BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Werry and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2007-083

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • John Scott Werry
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Radio New Zealand National

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw – item contained an interview with Philip Zimbardo – interview discussed theories about why apparently good people do bad things in certain situations – host made reference to New Zealand psychiatric institutions and the fact that patients had made accusations that staff had abused them – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

The Authority’s Decision
Principle 4 (balance), Principle 5 (fairness), Principle 6 (accuracy) – complainant under a mistaken impression about the contents of the broadcast – complaint did not raise any issues of broadcasting standards – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1]   On 8 July 2007, Radio New Zealand National’s Sunday Morning with Chris Laidlaw programme held an extensive interview with psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, who had recently published his latest book "The Lucifer Effect". The interview focused on the theories contained in Mr Zimbardo’s book, one of which was that, given the right environment, anyone is capable of committing the most horrendous crimes.

[2]   During the interview, there was a discussion about people having power over other people in certain situations and the fact that some people ended up abusing that power. The host made the following statement:

I wanted to ask you about power because at the moment in New Zealand, there is an investigation of, I mean revelations of staff having been abusing inmates at psychiatric institutions and some horror stories have come out about that. Is that, and there are implications that people, that staff are not adequately supervised and therefore the buck doesn’t stop anywhere beyond them, is that an example really of, of power being as you say an aphrodisiac only? Is that a kind of subset of the Lucifer effect?


[3]   John Scott Werry made a formal complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the statement made by the host relating to New Zealand psychiatric institutions was in beach of fairness, accuracy and balance standards.

[4]   The complainant believed that the host had said "Recently, there have been revelations of a culture of physical and sexual abuse occurring in psychiatric hospitals in New Zealand’. He maintained that the statement had occurred when the host and Mr Zimbardo had been discussing the abuse suffered by inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He argued that the host had intended to convey the impression that psychiatric hospitals and their staff in New Zealand were humiliating, sexually abusing and torturing patients under their care. Mr Werry considered that the impression left by the statement was unfair on staff at psychiatric facilities and had discriminated against them.

[5]   Mr Werry also maintained that the "revelations" referred to in the statement "were not about current, but past practice" and were inaccurate as a result. He also noted that the accusations referred to in the statement were not proven facts, but allegations.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[6]  RNZ argued that the words complained of were not the words spoken in the programme. It maintained that the comments were made in the context of a discussion about evil, heroism and power, and were clearly directed at past events.

[7]  The broadcaster believed that the comments "were not addressing the care provided by health institutions per se, but were raised peripherally by way of example of what was being discussed". It stated that in response to the comments, Mr Zimbardo said that "any institution in which there is an inherent power relationship between staff and civilians or between staff and inmates, has the potential to be corrupted".

[8]   In light of the above, RNZ declined to uphold all three aspects of Mr Werry’s complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[9]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision, Mr Werry referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[10]  The complainant maintained that while he may have "gotten some of the exact wording wrong" the comments the host had made were still in breach of broadcasting standards. Mr Werry also believed that while he could not be entirely sure of what was said, he had not "dreamed up comparisons to the Iraq prison in close juxtaposition".

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[11]   RNZ argued that after 24 minutes of the interview the conversation had moved on to the topic of Abu Ghraib prison and that after another nine minutes "the programme’s host clearly moved the conversation to the topic of power". It maintained that the host had used the "revelation" from the New Zealand context to continue a general conversation about principles involved in power relationships.

[12]   The broadcaster believed that no comparisons had been made between New Zealand psychiatric institutions and Abu Ghraib prison, and that there was no juxtaposition of the two. It argued that the reference to New Zealand psychiatric institutions was incidental to the thrust of the conversation, which focused on power and the role of accountability.

[13]  RNZ considered that in the context of a 47 minute interview, the conclusions drawn by Mr Werry could not be sustained and that the complaint should be declined.

Authority's Determination

[14]  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.

[15]   Having listened to a recording of the item, the Authority notes that Mr Werry was mistaken about the contents of the broadcast. There was no direct linkage between the item’s discussion of Abu Ghraib prison and the host’s statement concerning revelations of abuse in New Zealand psychiatric institutions.

[16]   The Authority is satisfied that the statement made by the host regarding New Zealand psychiatric institutions was made in an effort to put the discussion about power relationships into a New Zealand context. Further, the host clearly referred to current investigations of alleged past abuse, and did not make any assertions that the abuse was continuing.

[17]  As a result, the Authority considers that the complaint does not raise any issues of broadcasting standards. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
4 December 2007


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

1.            John Scott Werry’s formal complaint – 9 July 2007
2.           RNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 27 July 2007
3.           Mr Werry’s referral to the Authority – 14 August 2007
4.           RNZ’s response to the Authority – 18 October 2007