BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Battye and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 1995-045

Members
  • I W Gallaway (Chair)
  • W J Fraser
  • L M Loates
Dated
Complainant
  • Susan Battye
Number
1995-045
Programme
Top of the Morning
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio


Summary

Top of the Morning is a programme hosted by Brian Edwards and broadcast weekly on

Saturday mornings on National Radio.

Ms Susan Battye complained that comments broadcast on 29 October 1994 breached

broadcasting standards. In his interview of actress Elizabeth McRae, Ms Battye

alleged that Brian Edwards made sexist and defamatory remarks, refused to allow Ms

McRae to respond, dominated the interview, asked leading questions and made

salacious and sexist remarks. In her view, the programme lacked balance.

After some initial confusion about the status of the complaint, RNZ made a detailed

response in which it pointed out that Top of the Morning was a programme which

allowed both presenter and interviewees to present their opinions and that approach

was well understood by listeners. It denied that any standards were breached and

declined to uphold any aspect of the complaint. Dissatisfied with that decision, Ms

Battye 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 programme 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.

The weekly Saturday morning programme on National Radio Top of the Morning

hosted by Brian Edwards, includes interviews, comment and music. In the programme

broadcast on 29 October 1994, actress Elizabeth McRae was one of the guests

interviewed. In the course of their conversation, the host referred to an incident in

which Mervyn Thompson, who had taught drama with Ms McRae had been tied to a

tree by a group of women and commented that in his view, those women had "in fact"

murdered him. Later in the interview he referred to his guest's Shortland Street

character as a "gossip" and asked her if she received any "offers" when she was out in

public as did the younger performers on Shortland Street.


Ms Battye complained to RNZ that these remarks and others were outrageous and,

with respect to the Mervyn Thompson comment, defamatory. She suggested that the

whole tone of the interview betrayed the host's anti-women sentiments and that the

interviewee was denied the opportunity to respond properly to his patently sexist

remarks. Furthermore, she alleged that asking the actress whether her public

recognition resulted in any "offers" was a breach of good taste and decency and that

the whole interview lacked balance.

RNZ's initial response to the complaint was an informal one, since there was some

confusion about its status. The complainant incorrectly assumed that a response from

the General Manager of National Public Radio was its formal response and referred

that to the Authority. When the Authority sought RNZ's comments on the referral, it

was established that its earlier response had been an informal one only. Subsequently

a formal response was made some two and a half months later which, because of an

apparent problem with the mail, was not received until early March. RNZ rejected

certain aspects of the complaint, including comments on the host's personal style and

the allegation that he had made defamatory remarks, pointing out that these were not

standards matters. It assessed the complaint under the following standards, which

require broadcasters:

R2  To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and

good taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in

which any language or behaviour occurs.

R5  To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in

any programme.

R14 To avoid portraying people in a manner that encourages denigration of

or discrimination against any section of the community on account of

gender, race, age, disability, occupation status, sexual orientation or as

the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or

political beliefs. This requirement is not intended to prevent the

broadcast of material which is

a factual

b the expression of serious opinion, or

c in the legitimate use of humour or satire.


RNZ also assessed the complaint under the provision of the Broadcasting Act 1989

which reads:

s.4(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and

their presentation, standards which are 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.


While a number of aspects of the interview were complained about in the initial

correspondence with RNZ, only one aspect was referred to the Authority. That

concerned the comments about Mervyn Thompson and the suggestion that he was "in

fact" murdered by the women who tied him to the tree. In its response, RNZ

observed that the reference was explicitly qualified as the host's opinion and not

something he expected his guest to comment on and further, that the women involved

were not identified. It rejected the complaint that both the interviewee and the women

concerned were treated unfairly. RNZ noted that the host was clearly giving his own

opinion and that there was no possibility that his remarks could have been construed

otherwise. It added that Mr Thompson himself was convinced that his cancer was a

direct result of the tree incident. With respect to the complaint that no balancing

viewpoint was given, RNZ maintained that the requirement for balance did not arise in

this broadcast. Further, RNZ asserted that it was unable to conclude that the host's

remarks contained any anti-women statement and also rejected the complaint that

there was a breach of the standard requiring good taste and decency.

With respect to the complaint under standard R5 that the host refused to allow his

guest to speak, thus preventing the topic from being discussed in a balanced manner,

the Authority considered that he was not intending to stifle her comment. Rather he

was advising that she did not have to speak as it might have been an embarrassment

for her. The complainant referred to the host talking over the top of his interviewee

but after listening carefully to the whole interview the Authority noted that there were

regularly appreciable pauses during which the interviewee could have expanded on her

comments but chose not to do so. It declined to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

The Authority considered that the remarks about Mervyn Thompson were quite

clearly the host's opinion, based on his assessment of how Mr Thompson's health

had deteriorated after the incident. It noted that Mr Edwards had qualified his view

that the women had murdered Mr Thompson, by saying:

He was murdered, in fact, by those women, effectively ...


In the Authority's view, the host was entitled to hold that opinion, which was his

assessment of the impact of the incident. In a previous decision (No: 88/94)

concerning an opinion piece on radio, the Authority decided that the standard requiring

balance in that case was inappropriate since it was applicable to current affairs items

when an issue is being explored and explained to the listener. It wrote:

It is not, the Authority decided, relevant to an editorial or an opinion piece

where the commentator is unambiguously expressing an opinion.


In declining to uphold this aspect of the complaint, the Authority repeated that this

too was an example of an opinion piece which was unambiguously the view of the

host and that no balancing comment was required. It agreed with RNZ that the style

of the programme and of the host himself were sufficiently well established for

listeners to recognise that the comments were the host's opinion.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Iain Gallaway
Chairperson
31 May 1995


Appendix

Ms Susan Battye's Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd - 29 October 1994

Ms Susan Battye of Auckland complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd that comments

broadcast on National Radio on 29 October 1994 during the Top of the Morning

programme were sexist, derogatory and in breach of good taste.

She wrote that host Brian Edwards' interview of actress Elizabeth McRae contained

numerous breaches of broadcasting standards. She pointed to the reference to Mervyn

Thompson and quoted the host's remark when he said:

You worked with Mervyn Thompson who was tied to a tree by those women

and ended up dying of cancer - he was in fact murdered by those women.

Ms Battye described this comment as outrageous and patently defamatory. She

suggested that the host should be immediately suspended from air on the grounds that

he incited hatred of some unnamed women who were in no position to defend

themselves.

Ms Battye asserted that Mr Edwards' programmes were full of anti-women

comments. She noted that he frequently complimented male interviewees on their

talents and women on their beauty. She suggested that the actress had to fight to make

her points on the programme through a barrage of negative stereotypical remarks from

the host about women. She cited the guest's description of her character Marge as a

networker, whereas the host described her as a gossip and the remark at the end of the

interview where he asked the actress if she "got any offers" when she went to the

supermarket like the younger performers on Shortland Street as sexist, offensive,

defamatory and inappropriate.

Ms Battye alleged that there was no balance in the programme in terms of the

interviewee having the opportunity to respond properly to the host's flippant

assertions.

She requested a transcript of the programme.

In conclusion, Ms Battye wrote:

I cannot help but contrast this programme with the courtesy extended to

interviewees on Morning Report by all the presenters. Likewise, Kim Hill

must rank as one of the foremost broadcasters in the world for her perspicacity, her

even-handed interviewing and witty insights. This sort of journalism comes

of being widely read and well prepared on the topic.

As a final comment Ms Battye added that she found intolerable the host's attitude to

possible criticism, quoting an earlier programme when she recalled him saying:

"And the feminists needn't write to me complaining about what I've just said,

because I won't reply, Yah boo sucks!"

RNZ's Response - 24 November 1994

An informal response from the General Manager of New Zealand Public Radio, Sharon

Crosbie, advised Ms Battye that if she wished to make a formal complaint about the

programme, she was required to do so under one of the statutory standards of the

Broadcasting Act. She enclosed a pamphlet about the formal complaint process.

Ms Battye's Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - 13 December

1994

Dissatisfied with RNZ's response, Ms Battye referred her complaint to the

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

She repeated that the statement about Mervyn Thompson being murdered by women

who tied him to a tree was defamatory and placed the interviewee in an invidious

position because she was expected to make some comment on the assertion.

In addition, Ms Battye complained that during the course of the interview the host

talked over the top of the interviewee in an intimidating manner. She considered the

overall tone of the remarks by the host to be offensive, sexist and ageist. Referring to

the question about whether the actress had received offers in the supermarket as a

result of her role in Shortland Street, Ms Battye wrote:

I seriously doubt whether Brian Edwards would ask male subjects of a similar

age and reputation whether they receive any interesting Ôoffers' in the

supermarket.

RNZ's Response to the Authority - 20 December 1994

When asked to comment on Ms Battye's referral, RNZ responded that her original

letter, dated 29 October, made no mention of statutory standards nor did it state an

intention to make a formal complaint. Accordingly, RNZ wrote, a general

acknowledgment was sent but not a formal decision.

Ms Battye's Response to the Authority - 9 January 1995

When asked by the Authority whether she wished to dispute RNZ's interpretation of

her letter, Ms Battye advised that she considered her 29 October letter was a formal

complaint and that the grounds of the complaint were clear.

She added that she wished to continue with her complaint and would take any refusal

to deal with it very seriously.

Ms Battye maintained that the standards of broadcasting had been undermined by the

presenter and explained that this was the reason she wrote directly to the head of

National Radio. She added:

It would seem that in doing so I penalised myself and effectively removed a

democratic right to complain to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

RNZ's Explanation to the Authority - 12 January 1995

When referred the correspondence from Ms Battye, RNZ advised that had it

understood Ms Battye's letter of 29 October to be a formal complaint, it would have

formally acknowledged it as such.

It noted that while Ms Battye might have believed she was making a formal complaint,

having read Ms Crosbie's response of 24 November it should have been obvious that

the status of the complaint was not clear to RNZ. It pointed to its reply where Ms

Battye was advised that if she wished to pursue the formal complaint then the

position needed defining. It expressed its belief that in the absence of a letter stating it

was a formal complaint it was not unnatural that RNZ took the matter no further.

RNZ pointed out that the legislation did not provide for complaints to be made against

people, nor was defamation a matter for formal complaint. It noted that the main

emphasis of the letter appeared to be on general aspects of the host's character and

style which Ms Battye found unacceptable.

RNZ advised the Authority that it would agree to consider formally such issues as it

determined could be subject to statutory programme standards. It noted that the 60

working-day limit would run from 16 January, not from the date of receipt of the

informal complaint letter.

Ms Battye's Clarification to the Authority - 18 January 1995

When advised of the course of action proposed by RNZ, Ms Battye clarified the

reasons for her formal complaint.

She described the reference to the incident with Mervyn Thompson as a controversial

issue of public importance as defined in the Broadcasting Act. She also complained

that an opinion was presented as fact and was neither fair nor accurate, and it was

unfair for the interviewee to be expected to respond on the matter. Because of the

nature of the questions and the manner of the presenter, Ms Battye suggested that it

was impossible to achieve balance because the interviewee would have been

intimidated.

In addition, Ms Battye stated that she believed the programme denigrated women and

were offensive to them.

Ms Battye considered the question of whether the actress had received offers in the

supermarket was a breach of good taste and decency. She described it as a salacious,

denigrating remark. She also considered the reference to the younger actors receiving

such offers as ageist.

Ms Battye concluded that the interviewee had little opportunity to challenge the

remarks within the context of the programme without losing face.

RNZ's Formal Response to the Complaint - 8 March 1995

RNZ expressed its concern that apparently its response, which it had mailed at the

end of January, had not been received by Ms Battye.

RNZ provided a copy of its detailed response to the formal complaint in which it

concluded that a number of aspects which were not standards matters. These included

comments about the presenter and criticism of his general approach to issues.

It then responded to all points raised in the complaint. It suggested that the

complainant had drawn inferences from the interchange between the presenter and the

interviewee which were not justified and that her description of some of the comments

was not correct. RNZ considered that the complainant had placed greater emphasis

than was warranted on the comments made and suggested that if there was an issue, it

was more likely to involve standards dealing with good taste, fair treatment or the

portrayal of people.

RNZ suggested that the complaint was more of an attack on the host himself than a

complaint on statutory grounds about the broadcast. In response to the criticism that

an interview by Kim Hill would have been conducted differently, RNZ pointed out

that Brian Edwards interviewed with a different purpose and in a different context and

that his interview was typically a conversation between two personalities. It noted

that his programme was not intended to be an impersonal, unbiased factual report, but

rather one in which both presenter and interviewee were free to express their opinions.

In its view, the listener would be in no doubt about what was opinion.

In response to the allegation that the host dominated the interview and posed leading

questions, RNZ maintained that that allegation was not borne out by the broadcast. In

declining to uphold the complaint that the interviewee was not dealt with fairly, it

referred to the report provided by the host about the interview in which he had

commented that his subject made very brief responses at first in the interview because

she was nervous and that resulted in a "more of Edwards" impression as he worked to

keep the interview going.

Referring to the discussion of the Mervyn Thompson incident, RNZ described the

complainant's recollection of what was said as significantly inaccurate. It declined to

uphold the complaint that the comments were unfair either to the women referred to

or to the interviewee. It added that the host was entitled to express his opinion on the

matter (provided that it was clearly seen as opinion) and that defamation, even if it

could be held to have occurred, was not a ground for formal complaint.

RNZ maintained that it was unable to ascertain any anti-woman or anti-feminist

statement from the host.

Responding to the complaint concerning the "gossip" reference, RNZ noted that the

question of Elizabeth McRae's character Marge being a gossip was raised by McRae

herself. RNZ denied that she was treated unfairly or that negative stereotypical

remarks were made about women and declined to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Commenting on the interchange about being a star of Shortland Street and being

recognised, RNZ noted that the complainant misquoted the remarks about public

recognition and denied that the host's comments were "salacious, sexist, offensive,

defamatory and inappropriate". It declined to uphold this aspect.

RNZ stated that an audition of the programme did not bear out the complainant's

allegation that the host dominated the interview with overbearing interruptions. It

noted that the question of balance did not arise.

Finally, RNZ responded to the general criticism of the host and the programme, and

repeated that it was not intended to be a hard news programme and therefore some of

the comments were inappropriate and could not be determined in a formal complaint

context.

Ms Battye's Second Referral to the Authority - 26 March 1995

Dissatisfied with RNZ's decision, Ms Battye again referred her complaint to the

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

Commenting first on the delays which had ensued because RNZ's response had not

been received, Ms Battye noted that her detailed formal complaint sent on 18 January

had not been alluded to in the report from RNZ.

She also commented that she considered it unfair that in order to make a formal

complaint and be sure of one's ground it was necessary to purchase a copy of the

programme from Replay radio.

Having read RNZ's edited transcript of the conversation regarding Mervyn

Thompson, Ms Battye wrote that she wished to pursue this aspect of the complaint.

She considered that the host presented only one view of a matter of public

controversy and presented as fact an opinion that Mervyn Thompson was murdered

by the women who tied him to a tree. Ms Battye asked where else a balancing

viewpoint was given and asked if the matter was not for the guest to comment upon,

then why was it raised at all?

In Ms Battye's opinion, the guest was attempting to respond but was stopped by the

host. In her view this prevented the topic from being discussed in a balanced manner

and was accordingly in breach of broadcasting standards.

In a final comment, Ms Battye responded to RNZ's criticism of her incorrectly

addressing the complaint to the General Manager of National Radio instead of the

Chief Executive. She considered that the overall tone of RNZ's report was excessively

derisive.

RNZ's Response to the Authority - 31 March 1995

With reference to Ms Battye's complaint that RNZ had not commented on her letter

of 18 January, RNZ responded that it considered the substance of that letter to be the

same as the original and that it had not overlooked any points raised by confining its

response to the original letter.

Responding to the comment that complainants are disadvantaged if they do not have

access to the tapes, RNZ noted that it operated an information medium, not a

reference service.

With reference to the comments about Mervyn Thompson, RNZ repeated that it was

clearly the host's own opinion. It added:

Far from "stopping" McRae's comments by interjection, Edwards specifically

releases her from any possible compulsion, real or imaginary, felt by her or by

the audience, to make a comment on the matter (an alleged compulsion which

appears to have been a significant factor in Ms Battye's objections), and at the

same time clearly identifies the comment as his own opinion.

RNZ took issue with Ms Battye's description of its detailed consideration as

"derisive". It considered its response was unemotive and closely reasoned and that it

was clear that it considered no programme standards were breached.

Ms Battye's Final Comment -

When asked if she wished to make a brief final comment Ms Battye did not respond.