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McArthur and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2007-072

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Paul France
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave

Complainant

  • David McArthur of Wellington

Dated

29th October 2007

Number

2007-072

Programme

Checkpoint

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 
Checkpoint – report stated that Queenstown may face an energy crisis in the future – the words electricity, energy and power were used interchangeably – allegedly in breach of balance, fairness, accuracy and social responsibility standards

Findings
Principle 6 (accuracy) – item was not deceptive – listeners would not have been misled – not upheld

Principle 4 (balance) – standard did not apply because the item did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Principle 5 (fairness) – standard did not apply – not upheld

Principle 7 (social responsibility) – standard did not apply – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  An item broadcast during Radio New Zealand National’s Checkpoint programme on 23 May 2007, reported that in Queenstown electricity transmission lines were being put under pressure due to the region’s rapid growth. When introducing the report, the presenter stated:

Queenstown could be facing a major energy crisis as rapid growth in the region puts pressure on electricity transmission lines. A consultant’s report has shown power lines, owned and maintained by Transpower, are insufficient to meet the expected growth over the next decade.    

[2]   The report went on to discuss whether the area could possibly face power supply problems in the future. It included interviews with spokespeople from various organisations who used the words energy, power and electricity interchangeably.

Complaint

[3]   David McArthur complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, stating that the report was inaccurate. He argued that the terms “power”, “energy” and “electricity” had very different meanings and that the report had discussed a potential lack of bulk-generated electricity supply for Queenstown, which was not the same as an “energy crisis” as stated in the introduction. He maintained that an accurate introduction would have read “...the current use of bulk-generated electricity in Queenstown is unsustainable”.

[4]   Mr McArthur believed that the broadcaster was not maintaining its editorial independence by allowing the words energy, power and electricity to be used interchangeably, and that this was reinforcing “PR (public relations) constructs” of power companies. He argued that power companies had spent millions of dollars annually on redefining these types of words to serve their own interests and that the broadcaster was enabling them to do this by allowing the words to be given the same meaning.     

[5]   The complainant argued that the report was unbalanced because the introduction given by the programme’s presenter was inappropriate and inaccurate. He maintained that because the broadcaster had referred to an “energy crisis” in the introduction, when the report was actually going to discuss a potential lack of bulk-electricity supply for Queenstown, it had breached Principle 4 of the Radio Code.  

[6]   Mr McArthur maintained that it was unfair to state that Queenstown may have an energy crisis, because this distorted the actual event, which was a potential lack of electricity supply in the future.

[7]   The complainant argued that the report’s introduction was socially irresponsible because it was excessive, alarmist and designed to frighten people. He also believed that the programme was irresponsible because it was broadcast at a time when people, including children, would have been listening and that they would inevitably end up adopting the inaccurate usage of the three words.  

Principles

[8]   RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. They provide:

Principle 4 Balance

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.

Principle 5 Fairness

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

Principle 6 Accuracy

In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

Principle 7 Social Responsibility

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant   

[9]   RNZ acknowledged that during the course of the report the words energy, power and electricity were used interchangeably by the various spokespeople that were interviewed.

[10]   It then looked at whether the audience’s understanding of the issue was affected by the use of the words as synonyms for each other. It argued that while there were strict scientific definitions and meanings for the words, listeners “would have been left with the clear understanding that infrastructure capacity constraints in the area meant that Queenstown may be hampered in the future”.

[11]   The broadcaster maintained that because listeners would have been left with a clear understanding of the issue covered in the report, broadcasting standards had not been breached. It declined to uphold the complaint.   

Referral to the Authority

[12]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision, Mr McArthur referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The complainant reiterated the points he had made in his original complaint to RNZ.

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]   The Authority considers that Principle 5 (fairness) is not relevant on this occasion, because Mr McArthur has not complained that any person or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast was treated unfairly. The Authority also disagrees with the complainant that the introduction was alarmist or designed to frighten people, and therefore it declines to uphold the Principle 7 (social responsibility) complaint.

[15]   With respect to Principle 4 (balance), the Authority notes that the balance standard only applies to broadcasts which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. On this occasion, the Authority considers that the news item was an information piece about potential electricity shortages in Queenstown. The report did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, and therefore Principle 4 did not apply to the broadcast. The Authority finds that Standard 4 was not breached.

[16]   Looking at Principle 6 (accuracy), the Authority considers that it was not inaccurate to use the terms electricity, power and energy interchangeably, and it finds that listeners would not have been misled by the use of the words in the broadcast. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the Principle 6 complaint.  

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
29 October 2007

Appendix

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

1.            David McArthur’s formal complaint – 17 June 2007
2.           RNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 10 July 2007
3.           Mr McArthur’s referral to the Authority – 20 July 2007
4.           Mr McArthur’s email correspondence to the Authority – 20 July 2007
5.           RNZ’s response to the Authority – 7 August 2007