Sabin and Mediaworks TV Ltd - 2014-078
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
- Mary Anne Shanahan
- Mike Sabin
BroadcasterMediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/StationTV3 # 4
Summary [This summary does not form part of the decision.]
Campbell Live interviewed the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an American group advocating for the legalisation of cannabis throughout the United States, about why some states had voted to legalise cannabis, what he saw as the benefits of this and how this might be relevant to the New Zealand context where synthetic cannabis had recently been outlawed. The Authority did not uphold the complaint that the item was unbalanced. The item was clearly focused on one overseas perspective, which might inform the New Zealand debate going forward, but it did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints.
Not Upheld: Controversial Issues
 Campbell Live interviewed the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an American group advocating for the legalisation of cannabis throughout the United States. The interviewee provided insight into why some states had voted to legalise cannabis, what he saw as the benefits of this and how this might be relevant to the New Zealand context where synthetic cannabis had recently been outlawed.
 Mike Sabin complained that the item was unbalanced and omitted significant alternative viewpoints, specifically on the alleged taxation benefits of legalising cannabis.
 The issue is whether the item breached the controversial issues standard as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 The item was broadcast on TV3 on 30 April 2014. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
Did the item discuss a controversial issue of public importance requiring the presentation of alternative viewpoints?
 The balance standard (Standard 4) 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 a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.1
 Mr Sabin considered that the interviewee made ‘a strong case for taxation benefits to legalisation’ which was a ‘compelling and persuasive argument for legalisation’. He argued that ‘highly contentious but persuasive assertions in this context… must be matched like for like to provide balance’, and that no other person with the interviewee’s expertise had been given an opportunity to challenge his views on the taxation point during the period of current interest. Mr Sabin considered this was of great concern, as evidence of the financial benefits of legalisation had been widely challenged in the United States and ‘grossly overstated’.
 MediaWorks said that the item was part of a ‘long running debate… in which we have already heard from other experts, leaders, and politicians, and where we will continue to do so over the coming weeks/months’. It listed other Campbell Live items aired in April 2014, including interviews with legal high addicts, users and their families, MPs, legal high retailers and commentary on the decriminalisation of cannabis. It said that viewers were likely ‘to be aware of the debate around the legalisation of marijuana in New Zealand and the United States’. It pointed out that the item’s introduction referred to the wider debate and informed viewers of ‘the specific angle of the interview (the experience of the United States)’. Allowing the interviewee to share his views unchallenged in this particular item was ‘an editorial decision’, the broadcaster said, based on the fact that ‘the programme has, and intends to continue to canvass the debate from many sides’. It argued that the balance standard ‘does not require an exhaustive assessment of each point of view’ and that the detail wanted by the complainant on tax revenue or social costs in Colorado would have interfered with editorial independence and integrity.
 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 which 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
 The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.3 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.4
 While the item was linked in the introduction to the recent debate in New Zealand around synthetic highs and the need for wider debate about our drug laws in general, the item itself was squarely focused on the perspective and experiences of one individual – a prominent American advocate for the legalisation of cannabis in the United States. The introduction clearly framed the item as being from a particular, overseas perspective, saying:
For the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the issue of synthetic highs. But that debate lies within the much wider debate that needs to happen about drug policy. The Misuse of Drugs Act is almost 40 years old; it is hopelessly outdated. Meanwhile, other countries have been revisiting their drug laws, with some success. [Name] is the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the groups playing a key part in the debate that has so far seen two US states legalise marijuana, with more set to follow. He spoke with us from Chicago and I started by asking him what it was that ultimately convinced Washington and Colorado voters to legalise marijuana.
 In our view, one person’s explanation of the US political landscape in relation to drug laws, and specifically how laws have been reformed in two US states – while of interest, and while it may later inform debates here – did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance which triggered the requirement to present alternative views in a local context. It would have been clear to viewers that this was simply one overseas perspective, which might inform the New Zealand debate going forward. The Campbell Live presenter specifically asked the interviewee, ‘Based on your experiences, what advice would you offer the New Zealand public about how we should continue this debate?’ He concluded by saying the interview was ‘a fascinating insight into drug policy around the world’.
 Mr Sabin’s main concern was that the interviewee made comments about the potential taxation benefits of legalising cannabis, which he considered had not been addressed in any other coverage. He argued that points such as this should be ‘matched like for like’ in order to achieve balance.
 For the reasons we have outlined, we do not think it was necessary in the context of one overseas example, clearly presented from one individual’s perspective, to put forward alternative views on this particular point, in this broadcast.
 Further, debate surrounding drug laws and policy, and in particular the legalisation of cannabis, is a long-running issue that has an ongoing period of current interest. It is reasonable to expect that most viewers would be aware of the basic facts and the range of views in this debate (though not necessarily in relation to taxation), from previous coverage and other sources. If reforms similar to those mentioned in the item are to be considered in New Zealand, it is inevitable that there will be further coverage, and that may well address and counter the specific points about taxation benefits made by the interviewee.
 For these reasons, we decline to uphold the complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
3 December 2014
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Mike Sabin’s formal complaint – 30 April 2014
2 MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 29 May 2014
3 Mr Sabin’s response to MediaWorks – 29 May 2014
4 Mr Sabin’s referral to the Authority – 24 June 2014
5 MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 24 July 2014
6 Mr Sabin’s final comment – 31 July 2014
7 MediaWorks’ final comment – 15 August 2014
8 Further comments from Mr Sabin – 3 September 2014
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)
3 Powell and CanWest TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2005-125
4 See, for example, Dewe and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-076