Gibson and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2012-113
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
- Mary Anne Shanahan
- Michael Gibson
ProgrammeRadio New Zealand News
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand National
Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Radio New Zealand News – item reported that pedestrian had been hit by a bus in Wellington – newsreader stated, “St John Ambulance says a woman in her mid-forties was hit by a bus on the corner of Hunter and Featherston streets… A spokesperson says the woman sustained moderate injuries and was transferred to Wellington hospital…” – reference to St John Ambulance allegedly inaccurate and unfair
Standard 5 (accuracy) – reference to St John Ambulance was not material to the focus of the item and would not have misled listeners in any material respect – not upheld
Standard 6 (fairness) – Wellington Free Ambulance did not take part and was not referred to in the broadcast so listeners would not have been left with an unfairly negative impression of it as an organisation – in any event the reference to St John Ambulance was not material so the broadcast as a whole was not unfair – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 A brief news item reported that a pedestrian had been hit by a bus in central Wellington. The news reader stated, “St John Ambulance says a woman in her mid-forties was hit by a bus on the corner of Hunter and Featherston streets just after 8.30. A spokesperson says the woman sustained moderate injuries and was transferred to Wellington hospital. The Police say the road is now open.” The item was broadcast on 24 August 2012 on Radio New Zealand National.
 In New Zealand most of the ambulance services are operated by St John. In Wellington, however, ambulance services are operated by Wellington Free Ambulance which is a separate organisation to St John.
 Michael Gibson made a formal complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd (RNZ), the broadcaster, alleging that the reference to St John Ambulance was misleading and unfair because Wellington Free Ambulance was the organisation that transported the woman to hospital. He wrote, “I am a whole-hearted supporter of Wellington Free Ambulance and am certain that they deserve, as a very valuable provider of ambulance services in Wellington, to be associated with the Featherston street incident”.
 The issue is whether the item, and specifically the reference to St John Ambulance, breached Standards 5 (accuracy) and 6 (fairness) of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
Was the item, and specifically the reference to St John Ambulance, inaccurate or misleading?
 The accuracy standard (Standard 5) 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 receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.1
 RNZ argued that the reference to St John Ambulance was in fact a reference to the Central Ambulance Communications Centre, which was jointly owned by St John Ambulance and Wellington Free Ambulance. In any event, it did not consider that the mention of St John Ambulance had any bearing on the story.
 We consider the argument of RNZ that the reference to St John Ambulance was a reference to the Central Ambulance Communications Centre to be somewhat unconvincing. We think that what has happened here is that the person who wrote the news story did not appreciate the difference between St John and Wellington Free Ambulance and this is how the error occurred.
 We think there is more merit in the argument of RNZ that the mention of St John Ambulance was not material. In order to find a breach of Standard 5, we must be satisfied that the comment subject to complaint was material, or would have misled listeners in a material respect. The materiality requirement places a qualification on the standard so as to comply with, and give effect to, the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Minor inaccuracies that are immaterial to the focus of the programme, and therefore do not impact on how the broadcast would be interpreted or understood by the average audience member, will not likely outweigh the importance of freedom of expression to an extent that requires our intervention; any restriction on this right must be reasonable and justified.
 Here, the focus of the brief news item was that a woman had been hit by a bus in central Wellington, and the reference to St John Ambulance was used to source the information and to report the extent of her injuries. The reference to St John Ambulance, as opposed to Wellington Free Ambulance, suggested that it was the former, as opposed to the latter, organisation responsible for transporting the woman to hospital, and this was technically incorrect. RNZ’s listeners are entitled to expect that its news reports are accurate, and we understand the complainant’s argument that the distinction is important for both organisations.
 However, because the focus of the item was reporting the accident, and its purpose was not to commend the paramedics involved, we consider that the reference was immaterial, and would not have misled listeners in any significant respect.
 For these reasons, we consider that the broadcast did not breach Standard 5 and that we have no justification for limiting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression on this occasion.
Was Wellington Free Ambulance treated unfairly?
 The fairness standard (Standard 6) 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, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.
 We understand that in a general sense, the broadcast could be considered unfair to Wellington Free Ambulance by omission of any recognition of their involvement in the woman’s treatment. However, in the broadcasting standards context, unfairness requires that the person or organisation that has allegedly been treated unfairly was either “referred to” or “taking part” in the broadcast. Here, Wellington Free Ambulance was not referred to and did not take part in the broadcast, so listeners would not have been left with an unfairly negative impression of it as an organisation.
 As we have noted above, technically, the story should have referred to Wellington Free Ambulance. Nevertheless, the organisation responsible for transporting the woman to hospital was not material to the item, and we therefore find that overall the broadcast was not unfair.
 Accordingly, we decline to uphold this part of the complaint.
 This is a minor matter although we do not categorise it as being trivial. It is the sort of matter that we would ordinarily expect to be sorted out and dealt with between a complainant and a broadcaster. We believe this complaint has been escalated unnecessarily because the broadcaster failed to respond appropriately in the first instance. RNZ could simply have acknowledged that a mistake had been made, and indicated more care would be taken in future when referring to Wellington’s ambulance services. A willingness on the part of complainants and broadcasters to engage with each other at a stage before complaints come to this Authority ought to resolve most complaints such as this. In those cases where the parties do not seize an early opportunity to resolve a complaint of a similar level, we think a very simple mediation process may help to avoid escalation in circumstances which do not warrant more formal treatment.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
27 February 2013
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Michael Gibson’s formal complaint – 24 August 2012
2 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 21 September 2012
3 Mr Gibson’s referral to the Authority – 25 September 2012
4 RNZ’s response to the Authority – 10 October 2012
5 Mr Gibson’s final comment – 19 October 2012
6 RNZ’s response to Authority’s request for further submissions – 14 February 2013
1Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036