BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Sanders and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2017-021 (30 June 2017)

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose
Dated
Complainant
  • Kathy Sanders
Number
2017-021
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
TVNZ 1

Summary

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

An item on 1 News reported on Prime Minister Bill English’s experience during Waitangi Day, including a phone call with the President of the United States of America, President Trump. During an introduction to the item, the newsreader referred to President Trump’s ‘anti-Muslim travel ban’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the newsreader’s statement was inaccurate and unbalanced. The focus of this item was not the precise terms of Executive Order 13679 or its implications, but rather Bill English’s experiences on his first Waitangi Day as Prime Minister, during which his phone discussion with President Trump took place. In this context, the newsreader’s shorthand description of the Order was acceptable. The Authority pointed out, however, that broadcasters should take care when adopting commonly used shorthand terms, as this may not always be sufficient to meet standards of accuracy. The Authority did not uphold the balance complaint, as the brief reference did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance triggering the requirements of the balance standard.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance


Introduction

[1]  An item on 1 News reported on Prime Minister Bill English’s experience during Waitangi Day, including a phone call with the President of the United States of America (US), President Donald Trump. The newsreader introduced the item by saying:

It was a short chat – just 15 minutes – but they talked trade, defence and even the Super Bowl. Mr English not shying away from the controversy, though, taking the chance to criticise Mr Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban.

[2]  Kathy Sanders complained that the newsreader’s statement was inaccurate and amounted to ‘fake news’, proliferating ‘more hatred’ towards the new President. If Executive Order 13769 (the Order) imposed a ‘Muslim ban’, 40 or more other predominantly Muslim countries in the world would have been included, she said. The ban was therefore not a total ‘Muslim ban’ and reporting it in this way was irresponsible.

[3]  The issues raised in Ms Sanders’ complaint are whether the broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast during the 6pm news on 6 February 2017 on TVNZ 1. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[5]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[6]  Ms Sanders submitted that:

  • The statement made by the newsreader was inaccurate, and amounted to ‘fake news’ and irresponsible reporting.
  • The temporary ban was not a ‘Muslim ban’. If the Order imposed a ‘Muslim ban’, 40 or more other predominantly Muslim countries in the world would have been included as part of the Order, she said.

[7]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • The newsreader’s use of the phrase ‘anti-Muslim travel ban’ referred to the Order. The genesis of this Order occurred during the US Presidential campaign. TVNZ provided examples of references made to a total ban on Muslims during President Trump’s campaign.
  • The Order was a ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and the description of the Order as an ‘anti-Muslim travel ban’ would not have significantly misinformed viewers about the issue.

Our analysis

[8]  The right to freedom of expression is an important part of the operation of our democratic society. However, it is not an absolute right, and broadcasting standards place some restrictions on the exercise of the right to freely impart ideas and information. Our task in considering this complaint is to weigh the value of the news item (and the importance of the expression) against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In undertaking this exercise, we note that the value we place on the right to freedom of expression is high, and so we will only interfere where there is a greater risk of harm.

[9]  First, we acknowledge that there has been considerable debate about whether the term ‘Muslim ban’ is correct, on the basis that the Order did not target all Muslims or all Muslim-majority countries. This is one of the primary submissions from the complainant.

[10]  On the other hand, we have also had regard to the broadcaster’s submission that a ‘ban’ on Muslims entering the US was an election promise made by President Trump during his Presidential campaign. The broadcaster’s position, therefore, is that the term was introduced by the President’s own use, it was subsequently coined to describe the Order, and it became commonly used among both media and the public.

[11]  The context of the item is key in assessing the likely impact of the alleged inaccuracy on the audience. In this case the focus of the item was not the Order or its implications, but rather Bill English’s experiences on his first Waitangi Day as Prime Minister, during which his phone discussion with President Trump took place. We have reached the view that the newsreader’s use of the phrase ‘anti-Muslim travel ban’ was, in the context of this item and its particular focus, an acceptable shorthand description of the Order, which suspended entry to the US of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days.1 The phrase was used to briefly highlight a potential point of contention between the Prime Minister and President Trump, and we do not consider that the use of shorthand in this particular case, in place of the full title of the Order or a detailed description of its terms, would have materially affected viewers’ understanding of the main thrust of the item.

[12]  Having said this, however, in our view journalists and news reporters need to be cautious about adopting globally or locally used shorthand terms. The use of shorthand or commonly adopted terms may not always be acceptable and may be insufficient in some circumstances to meet the requirements of the accuracy standard. In some cases, shorthand phrases ought not to be used when additional words or more specific terminology would ensure clarity for viewers, particularly where the issue is the focus of the item rather than peripheral.

[13]  In this case, we have not identified any harm arising from the broadcast which outweighed the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression and the audience’s right to receive the broadcast in this case. Accordingly we do not uphold the accuracy complaint.

Did the item amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance that was required to be balanced?

[14]  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 viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

[15]  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

The parties’ submissions

[16]  Ms Sanders submitted that:

  • There was ‘enough fake news’ spreading misinformation which was ‘subsequently causing a lot of unrest and even violence’, without New Zealand media adding to this issue.

[17]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • The issue of President Trump’s immigration ban was not discussed, in any meaningful way, during the item. The main focus of the item was the phone conversation between President Trump and Bill English, and Bill English on Waitangi Day.
  • In any event, the US immigration ban is not a controversial issue of public importance in New Zealand, and no breach of Standard 8 occurred.

Our analysis

[18]  We do not consider that the Order or its impact were ‘discussed’ during this item for the purpose of the balance standard, so the requirement to provide alternative views on this point was not triggered. The item primarily focused on the phone call between the two leaders and Bill English’s experiences during his first Waitangi Day as Prime Minister. The Order was only one of the topics the item reported Bill English discussed with the President. While the Prime Minister’s criticism of the policy was mentioned briefly during the item, it did not go into detail about the reasons for the criticism, or the international response to, or impact of, the Order.

[19]  As we have said in relation to accuracy, the newsreader’s reference to President Trump’s ‘anti-Muslim travel ban’, was a shorthand way of describing the Order and its purpose, and we are satisfied that audiences would not have been left uninformed or misled by the use of this phrase taking into account the context of this item.

[20]  We therefore do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich

Chair

30 June 2017

 

Appendix

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

1      Kathy Sanders’ formal complaint – 7 February 2017
2      TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 6 March 2017
3      Ms Sanders’ referral to the Authority – 20 March 2017
4      TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 28 April 2017

 


1 Section 3(c), Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, 27 January 2017. Admission to the US of refugees from these countries was suspended for 120 days and Syrian refugees were barred indefinitely under the Order (see section 5(a) and (c)).
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)