Cowie and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2020-133 (9 March 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Don Cowie
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority did not uphold a complaint that an interview with Hon Paul Goldsmith on Morning Report breached the balance and fairness standards. As the complaint did not specify a particular ‘controversial issue of public importance’ the balance standard did not apply. The Authority highlighted the value of robust political discourse and the vital role of media in encouraging and engaging in such discourse. Considering the nature of the programme and contextual factors, including the significant public interest in the interview and Mr Goldsmith’s experience in dealing with the media, the Authority did not find Mr Dann’s interview approach to be unfair.
Not Upheld: Balance, Fairness
 On 7 September 2020, on RNZ’s Morning Report, Corin Dann interviewed Hon Paul Goldsmith followed by an interview with Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern.
 The interview with Mr Goldsmith focused primarily on unemployment figures and the National Party’s finance policy. Throughout the interview, Mr Dann interjects with questions or comments. Examples are:
[Mr Goldsmith] … Now, and, about one point uh one point three billion dollars a week is being borrowed between March and the end of the year. So we've got this, you know, rising unemployment at a time when the government is re...
[Mr Dann] Sure, but you wouldn't do any different, would you? You would continue to make that borrowing. I mean, just if you're talking on a big picture scale here, this is about ensuring there is demand in the economy. I mean, you would do the same thing.
[Mr Goldsmith] Oh, yes, yeah, but I'm making the point that there is an enormous amount of stimulus that you can't keep doing forever, and so…
[Mr Dann] Okay, that's an interesting point. So when would you look to pull that out? I mean, at what point would you, how would National differ in terms of withdrawing that support?
[Mr Goldsmith] Well, I mean, we're aligned with the Government on the end of the wage subsidy, which is happening over the next few weeks. And that will be a big difference. And then it's a question of continuing on with good quality infrastructure. And that’s where we will be having a debate of the campaign…
[Mr Dann] Sure, what about, well, okay, let's talk about incomes…
 The interview with Ms Ardern was initially focused on the capsized ship in the East China Sea. The interview then moved on to the end of the wage subsidies, increased poverty, increased hardship and the Labour Party’s goals in tackling poverty. In this latter part of the interview, Mr Dann’s interjections included:
[Ms Ardern] … On the UNICEF report Corin, that's recently come out, that actually did not take into account any of the initiatives this Government has put in over the last three years on child poverty. It didn't use the most recent, some of the most recent data, but it also, for instance, didn't take into account...
[Mr Dann] OK let's not, let's not argue about those numbers then. Let’s argue about what you would do in the future to actually make things better.
[Ms Ardern] …That has meant that some families, particularly sole parent support, will have seen a significant increase across those three areas in their benefit in this time of government, because of the difference that those payments have made and...
[Mr Dann] Okay, let me just before we move on, just on that issue, you have a promise of cutting child poverty rates in half in 10 years. That was the promise you made…You've lifted 18000, according to your numbers, out of that poverty hardship measure. Can you still reach that target given COVID-19?
[Ms Ardern] Prior to COVID-19 we were on track. We were on track for our three year targets broadly and we were on track for our 10 year targets. Obviously, COVID-19 has dramatically changed the landscape, which is why we straight off the bat increase main benefit rates as well. So I'm still…
[Mr Dann] So that's a no, you can't reach that target now with COVID.
[Ms Ardern] …This is a massively damaging economic event, however, it is also an opportunity as part of our COVID response recovery. It's one of the reasons...
[Mr Dann] But supply was the argument from the National Party for the last nine years. And you had a capital gains tax and you shelved that. I'm trying to get at, you were trying to be transformational and deal with the issues of rising wealth inequality. We now know that this current response is likely to exacerbate that. What will you do in the next three years to address that?
[Ms Ardern] And I'll just finish what I was saying…
 Don Cowie complained about the following aspects of the interviews:
- The frequency with which Mr Dann interrupts the speaker and refuses to let them finish is significantly higher in the interview with Mr Goldsmith than in the interview with Ms Ardern.
- Ms Ardern’s interview is significantly longer.
- Mr Dann challenged Mr Goldsmith significantly, but not Ms Ardern.
 While he did not expressly identify the standards he considered breached, we consider his complaint, and subsequent referral to the Authority, to raise the balance and fairness standards. He has confirmed this accords with his intention.
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint under the balance standard for the following reasons:
- ‘The exchange of ideas with Paul Goldsmith was entirely about fiscal policy while the interview with Jacinda Ardern was, of editorial necessity, dominated by some distressing news about loss of lives and search and rescue efforts in the East China Sea.’
- ‘Demands for “equal treatment” make little sense in these circumstances and are not supported by the balance guidelines.’
- ‘Balance cannot be measured using a stopwatch.’
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint under the fairness standard for the following reasons:
- Mr Goldsmith is a politician with media experience.
- As the National Party’s finance spokesperson, he should expect significant questioning around the National Party’s policies particularly in the period leading up to the election.
 The balance standard1 states when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs or 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 balance standard is intended to ensure competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.2
 The fairness standard3 requires broadcasters to deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in any broadcast. Its purpose is to protect the dignity and reputation of those featured in programmes. The objective in assessing fairness is to weigh broadcasters’ right to freedom of expression against the right of individuals and organisations to be treated fairly.4
 We have listened to the broadcasts and reviewed the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 The Authority’s Election Complaints Fast-Track Process contemplates fast tracking of ‘programmes that relate to election or referenda matters that may influence a vote’.5 The programme which is the subject of this complaint, involving routine challenge and discussion regarding party policies, was determined not to meet this requirement. Accordingly, this complaint was processed under our standard procedures.
 When we consider a complaint that a broadcast has allegedly breached broadcasting standards, we first consider the important right to freedom of expression. Our task is to weigh the value of and public interest in the broadcast complained about, against the level of actual or potential harm that may have been caused, with reference to the objectives of the standards described above. We may only uphold a complaint where the corresponding limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.
 The broadcasts in this case carried a high value and level of public interest. The right to political speech is significant in a democratic society and particularly in the months preceding a general election, when audiences have a heightened interest in political party leadership and in robust scrutiny of those who may be seeking their vote. We would need to find a correspondingly high level of harm to conclude the interview breached broadcasting standards, and to justify limiting freedom of expression.
 Considering the level of public interest, Mr Goldsmith’s experience, and general expectations as to how politicians will be treated by the media, we have not found harm justifying regulatory intervention. We expand on our reasons below.
 Mr Cowie does not identify any particular ‘controversial issue of public importance’ in respect of which additional points of view should have been presented. We understand his complaint is focused more on a perceived imbalance in Mr Dann’s approach to the two interviewees. In particular, he expressed concern regarding the varying frequency with which each was interrupted or challenged. This is not a matter addressed by the balance standard.
 We therefore do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.
 Mr Cowie’s complaint under this standard is based on the amount of times Mr Dann interrupted Mr Goldsmith, preventing him from presenting his views. While he suggests there was a contrast between Mr Dann’s treatment of the two interviewees, that, in itself, is not grounds to find a breach of the fairness standard. In any event, we did not identify any significant difference in the way Mr Dann approached the two interviewees.
 The question for us is whether Mr Dann’s approach meant Mr Goldsmith was not dealt with fairly. A consideration of what is fair depends on the nature of the programme and the context.6 In this case, we highlight the value of robust political discourse and the vital role of media in encouraging and engaging in such discourse. This enables the public to be informed and engaged, which is critical to a free and democratic society, particularly leading up to an election.7 Considering this, and the factors below, Mr Dann’s interview approach was not unfair:8
- The purpose of the interview with Mr Goldsmith was to discuss the National Party’s policies. This was an issue of significant public interest given the timing of the broadcast (in the period leading up to the election).
- Given his role, he can reasonably expect to be challenged and questioned on matters of policy.
- While he was interrupted, the interjections lead Mr Goldsmith to address certain issues of interest, or to delve more deeply into a topic he had broached in his response. After all interjections, Mr Goldsmith was given the chance to respond.
- Mr Goldsmith was afforded a reasonable opportunity to respond and comment on the matters raised in the interview.
- Mr Goldsmith is a seasoned politician with experience in dealing with the media.
 Accordingly, we do not find a breach under the fairness standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
9 March 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Don Cowie’s original complaint to RNZ – 7 September 2020
2 RNZ’s response to Mr Cowie – 30 September 2020
3 Mr Cowie’s referral to the Authority – 1 October 2020
4 RNZ’s response to Mr Cowie’s referral – 23 October 2020
5 RNZ’s further comment – 3 February 2021
6 Mr Cowie’s final comments – 4 February 2021
1 Standard 8 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 Standard 11 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
5 Broadcasting Standards Authority “Fast track complaints process for election related content” <www.bsa.govt.nz>
6 Guideline 11a
7 Newton and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-137
8 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21