BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Muir and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2019-039 (23 August 2019)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Susie Staley
Dated
Number
2019-039
Programme
Breakfast
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary

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

A complaint alleging that an interview on Breakfast with Professor Douglas Pratt, an expert in theological and religious studies, breached broadcasting standards has not been upheld. The interview was exploring Professor Pratt’s views on the possible motivation behind the attacks on 15 March 2019 on two mosques in Christchurch. The Authority found that the interview was not a discussion as contemplated under the balance standard, but rather Professor Pratt’s in-depth, expert opinion, and therefore the balance standard did not apply. The Authority also found that the broadcast did not contain a high level of condemnation towards the Christian community nor the level of malice or nastiness required to breach the discrimination and denigration standard.

Not Upheld: Balance, Discrimination and Denigration


The broadcast


[1]  Five days after the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, Breakfast included an interview with Professor Douglas Pratt, an expert in theological and religious studies.1 Professor Pratt explained his views on the potential motivations of the alleged attacker which may be based on a form of Christian terrorism.

[2]  The interview was introduced as follows:

A leading global expert on religious terrorism says the Christchurch attacks were not just based on racial hatred but was a form of Christian terrorism that’s deeply entwined with far-right, white supremacist beliefs; and a growing phenomenon around the world.

[3]  The interview was broadcast on 20 March 2019 on TVNZ 1. As part of our consideration of these complaints, we have watched a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[4]  James Muir submitted that the broadcast breached the discrimination and denigration and balance standards for the following reasons:

  • The interview was ‘highly untimely’, ‘inappropriate’, ‘inflammatory’ and ‘misleading’ as it suggested that the attacks came from Christian beliefs or ideologies when ‘the Holy Bible does not encourage followers of Jesus in this behaviour at all’.
  • Professor Pratt’s conclusions were based off a ‘very limited’ Biblical reference and he was ‘hand-picking scriptures to support an already held belief.’
  • While ‘misguided individuals may have used this small verse as an excuse or justification to harm or even kill someone else, it certainly is not considered an established Christian doctrine for any and all circumstances.’
  • Mr Muir questioned Professor Pratt’s credentials, suggesting he was not an expert and had limited understanding of the Bible.
  • Professor Pratt was ‘barely challenged’ by the interviewer, who was ‘generally uncritical’.
  • To speculate on the motives of the attacker was ‘pre-emptive, presumptuous and potentially unbalanced’, especially as ‘it was not fully known what the motivation of the shooter was’.
  • Headlining this incident as ‘Christian terrorism only days after the incident’ was offensive to ‘those who adhere to Biblical truth and teaching.’

 

The broadcaster’s response


[5]  TVNZ acknowledged that the complainant did not like the linking of Christian texts with ‘such hateful acts’, but did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

Balance

  • The broadcast did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance as it was clear from the broadcast that the views being discussed were those of Professor Pratt, and this was clearly signalled to the viewer.

Discrimination and denigration

  • The discussion was not ‘nasty or pejorative’ and would not lead to the discrimination or denigration of any section of the community.
  • Professor Pratt was being interviewed about his view of religious terrorism. He is an honorary academic at the school of theology at Auckland University, after spending time in academia at the University of Waikato. He has researched and written extensively about religious extremism, and the interactions between Muslim and Christian communities.
  • Professor Pratt is clear that the attacker has not identified as ‘waving a particular religious banner’. He notes that ‘the kind of rhetoric’ used in his manifesto ‘shows a racist perspective is focussed in on Islam and on Muslims way above anybody else.’ This focus can ‘come from an extreme reading of religious texts, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim texts.’
  • This type of discussion is ‘important in the context of the last few weeks.’
  • ‘It is vitally important that news media examines the shooter’s motivation, including by examining and demystifying the thinking, claims and conspiracies used to justify the atrocity. The examination of such extremist thinking, including the extreme reading of religious texts, is important to understand.’

Submissions relevant to both standards

  • Professor Pratt was clear that this reading of the Bible is ‘an extreme reading of a particular text’ and that ‘Muslims can do the same thing with the Koran’. He was not saying that this was ‘the normal or accepted’ reading of such texts, but that these extreme readings are used ‘as an excuse’ for terror acts.
  • It is important for New Zealand to have such discussions and an examination of how the alleged attacker ‘justifies and rationalises his actions is in the public good’. 

The relevant standards

[6]  The balance standard 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 discrimination and denigration standard protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

Our findings

[8]  We note that the Authority has received a range of complaints raising questions about news and current affairs reporting relating to one of the most challenging events that our community has faced.  Broadcast media plays an important role in providing the public with information, ideas and news to enable them to evaluate the events around them, and this broadcast was one of many providing context to the 15 March attacks. The coverage on 15 March and in the weeks following was broad and varied, including a range of in-depth examinations of the attacker and their motivations.2  We have carefully considered all complaints, including this one, taking into account the high public interest in reporting and coverage about issues relating to the 15 March attacks.

[9]  The right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, is the starting point in our consideration of complaints. Equally important is our consideration of the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.

Balance

[10]   The balance standard only applies to situations where a ‘controversial issue of public importance’ is ‘discussed’ in ‘news, current affairs or factual programmes’.3 Accordingly, when we consider a balance complaint, the first question is whether the broadcast met those three requirements.

[11]  An issue of public importance is something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public.4 A controversial issue will be one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.5

[12]  With regard to the subject matter of the broadcast, it was an examination of how religious texts informed the motivations of extremism and terrorism, in the context of the 15 March mosque attacks, with specific reference to ‘Christian terrorism’. We consider that the potential motivations of the attacker is a controversial issue of public importance for the purposes of this standard.

[13]  It is also accepted that Breakfast is a news and current affairs programme as contemplated by the standard.

[14]  However, the standard also requires the issue to have been ‘discussed’ in the item complained about. The Authority has previously determined that an issue has not been ‘discussed’ for the purposes of the standard when the issue was not considered in-depth6 or when it was clearly someone’s personal views being presented.7

[15]  The Authority considers that this broadcast does not amount to a discussion as contemplated by the balance standard, but rather was the presentation of Professor Pratt’s own expert opinion on the issue. We acknowledge Professor Pratt’s qualifications and that he is credible and able to comment as an expert. The interview was not framed as a discussion. The interviewer only provided prompts for Professor Pratt’s in-depth opinion, drawing out his views with phrases such as ‘what do you mean by that,’ ‘so you are saying…’ and ‘you compare this to the events in Norway… how do you explain that?’ This style of questioning clearly signals to viewers that Professor Pratt was advancing his own perspective as to the motivations behind white supremacist activity.  It was not a discussion or debate on the various alternative views which may exist. In this context, viewers would understand that Professor Pratt was advancing his views and would not expect the broadcast to include detailed commentary from Christian Bible teachers to refute any link between Christianity and terrorism.

[16]  As the broadcast did not amount to a discussion, the balance standard does not apply.

Discrimination and denigration

[17]  ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment.8  ‘Denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community.9 Christians are a recognised section of the community for the purposes of this standard.10

[18]  The standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is a genuine expression of serious comment,11 unless the content of the broadcast amounts to hate speech or a sustained attack on a particular group.12

[19]  Context must always be considered when assessing whether the broadcast ‘encouraged’ discrimination or denigration, including the nature of the programme, audience expectations and the public interest in the broadcast.13 The following contextual factors are relevant:

  • Breakfast is a news and current affairs programme, with an adult target audience.
  • This segment was part of TVNZ and other broadcasters’ ongoing coverage of the 15 March attacks which included serious discussions of sensitive or controversial issues.14
  • There was a high public interest in the broadcast, given that it was providing important context to the 15 March attacks.

[20]  We further note that the broadcast was a calm dissertation on the actions of terrorists or extremists, and while Professor Pratt referred to Christianity (and cited a particular Biblical reference), he clearly identified those who commit acts of terrorism as ‘white supremacists’, ‘alt right’ and ‘racists’. He made it clear that the attacker ‘did not wave a religious banner.’ In our view, the audience was unlikely to have been misinformed regarding Christian faith and practice.

[21]  Importantly, we do not consider that the broadcast contained a high level of condemnation towards the Christian community, nor did it contain the level of malice or nastiness required to justify our intervention.15 Comments will not breach the standard simply because they are critical of a particular group or because they offend people.16

[22]  Further, given the high level of public interest in the broadcast and taking into account the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression we do not consider that our intervention is justified.

[23]  Therefore the Authority does not uphold the complaint under the discrimination and denigration standard.

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

  

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair
23 August 2019


 

Appendix

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

1                 James Muir’s formal complaint – 15 April 2019

2                 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 21 May 2019

3                 Mr Muir’s referral to the Authority – 10 June 2019

4                 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 18 July 2019

 


 

1 Professor Pratt, formerly a professor at the University of Waikato, is a theological and religious studies academic, holding positions as an honorary professor at Auckland University, an adjunct professor at the University of Bern and a trustee for the Religious Diversity Centre.
2 See for example ‘Mental Health Foundation rejects idea man accused of carrying out Christchurch terror attack was mentally ill’ (TVNZ 1, 21 March 2019); ‘Threat might come from ‘skinheads’ in wake of Christchurch terrorist attack – security expert’ (TVNZ 1, 28 March 2019); Social media feels the heat on hate after crisis in Christchurch (RNZ, 17 March 2019); Christchurch terror attack: Rifle club was 'perfect breeding place' for murder (Newshub, 17 March 2019)
3 Guideline 8a
4 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 As above
6 Friends of the Earth (NZ) and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-081 at [16] and Rose and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-078 at [20]
7 For example see Gray, Scott, Vickers and Vink and MediaWorks TV, Decision No. 2019-020 at [33]
8 Guideline 6a
8 As above
10 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 15
11 Guideline 6c
12 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16
13 Guideline 6d
14 See for example ‘Mental Health Foundation rejects idea man accused of carrying out Christchurch terror attack was mentally ill’ (TVNZ 1, 21 March 2019); ‘Threat might come from ‘skinheads’ in wake of Christchurch terrorist attack – security expert’ (TVNZ 1, 28 March 2019); Social media feels the heat on hate after crisis in Christchurch (RNZ, 17 March 2019); Christchurch terror attack: Rifle club was 'perfect breeding place' for murder (Newshub, 17 March 2019)
15 Guideline 6b
16 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16