Croft and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2020-078 (24 November 2020)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Leigh Pearson
- Cedric Croft
ProgrammeMorning Report and Focus on Politics
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand National
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint under the balance and accuracy standards about a series of Radio New Zealand broadcasts on 26 June 2020. The items concerned the Government’s management of COVID-19 at the international border, and referred to a series of events including the failure to test 55 individuals for COVID-19 before release from quarantine as ‘border blunders’, ‘bungling at the border’, and ‘COVID botch ups’. The Authority considered the statements were not of fact but of opinion, to which the accuracy standard did not apply, and the broadcasts were unlikely to mislead listeners. The Authority considered the assessment of the Government’s management of COVID-19 at the international border to be a controversial issue of public importance, but found alternative viewpoints were included to enable listeners to arrive at an informed opinion.
Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy
 On 26 June 2020, RNZ National broadcast a series of items (two consecutive Morning Report bulletins at 7.19am at 7.22am and Focus on Politics at 6.40pm) concerning the Government’s management of COVID-19 at the international border and a series of events including the failure to test 55 individuals for COVID-19 before release from quarantine. The items included the following statements:
- Gyles Beckford: ‘Blunders at the border have taken a shine off the Government’s handling of COVID-19, with the Health Minister under mounting pressure.’ (Morning Report at 7.19am)
- Interviewee 1: ‘I think the Government has handled the entire thing really remarkably well, especially when you consider what’s happening overseas.’ (Morning Report at 7.19am)
- Interviewee 2: ‘They did an extremely good job at the start, but towards the end, the…people being let out of hotels has been quite incompetent.’ (Morning Report at 7.19am)
- Charlie Dreaver: ‘The Health Minister has been facing mounting backlash over blaming the border blunders on the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield.’ (Moring Report at 7.19am)
- Corin Dann: ‘If we look at Labour, on the one hand they’d be very happy with 50, that’s a historically high number for them, but they have come down 9, and how much do you think might be attributable to the bungling with the border over the last week or so?’ (Morning Report at 7.22am, and Focus on Politics)
- Rt Hon Winston Peters: ‘On behalf of the Prime Minister, Dr Bloomfield and Dr Clark are not infallible, but the response we have seen thus far in this country, by international comparison, is seriously exemplary…There will be mistakes. Our job is to learn from them, and fix them.’ (Focus on Politics)
- Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern: ‘There will be some weeks that are better than others, and what’s most important is that we continue to work together collectively, alongside the likes of the expertise of Dr Bloomfield, alongside the Health Minister, alongside our whole team.’ (Focus on Politics)
- Jo Moir: ‘It’s hard to say how much of the drop in Labour support is due to the COVID botch ups…’ (Focus on Politics)
 The members of the Authority have listened to recordings of the above broadcasts and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 Cedric Croft complained the broadcasts breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, on the following grounds:
- The term ‘botch up’ and other terms to the same effect were biased, did not describe what happened, and were emotive terms without any clear or accurate meaning.
- The statement about ‘botch ups at the border’ is inaccurate as testing does not occur at the border but at managed isolation and quarantine facilities.
- The broadcasts did not mention thousands had been tested and quarantined and the majority successfully managed by the Ministry of Health, and the failure to test 55 individuals did not result in community transmission.
 Mr Croft’s original complaint to Radio New Zealand (RNZ) referred to Morning Report, Check Point and Focus on Politics broadcasts on 26 June 2020. Subsequently, however, it was refined to focus on the broadcasts identified above.
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ declined to formally consider the complaint in respect of the 26 June broadcasts, on the basis the complainant failed to nominate a specific programme or time of broadcast. This was not appropriate. As the Authority has previously stated, where a complainant has described the broadcast to the extent the broadcaster can reasonably identify it, the broadcaster should consider it.1
 RNZ nevertheless indicated that, even if the broadcasts had been correctly identified, the complaint would not have been upheld, because the terms ‘border blunder’ and ‘botch up’ were in common usage on that day, were relevant shorthand for a well-known series of events, and did not mislead the audience.
 In response to Mr Croft’s referral, RNZ provided the Oxford Dictionary definition and everyday usage of ‘botch up’ being ‘a bungled task’, or something carried out ‘badly or carelessly’, which it suggested was a reasonable description of the relevant series of events at the border. RNZ also said balance, if required, was provided by the inclusion of comments from members of the public during Morning Report at 7.19am.
The standards raised
 The balance standard (Standard 8) states 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.2 The standard exists to ensure competing arguments are presented, to enable listeners to arrive at informed and reasoned opinions.
 The accuracy standard (Standard 9) requires broadcasters to make reasonable efforts to ensure news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.
Overview of our approach and the outcome
 Our starting point is to recognise the importance of the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the value of and public interest in the broadcasts complained about, against the level of actual or potential harm caused, with reference to the objectives of the relevant standards. We may only uphold a complaint where the corresponding limitation of the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.
 The broadcasts in question, considering the Government’s management of COVID-19, carried a significant level of public interest. Any harm of the nature alleged by the complainant was not at a level requiring intervention or restriction of the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.
 The first question under the balance standard is whether the broadcast amounted to a ‘discussion’ of a ‘controversial issue of public importance’.3 An issue of public importance is something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public.4 A controversial issue will be one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.5
 The Government’s management of COVID-19 at the international border is a controversial issue of public importance. It had significant implications in terms of the health and safety of New Zealand citizens. It also had significant political implications in the months leading up to the General Election, at that time less than three months from the scheduled date.6
 However, two of the broadcasts presented alternative viewpoints, including those of the Prime Minister, the then Deputy Prime Minister and members of the public who assessed the Government’s performance in positive terms. In addition, given the high public interest in management of COVID-19 at this time, listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of other views and information on this topic from other media coverage.7
 Accordingly, omission of the specific information mentioned by Mr Croft was unlikely to leave listeners unable to arrive at informed and reasoned opinions about the Government’s management of COVID-19.
 For these reasons, we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.
 The accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.8 A fact is something which can be proven right or wrong, while an opinion is someone’s view. An opinion is contestable, and others may hold a different view.9 The standard is concerned only with material inaccuracies. Technical or unimportant points that are unlikely to significantly affect listeners’ understanding of the programme as a whole are not considered material.10
 The terms ‘blunder’, ‘bungling’, and ‘botch up’ are subjective terms, involving a qualitative assessment of performance. They cannot be proven right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, and are therefore distinguishable as comment or opinion. The accuracy standard accordingly does not apply to this aspect of the complaint.
 With regard to the programme’s references to blunders ‘at the border’, these are not inaccurate. Managed isolation or quarantine is a core part of New Zealand’s border control measures.11 Blunders ‘at the border’ is a reasonable way to describe the failure of border control measures. In addition, even if strictly inaccurate (in that any failings occurred within New Zealand), it is a technical point unlikely to significantly affect listeners’ understanding of the overall broadcasts.
 Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.
For the above reasons, the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
24 November 2020
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Cedric Croft’s original complaint – 27 June 2020
2 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 16 July 2020
3 Mr Croft’s referral to the Authority – 17 July 2020
4 RNZ’s response to referral – 24 August 2020
5 Mr Croft’s final comment – 2 September 2020
6 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 10 September 2020
1 Tinsley and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-067 at 
2 Guideline 8a
3 Guideline 8a
4 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 As above
6 The General Election was originally scheduled for 19 September 2020, but on 17 August it was rescheduled for 17 October, in light of a spike in COVID-19 cases.
7 “Live updates, June 18: One new case at border; National MP lobbied for Covid pair’s release” The Spinoff (online ed, New Zealand, 18 June 2020); Charles Anderson “New Zealand tightens Covid-19 border measures in 'dangerous new phase'” The Guardian (online ed, New Zealand, 22 June 2020); Anna Murray “Morning Briefing June 17: Border 'oversight' pierces NZ's Covid-19 confidence” 1 News (online ed, New Zealand, 17 June 2020); “Covid 19 coronavirus: New Zealand has one new case today” NZ Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 26 June 2020).
8 Guideline 9a
9 Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 64
10 Guideline 9b
11 Ministry of Health (14 October 2020) "COVID-19: Border controls" <health.govt.nz>