BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Right to Life and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-007 (19 April 2017)

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose
Dated
Complainant
  • Right to Life
Number
2017-007
Programme
Saturday Morning
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand National

Summary

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

An interview was broadcast on Saturday Morning with the President of Catholics for Choice (CFC). He spoke about CFC’s position, and his own views, on contraception, marriage equality and abortion, contrasting these views with the Catholic Church’s stance on these topics. The Authority did not uphold a complaint made by Right to Life that a representative of the Catholic Church should have been given the opportunity to respond to the ‘allegations’ made by the CFC President. The item was introduced and presented from the narrow perspective of CFC, which did not represent the views of all Catholics or of the Church hierarchy, and this was made clear during the interview. The Authority considered that most listeners would have been broadly aware of the Catholic Church’s stance in relation to the topics discussed and a rebuttal was not required to balance the interview. The Authority also did not uphold the fairness complaint, as the connection between CFC, Family Planning and Planned Parenthood was clearly outlined at the beginning of the item, and the item did not result in unfairness to the Catholic Church.

Not Upheld: Balance, Fairness


Introduction

[1]  An interview was broadcast on Saturday Morning with the President of Catholics for Choice (CFC). The item was introduced by the presenter as follows:

Catholics for Choice. It does sound oxymoronic, given the Catholic Church’s position on abortion, but it’s an organisation that argues against the prohibition on abortion and contraception. Its president is [name], a Catholic born and raised in the Republic of Ireland, who worked for the Irish Family Planning Association and for the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Bureau before joining Catholics for Choice twenty years ago. He was in New Zealand to speak at the Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights Conference. I asked him what the current situation with regard to abortion and contraception is in his home country now.

[2]  The CFC President spoke about CFC’s position on contraception, marriage equality and abortion. He also spoke about his own upbringing and his views on a number of other topics, including religious philosophy and the teachings and history of the Catholic Church.

[3]  Ken Orr, Secretary of Right to Life, complained on behalf of the organisation that a representative from the Catholic Church should have been given the opportunity to respond to the ‘allegations’ made by the President of CFC. Listeners were also entitled to know more about the President’s background and CFC’s connections with Planned Parenthood, he said.

[4]  The issues raised in Right to Life’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the balance and fairness standards as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The item was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 12 November 2016. 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 sufficiently balanced?

[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. The standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.1

The parties’ submissions

[7]  Right to Life submitted that:

  • The President made a considerable number of serious accusations against the Catholic Church and as a result, ‘there should have been an opportunity for the presentation of information to correct those allegations’.
  • The item did not identify the CFC President’s links to Family Planning and Planned Parenthood.
  • CFC was set up by Planned Parenthood, and ‘has been denounced by the American Catholic Bishops Conference as anti-Catholic and a source of confusion to the laity on two occasions as it misrepresents the teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception and abortion’. Right to Life said that the CFC therefore ‘has no authority to use the name Catholic’.

[8]  RNZ submitted that:

  • The introduction to the item was clear in ‘outlining [the President’s] background and the stance taken by his organisation’. The Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and contraception would be well known to listeners and therefore these views were not required to balance the item.
  • The CFC President’s links to Family Planning and Planned Parenthood were identified in the introduction to the item.
  • Whether CFC was entitled to use the name ‘Catholic’ in its title was not a matter of broadcasting standards.

Our analysis

[9]  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 that 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

[10]  The first question is whether this content formed part of a news, current affairs or factual programme. The Authority has previously held that an interview on Saturday Morning with the President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America amounted to a news, current affairs, or factual programme, as the interview was topical and ‘most listeners would have interpreted the programme as being a factual source of information on a serious subject’.3 We consider that the same reasoning applies here.

[11]  The next question is whether the item amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance. While the interview was presented from a narrow viewpoint (ie, the perspective of CFC and its President), the topics covered included the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and contraception, and the religious, moral and ethical issues surrounding these topics. The interview covered the ongoing abortion debate, about which there has been considerable public debate in New Zealand. The discussion was not limited to one particular location, had topical currency and was relevant to New Zealand Catholics and New Zealanders generally. We therefore find that a controversial issue of public importance was discussed in the broadcast.

[12]  Having found the balance standard was triggered, our task is to determine whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to provide balance, taking into account the nature of the programme and the nature of the issue being discussed. An assessment of whether a reasonable range of perspectives has been presented includes consideration of the following factors (among others):4

  • the programme’s introduction and the way in which the programme was presented, including:
    • whether the programme purported to be a balanced examination of an issue
    • whether the programme was clearly signalled as approaching a topic from a particular perspective
    • whether the programme was narrowly focused on one aspect of a larger, complex debate
  • the nature of the issue/whether listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage
  • the likely expectations of the audience as to content.

[13]  The voicing of different perspectives on the abortion debate, including in this item, carries high value in terms of both the exercise of freedom of expression and serving the public interest.5 While the Catholic Church does not recognise CFC as a Catholic organisation, its members identify as such and oppose the Catholic Church’s stance on a number of issues. The views of CFC, and the comments made by its President in this interview, therefore represent a valuable perspective on the issue of abortion and the other topics under discussion.

[14]  This item was clearly introduced and presented as being from the narrow perspective of CFC and its President. While factual material was woven throughout the interview, including some of the history of the Catholic Church and its teachings, it was clear from the interview that these were the views of CFC only, and did not represent the views of all Catholics or the Church hierarchy.

[15]  The CFC President’s comments throughout the interview reflected the fact that his views differed from traditional teachings (and therefore contrasted with the views of the Catholic Church), saying, for example:

  • ‘I think there’s a lot of things within the Church that really need to be looked at. And I think they need to be looked at because I don’t think they comport with the lives that people live.’
  • ‘The reality is the Catholic hierarchy have a very narrow, very conservative view that’s not even shared by other religions so it seems like a craziness to put what they would advocate into law’.
  • ‘I know many people who are priests and nuns, and they come to me very often. Because they work for the institutional church, very often they can’t be as outspoken as an organisation like Catholics for Choice. We are Catholics, but obviously we don’t speak for the Bishops in the Church and we’re not in their employ which gives us an important degree of freedom to be able to speak about these things’.
  • ‘...issues around contraception, abortion – I’m not dismissing that there’s not Church teaching there on them. And I’m not dismissing that the hierarchy certainly still uphold those teachings.’

[16]  Additionally, the Authority has previously held that long-running ‘moral’ issues, such as euthanasia or abortion, have an ongoing period of current interest and ‘broad issues in the debate are well-known to the public and... different perspectives from both sides of the debate will be offered from time to time’.6 We consider that most listeners would have been at least broadly aware of the Catholic Church’s stance in relation to the topics discussed, and would have understood that CFC represented only one perspective on the issue of abortion. In these circumstances, RNZ was not required in the interests of balance to present a rebuttal on behalf of the Catholic Church in the item, nor would listeners have expected such a rebuttal in the context of the broadcast.

[17]  We therefore do not uphold the balance complaint.

Was any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[18]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) 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 that provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.7

The parties’ submissions

[19]  Right to Life submitted that:

  • Listeners were ‘entitled to know who [the CFC President] was and who he represented’.
  • ‘In fairness to the Catholic Church which was the subject of attack’ the presenter should have given further information about CFC and its President, including its connections to Planned Parenthood.

[20]  RNZ submitted that this information was made known to listeners in the introduction to the item.

Our analysis

[21]  The fairness standard applies only to individuals or organisations taking part or referred to in a broadcast. It does not apply to the listening audience generally.

[22]  In relation to information Right to Life considered should have been included during the interview, we note that the presenter clearly outlined the President’s, and CFC’s, links to Planned Parenthood in the introduction to the item, when she said:

[CFC’s President is] a Catholic born and raised in the Republic of Ireland, who worked for the Irish Family Planning Association and for the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Bureau before joining Catholics for Choice twenty years ago.

[23]  We are satisfied that the item did not result in unfairness to the Catholic Church as an organisation.

[24]  Accordingly, we do not uphold this part of the complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
Member
19 April 2017

 

Appendix

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

1     Right to Life’s formal complaint – 4 December 2016
2     RNZ’s response to the complaint – 18 January 2016
3     Right to Life’s referral to the Authority – 3 February 2017
4     RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 23 February 2017

 


1 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

2 For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010) and Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Radio (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2009)

3 Family First New Zealand and Right to Life Inc and Radio New Zealand Ltd (Decision No. 2013-095) at [11] 

4 Guideline 8c to Standard 8

5 Gibbs and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2016-091 

6 Right to Life Inc and Television New Zealand Ltd (Decision No. 2015-023) at [28]

7 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014