Hector and Discovery NZ LTD - 2020-120 (9 February 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Martin Hector
BroadcasterDiscovery NZ Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint about an episode of The Project in which Jesse Mulligan presented his view on whether New Zealand should ‘be more like Sweden’ in responding to COVID-19. Mr Mulligan stated ‘[Sweden's] number of COVID cases is actually going up, the virus is not under control and although their deaths are down, they're seeing more infections every day’. Mr Mulligan’s statement was not materially inaccurate and was unlikely to mislead viewers in the context, including given the wealth of other coverage and commentary available. The potential harm did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression.
Not Upheld: Accuracy
 During The Project on 20 August 2020 (Three), host Jesse Mulligan presented his view on whether New Zealand should ‘be more like Sweden’ in responding to COVID-19:
I want to talk about Sweden. You might have heard people talking about Sweden this week. They’re saying we should be more like them… People are telling you this because we’ve had a bumpy week in New Zealand and that’s the best time to play on people’s insecurities and tell them that we need to change the plan.
…[Sweden’s] number of COVID cases is actually going up, the virus is not under control and although their deaths are down, they’re seeing more infections every day. You can see lately this graph [shown on-screen] is going in completely the wrong direction again.
…Look at the people calling for us to be more like Sweden. It’s not the experts, it’s talkback radio hosts and newspaper columnists and they’re no smarter than you. They’re just louder, with more of a platform. So my advice is, don’t listen to them. In fact, my advice is, don’t listen to me either. Listen to the experts.
[Dr Rod Jackson]: Every experienced epidemiologist in New Zealand supports the Government’s elimination strategy. COVID-19 is a very nasty and tricky virus and the epidemiology is incredibly complex. It shouldn’t be and cannot be interpreted by people who don’t have a lot of experience in the field.
 Mr Mulligan concluded the segment saying, ‘This pandemic has proven you’re living in the greatest country in the world. Go out and share that message, share it like it’s a conspiracy theory’. Following the segment, co-host Jeremy Corban made the following comments:
Well I applaud you. Very patriotic, but a little bit one-eyed and, you know, a lot of people from Sweden watching may be offended – don’t be! Interesting that in your argument you chose to leave out ABBA, Volvos and Spotify – just saying!
 Martin Hector complained the statement ‘Sweden’s number of COVID cases is actually going up’ was ‘patently wrong’ and breached the accuracy standard:
- ‘[Sweden’s COVID case numbers] peaked in late June and have gone [down] dramatically since’.
- ‘To have such a severely inaccurate statement made on such an important topic is not excusable and it needs correcting.’
- ‘[Mr Mulligan] took a very short time period where cases were yo-yoing up and down week in week out. If you took the medium to long term [it’s] clearly evident that their new infection rate has gone markedly down.’
- ‘[Mr Mulligan] used data very inaccurately to try and mislead viewers.’
- ‘…[T]o accept that this type of practice is acceptable, ie taking an extremely narrow data set compared to an overall trend would be an absolute travesty for [the] future of the representation of information to the public’.
The broadcaster’s response
 MediaWorks did not uphold Mr Hector’s complaint, saying:
- ‘While Sweden's daily Covid cases did peak to a very high number in June, at the time the Broadcast went to air, the country's rolling seven-day average of daily new cases had jumped by around 40 per cent over the previous fortnight.’
- ‘A graph on-screen showed this increase and Mr Mulligan’s comment was referencing this very recent increase in daily cases in Sweden.’
- ‘The Committee is satisfied Mr Mulligan’s comment was accurate and we do not agree the Accuracy standard was breached.’
 The purpose of the accuracy standard1 is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.2 It states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.
 We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, which is our starting point. This includes the broadcaster’s right to offer a range of content and information and the audience’s right to receive that content. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the broadcast has caused actual or potential harm at a level that justifies placing a reasonable limit on the right to freedom of expression. For the reasons below, we have not found such harm in this case.
 The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.3 The standard is also 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.4
 The piece overall was clearly presented as Mr Mulligan’s views on why New Zealand should not ‘be more like Sweden’ in response to COVID-19. The statement ‘Sweden’s number of COVID cases is actually going up’ was a statement of fact rather than analysis or opinion. However we do not consider it was materially inaccurate or misleading in the context:
- The graph presented on-screen indicated Sweden’s weekly number of cases had been going up and down throughout July and August. Mr Mulligan’s comment, ‘You can see lately this graph is going in completely the wrong direction again’ also suggested case rates were up and down.
- We have considered World Health Organisation statistics for Sweden, available online, which show:5
- The weekly number of cases for the two weeks prior to the broadcast (3-9 August 2020 and 10-16 August 2020), represented an increased weekly rate of infection.
- The cumulative total number of cases was also increasing on a daily basis, with not less than 38 new cases on any of the days of August prior to the broadcast.
- he number of new cases for the three days prior to the broadcast (17-19 August) were lower than for the preceding days (in the latter half of the week of 10-16 August). The number of cases for that week of the broadcast transpired to be lower than that for 10-16 August.
- While Mr Mulligan glossed over the intricacies of this data and did not break it down day-by-day or week-by-week, the data nevertheless can reasonably be interpreted as showing both an increase in the cumulative total number of cases and, for the two weeks prior to the broadcast, an increase in the weekly rate of new cases. Therefore, Mr Mulligan’s summary was not materially inaccurate at the time of broadcast.
- Mr Mulligan was also making a broader point that the public should be discerning in who they listen to. He qualified his presentation by saying ‘don’t listen to me’ and ‘don’t listen to them [talkback hosts and columnists]’, encouraging viewers to listen to ‘the experts’. The broadcast then included the expert advice of Dr Jackson that ‘the epidemiology is incredibly complex… and cannot be interpreted by people who don’t have a lot of experience in the field’.
- Viewers would have understood Mr Mulligan’s remarks were just one person’s opinion among constant, up-to-the-minute media coverage of, and commentary on, COVID-19 issues and the Government response, which carry high public interest. The broadcast also included countering comment from Mr Corban, who called Mr Mulligan’s segment ‘a little bit one-eyed’.
- Additionally, outside of this broadcast, a wide range of information and perspectives was available to viewers, including on Sweden’s situation, reducing any likelihood of being misled by this particular segment.
 In these circumstances, we have not found actual or potential harm under the accuracy standard which warrants regulatory intervention or limiting the important right to freedom of expression. Accordingly, 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
9 February 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Martin Hector’s formal complaint – 20 August 2020
2 MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 16 September 2020
3 Mr Hector’s referral to the Authority – 16 September 2020
4 MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comment – 29 September 2020
1 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 Guideline 9a
4 Guideline 9b
5 World Health Organisation “COVID-19 Explorer: Sweden” <www.who.int>