BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Gibbs and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-043 (17 July 2017)

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
Dated
Complainant
  • David Gibbs
Number
2017-043
Programme
Saturday Morning
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio

Summary

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

Saturday Morning featured a 25-minute interview with the Vice President for Energy and Environment Policy at a think-tank in the United States. The interviewee discussed a range of matters to do with environmental policy, including her current concerns, initiatives put in place under the Obama administration that may be threatened by the Trump administration, and how to make climate change a relevant issue to voters. The Authority did not uphold a complaint alleging that the item was unbalanced, as it only presented the ‘progressive, liberal’ perspective on climate change. The Authority considered that, in the context of an interview focused on the professional opinions and experiences of a particular individual, listeners would not have expected the full spectrum of views on climate change to be presented. The Authority noted that climate change is an ongoing and regularly discussed issue, and alternative perspectives are presented from time to time in various media. Audiences have a reasonable level of awareness of the significant perspectives on climate change and would not have been uninformed by the absence of a detailed discussion of the ‘conservative’ viewpoint during this particular item.

Not Upheld: Balance  


Introduction

[1]  Saturday Morning featured an interview with the Vice President for Energy and Environment Policy at a think-tank in the United States. The interviewee was formerly a senior environmental policy advisor to President Barack Obama.

[2]  During the 25-minute item, the interviewee discussed a range of matters to do with environmental policy, including her current concerns, initiatives put in place under the Obama administration that may be threatened by the Trump administration, and how to make climate change a relevant issue to voters.

[3]  David Gibbs complained that the item was unbalanced as it only presented the ‘progressive, liberal’ perspective on climate change.

[4]  The issue raised in Mr Gibbs’ complaint is whether the broadcast breached the balance standard as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The item was broadcast on 15 April 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.

Did the item breach the balance standard?

[6]  The balance standard (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. The standard exists to ensure that competing arguments about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

[7]  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’.1

The parties’ submissions

[8]  Mr Gibbs submitted:

  • RNZ did not present other significant points of view on the controversial issue of climate change (and related environmental issues), instead only presenting the ‘progressive, liberal’ perspective.
  • RNZ did not provide any examples of other programmes which have presented the alternative, conservative view on climate change.
  • The audience’s presumed awareness of alternative views does not relieve RNZ of the obligation to provide balanced coverage on an issue.

[9]  RNZ submitted:

  • The overall topic of climate change is a controversial issue of public importance, but what was discussed during the item was the narrower topic of scientific and other initiatives previously taken by the United States government and which might be under threat by the new administration. 
  • Even if this topic was a controversial issue of public importance, all significant viewpoints on climate change are not required to be canvassed during one particular programme. RNZ has covered this issue extensively in both its news bulletins and news and current affairs programmes for some years.
  • The discussion during the item was a targeted one, and it was reasonable to expect that the audience would be aware that there are other points of views on climate change.

Our analysis

[10]  This item was a current affairs piece that was not solely focused on the interviewee or her work – had it been narrowly focused on the interviewee’s personal story and experiences, it may not have met the criteria for triggering the standard.2 The item, however, went beyond being focused on one individual, and discussed the broader issues of climate change and related policy initiatives both in the United States and internationally. These are issues that have the potential to affect, and cause debate among, New Zealanders. We therefore find that the item amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, to which the balance standard applied.

[11]  Guideline 8c to the balance standard sets out factors which may be relevant considerations in the Authority’s assessment of whether a broadcaster has made reasonable efforts to provide balance. Factors which we consider are pertinent to this case are:

  • whether the programme was clearly signalled as approaching a topic from a particular perspective
  • the likely expectations of the audience as to content
  • the nature of the issue/whether listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage (ie, is it an ongoing topic of debate, such that listeners can reasonably be expected to have a broad understanding of the main perspectives on the issue).

[12]  In the context of this particular item, which was a 25-minute interview centred on the interviewee’s professional opinions and experiences, we do not consider that listeners would have expected to hear the full spectrum of views on the issue of climate change. Rather, the audience would have understood that the discussion of climate change was presented from the perspective of an environmental policy expert, who was interested in climate change initiatives happening around the world. In this context, the requirement to present other viewpoints was lessened. 

[13]  We acknowledge the complainant’s submission that the ‘conservative’ point of view has not been presented across RNZ programming. However, in a previous decision on a complaint alleging that a current affairs item about climate change and related issues was unbalanced, the Authority recognised that there is now a proliferation of media and information sources, meaning that audiences no longer have to be presented with all significant viewpoints in one broadcast, and also that audiences are more discerning.3 In regards to balance and issues around climate change and global warming, the Authority said:4

We do not think that there will be many people in New Zealand who are unaware of the swirl of arguments around global warming… we think there is a level of sophistication and awareness in New Zealand around the issue of, and ongoing debate about, climate change…

[14]  In our view, the Authority’s reasoning in that decision also applies here. Climate change and related issues are ongoing and regularly discussed. There is a wealth of information on this topic that is readily available to audiences, including in RNZ coverage, and alternative perspectives are presented from time to time throughout various media.5 We consider that it is reasonable to expect that listeners would be aware of significant viewpoints on climate change, and they would not therefore be left uninformed by the absence of a detailed discussion of the ‘conservative’ perspective on climate change (as described by the complainant) in this particular item.

[15]  In reaching this view, we have had regard to the right to freedom of expression – both the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information, and the public’s right to receive that information. We consider this item had value, by allowing discourse and views about a significant issue affecting our society to be expressed. We have weighed the value of the item and the importance of the expression against the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. Here, the harm is alleged to have been caused by what the complainant considers to be the omission of a balancing view on climate change. For the reasons set out above, we do not believe listeners would have been left uninformed on the issue of climate change as a result of this item, and we have not identified any harm arising from the broadcast that would outweigh the right to freedom of expression.

[16]  Therefore, we do not uphold the balance complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
17 July 2017 

 

Appendix

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

1      David Gibbs’ formal complaint – 15 April 2017
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 15 May 2017
3      Mr Gibbs’ referral to the Authority – 19 May 2017
4      RNZ’s response to the Authority – 7 June 2017

 


1 For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010) and Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Radio (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2009).

2 The Authority has previously found that items narrowly focused on one individual or a personal story did not amount to discussions of a controversial issue of public importance which triggered the balance standard. See, for example: US environment chief doubts CO2’s role in global warming, Decision No. 2015-003 at [11].

3 McMillan and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2013-025 at [25]

4 As above, at [30]-[31]

5 For example, other recent RNZ coverage of climate change which includes alternative perspectives to those presented in the Saturday Morning item include: US environment chief doubts CO2’s role in global warming (RNZ, March 2017); and Trump overturns Obama climate change policies (RNZ, March 2017).