BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Williamson and The Radio Network Ltd - 2013-088

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • K F Williamson
Number
2013-088
Channel/Station
Newstalk ZB


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

In a weekly interview segment on Mike Hosking Breakfast, Prime Minister John Key criticised the Labour Party while discussing a number of political topics. The Authority did not uphold the complaint that the host displayed political bias and let the Prime Minister criticise other parties unchallenged, without them being offered any right of reply. This segment with the Prime Minister of the day has been running for 25 years, it was transparently political advocacy, and it did not purport to be a balanced or even-handed discussion of political issues. Other politicians were also interviewed on Newstalk ZB on a regular basis.

Not Upheld: Controversial Issues, Fairness, Accuracy, Responsible Programming, Discrimination and Denigration


Introduction         

[1]  In a weekly interview segment on Mike Hosking Breakfast, the Prime Minister John Key criticised the Labour Party while discussing a number of political topics. The programme was broadcast on Newstalk ZB on 4 November 2013.

[2]  K F Williamson made a formal complaint to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN), alleging that the host displayed ‘continuous political bias when interviewing Prime Minister John Key’, particularly in this instance.

[3]  Our jurisdiction is limited to determining complaints about specified content, and we cannot consider general complaints about a particular host or programme. Our determination is therefore limited to the 4 November broadcast, and does not extend to other non-specified incidences of alleged political bias displayed by the host.

[4]  The controversial issues and fairness standards are most relevant to the complaint. Mr Williamson also raised other standards which we have considered briefly at paragraph [17] below. 

[5]  The focus of our determination therefore is whether the 4 November broadcast breached Standards 4 and 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[6]  The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was the item unbalanced in breach of the controversial issues standard?

[7]  The balance standard (Standard 4) 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 arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.1

[8]  Mr Williamson argued that the host displayed political bias by giving the Prime Minister ‘free rein’ to ‘rant and rave about opposition parties, particularly Labour’.

[9]  TRN explained that the segment had aired in this timeslot for 25 years, regardless of the Prime Minister’s political affiliation. Alternative political viewpoints were provided at other times and in other shows, it said, including on Newstalk ZB. The broadcaster noted that the host spoke to a Labour Party candidate earlier in the programme, and it said that regular segments with the Leader of the Opposition and a weekly segment with a senior Labour Party MP were broadcast at other times.

[10]  The balance standard only applies to ‘discussions’ of controversial issues of public importance. A discussion is that which purports to present a serious and even-handed examination of an issue. The premise of this broadcast was a five-minute interview with the Prime Minister, speaking in his capacity as a political leader, and it followed the standard format of the segment for many years. This was transparent political advocacy that made no pretence of being a means by which listeners could receive unbiased, objective or comprehensive explanations of current issues. While Prime Minister John Key commented on a number of issues, including the Labour Party’s plan to set up a state-owned insurer and its policy on housing, which could be considered controversial and of public importance, the item did not purport to present a balanced analysis or ‘discussion’ of these issues.

[11]  For this reason, and given the public’s exposure to a myriad of political views across media platforms (including on Newstalk ZB), the broadcast did not prevent listeners from reaching an informed and reasoned opinion on the issues discussed.

[12]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Was the Labour Party treated unfairly?

[13]  The fairness standard (Standard 6) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. One of the purposes of the fairness standard is to protect individuals and organisations from broadcasts which provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.2

[14]  Mr Williamson did not specify who he considered had been treated unfairly, but said that ‘other parties had no right of reply at the time’. We have considered whether the Labour Party, the only organisation referred to in the broadcast, was treated unfairly.

[15]  We reiterate that this was a political broadcast that was transparently biased. In this context, we are satisfied that the Prime Minister’s comments, and the host’s approach, were not unfair to the Labour Party. Nor was it necessary, in the interests of fairness, to invite a Labour Party representative to take part in the interview or to respond to the Prime Minister’s comments. Freedom of speech and particularly political speech is an important facet of democracy, and we reiterate that spokespeople for other political parties, including the Leader of the Opposition, are regularly given airtime on Newstalk ZB and by other media outlets.

[16]  We find that the Labour Party was treated fairly and we decline to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Did the broadcast breach the other standards raised in the complaint?

[17]  Mr Williamson also raised the accuracy, responsible programming, and discrimination and denigration standards. In summary, these standards were not breached because:

  • the content amounted to the Prime Minister’s comment and opinion, so was exempt from the requirements of the accuracy standard under guideline 5a (Standard 5)
  • the complaint does not raise any issues of the type envisaged by the responsible programming standard (Standard 8)
  • the Prime Minister’s comments about the Labour Party were expected in the context of robust political advocacy, and did not meet the threshold for encouraging discrimination or denigration against a section of the community, on account of political belief (Standard 7).

[18]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the complaint that these standards were breached.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
1 April 2014

Appendix

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

1                  K F Williamson’s formal complaint – date unknown

2                 TRN’s response to the complaint – 20 November 2013

3                 K F Williamson’s referral to the Authority – 29 November 2013

4                 TRN’s response to the Authority – 29 November 2013


1Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

2Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014