BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Madigan and The RadioWorks Ltd - 2002-054

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
  • Mark Madigan
The RadioWorks Ltd
Radio Pacific # 3

Radio Pacific – only part of letter from complainant to talkback host read on air – devious and unfair

Principle 4 and guideline a – complainant’s views advanced – no uphold

Principle 5 and guideline b – editing did not involve distortion – no uphold

Principle 6 and guideline a – no deceptive practice used – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] During a discussion of the terrorist attack in New York City on 11 September 2001, a host of the talkback station, Radio Pacific, was said to have stated on a number of occasions that Osama bin Laden had nuclear weapons and that New Zealand was a likely target. Mark Madigan wrote to the host disputing this claim. He provided sources for his view that, even if bin Laden had nuclear weapons, he would not be able to use them. Part of Mr Madigan’s letter was read out on Radio Pacific between 7.00–8.00pm on 30 October 2001.

[2] Mr Madigan complained to The RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that his views had been distorted when the host read only part of his letter on air. When he did not receive a reply to his complaint, Mr Madigan referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[3] In its response to the Authority, The RadioWorks pointed out that the exchange of opinions was the essence of talkback radio and reading only part of a letter was a regular practice.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.


[4] The members of the Authority have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[5] Discussions about the September 11 events in New York City have featured on Radio Pacific – a talkback radio station. One host (Ian Wishart) apparently expressed the opinion on a number of occasions that Osama bin Laden might well have nuclear weapons, and New Zealand could be a target for the use of such weapons.

[6] The complainant wrote to that host in mid-October. In the letter, he expressed doubt whether bin Laden had such weapons, adding that even if he did, "he would not know how to use them". The complainant provided references which, he said, substantiated this view. In that letter, he described the host’s comments about the use of such weapons as "ill-advised" and as a "red-herring".

[7] The host read part of the complainant’s letter on air between 7.00–8.00pm on 30 October 2001.

The Complaint

[8] Mr Madigan complained to the broadcaster that he believed it was unethical that the host had not advised listeners that he was reading only part of the letter. He considered, as the host had ridiculed his views, that his correspondence was not dealt with in a balanced or fair way.

The Referral to the Authority

[9] As Mr Madigan did not receive a reply to his letter of formal complaint, or to a follow-up letter, he referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

[10] Mr Madigan referred to two other occasions when part of his correspondence had been read on air, adding that he had complained at those times. He wrote:

I have not requested that any of my correspondence be read on air, nor would I expect it to be, but if hosts choose to do so they should treat such in a fair and ethical manner.

The Standards

[11] After the complaints had been referred by the Authority, The RadioWorks considered the complaints under the nominated standards: They read:

Principle 4

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.


4a  Broadcasters will respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions.

Principle 5

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.


5b  Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed.

Principle 6

In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.


6a  Broadcasters will not use deceptive programme practices.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[12] The RadioWorks in its response to the Authority considered first why it had not replied to Mr Madigan. It wrote:

We can offer no logical explanation as to why Mr Madigan’s formal complaint was not dealt with in the appropriate manner. Mr Madigan is well known to Radio Pacific hosts, and is a long time correspondent with the radio station on many and varied topics.

We can only speculate that the distinctive handwriting of Mr Madigan was identified with an incorrect conclusion drawn on the spur of the moment, that the content would be another of Mr Madigan’s theories and not a formal complaint. For this we apologise.

[13] Turning to the complaint, The RadioWorks stated that it was a common practice for hosts to read on air extracts from letters received. It acknowledged that only part was read on this occasion.

[14] With regard to guideline 4a, The RadioWorks pointed out that the exchange of opinions was "the very essence of Talk Back Radio". A host, it continued, was not expected to agree with all callers, but to encourage debate. In view of the accepted talkback format, this aspect was not upheld.

[15] As for the requirement in guideline 5b that editing is not to distort views, The RadioWorks argued that the host read out only part of the letter, not to distort the views advanced, but to promote discussion. This aspect was also not upheld.

[16] Finally, as the broadcast did not involve any deceptive practice, The RadioWorks maintained that Guideline 6a had not been contravened.

[17] Concluding, The RadioWorks advised that it was unable to supply tapes of the broadcast as they had not been put aside at the time of receipt of the formal complaint.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[18] Mr Madigan argued that The RadioWorks had provided no satisfactory reason for not responding to his complaint. He reiterated his contention that it breached the standards not to quote in full, or not to advise listeners that a quote used was not the author’s full statement. He wrote:

The reading out of just one page of a two page letter about scientific theory is irresponsible and inadmissible.

The Authority’s Determination

[19] Mr Madigan complained that The RadioWorks breached a number of principles in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice when a host on Radio Pacific read on air only part of a letter he had written. In essence, Mr Madigan complained that Radio Pacific had been unfair to him when the host did not advise listeners that he was reading only part of his letter. He described the broadcaster’s practice as deceptive and argued that his letter had not been dealt with in a balanced way.

[20] The RadioWorks did not uphold Mr Madigan’s complaint. It said that the exchange of opinions was central to talkback, and maintained that it was common practice for hosts to read on air only part of letters received. It acknowledged that this had occurred on this occasion.

[21] The Authority notes that Mr Madigan has corresponded with Radio Pacific previously and on one occasion he had advised the broadcaster that he was unhappy with the practice where only extracts from his letters were being read on air.

[22] In response to Mr Madigan’s assertion on this occasion that a broadcaster is obliged to read all or nothing of correspondence received, the Authority accepts that the editing practice in regard to letters is generally a matter for the broadcaster’s editorial judgment.

[23] With regard to talkback radio specifically, the Authority acknowledges that the editing of material is fundamental to this genre, frequently as a means of encouraging debate. Talkback relies on advancing opinions, often in an adversarial style.

[24] Taking these matters into account in determining the specific aspects of Mr Madigan’s complaint, the Authority considers that Radio Pacific provided Mr Madigan with the opportunity to present his opinions. With reference to the Principle 4 aspect of the complaint, Mr Madigan was particularly concerned that only one page of a two page letter was read on air.

[25] Mr Madigan provided the Authority with a full copy of his letter from which an extract was read on air. Having read the full letter, and noting that the second page expands on the arguments made on the first page, the Authority accepts that neither the standard relating to editing which distorts, nor the standard dealing with deception, was breached. It declines to uphold those aspects of Mr Madigan’s complaint.

[26] The Authority also observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

[27] The broadcaster’s failure to provide the Authority with a tape of the item complained about on this occasion is not an isolated incident. The Authority has recorded its concern in earlier decisions when its consideration of the complaint has been compromised by the lack of a tape The Authority has been in discussion with the Radio Broadcasters Association (RBA) about the issue of tape retention, and it has indicated to the RBA that the continuing failure by broadcasters to provide tapes may lead the Authority to promulgate Rules under s.30 of the Broadcasting Act relating to the retention of tapes. Such a step would not be taken without further consultation with all radio broadcasters.


For the reasons given above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Cartwright
9 May 2002


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

  1. Mark Madigan’s letter to Radio Pacific outlining his views on the use of nuclear weapons by Osama bin Laden – 15 October 2001
  2. Mr Madigan’s Formal Complaint to The RadioWorks Ltd – 1 November 2001
  3. Mr Madigan’s Follow-up Complaint to The RadioWorks Ltd – 7 December 2001
  4. Mr Madigan’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 17 December 2001
  5. Mr Madigan’s Follow-up Referral – 17 February 2002
  6. The RadioWork’s Response to the Authority – received 21 February 2002
  7. Mr Madigan’s Final Comment – 2 March 2002