BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Graf and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2019-071 (16 December 2019)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Susie Staley
Dated
Complainant
  • Marcus Graf
Number
2019-071
Programme
Morning Report
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand

Summary

This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority did not uphold a complaint that an interview on Morning Report with Martin Sellner, the leader of an Austrian far-right group, was unbalanced or misleading. Interviewer Corin Dann questioned Mr Sellner on the donation he had received from the alleged Mosque attacker and Mr Sellner’s choice to give some of the money to Victim Support, a charity assisting victims of the Mosque attacks. In response to other questions, Mr Sellner also provided some comment regarding his ideologies. During the interview, Mr Dann questioned whether Mr Sellner had a role in radicalising the alleged attacker and whether Mr Sellner felt any responsibility for the attacks. The Authority found that the balance standard was not breached considering the clear approach of the broadcast, focussing on the perspective of Mr Sellner, the introduction prior to the interview and Mr Dann’s questioning of Mr Sellner. The Authority also found the broadcast was unlikely to mislead listeners as it was clearly Mr Sellner’s opinion that was being portrayed during the interview. The Authority noted the potential for harm to be caused as a result of giving publicity to extremist ideologies but found the potential for harm ultimately did not reach the level required to justify a restriction of RNZ’s right to freedom of expression on this occasion.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  The Morning Report programme of 2 July 2019 featured an interview with Martin Sellner, leader of the Austrian far-right group Identitäre Bewegung Österreich (Identitarian Movement of Austria). Interviewer Corin Dann questioned Mr Sellner on the donation he had received from the alleged Mosque attacker and Mr Sellner’s choice to give some of the money to Victim Support, a charity assisting victims of the Mosque attacks. During the interview Mr Dann questioned whether Mr Sellner had a role in radicalising the alleged attacker and whether Mr Sellner felt any responsibility for the attacks. Mr Dann also accused Mr Sellner of marginalising and targeting Islam with hate speech.

[2]  The interview was broadcast on 2 July 2019 on RNZ National. In considering this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

Marcus Graf complained that the broadcast breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice for the following reasons:

  • Mr Sellner’s statements were not challenged or counter-balanced by Mr Dann. Mr Sellner was given ‘free reign’ to say whatever he wanted, as it was clear Mr Dann was not prepared for the interview.
  • Mr Sellner was promoting the same ideology that led to the Mosque attacks and hearing more of it on the radio had the potential to cause real and ongoing harm to a number of people.
  • Freedom of speech does not establish the right to promote far-right ideologies on a news programme.
  • ‘[F]ascist ideology is not just another opinion in the broad spectrum that is discussed in public discourse… It is not sufficient to say that the majority of people will recognise it for what it is and reject it.’
  • Specific concerns with the content of the broadcast included the following:
    • Promotion of Ideology - Mr Sellner raised a well-known far-right conspiracy theory that formed the basis of the alleged attacker’s manifesto without challenge and suggested it was appropriate that his ‘peaceful’ movement be given a voice and a platform after the terrorist event.
    • Depiction of the ‘donation’ - Mr Sellner portrayed himself as a victim in a difficult situation, having received an unwanted donation from the alleged attacker. Despite the broadcast calling Mr Sellner’s act a ‘donation’ it was not. It was Mr Sellner ‘passing off his problem’ to Victim Support. Victim Support were not given the opportunity to comment regarding the challenging situation they were put in by the ‘donation’.
    • Use of other half of ‘donation’ - Mr Dann should have inquired about Mr Sellner’s intentions with respect to the other half of the money received from the alleged attacker.

The broadcaster’s response

[3]  RNZ submitted the broadcast did not breach the broadcasting standards raised for the following reasons:

Balance

  • Earlier decisions by the Authority have indicated that in a ‘single source’ interview not all the requirements to provide significant points of view need to be achieved in that one interview.
  • There is no suggestion in the item that all perspectives were going to be canvassed. It is also reasonable to expect listeners would be aware of a range of views with respect to what was being discussed.
  • Mr Sellner was challenged at a number of points by Mr Dann particularly his comments about his claims of the ‘Islamisation of Europe’.
  • Not all comments made by Mr Sellner required a response from the programme as claimed by the complainant.

Accuracy

  • Mr Sellner was expressing his opinions in response to questions put to him by Mr Dann.
  • It is not clear which parts of the interview were considered inaccurate. No particulars are given in the referral or complaint to suggest which specific comments were considered inaccurate.
  • The complainant stated that Mr Sellner portrayed himself as a ‘victim’, but that is the complainant's opinion. It is not a fact that can be tested under the accuracy standard.

The relevant standards

[4]  The balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and 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.

[5]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.1

Our analysis

Freedom of expression and public interest

[6]  The right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, is the starting point in our consideration of complaints. Equally important is our consideration of the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.

[7]  Following the Mosque attacks, the issues of freedom of expression, hate speech and the dissemination of potentially harmful ideologies have been the subject of significant public and media discourse. We recognise the high level of public interest in the Mosque attacks and subsequent stories such as this one. It is an important role of the media in general to promote frank public discourse and discussion about issues of significant public interest, which, in turn, is an important feature of the right to freedom of expression and our democratic society.

[8]  However, we have to balance the right to freedom of expression with the harm that can be caused through the spread, incidental or otherwise, of political and social ideologies such as Mr Sellner’s. Broadcasters need to be mindful of who they give a voice to and question whether they are promoting healthy public discourse or putting sections of the community at risk.

[9]  This is a nuanced issue that is the subject of ongoing debate. With respect to this complaint, after much discussion, we recognise the potential for harm that arose from interviewing Mr Sellner and allowing him to voice his ideology on air, however, we do not consider it reaches a level that justifies the limitation of RNZ’s right to freedom of expression. We expand on this below.   

Balance

[10]  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’.2

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

[12]  The focus of the challenged broadcast was the ‘donation’ Mr Sellner had made to Victim Support. We are not satisfied that the particulars of the donation transaction in and of themselves amounted to a controversial issue of public importance.  However, considering the significant level of public interest in the Mosque attacks and the alleged attacker, we find that the broader issue of the activities and ideologies of Mr Sellner’s group and its influence over the alleged Mosque shooter did amount to a controversial issue of public interest for the purposes of the standard.  We also consider that it was ‘discussed’ within the programme. As we also accept that Morning Report is a news and current affairs programme, we find that the balance standard applies to this broadcast. 

[13]  The assessment of whether a reasonable range of other perspectives has been presented includes consideration of a number of factors, including:5 

  • whether the programme purported to be a balanced examination of an issue
  • whether the programme was clearly signalled as approaching a topic from a particular perspective
  • whether the programme was narrowly focused on one aspect of a larger, complex debate
  • whether listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage, including coverage in other media.

[14]  Ultimately, the objective is to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion (which is important to the operation of an open and democratic society).6

[15]  In this case, we consider that objective was satisfied. It was clear from the outset that the interview was approaching the subject from Mr Sellner’s perspective, as one of the central figures in the story. The broadcast introduced the story, prior to the interview, giving listeners the relevant context and summarising Mr Sellner’s position: ‘I spoke to Mr Sellner, he says he didn’t play a role in radicalising the shooter.’ It was clear from this introduction that this did not purport to be a complete, balanced examination of the attempted donation or relationship between Mr Sellner and the shooter but rather an exploration and interrogation of Mr Sellner’s position.

[16]  We also note that Mr Dann referred to Mr Sellner as a ‘white supremacist’ and ‘far-right activist’ during the introduction, creating an audience expectation around the type of views that were to be expressed during the interview. Mr Dann made a point to challenge these views, asking Mr Sellner confrontational questions throughout the broadcast such as:

  • ‘But how can you say that when a lot of the rhetoric, a lot of the speech, a lot of the views that you express marginalise the Islamic religion, target the Islamic religion with hate speech, there is going to be a reaction to that?’
  • ‘Do you not accept there will be people listening to this interview who feel you are, in a sense, responsible for radicalising people like [the alleged attacker]?’
  • ‘Well you are, you’re using the word “Islamisation”’ (stated in response to Mr Sellner denying he was targeting Islamic people with his ideologies).

[17]  With respect to the complainant’s submissions that Mr Dann allowed Mr Sellner to spread extreme far-right views in the broadcast without challenge or balancing comment, we recognise that Mr Sellner made several comments expressing his views about Islam during the interview. However these were not the focus of the interview and were challenged by Mr Dann (as noted in the preceding paragraph). In addition, given extensive media coverage of these ideologies following the Mosque shootings we consider listeners would have been aware of a range of perspectives on this topic.7

[18]  With respect to the complainant’s submission that Mr Sellner portrayed himself as a victim in a difficult situation (with regard to handling of the donation) and that comment should have been sought from Victim Support, we note Mr Dann summarised Victim Support’s position during the broadcast’s introduction saying ‘Victim Support says accepting the money would be wrong’. When considering the summary of Victim Support’s position combined with the media coverage this story received, we find it likely that listeners would have been aware of a range of perspectives, including that of Victim Support, about Mr Sellner’s attempt to give the money received from the alleged attacker to Victim Support.8

[19]  Finally, with respect to the submission that Mr Dann did not enquire regarding the other half of the donation, we accept that there was no such enquiry.  However, the broadcast the complainant has complained about did not contain the statement the complainant has referenced (ie a statement from Sellner that he intended to donate the other half of the money to an aid organisation).  Accordingly, we do not consider listeners would be materially misinformed regarding the use of the balance of the monies.

[20]  Overall, considering the clear approach of the broadcast, focussing on the perspective of Mr Sellner, the introduction prior to the interview and Mr Dann’s questioning, we find balance was achieved. We consider the broadcast would have enabled the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

[21]  Therefore we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.

Accuracy

[22]  Determination of a complaint under the accuracy standard occurs in two steps. The first step is to consider whether the programme was inaccurate or misleading. The second step is to consider whether reasonable efforts were made by the broadcaster to ensure that the programme was accurate and did not mislead.9 Being ‘misled’ is defined as being given ‘a wrong idea or impression of the facts.’10 Programmes may be misleading by omission.11

[23]  The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.12 Where statements of fact are at issue, the standard is concerned only with material inaccuracy. Technical or unimportant points unlikely to significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the programme as a whole are not material.13

[24]  While the complainant has challenged Mr Sellner’s portrayal of and motivations behind the ‘donation’ matter, we consider he has not identified any specific statements from the broadcast as being inaccurate.  For this reason, we have focussed on whether the interview as a whole was misleading.

[25]  As discussed under the balance standard, listeners were likely to understand the focus of the interview was to present and challenge the perspective of the interviewee about his views on giving the money received from the alleged attacker to Victim Support. The introduction to the broadcast clearly sets out that the interview will focus on Mr Sellner’s point of view and opinions. The interview features Mr Sellner giving his opinion on the money received from the alleged attacker, what if any role Mr Sellner played in the radicalising of the alleged attacker and various comments regarding the current state of Austria. It is clear from the broadcast that these are the opinions of Mr Sellner which were contested and challenged by Mr Dann during the interview.

[26]  Considering the framing of the interview, the nature of the interview and Mr Dann’s questioning of Mr Sellner, we find listeners were unlikely to be misled by the broadcast.

[27]  Therefore, we do not uphold the complaint under this standard.

 

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 2019

 

 

 

 


Appendix

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

1  Marcus Graf’s formal complaint – 8 July 2019

2  RNZ’s response to the complaint – 26 August 2019

3  Mr Graf’s referral to the Authority – 8 September 2019

4  RNZ’s further comments – 30 September 2019

5  Mr Graf’s final comments – 12 October 2019

6  RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 23 October 2019


1 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
2 Guideline 8a
3 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
4 As above
5 Guideline 8c
6 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
7 See for example: Hate speech – we need to understand the damage it does (Stuff, 19 March 2019) and Does airing alt-right views normalise racism and bigotry? (Newshub, 6 August 2018)
8 See for example: Victim Support rejects donation from far-right Austrian leader, given to him by alleged Christchurch gunman  (Stuff, 1 July 2019), Martin Sellner: A history of 'non-violent' violence ( Newshub, 2 July 2019) and Victim Support spurns donation from far-right figure Martin Sellner to mosque attack victims (NZ Herald, 2 July 2019)
9 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 19
10 Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd, CIV-2011-485-1110
11 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 19
12 As above
13 As above