Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2021-029 (15 July 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Hawke’s Bay Regional Council
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint alleging an item on Morning Report misrepresented the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s views responding to iwi concerns about groundwater issues, including why local streams were drying up, and did not properly examine the complexity of the issues. The Authority found no breach of the balance standard as the item focused on one aspect of the issue and was clearly presented from the iwi’s perspective, and there is ongoing coverage of various viewpoints on the topic.
Not Upheld: Balance
 An item on Morning Report broadcast on 24 February 2021 (RNZ National) opened:
Iwi and the regional council in Hawke’s Bay are at loggerheads over why streams are drying up this summer. The Council first told RNZ it’s just a natural occurrence, but admitted there was more to it after RNZ queried this.
 The item went on to discuss the death of ‘hundreds of eels’ and the degradation of the Karewarewa and Paritua streams. Ngāti Kahungunu’s Director of Environment and Natural Resources commented, ‘the anecdote is that it’s not a natural occurrence, perhaps it’s becoming more and more common, but it’s not a natural occurrence…it’s basically over-extraction. It’s over-allocated’. The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) Chief Executive, James Palmer, said, ‘irrigation is a part of the story, but more fundamentally, this is a stream that, due to its location and to the geology around it, is prone to drying during a dry summer’. Mr Palmer then said, ‘there is certainly some question over whether or not it would dry up in summer if there was absolutely no abstraction across the Heretaunga Plains’.
 The HBRC complained ‘the report [was] not fair or balanced’ for the following reasons:
- Regarding the item’s introduction, ‘In fact the first quote from James Palmer is “irrigation is part of the story”. These two statements [this and the introduction] don’t line up as Mr Palmer did not say the stream condition was “just a natural occurrence” but listeners could have reasonably concluded that he did’.
- ‘We willingly clarified very technical scientific information to the reporter, including a day of science staff time spent reviewing data specifically for [the reporter]’.
- Information wasn’t included ‘that groundwater levels in the monitored bores in the area are still in the normal range this summer due to a wet spring, which further casts doubt on groundwater abstraction being the only driver of stream drying’.
- Given ‘this fact and the known limitations of the groundwater model no one can be sure whether the drying of the stream could be solved through even massive reductions in current water takes. We don’t believe Ngāti Kahungunu has produced any science to prove otherwise’.
- ‘The reporter states “The model found over 90 percent of water was lost in the Karewarewa near Bridge Pā because of pumping for irrigation.” In fact, the report is transparent about the modelling uncertainty in the Paritua/Karewarewa and some other areas of the Heretaunga Plains.’
- The reporter ‘failed to acknowledge that the Council science, on which he was supposedly relying…for his story, indicates that there are sections of the stream that naturally lose flow to the stream bed and dry up with limited impact from groundwater abstraction’.
- ‘There was no detailed coverage of what the Regional Council is doing to mitigate this situation – which has been progressing over seven years and involving $5 million+ of work with the community, New Zealand's most comprehensive study of a groundwater system, and a comprehensive plan change – as well as a ban on any new groundwater allocation having been imposed.’
- There was a lack of balance as Mr Palmer ‘was only given two very short quotes in the item’ despite the complexity of the issues. ‘Local iwi staff member Ngaio Tiuka got about four times more coverage as a proportion of the article. Furthermore… a Wellington-based campaigner, got more time than the Council Chief Executive did, even though she has no detailed local knowledge of the situation at all’.
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:
- The report presented and included audio of a range of views including from the Council, the iwi representative, and a spokesperson for the advocacy group Choose Clean Water.
- ‘While the council may feel disappointed that having provided additional briefing material to the reporter, the item relied on the words spoken by the Chief Executive, it does not mean to say that the item was in breach of the balance standard.’
- ‘In assessing the ‘weight’ given to various points of view, the BSA is generally not in favour of ‘stopwatch’ journalism… No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial issues of public importance’.
- It provided a chronology of interviews and correspondence between the reporter and Mr Palmer, showing:
- Mr Palmer saying in the first interview ‘irrigation is part of the story… but more fundamentally due to its location and the geology around it, [the stream] is prone to drying during a dry summer’.
- Mr Palmer responding in writing to further questions from the reporter, ‘…in simple terms the confusion likely arises from generalised statements about a stream that has a variable set of conditions and drivers along its full reach… it’s likely the [upper Paritua] stream would go dry on occasion as a consequence of prolonged periods without rain… further downstream in the lower Paritua/Karewarewa, the more recent modelling indicates that groundwater abstraction is likely to be causing the stream to go dry in parts…’
- Mr Palmer saying in the second interview, ‘there is certainly some question over whether or not it would dry up in summer if there was absolutely no abstraction across the Heretaunga plains’.
- Given this, the points included in the item gave a fair summary of the Council’s views as stated to the reporter across their various interactions.
 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 and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 Our task is to weigh the important right to freedom of expression (including both the broadcaster’s right to offer information, and the audience’s right to receive it) against the harm potentially caused by the broadcast, in this case referring to the objectives of the balance standard. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the level of harm justifies placing a reasonable limit on the right to freedom of expression.
Application of the balance standard
 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’.3
 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’.4 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.5
 Morning Report is clearly a news and current affairs programme. The coverage of regional groundwater issues is of public importance, both to the Hawke’s Bay region and to the rest of New Zealand where similar issues can and do arise. As discussed in this item, in the Hawke’s Bay the issue is also controversial, demonstrated by the differing perspectives on water management and its implications for locals, iwi and wildlife. Therefore, we find the balance standard applied to this broadcast.
Reasonable efforts to provide balance
 In assessing whether a reasonable range of views on the issue have been provided either within the item or within the period of current interest, we considered the following:6
Balance within the item
- The item was signalled as approaching the issue from a particular angle, with a focus on the iwi’s concerns about streams drying up and their attempts to have it addressed by Council (in their view, without success).
- The item also focused on one aspect of the issue, the potential cause of the streams drying up, and the different perspectives on this, rather than offering an in-depth examination of the actions being taken by the Council in response or the iwi’s participation in that response.
- The item included perspectives from the HBRC Chief Executive, local iwi, and a spokesperson for the advocacy group Choose Clean Water.
- As submitted by the broadcaster, balance is not achieved by a ‘stopwatch’ and it is not required that each perspective be given equal time – particularly where, as here, the item was presented from the iwi’s perspective.
- The item as a whole contained a reasonable summary of the key points conveyed by Council to the reporter over the course of their communications, and the points included provided adequate balance in the context. We do not consider the audience would have been misled or left uninformed about the Council’s broad position on the issue.
- The Council’s work plan to address the drought, which the Council considered should have been outlined in the broadcast, was not required in the interests of balance given the item’s focus on the iwi’s perspective including that they had raised concerns with Council over a number of years without satisfactory resolution.
Balance within the period of current interest
- The standard also allows for balance to be achieved over time. Broadcasters are not required to present every perspective on a controversial issue within each and every broadcast discussing that issue. Placing such a requirement on broadcasters would itself unreasonably limit their exercise of freedom of expression and editorial control, and in particular their freedom to present programmes or interviews from a particular perspective.7
- Other coverage on the issue reporting on ongoing droughts in the region, both by RNZ and other media outlets, has included Council comment. In particular we noted another piece by the same RNZ reporter on 29 January 2021 (less than a month before this item), which detailed the HBRC’s response to drought fears at that time (including a possible ban on irrigation).8
 In these circumstances, we find no breach of the balance standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
15 July 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s complaint to RNZ – 25 February 2021
2 RNZ’s decision on the complaint – 25 March 2021
3 HBRC’s referral to the Authority – 30 March 2021
4 HBRC confirming standard being referred (balance) – 1 April 2021
5 RNZ’s comments on the referral – 12 May 2021
6 HBRC’s final comments – 18 May 2021
7 RNZ’s final comments – 20 May 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 As above
6 Guideline 8c
7 Bidwell and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-003 at 
8 See Tom Kitchin “Extreme drought fears in Hawke's Bay after streams dramatically dry up” RNZ (online ed, Hawke’s Bay, 29 January 2021); and Thomas Airey “Forecasters say significant rain in Hawke’s Bay still weeks away” NZ Herald (online ed, Hawke’s Bay, 31 January 2021)