BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Nairn and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 1994-131

Members
  • I W Gallaway (Chair)
  • W J Fraser
  • L M Loates
  • J R Morris
Dated
Complainant
  • Bill Nairn
Number
1994-131
Programme
Insight
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio


Summary

The future of the Labour Party in view of its apparent low level of public support in

the lead-up to the Selwyn by-election was discussed on an Insight programme

broadcast on National Radio at 12.30pm on 7 August 1994.

Mr Nairn complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was

biased and unbalanced. There had been some brief comments from the Party's leader

and deputy leader but the rest of the programme, he said, involved denigratory

comments from the Party's opponents and the Party's spokespeople were not given

the opportunity to reply.

Maintaining that a range of views had been expressed in the item which discussed the

Labour Party's future and which examined the parallels between the British and New

Zealand parties, RNZ declined to uphold the complaint. Dissatisfied with RNZ's

decision, Mr Nairn referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority declined to uphold the complaint.


Decision

The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item complained about

and have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). As is its practice,

the Authority has determined the complaint without a formal hearing.

Mr Nairn complained to RNZ about an Insight programme broadcast on Sunday 7

August. The item, he wrote, had set out to analyse the "apparent difficulties" facing

the New Zealand Labour Party and its leader, but had proceeded "to denigrate" the

Party. It had involved unfavourable comparisons with the British Labour Party and

comments from two named former Labour Party members whose hatred for the Party,

Mr Nairn commented, now bordered "on the pathological". There were also

comments from some other disgruntled Labour Party members but no Labour Party

spokesperson was given the opportunity to reply. Mr Nairn described the item as

biased and unbalanced and a "hatchet job".

RNZ assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 which

requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with:

(d) 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.


RNZ explained that the item, broadcast a week before the Selwyn by-election, looked

at the ongoing debate within the New Zealand Labour Party as to its future direction

and drew parallels with the British Labour Party. RNZ disagreed strongly with Mr

Nairn's description of the programme. One of the former Labour Party members

named by Mr Nairn as a contributor to the programme, Mr Chris Trotter, in fact had

not featured at all while several Labour Party spokespeople were interviewed. Their

contribution amounted to nearly 5_ minutes while the other former Party member

who did contribute (Mr McCarten) spoke for just over 2 minutes.

In addition, there had been contributions from others both within and outside the

Labour Party – from New Zealand and overseas – who had spoken about the Party's

direction. RNZ denied that the broadcast was a "hatchet job" on the Labour Party or

its leader and maintained that it was a balanced contribution to the changing political

circumstances in New Zealand.

Having listened to the item, broadcast during the by-election campaign when the

Labour Party leadership was raised by some commentators as an issue, the Authority

understood Mr Nairn's concern that the item could be interpreted as a discussion

about the Labour Party and the current leadership. It believed, however, such an

approach failed to acknowledge all the matters canvassed as the comparative

discussion about issues in England and France was quite lengthy.

The leadership issue was raised at the start with the Party's leader, Rt Hon Helen

Clark, when she denied that it was a central issue in the impending by-election. Most

of the item thereafter, though, examined the Party's future direction. As some of the

criticisms made by former members who were interviewed focussed as much on

present procedures as they did on policy, they could be interpreted as an attack on

the current leadership. However, their comments were peripheral to the item's theme

and, the Authority concluded, the Party's future direction was the substantive issue

addressed.

The Authority agreed with RNZ that balance cannot be assessed by "stop-watch

journalism" as there are other matters to be taken into account when assessing the

possibility of a breach of s.4(1)(d). While some of the matters raised in the

programme complained about involved practical rather than philosophical issues and

could have been considered politically sensitive in view of the Selwyn by-election

polls which suggested a decline in support for the Labour Party, the Authority

concluded nevertheless that the Labour Party's future direction was the principal

issue canvassed and that it was addressed in a way which complied with the

requirements in the standards.

 

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Iain Gallaway
Chairperson
12 December 1994


Appendix

Mr Nairn's Complaint to Radio New Zealand Limited - 2 September 1994

In his first letter of complaint dated 8 August 1994, Mr Bill Nairn of Wellington

objected to the Insight programme broadcast on National Radio at 12.30pm on 7

August. He wrote:

In the many years of listening to National Radio, I have never heard a more

biased or unbalanced examination of any political topic.

By way of explanation, Mr Nairn stated that although the programme had set out to

analyse the difficulties facing the New Zealand Labour Party and its leader, apart from

some brief comments from Ms Clark (the leader) and Dr Michael Cullen (the deputy

leader), the rest of the programme had denigrated the Labour Party. Positive

comments were made about the British Labour Party and its dynamic leadership in

comparison with the leadership of the New Zealand Party. Further, the local

commentators interviewed were either Alliance supporters or disillusioned Labour

Party members.

Describing the programme as a "hatchet job" on Ms Clark and the Labour Party, Mr

Nairn argued that the Party's supporters were not given the opportunity to reply to

some of the outrageous claims from its opponents.

On 16 August 1994, RNZ replied to the complaint informally. Pointing out that the

programme's intention was to compare the British and New Zealand Labour Parties,

RNZ listed the range of people who were interviewed (including Labour Party

politicians and others) and denied that the programme was biased.

After considering RNZ's informal response, Mr Nairn advised RNZ by letter dated 2

September that he remained of the opinion that the programme was biased and

unbalanced and wished his complaint to be treated as a formal one.

RNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint - 1 November 1994

RNZ advised Mr Nairn that the complaint had been assessed under s.4(1)(d) of the

Broadcasting Act 1989. It repeated that the programme's focus was to examine

parallels between the British Labour Party and the New Zealand Labour Party and

maintained that in no way could it be described as a "hatchet job".

While rejecting the concept that balance or bias could be judged through the use of

"stop-watch journalism", RNZ pointed out that in actuality the time given Labour

politicians was slightly more than double that of one Alliance spokesperson. RNZ

said that it could find no reference during the programme to the Alliance sympathiser

named by the complainant who, he had claimed, had been interviewed.

RNZ argued that the programme did not focus on Ms Clark but on the apparent

irrelevance of traditional Labour and Socialist policies in a changing world. Comments

from political observers and academics were included. Ms Clark's leadership, RNZ

stated, was noted but was not the programme's thrust. As Labour Party

spokespeople had been given an opportunity to respond, RNZ denied that s.4(1)(d)

had been breached.

Mr Nairn's Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - 11 November

1994

Dissatisfied with RNZ's response, Mr Nairn referred his complaint to the

Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

He requested the Authority to conduct its own investigation of the programme's bias

and lack of balance.

RNZ's Response to the Authority - 15 November 1994

RNZ wrote:

The Company would reject the allegation that the programme either aimed to

"do a hatchet-job" on New Zealand Labour, or that, in fact, it did so. Mr

Nairn's recollection of the broadcast was not entirely accurate, as the

Company's informal and later formal response confirms; and his conclusions

regarding the purpose of the programme are not supported by an audition of the

programme.

It said its full response was contained in its informal and formal replies to Mr Nairn.

Mr Nairn's Final Comment to the Authority - 18 November 1994

Noting that he had listened to the entire programme and accepting that "stop-watch

journalism" was not necessary to prove balance, Mr Nairn maintained that the

broadcast was a biased attack on the Labour Party less than a week before the Selwyn

by-election.

He considered that despite RNZ's eloquent defence of the programme, the procession

of bitter attacks on Labour from its opponents was, in his opinion, a deliberate and

disgraceful onslaught by the programme's producers on the party.