BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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GE Free NZ in Food & Environment Inc and Discovery NZ Ltd - 2024-007 (20 March 2024)

  • Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
  • John Gillespie
  • Aroha Beck
  • Pulotu Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i
  • GE Free NZ in Food & Environment Inc


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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that a segment on AM, discussing the possible deregulation of GMOs, breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand. The segment included two interviews with proponents for deregulation, which the complainant considered to be unbalanced, resulting in the audience being misled. The Authority did not uphold the balance complaint, finding the segment adequately acknowledged the existence of other perspectives, and that the topic had a long history of controversy, meaning the audience could reasonably be expected to be aware of different perspectives. The Authority did not uphold the accuracy complaint, finding the introduction of one of the interviewees was not misleading.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance

The broadcast

[1]  An episode of AM, broadcast 5 December 2023, featured a segment on the Government’s proposal to liberalise regulations around genetic modification. The segment was introduced by one of the hosts, Melissa Chan-Green, with the following statement:

GMO [Genetically Modified Organism] has been a controversial acronym in New Zealand. Since 2003, genetically modified organisms, especially plants, have effectively been banned in New Zealand. Well now, the New Zealand First coalition agreement says this: the Government will liberalize genetic engineering laws while ensuring strong protections for human health and the environment. So to join us more to talk about this more, British author Mark Lynas, who wrote a book called Seeds of Science about his journey from anti-GE activist, and Mark joins us now from Dubai, where he is for COP28.

[2]  The segment continued with the interview of Lynas, and then switched to an interview with Andy Allan, a New Zealand professor of biological sciences at the University of Auckland, who spoke about what changes to the legislation would mean for New Zealand scientists.

[3]  The broadcast included the following points:

  • An explanation ‘in layman’s terms’ of what GMOs are, including noting that GMO technology has been used in world agriculture for more than two decades. [Lynas]
  • That GMOs are ‘controversial’, but that after 25 years of investigations, maintaining a ‘ban on GMOs is nonsensical’. And that ‘there’s no scientific evidence of any harm to health.’ [Lynas]
  • There are concerns around the intellectual property and ownership of GMO produce – ‘One of the concerns that remains among people, though, is that, agricultural companies own the tech behind gene editing. They fund a lot of the research, potentially. Could you lose control over the produce that you grow?’ [Chan-Green]
  • That the above concerns applied to any agricultural products, and that many GMOs were off patent now. [Lynas] 
  • That Europe and the UK were changing regulations, and New Zealand was a ‘laggard,’ and it was time New Zealand farmers were able to access what other farmers around the world were using. [Lynas]
  • Concerns that deregulating GMOs could have a detrimental impact on our export reputation, and questioning Lynas on whether there is some value to NZ maintaining being GMO free. [Chan-Green]
  • There may be no benefit in maintaining a GMO free status, as people could always purchase organics if they wanted to be GMO free. [Lynas]
  • There may be environmental benefits to GMOs, including reductions in pesticides, improvement in yields, reductions in inputs such as fertilisers. And that ‘a lot of these things can be delivered.’ [Lynas]
  • Questions on what a change of legislation would mean for scientists in New Zealand. [Chan-Green]
  • Discussion regarding the current restrictions being a blockage in the careers of biological scientists, who have had to go overseas to experiment with GMOs outside of the lab. [Allan]
  • That some of the GMO technologies were ‘edgy,’ and that there had been a conversation around these concerns for the last 25 years. [Allan]
  • That scientists in New Zealand wanted to use GMOs, and that GMOs’ use in combatting the climate crisis was more important than ‘the dance around this technology we’ve had for a long time now.’ [Allan]
  • That ‘GE-Free New Zealand say there is no evidence yet that we can actually make grasses that are more climate friendly.’ [Chan-Green]
  • That scientists are running trials overseas to try and prove that those grasses could work, and it would be ‘much better to run those trials here in New Zealand.’ [Allan]
  • Scientists are ‘very good at measuring everything’ and are ‘not doing anything that’s going to endanger anybody.’ They want to help with the ‘current crisis.’ [Allan]
  • That there would be future discussion on deregulation, as at this stage, there was only a brief mention of it in the coalition agreement. [Chan-Green]

The complaint

[4]  GE-Free NZ complained that the broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards of the Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand for the following reasons:


  • Both interviewees were ‘industry advocates,’ provided the same pro-GMO ‘view’ and balance was not achieved.
  • ‘Casual mention that other scientific and public views exist for preserving non-GMO production and GE-free is not sufficient for compliance with the broadcasting code.’
  • The mention of GE-Free NZ in the broadcast does not equate to GE-Free NZ’s perspective being provided.
  • ‘It is not a defence for breach of the code if a major national broadcaster looks to other media outlets to provide the balance that itself does not.’
  • TV3 shows a ‘pattern of unbalanced and unfair broadcasts’ on the issue of GMOs.


  • Mr Lynas was not introduced to the audience in a way that would make it clear that he is a controversial advocate for the biotechnology industry.1 The positioning of Mark Lynas to the viewer (as simply a journalist and author) was not transparent and verged on deceptive.
  • An impression was given that there has been no problem with GMOs/ GE overseas. This is not accurate. Mention could have been made of any number of concerns to provide accuracy, for example ‘the development of weed resistance’2; loss of export opportunities for GMO-Free, and certified organic food which does not allow use of GMO/GE3; increased use of herbicides on GMO/GE crops4; and international scientific objections to the deregulation agenda’.5

The broadcaster’s response

[5]  Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

  • ‘The Broadcast was focussed on the coalition government's proposal to liberalise legislation in relation to genetic engineering and specifically sought to understand how that might impact scientists in New Zealand. [WBD] is satisfied that Mr Lynas and Professor Allan, as experts in their fields, were suitable interviewees and that sufficient perspectives were presented.’
  • The presenter acknowledged the issue was controversial at the beginning of the segment, and noted GE-Free NZ’s position on the issue so the audience also had the benefit of hearing that perspective.
  • The balance standard ‘does not require that every possible view on a complex issue be contained within one broadcast.’ The issue of GMOs has been the subject of considerable media attention. [WBD] maintains that viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage by Newshub and by other media outlets.’
  • The complainant had not specified what points in the broadcast they consider to be inaccurate, and WBD had not identified any material errors of fact.

The standards

[6]  The balance standard6 ensures competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.7 The standard only applies to news, current affairs, and factual programmes, which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.8

[7]  The purpose of the accuracy standard9 is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.10 It states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure news, current affairs or factual content is accurate in relation to all material points of fact and does not mislead. Where a material error of fact has occurred, broadcasters should correct it within a reasonable period after they have been put on notice.

[8]  We note the complainant has made some submissions under the accuracy standard that are more appropriately addressed as issues of balance. The argument regarding an inappropriate impression being given regarding GMOs and genetic engineering by the failure to mention the issues outlined in paragraph [4], is an allegation that omission of one side of the story (i.e. a lack of balance) has effectively misled the audience. We have taken these submissions into account in our findings under balance but, for that reason, do not address them under the accuracy standard.

Our analysis

[9]  We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[10]  In Aotearoa New Zealand, principles of freedom of expression are enshrined in our constitutional law by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, at section 14:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form. [Our emphasis]

[11]  However, the broadcasting standards system recognises the right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right and it may be restricted, where such a restriction is reasonable and justified in a fair and democratic society. When we assess whether the exercise of the right ought to be restricted in broadcast content, we weigh the value of the particular broadcast against the actual or potential harm that may be caused by that broadcast, either to individuals or to society generally. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.11

[12]  In this case, the alleged harm is that people might be misled to be supportive of the deregulation of GMOs, by only receiving information on the benefits of GMOs, while not being made aware of the risks. We note this harm is moderated by the fact that at this stage, Parliament has not introduced any actual policy on changes to GMO regulation, and any changes would include public consultation, debate, and risk assessments. As such, the harm of people not having the opportunity to learn about the alleged risks of GMO before any regulatory changes are made, is limited.


[13]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to ‘news, current affairs and factual programmes’ which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance,’ it must be ‘controversial,’ and it must be ‘discussed.’12

[14]  The host, in their introduction to the segment, acknowledged the topic of GMO regulation was controversial, as did both interviewees, and we agree with this assessment. Given that the segment included two interviews on the topic, we are satisfied the segment amounted to a ‘discussion of a controversial issue of public importance.’ Accordingly, the balance standard applies.

[15]  The standard and guidelines reflect the present broadcasting environment in New Zealand and the increased flows of information available from sources and on topics of all kinds. Given the proliferation of information available to today’s audiences, complaints under this standard will rarely be upheld. However, it provides protection in cases where balancing viewpoints on controversial issues have not been available across time, different programmes, or different media.13

[16]  We acknowledge the complainant’s concerns that both interviewees provided a perspective in favour of liberalising regulations around GMOs and certain issues with GMOs were not mentioned. However, for the below reasons, we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard: 

  • The balance standard does not require every significant perspective on an issue to be presented in every programme discussing that issue. Rather, previous Authority decisions recognise that acknowledging the existence of other views may be sufficient to meet the requirements of the standard.14
  • The controversial nature of GMOs, and the existence of other perspectives on the issue, was raised in the introduction by the host, Chan-Green, in her statement: ‘GMO has been a controversial acronym in New Zealand. Since 2003, genetically modified organisms, especially plants, have effectively been banned in New Zealand’. During the interviews, other perspectives were also acknowledged by Chan-Green’s questioning, as noted above at [3], including that: there are concerns around the intellectual property in GMO seeds, and possible loss of control by farmers; there are concerns about New Zealand’s export profitability if regulations were relaxed; and there are concerns the alleged climate change benefits of GMOs have not been proven.
  •  The requirement to present significant points of view is likely to be reduced, or in some cases negated where the audience could reasonably be expected be aware of views expressed in other coverage, including coverage by other media outlets.15 The standard does not require individual broadcasters to cover all perspectives themselves. As noted in the broadcast, the debate around GMO regulation has been long-running. That, together with the resurgence of media coverage on the point since the National Party’s June 2023 announcement of its intention to relax relevant regulations,16 means viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of alternative perspectives on GMO regulation.17
  • Finally, the standard allows for balance to be achieved over time within the period of current interest.18 As noted in a previous decision19, while the topic of genetic engineering and genetic modification is a long-running issue, arguably the period of interest in this case was triggered in June 2023 when the National Party made its announcement about relaxing relevant regulations.20 With the new Government yet to make a decision on changes to the regulation of genetic modification and genetic engineering, the period of interest is ongoing. The ongoing nature of this discussion was acknowledged by Chan-Green in her concluding statement: ‘Well, there's still a lot of flesh on the bone still to come. Obviously, all we've heard is this note in the coalition agreement about liberalizing our GE laws.’

[17]  Applying the above factors, we do not find any breach of the balance standard or harm outweighing the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.


[18]  Determination of a complaint under the accuracy standard occurs in two steps. The first step is to consider whether the programme was materially inaccurate or misleading. The second step is to consider whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the programme was accurate and did not mislead.

[19]  The standard is concerned only with material inaccuracies. Technical or unimportant points that are unlikely to significantly affect viewers’ understanding of the programme as a whole are not considered material.21

[20]  The complainant considers the programme to be misleading by presenting Lynas as an author, when in the complainant’s view, Lynas is ‘a controversial advocate for the biotechnology industry.’

[21]  We acknowledge the complainant’s concerns; however, we note that it is not the Authority’s role to determine if Lynas ‘is a controversial advocate for the biotechnology industry,’ or if he has conflicts that impact his views on the topic. Our role is limited to applying the relevant broadcasting standard and guidelines in the Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand, to assess whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy and to ensure that the programme was not misleading, and more broadly whether there was actual or potential harm caused by the broadcast at a level that warrants regulatory intervention or restricting freedom of expression.22

[22]  Lynas is a well published author (with two books promoting the benefits of GMOs,23  and several others on other topics such as climate change and nuclear power). In looking at what the complainant considers was omitted from the introduction, we note the host introduced Lynas as the author of ‘a book called Seeds of Science, about his journey from anti-GE activist.’ While not specifying Lynas’ alleged advocacy for the GMO industry, we consider most audience members would understand this introduction to indicate Lynas had changed his views from being anti-GE and was therefore not on the broadcast to provide an anti-GE/GMO perspective. His perspective on GMOs was also very clear from his comments on the programme.

[23]  Overall, we do not agree that the introduction of Lynas was misleading, or that it created any harm outweighing the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression or justifying regulatory intervention.

For the above reasons, the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Susie Staley
20 March 2024    




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

1  GE-Free NZ’s formal complaint to WBD – 5 December 2023

2  WBD’s response to the complaint – 18 January 2024

3  GE-Free NZ’s referral to the Authority – 31 January 2024

4  WBD’s confirmation of no further comment – 1 February 2024

1 Michael Antoniou; Claire Robinson, Irina Castro & Angelika Hilbeck “Agricultural GMOs and their associated Pesticides: misinformation, science, and evidence” Environmental Sciences Europe 35, 76 (2023)
2 “Fifteen Years Later, Glyphosate Resistant Creeping Bentgrass is Still Creating Problems in Oregon” Hygeia (6 July 2018)
3 Nora Faris & Leif Rehder “Voluntary GMO-Free Labelling Program Generates 11 Billion Dollars” Global Agricultural Information Network (28 June 2019) Report No. GM19022
4 Charles M. Benbrook “Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally” Environmental Sciences Europe 28, 3 (2016)
5 “EU environmental ministers give clear signal to Commission to maintain precautionary principle & risk assessment for NGTs” Organic Europe (22 March 2023)
6 Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
7 Commentary, Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand, page 14
8 Guideline 5.1
9 Standard 6, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand 
10 Commentary, Standard 6, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand, page 16
11 Introduction, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand, page 4
12 Guideline 5.1
13 Commentary, Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand, page 15
14 Ong and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2022-029, at [11]; Bidwell and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-003, at [20]; Watkin and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2022-091 at [16].
15 Guideline 5.4
16 “NZ’s GMO laws to be loosened under National govt – Luxon” 1News (online ed, 11 June 2023)
17 Tina Morrison “Fonterra has an open mind on exploring genetic modification” Stuff (online ed, 14 June 2023); Christine Rose “National Party genetic engineering policy a dangerous joke” Greenpeace press release (13 June 2023); Hamish Bidwell “Hawkes Bay contemplates renewed fight to keep its GM-Free status: ‘You can’t stuff the genie back in’” NZ Herald (online ed, 11 July 2023); Susan Bottling “Kaipara’s tougher GE stance at risk of being diluted, campaigners say” NZ Herald (online ed, 26 September 2023); David Williams “Grass isn’t greener for GM trial in Australia” Newsroom (3 July 2023); “Survey shows NZ’ers wary over gene edited crops” RNZ (online ed, 24 July 2023)
18 Guideline 5.2
19 GE Free NZ in Food & Environment Inc and Discovery NZ Ltd, Decision No. 2023-115
20 “NZ’s GMO laws to be loosened under National govt – Luxon” 1News (online ed, 11 June 2023)
21 Guideline 6.2
22 See End-Of-Life Choice Society NZ and Mediaworks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2020-094 [31] – [32] for a similar finding.
23 Mark Lynas “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans” (2011) National Geographic Society; Mark Lynas “Seeds of Science: How we got it wrong on GMOs” (2018) Bloomsbury Publishing