in this interview no one should have been surprised that Sean Plunket made it his job to probe, question and to act as the “devil’s advocate” in the exchange. We regard the interview as a good example of lively current affairs debating and it was then up to the audience to make up their own minds as to the validity or otherwise of Dr Connett’s arguments.
 Turning to consider the standards, TRN argued that, while talkback radio was subject to a lesser requirement to present a range of views (guideline 4a), Dr Connett was allowed 24 minutes on air to make his points, “which he did forcefully and passionately”. It therefore declined to uphold the complaint under Standard 4.
 Looking at Standard 6 (fairness), the broadcaster noted that Dr Connett was “discussing a subject that is controversial and his views against fluoridation are contrary to what is generally accepted by New Zealanders. That he received some tough questioning should have come as no surprise to Dr Connett,” it argued. TRN maintained that the interview was “testing but fair” and was conducted in a good-natured way by the host. It therefore declined to uphold the fairness complaint.
 With regard to Standard 7, the broadcaster argued that there was “no denigration in this exchange”, and that the host’s views were clearly covered by the exception in guideline 7a(ii). It declined to uphold the complaint under Standard 7.
Referral to the Authority
 Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Atkin referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 The complainant was of the view that TRN’s description of a “good-natured host giving Dr Connett every opportunity to express his views” was “grossly inaccurate”. He maintained that the host did not treat Dr Connett and Dr Lee equitably. Mr Atkin noted that TRN had not addressed the fact that Mr Plunket “constantly tried to brand Dr Connett as a conspiracy theorist”. He reiterated his view that Mr Plunket failed to give Dr Connett a fair opportunity to respond to his questions by “constantly talking over the top of him” in breach of Standard 6, and that the host denigrated Dr Connett by labelling him a conspiracy theorist and trying to link him to 9/11.
 The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints)
 Standard 4 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.
 In our view, whether water fluoridation has health benefits or negative effects amounted to a controversial issue of public importance. We consider that, during his 17-minute interview, Dr Connett was given ample opportunity to present his views against water fluoridation. For example, he made the following comments:
- “Putting medicine in the drinking water is bad practice because you can’t control the dose. You can’t control who gets it, it goes to everyone. You’re violating the individual’s right to informed consent to medication, which makes it unethical.”
- “The Centre of Disease Control in the United States in 1999 said that the predominant benefit of fluoride as far as protecting teeth was topical not sustained. ...Put it on the surface of the teeth and then spit it out. If you use that approach then you avoid exposing every tissue to the body to a known toxic substance and you don’t force it on people that don’t want it.”
- “I think the primary issue for many people for years has been the government forcing them to take medication. That’s certainly a very strong argument.”
- “The dangers are now being revealed in studies from India and China and elsewhere where they have high natural levels. Millions of people have their lives ruined by natural fluoride and what’s disturbing today there have now been 24 studies which shows an association between the lowering of IQ and exposure to moderate levels of fluoride...”
- “They have possibly had their lives shortened by drinking fluoridated water if it increases hip fractures. A quarter of the people who get a hip fracture in the elderly only have one year of life.”
- “If it increases cancer rates, as there is one very strong study that fluoride actually is associated with osteosarcoma in young men... Young boys exposed to fluoride in their sixth, seventh and eighth years have a five- to seven-fold increased risk of getting osteosarcoma.”
 In any event, we are of the view that the period of current interest for the issue of water fluoridation is ongoing, as it has been debated for many years. Accordingly, listeners could reasonably be expected to have a broad understanding of significant perspectives on the issue (guideline 4a).
 We therefore decline to uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 4.
Standard 6 (fairness)
 Standard 6 states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. Mr Atkin argued that the host denied Dr Connett a fair opportunity to present his views.
 As outlined above, we consider that Dr Connett was given a fair and reasonable opportunity to put forward his perspective on water fluoridation. While the interview was robust, the host’s style and his engagement with Dr Connett were good-natured and reasonable. The host was respectful towards him, and both men appeared to enjoy the discussion.
 Accordingly, we find that Dr Connett was treated fairly, and we decline to uphold the complaint under Standard 6.
Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration)
 Standard 7 protects against broadcasts which encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, sections of the community. It does not apply to individuals.
 Accordingly, we find that the standard does not apply to Dr Connett and we decline to uphold the complaint under Standard 7.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
8 July 2011
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Mark Atkin’s formal complaint – 30 March 2011
2 TRN’s response to the complaint – 7 April 2011
3 Mr Atkin’s referral to the Authority – 9 May 2011
4 TRN’s response to the Authority – 17 May 2011