BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Davidge and Mediaworks TV Ltd -2020-068 (24 November 2020)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
  • Leigh Pearson
Dated
Complainant
  • Maureen Davidge
Number
2020-068
Programme
The Project
Broadcaster
MediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary  

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint about a segment on The Project, in which host (and comedian) Jeremy Corbett compared the time then National Party Leader Todd Muller and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent thinking before responding to a question about whether US President Donald Trump is racist. The complaint was that the segment breached broadcasting standards by implying Mr Muller ‘failed’ by answering the question too soon and by comparing Mr Trudeau with Mr Muller rather than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The segment was clearly intended to be comical rather than a serious political commentary. In that context it would not have misled viewers and did not trigger the requirements of the balance standard. Nor was the item unfair to Mr Muller who, as then Leader of the Opposition, could reasonably expect to be the subject of media coverage and commentary, including satirical commentary.

Not Upheld: Fairness, Accuracy, Balance


The broadcast

[1]  During The Project on 3 June 2020 on channel Three, host (and comedian) Jeremy Corbett presented a segment called ‘What’s That? Politics!’ in which he compared the time then National Party Leader Todd Muller and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent thinking before responding to a question about whether US President Donald Trump is racist. The segment was introduced as follows:

A lot of people tell me that, as a comedian, I should stick to comedy. And to them I say these three simple words: ‘What's that? Politics!’ Oh yeah, another string to my bow. It's the political segment everyone's talking about. Well, I am anyway. Tonight, we focus on the amount of time politicians spend thinking before they speak. It's incredibly important, especially when they've been asked a tricky question. I now bring you a tale of two leaders…  

[2]  Mr Corbett narrated a clip of Mr Trudeau thinking for 22 seconds before responding to the question about Mr Trump, before playing a clip of Mr Muller responding to ‘the same line of questioning’ as follows:

Reporter:         Do you think that Donald Trump is racist?

Mr Muller:        I, I mean, he ultimately will be able to make that call himself.

[3]  Mr Corbett commented Mr Muller ‘should have thought longer…because that’s not the answer, that’s not how racism is decided’. He then compared Mr Muller’s answer to ‘letting Darth Vader decide whether he’s evil or not, and Simon Bridges decide whether he’s a popular leader’.

The complaint

[4]  Maureen Davidge complained the broadcast breached the fairness, accuracy and balance standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice on the grounds it lacked impartiality, it implied Mr Muller failed or answered inappropriately by not spending enough time thinking before responding, and it should have compared Mr Trudeau’s answer to that of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Ms Davidge added that, according to Mr Corbett’s criteria, Ms Ardern’s response was the most inappropriate, as she spent the least amount of time thinking before answering.

The broadcaster’s response

[5]  MediaWorks did not uphold Ms Davidge’s complaint for the following reasons:

  • In his role as Leader of the Opposition, Mr Muller would expect to be portrayed by the media in a robust way, and would view the segment as comedy that was not intended to be taken seriously. The broadcast was not unfair and did not breach the fairness standard.
  • The broadcast did not contain any material errors of fact and did not breach the accuracy standard.
  • The issue of how long politicians take to answer a question is not a controversial issue of public importance in New Zealand, and the balance standard does not apply.

The standards

[6]  The purpose of the fairness standard (Standard 11) is to protect the dignity and reputation of those featured in programmes.1 It requires broadcasters to deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in any broadcast.

[7]  The purpose of the accuracy standard (Standard 9) is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.2 It states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.

[8]  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.

Our decision

[9]  In considering this complaint, we have viewed a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, which is the starting point when we consider any complaint. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the broadcast has caused actual or potential harm at a level that justifies placing a reasonable limit on the right to freedom of expression. For the reasons below, we have not found any such harm in this case and we have not found any breach of standards.

Fairness

[10]  A consideration of what is fair depends on the nature of the programme and the context, as well as the nature of the individual or organisation referred to.3 It is well established there is a higher threshold for finding unfairness to a high-profile individual or politician, compared to a lay person or someone unfamiliar with dealing with the media.4 We are satisfied Mr Muller was treated fairly, taking into account the following factors:5

  • At the time of the broadcast, Mr Muller was the National Party Leader and Leader of the Opposition – a high-profile political position.
  • In that role Mr Muller could reasonably expect to be the subject of a wide range of media coverage and commentary, including comedic or satirical commentary.
  • The analysis of Mr Muller’s response was clearly intended to be humorous rather than offering any serious political commentary or critique.
  • The segment related to his performance in a professional capacity rather than commenting on his personal life or attributes, meaning there is a higher threshold for finding unfairness.
  • In the context and taking into account audience expectations of The Project and Mr Corbett as a well-known comedian and television presenter, viewers were unlikely to be left with an unfairly negative impression of Mr Muller as a result of this particular segment.

[11]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the fairness standard.

Accuracy

[12]  Ms Davidge did not identify any specific statements she considered inaccurate, but appears to be concerned the item as a whole gave viewers a misleading impression Mr Muller’s response was inappropriate. To ‘mislead’ in the context of the accuracy standard means ‘to give another a wrong idea or impression of the facts’.5

[13]  We are satisfied the broadcast was not misleading, taking into account the following factors:

  • The Project is a current affairs programme that applies a non-traditional, light-hearted treatment to news stories.
  • The particular segment ‘What’s That? Politics!’ was a comical parody of political reporting, focusing on the amount of time politicians spent thinking before answering a question.
  • The introduction to the segment and Mr Corbett’s analysis of Mr Trudeau’s and Mr Muller’s responses were clearly in jest.
  • Mr Corbett is a well-known comedian rather than a political reporter, and viewers would not have expected serious political commentary from him, nor interpreted the segment as such.
  • Mr Corbett’s comment that Mr Muller’s answer was ‘wrong’ was clearly an opinion and intended to be humorous.

[14]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

Balance

[15]  For the balance standard to be triggered, the broadcast item must be a news, current affairs or factual segment amounting to a ‘discussion’ of a ‘controversial issue of public importance’.7 This was a brief comical segment, presented by a well-known comedian, about the time Mr Trudeau and Mr Muller spent thinking before answering a question about Mr Trump. It clearly was not intended to be a serious political commentary or discussion of any political issue. Therefore the balance standard does not apply and we do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

24 November 2020


Appendix

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

1  Maureen Davidge’s formal complaint – 4 June 2020

2  MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 2 July 2020

3  Ms Davidge’s referral to the Authority – 4 July 2020

4  MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comment – 8 July 2020


1 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
2 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 Guideline 11a
4 See, for example: Newton and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-137 at [14]; and Hagger and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2020-032 at [9].
5 With reference to the factors for consideration outlined in Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
6 Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd, CIV-2011-485-1110 at [98]
7 Guideline 8a