BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Werry and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2004-132

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • John Werry
Number
2004-132
Programme
Nine to Noon
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
National Radio – Nine to Noon – interview with a grandmother campaigning against prescription of the drug Ritalin – grandmother not medically qualified made allegedly inaccurate statements – item allegedly unbalanced and unfair as it failed to present expert medical opinion

Findings
Principle 4 (balance) – personal perspective – balanced mainstream view – not upheld

Principle 5 (fairness) – not relevant – not upheld

Principle 6 (accuracy) – mixture of fact and opinion – not upheld

Principle 6 (accuracy) – Authority unable to establish number of people being prescribed Ritalin in New Zealand – decline to determine

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] The concerns of Moira Buchanan, introduced by the presenter as a grandmother from Lower Hutt, about the prescribing of the drug Ritalin were discussed in an interview on Nine to Noon on National Radio on 15 April 2004 at approximately 10.00am. Ms Buchanan talked of her five grandchildren who were all taking Ritalin and expressed her views about the dangers of drugs given to young children with attention deficit or hyper-activity problems.

Complaint

[2] Professor John Werry complained that the item breached standards relating to balance fairness and accuracy. In his view, “medically dangerous, misleading and distressing statements” regarding children’s health had been broadcast.

[3] Professor Werry said that the interviewer had incorrectly stated that the number of New Zealand children taking Ritalin was “17,000”, when in fact he had calculated the number at approximately 4,000. Professor Werry detailed how he had derived this figure from Pharmac’s 2003 annual report.

[4] Professor Werry stated that Ms Buchanan made four inaccurate statements which concerned:

  • the dangers of Ritalin to children’s brains when taken under the age of 11
  • the safety of dextroamphetamine compared to Ritalin
  • the dangers of SSRI antidepressants
  • the benefits of brain gym and “crossover” training compared to stimulant drugs.

[5] As well as being inaccurate, Professor Werry argued that Ms Buchanan had no right to offer medical views as she was not a qualified medical expert. He added that there had been no effort made to balance Ms Buchanan’s views, by presenting expert medical opinion.

Principles

[6] RNZ assessed the complaint under the Principles of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice nominated by the complainant. They read:

Principle 4

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.

Guidelines

4a Broadcasters will respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions.

4b Broadcasters may have regard, when ensuring that programmes comply with Principle 4, to the following matters:

(i) An appropriate introduction to the programme; and 

(ii) Any reasonable on-air opportunity for listeners to ask questions or present rebuttal within the period of current interest. Broadcasters may have regard to the views expressed by other broadcasters or in the media which listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of.

Principle 5

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.

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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[7] RNZ argued that listeners would have understood from the style of the interview that Ms Buchanan was expressing her personal views as a grandmother based on her experience of caring for children taking prescribed medication and that they would not have accepted her views as being either expert or necessarily accurate fact. RNZ added that the “qualifications used [by Ms Buchanan] clearly put the statements in the realm of opinion and not as facts.”

[8] In relation to the “17,000” figure stated by the interviewer, RNZ submitted that the number was accurate, but if it was incorrect, it “would not have threatened the overall compliance of the programme with the Principles.” In support, RNZ referred to the focus of the item which it said was not about the number of patients or prescriptions but about Ms Buchanan’s experiences caring for children on prescribed medication.

[9] Declining to uphold Ms Buchanan’s statements as inaccurate, as they were her opinions, RNZ submitted that her views “were no more or less valid than someone else’s and it is for the audience to evaluate their merit.”

[10] As to balance and fairness, RNZ contended that the complainant had not specified how the item had breached those standards. It advised that it had reviewed the item and had not identified any aspects which breached standards of balance or fairness. Accordingly, RNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[11] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Professor Werry maintained that the inaccurate and misleading information broadcast was “not an issue of opinion as claimed by RNZ but one of scientific evidential fact.” He continued:

This would not matter were it not that the statements made could impair the health of children. This is because there are at the moment about 4000 children on Ritalin and other stimulants many of whom fall within the age group alluded to by the speaker. This misleading information about the effect of Ritalin on the developing brain in those under the age of 9 or 10 could result first in creating considerable anxiety in parents of these children and second in their being taken off the medication detrimentally affecting their mental health.

[12] Professor Werry considered that RNZ’s attitude was “irresponsible” regarding the 17,000 figure reported. In his view it was fundamental as there was “constant ill informed assertion that Ritalin is over prescribed.” Professor Werry maintained that the 17,000 figure reported would “support such a contention whereas a figure of 4,000 shows the opposite”.

[13] Professor Werry said that the reported 17,000 figure was “dangerously inaccurate” as it made the “job of proper treatment for ADHD even more difficult than it is.” Professor Werry noted that over 2000 studies have confirmed the safe and effective use of Ritalin and other stimulants as treatment for ADHD.

[14] Professor Werry reiterated that the item breached standards of balance and fairness by failing to present the views of a medical expert. Further, the item had “violated RNZ’s obligation to pay due regard to the protection of children.”

Further Correspondence

[15] The Authority asked RNZ to provide information about other programmes concerning Ritalin which had been broadcast within the period of current interest. RNZ responded as follows:

  • It contended that the topic was not a “matter of controversy” to which Principle 4 applied, and that there had been “insufficient debate or publicity to indicate that the topic of Ritalin or its use is one of controversy.”
  • Its research found that there were no news broadcasts on RNZ about Ritalin from January 2003 to August 2004, and that there were three news broadcasts in other media since September 2001. A search of print media revealed a “similar pattern.”
  • It advised that it considered the grandmother’s comments “gave balance to other views which have supported the prescribing of Ritalin for the treatment of children with ADHD”, and that Principle 4 had not been breached.
  • It submitted that it would be an unreasonable limitation on the freedom of expression to find that the broadcast breached the requirement for balance.

[16] Professor Werry said the following in response to RNZ’s submissions:

  • He submitted that the issue was controversial, otherwise it would not have been chosen for the Nine to Noon broadcast. In support he referred to the assertion that 17,000 people were taking Ritalin, and that this “implies of itself that it is a matter of public controversy and interest.”
  • He disputed RNZ’s research, suggesting that a search including ADD or ADHD would have yielded increased results. Further, he contended that the print media was not considered in RNZ’s research. He advised that there had been a number of print articles on the topic.
  • He reiterated that the interview should have been balanced with the views of a “medical expert.”

Authority's Determination

[17] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape and read a transcript 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)

[18] Principle 4 requires broadcasters 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.

[19] The Authority considers that the benefits or otherwise of the use of Ritalin in treating children with ADHD is a controversial issue of public importance. The issue is an ongoing one, and does not have a defined period of current interest.

[20] The item, however, was clearly not intended to provide any sort of overview of the Ritalin debate. It was presented as the views of one grandmother based on her personal experiences of caring for children with ADHD. Ms Buchanan was not introduced as a medical or child behavioural expert – in fact she was introduced as a “grandmother” – and nor did she purport to be an expert in the field.

[21] The Authority notes that Guideline 4(b)(i) states that in considering the question of balance, the nature of a programme’s introduction is relevant. In the present case, the Authority considers that the introduction clearly set the scene, explaining as it did that the item did not intend to be an authoritative or scientific discussion about Ritalin, but was instead a human-interest discussion about one grandmother’s personal experience.

[22] Furthermore, the item did acknowledge other points of view. During the interview, the presenter noted that many people would disagree with Ms Buchanan’s point of view. The presenter stated:

Except that there are countless parents who will say, but, you know here is my child, they wouldn't sit down and do their homework, they wouldn't learn, they were disruptive in the classroom, they were violent at home, put them on Ritalin and you have this child who wants to learn, who suddenly can concentrate.

[23] Ms Buchanan herself also acknowledged the importance of expert opinion in assessing and treating children with ADHD. In response to a question from the presenter as to what she would advise parents, she responded:

I say to those parents, get them first assessed clinically then educationally.
[24] Finally, the presenter concluded the item with an invitation to other listeners to contribute their views on the issue.

[25] The Authority notes that Guideline 4(b)(ii) identifies as a further relevant consideration any opportunity given to listeners to ask questions or present rebuttal. The presenter’s invitation was clearly such an opportunity.

[26] In light of the above matters, the Authority concludes that the item was not presented as an authoritative discussion on the wider issue of the benefits or otherwise of Ritalin, but was instead unambiguously introduced and presented as one person’s views based on their personal experiences. The item was simply one further voice contributing to the ongoing wider debate over the use of Ritalin, about which much has been written and publicly debated. The item also acknowledged the existence of other perspectives and the need for expert opinion, and invited further contributions on the issue from listeners.

[27] In these circumstances, the Authority is of the view that the item was sufficiently balanced to meet the requirements of Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. It does not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Principle 5 (Fairness)

[28] The Authority does not consider that Principle 5 is relevant, as the complainant did not allege that any person had been treated unfairly or unjustly. The Authority does not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Principle 6 (Accuracy)

[29] Principle 6 requires broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The complainant alleged that a number of statements made by Ms Buchanan were inaccurate and that the reported figure of 17,000 children taking Ritalin was inaccurate. Professor Werry maintained that the misleading content would have caused unnecessary alarm and distress to parents whose children were taking Ritalin.

[30] Dealing first with Ms Buchanan’s statements, it is the Authority’s view that the comments were a mixture of opinion and comment in the context of an interview with a grandmother expressing her concerns based upon her experiences. The Authority acknowledges that there are divergent views about the use of Ritalin by children and its effects. The Authority is not qualified to determine the accuracy of those matters advanced as fact by Ms Buchanan. However, it does not agree that the item contained material that was likely to mislead or unnecessarily alarm parents. This is because Ms Buchanan’s views were not presented as expert medical views, but clearly as the lay perspective of a concerned grandmother. In support the Authority refers to Ms Buchanan’s concluding comments to parents, when she advised them to get their children “assessed clinically then educationally”.

[31] The Authority concludes that Ms Buchanan’s comments, seen overall, were clearly presented as her opinion, and not authoritative statements of fact to which Principle 6 applies. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the broadcast as a breach of the accuracy standard.

[32] As to the accuracy of the 17,000 figure reported, the Authority has been unable to verify from its own enquiries the number of people taking Ritalin in New Zealand. Professor Werry calculated that approximately 4,000 people were on Ritalin. RNZ said the figure it broadcast was the one used in the print media, and that it was correct. The Authority accepts that the 17,000 figure reported was probably over-stated. However, as it is unable to categorically determine the accuracy of this point, the Authority declines to determine this aspect of the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
25 November 2004

Appendix

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

  1. John Werry’s Formal Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 18 April 2004
  2. RNZ’s response to the Formal Complaint – 14 May 2004
  3. Professor Werry’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 1 June 2004
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 8 July 2004
  5. RNZ’s Response to the Authority’s Request for Further Information – 25 August 2004
  6. Professor Werry’s Response to RNZ’s Submission – 2 September 2004