BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Watson and Young and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2007-118

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Hugh Young
  • L R Watson
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Radio New Zealand National

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Ideas: Cut or Uncut – item discussed Professor Sitaleki Finau’s call for male circumcisions to be publicly funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Health for cultural and health reasons – item included interviews with six people who provided their views on the topic – allegedly unbalanced

Principle 4 (balance) – broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1]   An item on Radio New Zealand National called Ideas: Cut or Uncut, broadcast at 11am on 16 September 2007, discussed male circumcision and a call by Professor Sitaleki Finau, Massey University’s Director of Pacific Studies, for the practice to be publicly funded in New Zealand for cultural and health purposes.

[2]   The item contained interviews with Professor Finau; Dr Pat Tuohy, Chief Advisor of Child and Youth Health for the Ministry of Health; Dr Colin Tukuitonga, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs; Alana Naish, a new mother who had opted to have her son circumcised; and two doctors who perform male circumcisions, Dr John Thompson and Dr Gerald Young.   


[3]   L R Watson and Hugh Young made separate complaints to Radio New Zealand Ltd (RNZ), the broadcaster, alleging that the item was unbalanced.

L R Watson’s complaint

[4]   Mr Watson stated that circumcision was “a controversial topic throughout North America and in Australia and New Zealand where it is becoming a human rights issue”. He argued that four speakers in the item had favoured circumcision and two were neutral, and that this had led to an unbalanced presentation of a controversial topic.

[5]   The complainant maintained that other people should have been interviewed to balance the “ignorance and cultural bias” of the four pro-circumcision speakers. He submitted that the programme should have included a medical scientist who could give an account of the damage done to the sensory nerves, a man who had been “psychologically damaged” by circumcision, a man involved in foreskin restoration, a doctor who refused to do the procedure and a legal expert to discuss issues of consent.

Hugh Young’s complaint

[6]   Mr Young argued that the item “claimed to investigate the debate between tradition, culture, personal choice and medicine”, but that there was no debate. He noted that four of the six speakers were unequivocally in favour of infant circumcision and that two of those made a living performing it.

[7]   The complainant noted that the four speakers in favour of infant circumcision, Professor Finau, Alana Naish, Dr Thompson and Dr Young were given a total time of 29 minutes and 11 seconds to talk. The other two, Dr Tuohy and Dr Tukuitonga, who both had some reservations about circumcision, were only given a total of 16 minutes and 31 seconds to talk.

[8]   Mr Young also stated “it was not until 40 minutes into the 50 minute programme that it occurred to the presenter that the foreskin might have any function and his total coverage of that issue was to ask the two circumcisers, who (of course) couldn’t think of any”.      


[9]   RNZ assessed the complaints under Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. It provides:

Principle 4 Balance

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainants

[10]   RNZ considered that “while the topic of circumcision has attracted controversy in the past, it is difficult to see how a discussion based on calls made by Professor Finau could be viewed as controversial”. It maintained that, even if such a topic could be considered controversial, the period of current interest for the topic had been open for some time and would “extend well into the future”.

[11]   The broadcaster argued that Principle 4 envisaged that if balance was not achieved in one programme it could be done through other programmes in the period of current interest “through providing reasonable opportunities to present significant points of view”.

[12]   RNZ considered that the Radio Code did not prevent a broadcaster examining, in depth, one facet of an issue and that “this is what occurred on this occasion”. It maintained the programme did not purport to be an entire overview of the issues around circumcision, but rather an investigation of the balance between tradition and medicine. It also maintained the programme’s introduction had made this clear to listeners. It included the following statements:

It is one of the oldest medical procedures around. Well that’s the start of the debate really. Some say it’s medical, others reckon it’s a purely cultural or religious practice. I’m talking about circumcision and New Zealand has one of the lowest rates in the world at the moment.   

[13]   The broadcaster argued that other significant points of view were acknowledged and gave the following exchange as an example:

Host:                     Are there any risks with the procedure though?

Professor Finau:    Always, always, there is the risk of infection, of scarring, a risk of
                            bleeding, there is a risk of scars contracting after circumcision is done...

[14]   RNZ stated that the host put it to Professor Finau that circumcision is now seen as a human rights issue which the Professor acknowledged, adding “...there is a society in New Zealand for the restoration of foreskin”.

[15]   On the issue of consent, the broadcaster said that in response to a question from the host about why the Ministry of Health does not fund the procedure, Professor Finau had stated:

There is an organisation called Doctors Against Circumcision...there are those that believe in the foreskin and protects them, for what reason no one really knows...

[16]  RNZ also noted that other comments from the Professor included “...some people call up and say...why do you want to mutilate our babies?”.

[17]   With respect to the complainant’s arguments that the pro-circumcision point of view was put forward by four of the six speakers and that the other two were neutral, the broadcaster noted the following statement by Dr Tuohy:’s removal of a significant and important part of the male anatomy. The foreskin contains the largest number of sense receptors on the penis, so that’s quite important. The operation itself also carries the risk of bleeding or infection, and in some cases a partial amputation of the penis has occurred. So all those things are potential harms.

[18]   The broadcaster also noted that during a discussion regarding circumcision reducing the rate of transmission of sexually transmitted infections Dr Tuohy stated:
I think in my view the evidence, the jury is out on that. If there is a benefit it is very small, and we have alternative ways of preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted infections.

[19]   RNZ argued the above comments would have alerted listeners that other viewpoints existed on the topic, along with the comments made by Dr Tukuitonga.

[20]   In conclusion, the broadcaster disputed that the issue of circumcision was controversial and that, even if it was, there was nothing preventing a broadcaster from examining one particular aspect of a controversial issue. RNZ declined to uphold the complaints that the item had breached Principle 4 (balance).        

Referrals to the Authority

[21]   Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Watson and Mr Young referred their complaints to the Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Mr Watson’s referral

[22]   Mr Watson argued that “the fact that this programme was broadcast at all is due to cultural blindness on the part of the participants and the producer”. He considered that the programme had breached the social responsibility principle “in that it encouraged discrimination against the genital integrity of male babies”.

[23]   Mr Watson also provided the Authority with material in support of his argument that the issue of circumcision was controversial.

Mr Young’s referral

[24]   Mr Young maintained that circumcision was a controversial issue because it was rare, it was hard to find a doctor who would perform the procedure, and it was a human rights issue.

[25]   The complainant considered that RNZ’s argument that the period of current interest was on-going meant that it could broadcast one-sided programmes without having to provide balance.

[26]   Mr Young argued that “the balance between tradition and medicine” was a “nonsensical categorisation” because they were not opposites and, as such, balance did not need to be found between them.

[27]   The complainant reiterated his arguments that the item was one-sided and did not acknowledge other significant points of view, especially on the issue of consent and human rights. He also noted that female circumcision is illegal in New Zealand, without medical need, even with an adult woman’s consent.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[28]   The broadcaster noted that Mr Watson had provided the Authority with material that he had not supplied to RNZ when laying his initial complaint.

[29]   RNZ also noted that the topic had attracted controversy in the past, but it “found it difficult to see how an in-depth discussion of Professor Finau’s paper presented at a public health conference and an exploration of the balance between tradition and medicine were themselves controversial”.

[30]   The broadcaster considered that the fact “no other media followed up this particular issue” suggested that it was not a controversial issue. It maintained that the programme made it clear to listeners that other significant points of view existed. 

Complainant’s Final Comment

[31]   In response to RNZ’s statement that the “programme did not purport to be an overview...” Mr Young argued that this was disingenuous considering it “canvassed almost every aspect of circumcision in detail, except risks, harm and human rights”.

[32]   Mr Young argued that Professor Finau did not present any research findings during the item.

[33]   In response to the broadcaster’s claim that “no other media followed up this particular issue”, Mr Young stated that 60 Minutes had run a 14-minute item called “Separated at Birth” on 24 September 2007, which looked at circumcision.

Authority's Determination

[34]   The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Principle 4 (balance)

[35]   Principle 4 requires broadcasters to provide balance when discussing controversial issues of public importance. The item complained about discussed whether male circumcision should be government-funded for cultural and health reasons, and the various arguments surrounding that issue. The Authority finds that the topic of whether the government should be funding male circumcision for cultural and health reasons is a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies.

[36]   The complainants argued that because four out of the six speakers were pro-circumcision and they received more time to talk than the other two speakers who had a “neutral” perspective, the item was unbalanced. The Authority has noted in previous decisions (e.g. Decision No. 2007-042) that balance is not achieved by the “stopwatch”, meaning that the time given to each competing party does not have to be mathematically balanced.

[37]   Overall, the Authority finds that the broadcaster gave reasonable opportunities to present significant perspectives on the controversial issue under discussion. The programme fairly represented the issues involved so that listeners would have understood the different perspectives that existed. This included offering the different points of view on circumcision, outlining the risks and the benefits of the procedure, providing the Ministry of Health’s stance on funding the procedure and giving the current majority opinion of the medical profession.

[38]   The Authority notes Mr Watson’s submission that a number of specific people should have been included in the interview to balance the “ignorance and cultural bias” of the four speakers who supported male circumcision. The Authority points out that the choice of interviewees for a programme is a matter of editorial discretion, not broadcasting standards, provided the programme as a whole satisfies the requirement under Principle 4 to fairly present a range of significant viewpoints on the controversial issue under discussion. It is of the view that this programme met that requirement.

[39]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints that the item breached Principle 4 (balance).               


For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
26 March 2008


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

1.            L R Watson’s formal complaint – 17 September 2007
2.           Hugh Young’s formal complaint – 4 October 2007
3.           RNZ’s response to Mr Watson’s complaint – 16 October 2007
4.           RNZ’s response to Mr Young’s complaint – 29 October 2007
5.           Mr Watson’s referral to the Authority – 2 November 2007
6.           Mr Young’s referral to the Authority – 9 November 2007
7.           RNZ’s response to the Authority on Mr Watson’s referral – 28 January 2008
8.           RNZ’s response to the Authority on Mr Young’s referral – 28 January 2008
9.           Mr Young’s further submission – 11 February 2008