BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Young and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2007-024

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Hugh Young
Nine to Noon
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Radio New Zealand National

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Nine to Noon – said that new research showed that circumcising all baby boys could cut the rate of sexually transmitted infections by about half – interviewed researcher – allegedly unbalanced

Principle 4 (balance) – programme did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1]  On the morning of 7 November 2006 on Nine to Noon, the presenter conducted an interview with Professor David Fergusson from the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences. The presenter said that new research showed that circumcising all baby boys could cut the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by about half.

[2]  Professor Fergusson explained that the study had included about 600 males from birth to age 25, and had found clear statistical evidence that circumcision was beneficial for health reasons. He stated that there was debate about whether these benefits outweighed the potential risks of circumcision, and detailed some of those risks such as trauma and disfigurement. He also noted that there were ethical concerns about circumcision.

[3]  The presenter noted that the Royal Australasian College of Physicians had stated in 2004 that there was no medical reason to routinely circumcise male children, and that in the United States the American Academy of Paediatrics opposed the practice. Professor Fergusson said that his study had found no disadvantages of circumcision, but could report on advantages. The reporter asked whether he considered the research to be statistically valid, and Professor Fergusson replied “yes certainly, taken at face value and with the other evidence you would certainly say there is a case for the view that circumcision reduces rates of sexually transmitted diseases”.


[4]  Hugh Young made a formal complaint about the programme to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster. Mr Young noted that the research referred to in the item had been published in the journal Paediatrics, and since its publication, several letters had been published in the same journal. The complainant said that Professor Fergusson had replied to those letters, writing:

Recent correspondence to the journal has highlighted the fact that our findings are not consistent with cross-sectional studies of the linkages between circumcision and the more common forms of STI. These discrepancies with our findings are too large to be disregarded, and we are of the view that it would be premature to use our findings to promote the view that circumcision reduces risks of less severe forms of STI, until further research clarifying this issue is conducted…

[5]  Mr Young stated that he had advised RNZ of this retraction, but it had not broadcast a correction. He argued that this was a breach of Principle 4 (balance).


[6]  RNZ assessed the complaint under Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice which provides:

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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[7]  RNZ considered that the topic of the programme was not one that had assumed the status of a controversial issue of public importance in New Zealand society. While it acknowledged that the topic of circumcision had attracted controversy in the past, RNZ contended, the reporting of research findings could not itself be viewed as controversial.

[8]  Even if the topic was considered controversial, the broadcaster maintained that the period of current interest for the topic was still open and would “extend well into the future”. In these circumstances, it said, a finding as to the achievement of balance could not yet be made.

[9]  RNZ noted that the Radio Code did not prevent a broadcaster examining, in depth, one facet of an issue. This had previously been held to be acceptable by the Authority, it wrote, especially where other significant points of view were acknowledged. RNZ maintained that a range of views had been expressed in this programme, and Professor Fergusson had given arguments both for and against circumcision.

Referral to the Authority

[10]  Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Young referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He maintained that, by reporting the research findings, RNZ had reopened the controversy surrounding circumcision. Further, he said, RNZ should have broadcast Professor Fergusson’s later comments within a reasonable timeframe so that listeners were aware of this development.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[11]  RNZ referred to the Authority’s comments in Decision No. 2006-123, where it stated:

While the Authority agrees that the issue addressed in the programme was of importance to the public, the way in which the topic was approached by the participants did not amount to the discussion of a “controversial” issue. In the Authority’s view, an issue of controversy is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion, and there had not been any ongoing public debate about the issue of whether adequate services were being provided. In these circumstances, the Authority concludes that the requirement for balance did not apply to the broadcast.

[12]  In the broadcaster’s view, these comments were applicable in the present case. While the topic of circumcision was of importance to the public, it wrote, the way in which the topic was approached did not make it controversial. RNZ contended that the programme was a fairly dispassionate discussion outlining the research results and acknowledging opposing viewpoints. It submitted that the requirement for balance did not apply to the broadcast.

Authority's Determination

[13]  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.

[14]  Principle 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed. The Authority agrees that the circumcision of male children is a controversial issue. However, it considers that the item complained about did not purport to be a discussion of the pros and cons of circumcision. Rather, the presenter questioned Professor Fergusson about the findings of a study conducted by the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

[15]  Although the interview did refer to the debate about circumcision and Professor Fergusson gave some examples of the potential risks, the Authority finds that the item focused on presenting the research findings in a factual manner. Accordingly, it concludes that the programme did not discuss the controversial issue of circumcision for the purposes of Principle 4. Since no controversial issue of public importance was discussed, the balance standard is not relevant and the Authority 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
8 June 2007


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

1     Hugh Young’s formal complaint – 29 November 2006

2    RNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 2 February 2007

3    Mr Young’s referral to the Authority – 2 March 2007

4    RNZ’s response to the Authority – 26 March 2007