Battye and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 1995-045
- I W Gallaway (Chair)
- W J Fraser
- L M Loates
- Susan Battye
ProgrammeTop of the Morning
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
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.
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
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
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
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
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
31 May 1995
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.