BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Leniston and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-104 (9 March 2018)

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
Dated
Complainant
  • Tim Leniston
Number
2017-104
Programme
Nine to Noon
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand

Summary

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

An item on Nine to Noon featured an interview with RNZ’s US Correspondent regarding recent political events in the United States, including a brief discussion of the controversy surrounding the Democratic National Party and the release of American political strategist and campaign manager Donna Brazile’s book, Hacks. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that this discussion was unbalanced and misleading. The Authority noted the purpose of the item was to hear the views and analysis of RNZ’s US Correspondent on recent political events and news in the US, a small part of which referred to Ms Brazile’s book. The segment did not purport to be an in-depth examination of Ms Brazile’s book or the controversy surrounding the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Primary Election. In this context, the Authority found listeners would not have been misled or left uninformed by the omission of further details from the book and about the DNC, which the complainant wished to be included in the item.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy  


Introduction

[1]  During Nine to Noon, presenter Kathryn Ryan talked to RNZ’s US Correspondent Susan Milligan about recent political events in the United States, including controversy surrounding the Democratic National Party and the release of a book, Hacks, by American political strategist, campaign manager and former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair, Donna Brazile. They noted the book discusses alleged flaws in the Democratic National Party’s primary election process, the DNC’s favouring of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, the ‘finger pointing’ going on in the DNC and Ms Brazile’s contemplation of replacing Ms Clinton with Joe Biden during the campaign.

[2]  The remainder of the 7-minute item focused on The Mueller Report regarding possible Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election, and the US Correspondent’s analysis of two upcoming Governor’s elections.

[3]  Tim Leniston complained that the item was unbalanced and misleading as Ms Milligan omitted key facts from Ms Brazile’s book and details regarding the nature of the controversy surrounding the DNC and its primary elections.

[4]  The issues raised in Mr Leniston’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The item was broadcast on 7 November 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 discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints?

[6]  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.

[7]  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. Therefore a key consideration in assessing whether the standard has been breached is what the audience would expect from the programme, and whether they were likely to have been misinformed by the omission of a particular perspective.1

The parties’ submissions

[8]  Mr Leniston submitted:

  • The presenter referred to ‘revelations’ from Ms Brazile’s new book at the beginning of the segment but the so-called revelations were not revealed in the broadcast.
  • Ms Milligan’s coverage was biased towards Ms Clinton and did not include alternative views.
  • Ms Milligan distorted the facts from Ms Brazile’s book and misled the audience.
  • This story (the DNC controversy) amounted to a controversial issue of public importance as it was an important influencing factor in the election of President Trump, as well as the current divisive nature of politics in the United States.

[9]  RNZ submitted:

  • The publication of a book by an American political strategist and former campaign manager is unlikely to amount to a controversial issue of public importance as envisaged by the balance standard.
  • The one-minute conversation with the US Correspondent in relation to Ms Brazile’s book and the surrounding DNC controversy did not amount to a ‘discussion’ for the purposes of the balance standard.

Our analysis

[10]  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’.2

[11]  The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.3 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.4

[12]  The purpose of the segment overall was to hear the views and analysis of RNZ’s US Correspondent on recent political events and news in the US. The broadcast covered multiple subjects within the 7-minute item, including Ms Brazile’s book, The Mueller Report and upcoming Governor’s elections.

[13]  Approximately one minute of the 7-minute item focused on the release of Ms Brazile’s book. This short segment briefly highlighted some of the information contained in the book, for example the allegations made in the book in relation to the process of Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic nominee in the last US Presidential Election. The item did not purport to be an in-depth examination of either the book or the controversy surrounding the DNC Primary Election.

[14]  In these circumstances we do not think the item amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, which triggered the requirements of the balance standard.

[15]  In any event, as noted above, a key consideration in assessing whether the standard has been breached is what the audience would expect from the programme, and therefore whether they were likely to have been misinformed by the omission of a particular viewpoint. In this case, the topics canvassed in the item were clearly approached from Ms Milligan’s perspective providing her analysis and opinion as the US Correspondent. In this context, listeners would not have expected other views to be presented in relation to the topics covered.

[16]  For these reasons, we do not uphold the balance complaint.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[17]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) 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 being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[18]  Mr Leniston submitted:

  • The US Correspondent misled the audience by implying that the establishment members of the DNC had a bias in favour of Ms Clinton during the Democratic nominee selection process.
  • Ms Milligan withheld important information regarding a secret deal between Ms Clinton and the DNC prior to the primary elections, and the ‘unethical re-routing’ of party donations.
  • The broadcast did not raise the fact that the DNC was publicly claiming to be running a fair primary contest while all the time ‘being a tool of one [Ms Clinton’s] campaign’.

[19]  RNZ submitted:

  • There were no inaccurate statements of fact made in the broadcast.
  • The statements made by Ms Milligan about the democratic process were statements of opinion, not fact.

Our analysis

[20]  We understand from Mr Leniston’s complaint that his main concern is that certain details and information were omitted from the discussion about Ms Brazile’s book, which resulted in the broadcast being misleading.

[21]  As we have said in relation to balance, the purpose of the segment overall was to hear Ms Milligan’s commentary, including her opinion, on recent political news in the US. Approximately one minute of the 7-minute item discussed the release of Ms Brazile’s book and the allegations made in the book. Apart from this one-minute segment, which focused on the release of Ms Brazile’s book, Ms Milligan did not otherwise comment on the contextual background or details of events related to the subject matter of the book.

[22]  In this context, we do not consider the omission of the detailed information that Mr Leniston wished to be included resulted in the item being misleading, or would have materially affected the audience’s understanding of the broadcast as a whole. Ms Milligan provided a snapshot only of the book and of some of the arguments made by the author.

[23]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.


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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich

Chair

9 March 2018 

 

Appendix

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

1     Tim Leniston’s formal complaint – 16 November 2017
2     RNZ’s response to the complaint – 18 December 2017
3     Mr Leniston’s referral to the Authority – 20 December 2017
4     RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 22 December 2017


1 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18

2 Guideline 8a

3 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18

As above