BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Ritchie and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2003-164

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Maxwell Ritchie
Number
2003-164
Programme
Midday Report
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio
Standards Breached

Complaint
Midday Report – references to Bush administration – comments from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Iraq – distorted – misleading – inaccurate

Findings
Principle 6 – misleading to equate coalition with Bush administration – uphold

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] An item about terrorist activities in Iraq was broadcast on National Radio’s Midday Report broadcast on 21 August 2003. The item from an ABC reporter in Washington referred to the “Bush administration” in the United States and included a comment from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that “The coalition has made mistakes and we probably have too”.

[2] Maxwell Ritchie complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the words “Bush administration” were an inaccurate description of the Executive branch of the United States Government, and the reporter’s use of Mr Annan’s comment to suggest that “The Bush administration had made mistakes in Iraq” distorted Mr Annan’s remarks.

[3] In response, RNZ stated that the word “administration” was often used to refer to governments in countries overseas and was not inaccurate. In view of the context of the item in which Mr Annan’s remark was used and given Mr Annan’s actual words, RNZ did not consider the comment was inaccurate and it declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision Mr Ritchie referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape and read a transcript of the programme complained about. They have also read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Terrorist activity and the origin of the terrorists were dealt with in an item broadcast on National Radio’s Midday Report on 21 August 2003. During the item from an ABC reporter in Washington, there was a reference to the “Bush administration” in the United States and a comment from UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, that “The Coalition has made mistakes [in Iraq] and we probably have too.”

The Complaint

[7] Maxwell Ritchie complained to RNZ about two aspects of the broadcast. First, he maintained that the report did not reflect accurately what Mr Annan had said when it was reported that “The Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq”.

[8] The other aspect of the complaint was the term “the Bush administration”. The item had also referred to “members of the Bush administration in Congress” and, Mr Ritchie noted, both phrases failed to distinguish the legislative arm of government from the executive arm. In conclusion, he said that he hoped that the errors had occurred through carelessness or ignorance, rather than “some sort of clumsy attempt to criticise President Bush”.

The Standard

[9] RNZ assessed the complaint under the accuracy requirement in Principle 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. It reads:

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] Dealing first with the use of the term “administration”, RNZ contended that it was not unusual for correspondents to refer to governments in other countries as “administrations”, and the use of the well-known word would have been understood by listeners.

[11] As for the use of the quote from Mr Annan, RNZ said that the item dealt with terrorist activity in Iraq and noted that doubts had been expressed in the New York Times about the coalition authority in Iraq. RNZ also noted the full quote from Mr Annan who said:

“… one has to sort of do planning ahead and there has been some wrong assumptions all around. The coalition has made some mistakes and maybe we’ve made some mistakes too”.

[12] In view of the events occurring and the comments made, RNZ contended that it was not inaccurate to report that “the Bush Administration had made mistakes in Iraq”.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[13] When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Ritchie also responded directly to RNZ. In the letter to RNZ, Mr Ritchie acknowledged that mistakes had been made in Iraq. However, that had not been the focus of his complaint. The point of his complaint, he wrote, was that the item was inaccurate as Mr Annan had not said that the Bush administration had made mistakes. Mr Ritchie added that Mr Annan had been referring specifically to another body - the administration in Iraq.

[14] In his letter to the Authority, Mr Ritchie conceded that the phrase “Bush administration” was acceptable editorially.

[15] Nevertheless, he repeated what he described as the “substantive” part of his complaint. Mr Ritchie said that the reporter stated that the Bush administration had made mistakes in Iraq, and that was followed with Mr Annan’s comments about mistakes. However, Mr Ritchie wrote:

It is clear that the Secretary General was referring to the command structure in Iraq.

[16] He believed that the item breached the requirement for accuracy, stating:

Radio New Zealand is claiming that the Secretary General of the United Nations criticised the Executive branch of the US Government and by implication the President of the US. He did not; he may well have been justified in doing so but that is not the way the Secretary General or the UN system works. Secretaries General do not make public statements criticising the Governments and Heads of State of member nations, particularly not permanent members of the Security Council. And even if Mr Annan felt like criticising the Bush administration, he did not on this occasion as his words clearly show.

Kofi Annan did not say that the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq. He said that the Coalition – and the UN – had made mistakes; he was referring to the structures headed by General Franks and his successor and Mr Bremer and the unfortunate Brazilian UN officer. This is quite a different matter and Radio New Zealand’s staff should be aware of that.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] RNZ argued that the “thrust” of the item was the increase in the amount of terrorist activities in Iraq and the efforts by the Bush administration and the coalition to protect workers. It noted that the reporter stated that Mr Annan had said that the “Bush administration had made mistakes in Iraq” - and it attached a transcript of the interview with the Secretary-General. RNZ said that Mr Annan could have been referring to a number of things when he said the words - one of which could have been the command structure in Iraq. RNZ said the comments were made in regard to a report that the UN had turned down an offer from the US for increased security around the UN Mission in Iraq. Noting that the US was part of the coalition, RNZ continued: 

The Secretary General expressed surprise that such an offer of assistance from the United States would have been turned down. The Secretary General then went on to observe what has already been noted, ie:

“… there have been some wrong assumptions all along. The coalition has made some mistakes and maybe we have made some mistakes too”.

[18] Because of the possible interpretations of Mr Annan’s diplomatic comments, RNZ contended that it might have been referring to the Bush administration or the command structure in Iraq. It added:

In any event the words spoken do not affect the thrust of the item which was to explore the increasing occurrence of terrorist attacks in Iraq and the measures being taken to counteract them.

[19] RNZ noted that should the Authority find that the item was inaccurate when it referred to the Bush administration, the overall item complied with the accuracy requirement:

That is because it would not have affected listeners’ understanding of firstly the fact that there has been an increased level of terrorist activity in Iraq and secondly that a number of measures were being taken to counteract those activities.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[20] Having read RNZ’s reply and the transcript of the press conference, Mr Ritchie contended that RNZ was trying “to defend the indefensible”. He argued that the Secretary-General was criticising the coalition command structure. It was outrageous, he wrote, for the broadcast to state that the Bush administration had made mistakes in Iraq.

The Authority’s Determination

[21] RNZ provided the Authority with a transcript of the United Nation Secretary-General’s meeting with the media on 20 August 2003. In response to a question about terrorist activities in Iraq, Mr Annan said:
The coalition has made some mistakes, and maybe we have made some mistakes, too.

[22] The ABC’s reporter in Washington who presented the item said:

The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ahead of the Security Council briefing today, said the Bush administration had made mistakes in Iraq.

[23] The Authority agrees with Mr Ritchie that the reporter’s use of the term “Bush administration” was not an accurate summary of Mr Annan’s remark and, accordingly, it upholds the complaint as a breach of Principle 6.

[24] The Authority notes that the social objective of regulating broadcasting standards is to guard against broadcasters behaving unfairly, offensively, or otherwise excessively. The Broadcasting Act clearly limits freedom of expression. Section 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act provides that the right to freedom of expression may be limited by “such reasonable limits which are prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. For the reasons given in Decision Nos. 2002-071/072, the Authority is firmly of the opinion that the limits in the Broadcasting Act are reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. The Authority records that it has given full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 when exercising its powers under the Broadcasting Act 1990 on this occasion. For the reasons given in this decision, the Authority has taken into account all the circumstances of these complaints, including the nature of the complaints and the manner in which the material was broadcast.

 

For the reasons above, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Radio New Zealand Ltd of an item on Midday Report on National Radio on 21 August 2003 breached Principle 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[25] Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose orders under ss.13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It considers that an order is not appropriate on this occasion. The Authority considers that the inaccuracy would have had minimal impact and that knowledgeable listeners, such as the complainant, would not have been misled by the inaccuracy.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
19 December 2003

Appendix

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

1. Maxwell Ritchie’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 21 August 2003
2. RNZ’s Response to the Complainant – 22 September 2003
3. Mr Ritchie’s Response to RNZ – 26 September 2003
4. Mr Ritchie’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 27 September 2003
5. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 6 November 2003
5. Mr Ritchie’s Final Comment – 19 November 2003