BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

WAVESnz and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2018-103 (24 April 2019)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Susie Staley
Dated
Complainant
  • WAVESnz
Number
2018-103
Programme
Checkpoint
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand National

Summary

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

A complaint that a segment on Checkpoint that discussed vaccinations was inaccurate was not upheld by the Authority. WAVESnz complained that several statements made by Professor John Fraser during the segment regarding the safety of vaccinations and the contents of vaccines were inaccurate and misleading. The Authority noted that it was not its role to determine the scientific accuracy of Professor Fraser’s statements. It found, however, that RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the broadcast, taking into account a number of factors including Professor Fraser’s reputation and the lack of any reason to question the accuracy of the views expressed by Professor Fraser. The Authority did not identify any real or potential harm and therefore found any restriction on RNZ’s right to freedom of expression on this occasion would be unjustified.

Not Upheld: Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  A segment on Checkpoint discussed the recent controversy over a billboard erected by WAVESnz in South Auckland regarding vaccinations. The item featured comment from immunologist Professor John Fraser and a WAVESnz representative regarding vaccinations. Some comments from the WAVESnz representative were responded to by the RNZ reporter paraphrasing Professor Fraser’s comments.

[2]  The segment featured extensive statements from Professor Fraser, Dean of Medical and Health Sciences at Auckland University, regarding the safety of vaccinations and the ingredients of vaccines, which the WAVESnz representative refuted in the interview.

[3]  The segment aired on 2 October 2018 on RNZ National.

The complaint

[4]  WAVESnz complained that the segment breached the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, for the following reasons:

  • The following statements made in the broadcast by Professor Fraser were inaccurate:
    • ‘Vaccination and immunisation is a perfectly safe procedure. It's been in place for many decades without any problems.’
    • ‘The ingredients in vaccines are very simple. They're just bits of the virus or bacteria, so it's like getting the infection without getting sick. That's all that's in a vaccine.’
    • ‘There is no scientific evidence that suggests any ingredients in vaccines are harmful.’
    • ‘There are no fragments of foetal DNA in vaccines.’
  • Throughout the report, Professor Fraser’s professional opinion was presented as fact. At no time did Professor Fraser state ‘in my opinion’, nor did the reporter question him in relation to his opinions or require him to provide evidence to support his claims that ‘vaccination and immunisation’ are ‘perfectly safe’, and had been used for ‘decades without any problems’.
  • Professor Fraser was introduced as an expert and his opinion was likely to be perceived as factual by the audience due to his experience and senior position at Auckland University.
  • Adverse events following vaccination can and do occur.
  • Numerous scientific, peer-reviewed research has identified issues with particular vaccine ingredients.
  • It is not WAVESnz that asserts that fragments of foetal DNA exist in vaccines, but the manufacturers, scientists and medical professionals themselves.
  • It is the broadcaster’s role to research and present the facts, in their entirety - facts in this case that are easily found via the links provided by WAVESnz or a quick search on the internet.
  • It is easy to subject Professor Fraser and the reporter’s assertions to a bright line test, as indicated by the information easily accessible online via the WAVESnz website.

The broadcaster’s response

[5]  RNZ submitted that the accuracy standard had not been breached and that Professor Fraser’s statements were not inaccurate for the following reasons:

(a)  ‘Vaccination and immunisation is a perfectly safe procedure. It's been in place for many decades without any problems.’

RNZ tested the statement against the accuracy standard and found that the words ‘perfectly safe’ were a statement of Professor Fraser's opinion with regard to vaccinations and immunisations. It was a position which he stated and it was not a fact that could be subject to a bright line test to determine whether it was true or not.

(b)  ‘The ingredients in vaccines are very simple. They're just bits of the virus or bacteria, so it's like getting the infection without getting sick. That's all that's in a vaccine.’

This statement was open to Professor Fraser to make based on his experience and qualifications. It could be that he was aware of other ingredients being present in what humans are given. However, in considering whether or not ingredients may pose a risk, Professor Fraser chose to focus on what he considered to be the ingredients ‘at play’ in the issue that was raised.

(c)   ‘There is no scientific evidence that suggests any ingredients in vaccines are harmful.’

The statement would not have misled the audience as they had already heard similar statements from Professor Fraser, which the WAVESnz spokesperson challenged.

(d)  ‘There are no fragments of foetal DNA in vaccines.’

The statement would not have misled the audience listening to the item, because on the one hand they heard Professor Fraser's statements as to the lack of scientific evidence regarding harmful ingredients in vaccines, and on the other, they also heard the WAVESnz representative raising the issue of possibly harmful ingredients and in fact naming some of them on air. The question-and-answer around ‘…fragments of foetal DNA…’ would not have detracted from the audience’s overall understanding of the thrust of this item.

The standard

[6]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming are accurate in relation to all material points of fact and do not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.

[7]  The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.1

Our findings

[8]  When we consider a complaint that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards, we first look at the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, and the overall value in the programme, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In this case, the complainant has alleged that the broadcast had the potential to leave viewers misled about the safety of vaccinations, through misinformation from Professor Fraser.

[9]  For reasons that we outline below, we find that in this instance RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the broadcast. The topic of vaccinations is important to New Zealanders, and there was high value in this topic being discussed. The item canvassed a range of views, including comments from WAVESnz and also signposted Professor Fraser’s views as being his from his position as an experienced immunologist. Accordingly, we have not identified any real or potential harm arising from the interview that justifies us intervening and limiting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression in this case.

Accuracy

[10]  We note first that our role is not to determine the scientific accuracy of the statements made by Professor Fraser about vaccinations in this broadcast. Rather, our role is to determine whether the accuracy standard applied to this broadcast and, if so, whether RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure that:

  • all material statements of fact were accurate; and
  • the segment did not mislead listeners.

[11]  As discussed above, the standard does not apply to statements of comment, analysis or opinion. An opinion is someone’s view. It is contestable, and others may hold a different view.2 However, it is not always clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact or opinion. This will depend on the context and presentation of the statements and how a reasonable listener would perceive them.3

[12]  Given their significance to the broadcast topic, we consider they are certainly ‘material’. As to whether they are fact or opinion, while the ‘perfectly safe’ comment is arguably very close to opinion, on balance (and considering the guidance in the Codebook),4 we find all of the statements in issue to be statements of fact:

  • a reasonable viewer would have been likely to perceive the statements as fact, given:
    • the definitive language used by Professor Fraser (he has not prefaced the comments with ‘I think’ to signal he is expressing an opinion)
    • the type of programme and the occupation/expertise of Professor Fraser
    • the scientific subject matter of the broadcast
  • all of the statements are capable of being proven ‘right or wrong’.

[13]  The next question is whether RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of Professor Fraser’s statements. We find the following factors relevant in determining whether RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy of the material points of fact in the broadcast:

  • Source of the material broadcast:7 The comments were made by Professor John Fraser, the Dean of Medical and Health Sciences at Auckland University, who is an experienced immunologist. We consider that Professor Fraser is an authoritative source.
  • The existence (or not) of any obvious reason to question the programme’s accuracy:8 We do not see any obvious reason to question Professor Fraser’s statements. His position is broadly consistent with the Ministry of Health’s position on immunisation (and the programme finished by noting the Minister of Health was pleased that the potentially harmful billboard had been taken down).
  • Whether comment or input from any relevant person or organisation was presented:9 WAVESnz were given an opportunity during the broadcast to present an alternate view.
  • The extent to which the broadcaster was reasonably capable of determining accuracy:10 It is reasonable to conclude that it is beyond the broadcaster’s expertise to determine the accuracy of specialist scientific issues raised with respect to vaccinations.

[14]  We acknowledge that the way the item was presented was disjointed (in particular the interview with the WAVESnz representative which included comment from the reporter paraphrasing Professor Fraser’s comments). Some listeners may have found the presentation of the item confusing. However, deficiencies in editing is not a question of standards.

[15]  Overall, taking into account the factors set out in paragraph [13] above, we find RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure that this segment was accurate in relation to the material points of fact and that it was unlikely to mislead listeners. The material points were presented by Professor Fraser, a reputable senior New Zealand immunologist. Therefore, we consider any restriction of the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression on this occasion would be unjustified.

[16]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings
Chair
24 April 2019

 

 

 

Appendix

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

1     WAVESnz’s formal complaint – 9 October 2018

2     RNZ’s response to the complaint – 7 November 2018

3     WAVESnz’s referral to the Authority – 5 December 2018

4     RNZ’s further comments – 20 December 2018

5     WAVESnz’s final comments – 15 February 2019

6     RNZ confirmation of no further comment – 20 February 2019

 


1Guideline 9a

2Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 62

3As above

4Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 62

5Guideline 9e

6See Professor Fraser’s credentials at https://unidirectory.auckland.ac.nz/profile/jd-fraser

7Guideline 9e

8See: https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/healthy-living/immunisation/vaccine-safety

9Guideline 9e

10As above