BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Forsyth and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2019-022 (18 July 2019)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Susie Staley
Dated
Complainant
  • Frances Forsyth
Number
2019-022
Programme
Public Enemy
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand National

Summary

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that replacement programming broadcast on RNZ National instead of Children’s Storytime breached the children’s interests standard. On 17 March 2019, shortly after the 15 March 2019 attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, instead of the usual Children’s Storytime, RNZ played excerpts from the podcast Public Enemy, a four-part series from 2016/17 looking at growing up Muslim in the post September 11 world. The Authority found that while the replacement broadcast contained material that could be disturbing for children, and while there was a greater chance of children tuning in due to the usually scheduled programming at that time, the broadcaster took steps to adequately inform listeners of the nature of the programme. This would have enabled caregivers to decide whether the content was suitable for children in their care. Further, the replacement programme had significant public interest in the context of the recent 15 March attacks. The Authority therefore found any restriction on the right to freedom of expression would be unjustified.

Not Upheld: Children’s Interests


The broadcast

[1]  Children’s Storytime is usually broadcast at 6.08am on weekend mornings, and was scheduled to be played on Sunday 17 March 2019 on RNZ National. In light of the 15 March 2019 attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, RNZ replaced the Children’s Storytime programme on 17 March with four excerpts from the podcast Public Enemy.

[2]  Public Enemy is a four-part series from 2016/17, produced and presented by Mohamed Hassan, looking at the growing Muslim communities in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and how elections, counter-terrorism policies, war and xenophobia have changed lives.

[3]  The replacement programme was played after the 6am news. Before the 6am news, the programme was briefly introduced as follows: ‘Stand by for the latest in RNZ news and sport… and then of course the Public Enemy podcast as promised.’

[4]  After the 6am news, and before the programme began, an introduction was provided which explained the upcoming programme:

It’s been a harrowing couple of days for NZ’s Muslim community after mosque shootings in Christchurch and the grieving’s only just begun. But Muslims being victimised for their faith is something much older… given Friday’s shootings we thought it was a good time to bring you excerpts including complaints from Muslims here in NZ that our intelligence services were targeting them.

[5]  The programme was made up of four segments, with each segment given an introduction, providing context for the programme. As part of our consideration of this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the full broadcast and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[6]  Frances Forsyth complained that the replacement programming breached the children’s interests standard because:

  • It contained graphic content about violence and people in distress.
  • It was broadcast at a time that usually contains children’s programming, so children were likely to be listening unsupervised.
  • Broadcasters should be mindful of the effect any programme content may have on children during their normally accepted listening times.
  • It was not sufficient to broadcast an audience advisory prior to the change in the programme schedule, as unsupervised children are not able to understand or act on broadcast advisories.
  • Adults listening would not have expected to hear this content either, as the expectation would have been for children’s stories.
  • The programme was not in the public interest and the vast majority of the audience at that time were unlikely to be interested in the programme.

The broadcaster’s response

[7]  RNZ responded that the upcoming content was signalled before the 6am news bulletin, and again afterwards with an introduction of over one minute’s duration. This would have alerted listeners that the normal Children’s Storytime was not being presented. For anyone tuning in during that hour, it would have been readily apparent that the documentary style of programming was not a Children’s Storytime item.

[8]  In the wake of the Christchurch shootings, the majority of RNZ’s programming had been suspended or altered in favour of providing extensive coverage and background as to what had occurred.  

Programme scheduling

[9]  Generally, programme selection and scheduling is at the discretion of the broadcaster,1 provided that programme information and other broadcasting standards are met. 

[10]  In this case a programme that had themes of high public interest which were more suitable for mature audiences was broadcast at a time when a programme for children is usually aired. The issue for the Authority is therefore whether children were adequately protected from content that might adversely affect them, taking into account the context at the time of the broadcast.

[11]  While the changing of programmes scheduled is not, in itself, a standards issue, we must consider whether, in this instance, the programme broadcast breached the children’s interests standard because it was outside audience expectations for programmes broadcast at that time, and whether the broadcaster provided sufficient information to enable caregivers to make an informed decision about what children might listen to.

The standard

[12]  The children’s interests standard (Standard 3) states that broadcasters should ensure children can be protected from broadcasts which might adversely affect them. Under the Radio Code, the standard only applies during times when children are likely to be listening (usually up until 8.30pm and especially before school and after school).2

[13]  Material likely to be considered under this standard includes, for example, violent content or themes, social or domestic friction, material in which children or animals are humiliated or badly treated and graphic descriptions of people in extreme pain or distress.3

[14]  Context is an important consideration, including the public interest in the broadcast, the target and likely audience, audience expectations and any factors that mitigate the likely harm to children, such as humour or educational benefit.4

[15]  A key element of this standard is the obligation on broadcasters to ‘enable audiences to protect children’ from material that may disturb or harm them.5 Protecting children is a shared responsibility and the broadcaster’s contribution is to provide sufficient information for caregivers to then make decisions about what children in their care should watch. The standard recognises that it is not possible or practicable for broadcasters to shield children from all potentially unsuitable content.6

Our findings

[16]  This complaint raises questions about broadcasting in New Zealand following one of the most challenging events that our community has faced. The attacks on two mosques on 15 March 2019 was a horrific act of terrorism. The public interest in the attacks and the risks to our community, in particular New Zealand’s Muslim community, at this time was high. Broadcast media play an important role in providing the public with information, ideas and news to enable them to evaluate the events around them. It is within that context that we have considered this complaint.

[17]  Particularly, we note that this broadcast was providing important context to the 15 March mosque attacks, an unprecedented act of violence against Muslims in New Zealand. It highlighted the ongoing prejudice Muslims have faced in recent years in New Zealand and overseas. It was broadcast two days after the attacks, at a time when the New Zealand public was seeking information and explanations for an incident which severely impacted national security.

[18]  Against that background, our starting point is the value placed on the right to freedom of expression in New Zealand. This right includes both the broadcaster’s right to impart information and the audience’s right to receive it. We recognise that it is not an absolute right, and where harm may be caused by the exercise of the freedom, it may be appropriate to limit the right and uphold a complaint. Accordingly, in considering this complaint our task is to consider the harm that may be caused and weigh that against the right to freedom of expression. In undertaking this assessment we consider the actual and potential harm, and also the context of the broadcast.

[19]  The potential harm from the broadcast in this case is the possible adverse effect it may have on children, where it may frighten or upset, or undermine their sense of security, particularly in light of the recent mosque attacks.

[20]  The programme was broadcast during children’s normally accepted listening times and contained material likely to be considered under this standard, such as:7

  • Descriptions of terrorism and killings
  • Xenophobic rhetoric from political leaders (offensive language/social friction)
  • Interviews describing threatening and prejudicial behaviour towards Muslims, including young children (social friction)
  • Descriptions of violent acts witnessed by young Muslims, including one woman who described feeling ‘scared to death’ when her father was threatened with a sword in front of her. 

[21]  Subject to our observations at paragraph [26] below, we accept that this material could be disturbing for some children.

[22]  Given the usual programming for this time and the fact that Children’s Storytime was scheduled for 17 March 2019, audiences may have expected that children’s stories would be aired. Children’s stories on Sunday mornings is a longstanding tradition on New Zealand radio. Under normal circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect that this would be the time for children’s stories to be aired. However, these were not normal circumstances for broadcasting in New Zealand.  

[23]  During this period, RNZ and other media broadcast substantial coverage of the attacks, and various programming changes across media had been made. As we note above, the events only two days earlier had high public interest. In our view, parents and caregivers would have been aware that media content at such a time was likely to have a strong focus on the events and related issues.

[24]  In this case, as outlined in paragraphs [3]-[5] above, a number of advisory statements were provided by the broadcaster indicating the nature of the programme. The complainant submitted that children cannot understand or act on audience advisories. However, we consider that the introductory statements would have alerted a number of children to the fact that the programme was not Children’s Storytime and was about content that may have been of limited interest to them.

[25]  In our 2015 research into Children’s Media Use, we found that for television, on-screen classifications and warnings were used most by children to understand when a programme was not for them.[8] While this did not relate to radio, it indicates that some children can and do act on audience advisories.  In addition, in the context of the programme under consideration, those children that did tune in would have quickly realised the programme was not for them and, given the serious tone and political focus, were unlikely to be engaged by or interested in the programme.

[26]  As noted above, parents and caregivers also share responsibility for protecting children when managing media content. We consider overall that the audience was adequately informed about the contents of this programme, taking into account the following factors:

  • The introductory statements (discussed above) clearly indicated the nature of the programme.
  • The programme was made up of four segments, with each segment given an introduction, providing context for the programme.
  • Listeners tuning in during the hour would have quickly realised what they were listening to, especially given the context provided throughout the programme.

This enabled parents and caregivers to decide whether the content was suitable for children in their care. Parents and caregivers have a responsibility to be aware of significant events in society, such as the 15 March attacks, and to be alert to potential programme changes and to consider whether what is being aired is suitable for children in their care.

[27]  We also note that the programme was an award-winning podcast[9] which did not feature gratuitous or particularly graphic descriptions of violence; rather, the focus was on the treatment of people and their personal experiences. While there were references to violent acts, these were not described in detail or with explicit language.

[28]  There is high value and legitimate public interest in feature journalism pieces such as this. In the context of events in New Zealand at the time of broadcast, this one-off broadcast provided contextual information to the March mosque attacks. It was a timely expression in light of the events, which placed unprecedented demands on the New Zealand media to provide in-depth and informative coverage. In our view, the broadcaster took adequate steps to inform listeners of the programming change and nature of the programme. In this context, RNZ discharged their obligation to inform the audience of the nature and content of the programme which would have enabled them to choose not to listen.

[29]  For these reasons, we do not consider that the programme was likely to cause harm at a level which justifies restricting the right to freedom of expression, particularly given the public interest and importance of the subject matter at the time.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

  

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

18 July 2019


Appendix

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

1.               Frances Forsyth’s formal complaint – 18 March 2019

2.               RNZ’s response to the complaint – 10 April 2019

3.               Frances Forsyth’s referral to the Authority – 22 April 2019

4.               RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 15 May 2019

 


1 McDermott and Sky Network Television Ltd, Decision No. 2017-056 at [14]
2 Guideline 3a
3 Guideline 3b
4 Guideline 3c
5 Commentary: Children’s Interests, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 13
6 As above
7 Guideline 3b
8 Children’s Media Use Study (Broadcasting Standards Authority and NZ On Air, March 2015) at page 85
9Public Enemy won a gold award for excellence at the 2017 New York Festival Radio Awards. See: Muslim Post-9/11 Series Wins Gold for RNZ in New York (Scoop, 20 June 2017)