Family First New Zealand and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2021-046 (2 August 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Family First New Zealand
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority did not uphold a complaint about four items on Morning Report covering an open letter to Government calling for ‘a major overhaul of the drug laws’. The Authority found the items did not breach the balance standard, as, while they discussed a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applied, a reasonable range of perspectives were included, particularly given they were reporting on the publication of the open letter. In the context of items covering a challenge to the status quo, and when debate around drug reform is an ongoing issue in New Zealand, it was unlikely that listeners would have been left uninformed or unaware there were other perspectives on this issue.
Not Upheld: Balance
 On 12 April 2021, four items on Morning Report covered an open letter signed by ‘a high powered group of 25 individuals and organisations…calling for a major overhaul of the drug laws’. The group wants ‘drug use to be treated as a health issue and says the 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act is fundamentally outdated’. Representatives from three of the signatory organisations and a youth worker were interviewed on items throughout the programme, which included the following comments:
- ‘[Māori] might be more likely to be stopped and talked to by police, more likely to be charged, more likely to be found guilty and more likely to receive a harsher sentence. That's our justice system and we need to decouple that from what is a basic health need.’ – Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen, National Hauora Coalition
- ‘It affects employment, education, income, access to housing, and it's practically unnecessary. Many other jurisdictions around the world are taking a harm reduction approach.’ – Dr McKree Jansen
- ‘…thousands and thousands of people, disproportionately Māori and disproportionately young people, continue to be punished for struggling with health and addiction to drugs. And not only are our current drug laws pushing them into the criminal justice system where they frequently don't get the help that they need, but also suffer these lifelong consequences of the stigma, shame and loss of opportunity from a charge or conviction’. – Tanya Sawicki Mead, JustSpeak
- ‘[The Misuse of Drugs Act is] a really incoherent piece of legislation that doesn't give people working in the health or justice systems a directive on how to actually respond to drug harm in an effective and compassionate way’. – Ms Sawicki Mead
- ‘[The law is] out of step with what is now decades of evidence, international practice is increasingly in favour of more of a health-based approach’. – Sarah Helm, New Zealand Drug Foundation
- ‘We would like to see something a lot like that Portugal model that's been in place for 20 years... Now we have countries like Norway, Oregon, New South Wales…considering and starting to implement these types of models as well. Canada are making some similar changes. And so what it might look like is essentially maybe it's still illegal, but you might get something more like a parking ticket, if you like, wrapped in some health advice and/or treatment depending on the person's situation… we still would think that trafficking and commercial dealings should remain illegal…However, maybe having a look at the penalties attached to those’. – Ms Helm
- Regarding the Medical Association’s signing of the letter: ‘…people may remember ahead of the last election…where there was the cannabis referendum, the Medical Association, I think, initially took an anti-cannabis approach and then a neutral stance was adopted just before the election. That sort of mixed messaging, does that help…?’ - Interviewer
 Family First New Zealand complained the broadcast was biased as it did not reference any dissenting opinion:
- The four items on Morning Report only had interviewees ‘from the Yes side of the cannabis debate’.
- ‘The report also said that the signatories to the letter “bring together those on both sides of last year’s cannabis debate”. That was completely false and misleading. There is no signatory that was on the NO side (SayNopeToDope campaign). Of course, that would have made an interesting question for an inquiring media – why not?’
- When RNZ ‘finally allowed pushback in the afternoon from Andrew Little’ it ‘immediately and appropriately sought a dissenting voice - not one, but two (Chloe Swarbrick and JustSpeak)’.
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:
- ‘The producers had difficulty finding the space to adequately cover a reasonable range of arguments in favour of a law change.’
- It was a developing story, and ‘by afternoon RNZ was quoting Andrew Little, who ruled out any major change to the drug laws, saying such changes would require a referendum’.
- ‘Morning Report presented a range of views, the vast majority in favour of legislative changes. RNZ also presented a dissenting view, within the period of current interest.’
 The balance standard1 states when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs or 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
 We have listened to the broadcast items and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 The right to freedom of expression is an important right in a democracy and it is important that we weigh the right to freedom of expression against the harm that may have potentially been caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.
 The harm alleged in this case is that by omitting balancing viewpoints, the broadcaster did not enable viewers to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion on the issue being discussed, whether the government should engage in an ‘overhaul’ of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, specifically by taking drug issues out of the criminal justice system and taking a health-based approach.
 The balance standard only applies when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs or factual programming.3 We find the issue in this programme, the potential decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, is an issue of great importance to the New Zealand public, and is controversial (particularly as it excites conflicting opinion or debate4). Morning Report is clearly news and current affairs. Accordingly, the balance standard applies.
 In assessing whether a reasonable range of other perspectives were presented in the programme, we took into account the following:5
- Morning Report was reporting regarding a specific new development, publication of the open letter calling for drug law reform.
- The interviews in Morning Report were based around the publication of the open letter, and the signatories’ reasoning for it. This means it was signalled to listeners that the reports were approaching the subject from the perspective of those behind the open letter.
- When a challenge to the status quo is presented (in this case, a significant change to 45-year-old legislation), listeners can reasonably be expected to be aware there are other perspectives on the issue.
- The interviewers’ questions acknowledged the existence of other perspectives, for example:
- ‘The war on drugs is pretty controversial. Some people say it doesn’t work at all. Other people say it is a pretty effective tool in stopping drug use. What is happening overseas…?’
- ‘Is there a groundswell wanting this to happen in New Zealand because we had the recent cannabis referendum which failed? Is New Zealand ready for this?’
- ‘The law in its current state…because it is one that, I guess, Māori and Pasifika in particular are kind of hit harder by…is that because of the law, the actual legislation itself, or is it the implementation of it?’
- A variety of perspectives were included in the item, which, although all from signatories or supporters of the open letter, were relevant and significant viewpoints on the issue.
- An opposing view was presented in later coverage from RNZ, with comments from Health Minister Andrew Little.6
- Other media also covered the issue,7 and debate around drug reform has been and continues to be a current issue in New Zealand.8
 In these circumstances, the balance standard did not require the inclusion of any further perspectives within the items on Morning Report. We note the focus of the standard is to ensure the audience is not misinformed by the omission of a significant viewpoint or viewpoints.9 Given, in particular, the recent cannabis referendum and broad-ranging public debate about drug reform in New Zealand, we think it unlikely that listeners would have been left uninformed or unaware there were other perspectives on this issue.
 Finally, we note the complainant’s suggestion that the host should have asked why the letter had no signatories from ‘the NO side’ of the cannabis referendum when the report said ‘the signatories to the letter’ brought together ‘those on both sides of last year’s cannabis debate’. However, the broadcast items did not include such a comment or otherwise state or imply that signatories to the letter included those who had voted no in the referendum. It included comment that people ‘across the whole spectrum of the cannabis legalisation debate’ agreed that punishing people for struggling with drug use was not achieving anything, that there was a need for cross-party consensus and that a ‘broad church of organisations’ had signed the letter. Listeners were therefore unlikely to be misled by the absence of any question along the lines suggested.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
2 August 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Family First NZ’s original complaint to RNZ – 13 April 2021
2 RNZ’s response – 7 May 2021
3 Family First NZ’s referral to the Authority – 7 May 2021
4 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 29 June 2021
1 Standard 8 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 Guideline 8a
4 Commentary, Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 Guideline 8c
6 Craig McCulloch “Misuse of Drugs Act overhaul off the cards for now, Andrew Little says” RNZ (online ed, 12 April 2021)
7 See for example: “Drug reform has a timing problem” Stuff (online ed, 13 April 2021); Caitlin Ellis “Cross-sector coalition calls on Government to treat drugs as health issue, rewrite Misuse of Drugs Act” Newshub (online ed, 12 April 2021); Audrey Young “Coalition calls for health-based approach to drug use in open letter to Govt” NZ Herald (online ed, 12 April 2021); Joel Maxwell “Dozens of organisations pen open letter calling for drug laws to be dumped and replaced” Stuff (online ed, 12 April 2021)
8 See for example: Joel MacManus “Cannabis referendum: The arguments for and against legalising recreational cannabis” Stuff (online ed, 23 July 2020); Kerre McIvor “Aaron Ironside from Say Nope to Dope on why cannabis shouldn’t be legalized” Newstalk ZB (online ed, 26 August 2020); Ben Strang “Cannabis age limit won’t reduce harm in young people, campaigners say” RNZ (online ed, 15 October 2020); Joel MacManus “Referendum results: Legal cannabis opponents celebrate ‘common sense’ victory” Stuff (online ed, 30 October 2020)
9 Commentary, Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18; see also Honour The Maunga and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2021-049 at