BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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McNeill and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2011-002

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Tapu Misa
Dated
Complainant
  • Brendan McNeill
Number
2011-002
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand National

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill – interview with former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard – allegedly in breach of fairness standard

Findings
Standard 6 (fairness) – Mr Howard was a controversial political figure who should have expected to be interviewed robustly – Mr Howard dealt with fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Broadcast

[1]   Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill, broadcast on Radio New Zealand National between 9.00am and 12.00pm on 20 November 2010, featured an interview with former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. The host introduced the item as an interview on the occasion of the release of Mr Howard’s personal and political autobiography, “Lazarus Rising”. 

[2]   During the interview, the host questioned Mr Howard about a number of controversial issues that arose during his tenure as Prime Minister, including his position on immigration and ethnic affairs, and his decision to join the United States’ invasion of Iraq. At times the discussion became heated, particularly in the second half of the interview when the host questioned Mr Howard about Afghanistan, asylum seekers, refugees and the 2008 election campaign. With regard to the war in Afghanistan, the host made the following statements:

  • “You accuse me of being cynical Mr Howard...when I’m asking you whether the war in Afghanistan may be shown to have achieved its objectives.”
  • “What would not be a cynical approach to Afghanistan, as an Australian in particular, who is seeing people die over there for a war that is being called unwinnable...”

[3]   Mr Howard responded to the host’s questions and defended his position, at one point stating, “Well, this is becoming quite a silly word game, this interview.”

[4]   At the end of the interview, the host stated, “We are about to run out of time. I appreciate your time. I’m sorry you seem to have had such an un-enjoyable time.” Mr Howard responded, “I don’t think I have had an un-enjoyable time but if that’s your view, well, that’s your view”. 

Complaint

[5]   Brendan McNeill made a formal complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd (RNZ), the broadcaster, alleging that the item breached broadcasting standards.

[6]   The complainant argued that the host’s behaviour towards Mr Howard and his politics was “unprofessional, discourteous, opinionated, self-aggrandizing, boorish and rude”. As the item was broadcast on a publicly funded radio station, the complainant expected guests to be treated with “courtesy and respect”.

Standards

[7]   RNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:

Standard 6 Fairness

Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[8]   RNZ said that the interview was “robust” and discussed “contentious” and “controversial” issues that arose during Mr Howard’s tenure as Prime Minister. It said that Mr Howard was a “very experienced media interviewee” and was well able to express his position on issues put to him during the interview. For this reason, the broadcaster considered that the host’s approach to the interviewee and to the topics under discussion was “appropriate”, and it concluded that Mr Howard had been treated fairly. Accordingly, RNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[9]   Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr McNeill referred his complaint to the Authority under Section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The complainant argued that the broadcast breached Standards 1 (good taste and decency), 6 (fairness) and 7 (discrimination and denigration).

[10]   Mr McNeill argued that standards of good taste and decency required broadcasters to treat others with “courtesy and respect”, regardless of whether their views differed from those held by the interviewer. The complainant said that the host’s tone of voice was “denigrating”, and maintained that Mr Howard was treated unfairly. Fairness should “preclude making negative and pre-emptive statements as to how the interviewee ‘enjoyed’ the interview experience”, he said. Mr McNeill concluded by questioning the validity of standards relating to good taste and decency and fairness extending only to “less able” interviewees, and not to politicians, as contended by the broadcaster.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[11]   RNZ noted that Mr McNeill raised Standards 1 and 7 in his referral, and said that his concerns under those standards had been adequately dealt with in its consideration of fairness. The broadcaster maintained that the host’s approach was “reasonable”, given that Mr Howard’s input was “belligerent and evasive at times”. The approach was consistent with its internal editorial policies and the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, it said.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[12]   The complainant argued that Mr Howard was not “belligerent and evasive”, as contended by the broadcaster. Rather, he gave “forthright and direct” answers to every question, he said.

[13]   Mr McNeill stated that his complaint related to the second half of the interview, including the host’s closing comment, “Sorry you seem to have had such an un-enjoyable time”. The host did not allow Mr Howard the opportunity to converse on any aspect of his three-year term as Prime Minister which he may have considered his “greatest achievements in office” or “lasting legacy”, the complainant said. In Mr McNeill’s view, the interview was “set up” to denigrate Mr Howard’s policies and judgement as Prime Minister, and the host’s final statement was a “cynical admission...revealing of both her motivation and intentions throughout the interview”.

Authority’s Determination

[14]   The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Preliminary Matter

[15]   RNZ considered the original complaint under Standard 6 (fairness). In his referral, Mr McNeill also raised Standards 1 (good taste and decency) and 7 (discrimination and denigration). In our view, the complainant did not raise Standards 1 or 7 in his original formal complaint, either explicitly or implicitly, such that the broadcaster should have considered those standards in its response. We therefore find that we have no jurisdiction to consider them. In any event, it is our view that his concerns are more appropriately addressed as matters of fairness. Accordingly, we have limited our determination to Standard 6 (fairness).

Standard 6 (fairness)

[16]   Standard 6 requires broadcasters to deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in programmes.

[17]   The complainant argued that the host’s behaviour towards Mr Howard and his politics was “unprofessional, discourteous, opinionated, self-aggrandizing, boorish and rude”. In contrast, the broadcaster argued that the host’s approach was reasonable, given that Mr Howard was an experienced media interviewee who was well able to express his position on matters raised during the interview.

[18]   We find that the host took a robust and vigorous approach, which was legitimate given that it was a political interview involving a prominent political figure with extensive media experience. In Kiro and Radioworks Ltd,1 the Authority stated that the fairness standard:

... does not prevent criticism of public figures. Indeed, it is an essential element of free speech that even the most trenchant criticism of public figures be allowed. ...The question for the Authority is whether that criticism overstepped the boundaries of fairness, that is, whether it strayed into abusively personal territory.

[19]   Given Mr Howard’s position as a well-known public figure, we consider that he should have expected a challenging interviewing approach. It is our view that the host’s criticism was limited to Mr Howard in his professional capacity as Australia’s former Prime Minister, and did not extend to being abusive of, or malicious towards, him personally. Overall, we conclude that the host’s interviewing style, and treatment of Mr Howard, was not unfair, and that reasonable listeners would not have been left with an unfairly negative impression of his character or conduct.

[20]   For these reasons, we decline to uphold the complaint that Mr Howard was treated unfairly in breach of Standard 6.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
29 March 2011

Appendix

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

1                  Brendan McNeill’s formal complaint – 27 November 2010

2                 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 24 December 2010

3                 Mr McNeill’s referral to the Authority – 24 December 2010

4                 RNZ’s response to the Authority – 31 January 2011

5                 Mr McNeill’s final comment – 9 February 2011


1Decision No. 2008-108