BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Gould and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2020-070 (16 December 2020)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Michael Gould
Number
2020-070
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand

Summary  

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint under the balance standard concerning an RNZ news item reporting on fires at cell phone towers in Auckland. The item noted in Britain dozens of cell towers have been set alight reportedly by people who believe 5G technology was spreading COVID-19. The complaint was that the item should also have pointed out the ‘existence of serious and responsible groups who peacefully oppose 5G’. The Authority found the item was a brief, straightforward news report which did not amount to a ‘discussion’, therefore the balance standard and the requirement to present alternative viewpoints did not apply.

Not Upheld: Balance


The broadcast

[1]  A news item broadcast on Radio New Zealand (RNZ) Concert at 9am on 17 May 2020 reported on two fires at cell phone towers in Auckland:

There have been another two fires at cell phone towers in Auckland overnight. Police are investigating the fires in the suburbs of Weymouth and Clenden, which happened at around 11 o’clock last night. It brings the total of suspected attacks on towers to 17 over the past two months. In Britain, dozens of cell phone towers have been set alight, reportedly by people who believe the unproven theory that 5G technology is helping to spread the coronavirus.

[2]  In considering this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[3]  Michael Gould initially complained to RNZ alleging the above reporting breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice on the following grounds:

  • There is a worldwide movement, including many in New Zealand, who are concerned with possible health issues ‘of our rushing headlong into 5G technologies without significant research being done first’.
  • RNZ was ‘citing what are basically rumours’ (by suggesting that those setting fires in Britain reportedly believe conspiracy theories about 5G).
  • RNZ did not balance this by acknowledging ‘the existence of serious and responsible groups who peacefully oppose 5G and related technologies’.
  • This would lead listeners to believe anyone who opposed 5G must be ‘weird, [a] kook or conspiracy nutter’ when they are actually in the minority.

The broadcaster’s response

[4]  RNZ’s response indicated it was not able to take the complaint any further, and so it was not upheld, as Mr Gould did not identify the specific broadcast item complained about. The broadcaster was nevertheless able to locate the item described above in paragraph [1] and said even if the broadcast had been correctly identified, it would not uphold the complaint as a breach of the nominated standards because:

  • It did not agree with Mr Gould’s characterisation of the item, which ‘very accurately reported’ the situation in Britain and was consistent with other news reports in this regard.
  • ‘In a relatively short piece in a news bulletin it is not practical to include every aspect of the debate when covering one aspect of a high profile issue. The focus of this story was primarily the extent of damage to a number of cell phone towers as a result of attacks at that time. It was not an in-depth review of the effects of 5G or other technologies. For this reason, no issues of balance arose on this occasion.’

[5]  RNZ also advised Mr Gould of his right to refer to the matter to the Authority.

[6]  Mr Gould accepted RNZ’s response under the accuracy standard and attempted to resubmit his complaint in relation to the 17 May 2020 RNZ Concert programme RNZ identified, under the balance standard. This second complaint was outside the statutory timeframe and so not accepted or responded to by RNZ. Having received no further response, Mr Gould subsequently referred the original complaint to the Authority under the balance standard only, with respect to the item RNZ identified.

The standard

[7]  The balance standard requires broadcasters to present significant alternative viewpoints in news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.

Our analysis

Authority’s jurisdiction

[8]  We are satisfied Mr Gould’s initial complaint was sufficient to trigger the formal complaints process and the Authority’s jurisdiction, even though he did not give specific broadcast details. While formal complaints must relate to a specific programme,1 RNZ was able to identify and locate an item that matched the concerns raised in the complaint, suggesting the complainant provided adequate information to enable the broadcaster to properly respond to those concerns and make an assessment against the broadcasting standards raised. RNZ has also willingly participated in the Authority’s referral process.

Freedom of expression

[9]  The right to freedom of expression is an important right in a democracy and it is our starting point. Our task when we consider a complaint is to weigh the right to freedom of expression against the harm that may have been caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified, in light of the actual or potential harm caused.

Application of the balance standard in this case

[10]  The balance standard only applies to situations where a ‘controversial issue of public importance’ is ‘discussed’ in ‘news, current affairs or factual programmes’.2 Accordingly, when we consider a balance complaint, the first question is whether the broadcast met those three requirements.

[11]  An issue of public importance is something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public.3 A controversial issue will be one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.4

[12]  We have previously found that brief, straightforward news reports like this do not amount to ‘discussions’.5 The item simply reported there were two more incidents in a series of suspected attacks, similar to those occurring in Britain, in relation to unproven concerns about 5G. This was not purporting to be a discussion of such theories or, more broadly, views in favour of, and opposed to, introducing 5G. As such, the broadcaster was not required to present alternative viewpoints on the nature of various anti-5G protests.

[13]  As the balance standard does not apply, we do not uphold the complaint.

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

 

 Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

16 December 2020    

 


Appendix

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

1  Michael Gould’s complaint to RNZ – 17 May 2020

2  RNZ’s response to the complaint – 16 June 2020

3  Mr Gould’s response to RNZ and attempt to resubmit his complaint –
18 June 2020

4  Mr Gould’s referral to the Authority – 7 July 2020

5  RNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 11 August 2020


1 It is the duty of every broadcaster to receive and consider formal complaints about any programme broadcast by it where the complaint constitutes, in respect of that programme, an allegation that the broadcaster has failed to comply with programme standards: Broadcasting Act 1989, s 6.
2 Guideline 8a
3 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
4 As above
5 See for example Rose and Television New Zealand, Decision No. 2018-078 at [20]