Marra and MediaWorks Radio Ltd - 2019-023 (18 July 2019)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Paula Rose
- Wendy Palmer
- Susie Staley
- Lynn Marra
ProgrammeMagic Afternoons with Sean Plunket
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint that ACT leader David Seymour MP was bullied and treated unfairly on Magic Afternoons with Sean Plunket. Mr Seymour called the show to present his perspective on comments made by Mr Plunket moments earlier about Mr Seymour’s motivation for sponsoring the End of Life Choice Bill. The Authority found that, while Mr Plunket’s interviewing style was robust and challenging, Mr Seymour was not treated unfairly given the nature of the programme, the fact that Mr Seymour initiated the conversation and expressed his views, and Mr Seymour’s position and his experience with the media. The Authority also found that the broadcast did not breach the balance standard as it did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, which is required for the balance standard to apply. The merits of the End of Life Choice Bill is a controversial issue of public importance but the focus of this discussion was on the discrete topic of Mr Seymour’s political motivations and the alleged influence of ACT party donors. The Authority also found the discrimination and denigration standard did not apply as the standard does not apply to individuals or organisations.
Not Upheld: Fairness, Balance, Discrimination and Denigration
 During a broadcast of talkback radio programme Magic Afternoons with Sean Plunket, Sean Plunket was discussing the merits of the End of Life Choice Bill, a private member’s bill sponsored by ACT leader David Seymour MP. In conversation with another caller, Mr Plunket stated:
He’s actually driven a lot by his major political funders… Don’t believe for a moment that David Seymour believes this, he is being told to push it by the people who keep the ACT party in business.
 Mr Seymour phoned in to the show to respond to those comments. A robust discussion between him and Mr Plunket followed. At times, both Mr Plunket and Mr Seymour were speaking over each other, with Mr Plunket pushing Mr Seymour to answer specific questions.
 The programme was broadcast at 3pm on 2 April 2019 on Magic Radio. In considering this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 Lynn Marra complained that the interview breached the fairness, balance, and discrimination and denigration standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice for the following reasons:
- The interview was ‘the worst case of bullying by a radio presenter’ that she had ‘ever heard’.
- There should be higher standards for radio presenters and all journalists.
- In a radio interview, the radio host has all the power.
- Bullying should not be acceptable anywhere, and especially not by people in a position of power.
- It was an awful way for anyone to be treated.
- Everyone is due respect, whether they are a seasoned politician or not.
The broadcaster’s response
 MediaWorks submitted the broadcast did not breach broadcasting standards for the following reasons:
- Mr Seymour phoned the show to challenge some of the comments Mr Plunket had made, he was not an invited guest and this was not an interview.
- Mr Seymour willingly engaged with Mr Plunket and initiated the conversation in question.
- Robust political analysis and discussion is an important and expected part of Magic Afternoons.
- Talkback is recognised as an opinionated environment which is granted some latitude to be provocative and edgy in the interests of robust debate.
- Mr Plunket is a veteran broadcaster known for his often provocative and adversarial style.
- Mr Seymour is a prominent politician with considerable media experience and is no stranger to robust debate.
- It would grievously trivialise the serious issue of bullying – and demean legitimate victims – If politicians who endure inhospitable talkback radio conversations (that they have initiated) are to be considered victims of bullying.
 The fairness standard (Standard 11) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. A consideration of what is fair will depend on the nature of the programme.1 Individuals and organisations have the right to expect they will be dealt with justly and fairly by broadcasters, so that the audience is not left with an unduly negative impression of them.2 The nature of the individual, for example a public figure familiar with dealing with the media, is a relevant factor when considering what is fair.3
 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.
 The discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 6) protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.
 In New Zealand we value the right to freedom of expression. So when we consider a complaint that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards, we weigh the value of the programme, and the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. We recognise the value of robust political discourse in the media and the role of media in holding to account those in positions of power. This contributes to an informed and engaged public, which is critical to a free and democratic society.
 With respect to whether the fairness standard has been breached in this case, a consideration of what is fair depends on the nature of the programme and other relevant context.4 We consider the following contextual factors to be relevant in this situation:
- The nature of the programme, which is a talkback radio show, known for robust discussion.
- Mr Plunket’s critical comments were aimed at Mr Seymour in regard to his professional political life and were not personal in nature.
- Both Mr Plunket and Mr Seymour were argumentative.
- Although Mr Plunket was argumentative, his interruptions were generally aimed at directing Mr Seymour to answer specific questions, and would not have given the audience an unduly negative impression of Mr Seymour.
 In this case it is relevant that the person involved is a well-known politician with experience in dealing with the media. In previous decisions of the Authority, it is well established that the threshold for finding a breach of the fairness standard in relation to public figures and politicians (who are familiar with dealing with the media) is higher than for a layperson or someone unfamiliar with the media.5
 The interviewing of politicians by journalists is an important feature of life in a democratic society and an important feature of the exercise of freedom of expression. We do not consider Mr Plunket’s questions or comments, as challenging as they were, went beyond the level of robust scrutiny and political analysis that could reasonably be expected in an interview with a politician or that this resulted in Mr Seymour being treated or portrayed unfairly.
 While we agree that Mr Plunket dominated the discussion at times, Mr Seymour had the opportunity to put his views across. Towards the end of the interview, Mr Seymour himself says, ‘hey look, the listeners have heard what you said, they’ve heard what I said, and I am sure they will make up their own minds.’
 Further, the broadcast was not an interview but rather a discussion initiated by Mr Seymour phoning in to the programme, and we consider that Mr Seymour would have known the nature of the discussion he was about to engage in. We are satisfied that any potential harm caused to Mr Seymour in this respect did not outweigh the importance of the right to freedom of expression.
 Accordingly we do not uphold the complaint under the fairness standard.
 When we consider a balance complaint the first question we look at is whether the broadcast discussed a controversial issue of public importance. 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.6 A controversial issue will be one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.7
 A discussion of the merits of the End of Life Choice Bill is clearly a controversial issue of public importance. However, this is not the subject matter of the challenged broadcast. Rather, the broadcast was focused on Mr Seymour’s motivation for sponsoring the bill and the alleged influence of ACT party donors over Mr Seymour. Mr Plunket was airing his views on this discrete issue, and Mr Seymour was challenging them. We do not consider this to be a controversial issue of public importance. This is not an issue about which there has been apparent ongoing public debate, aside from this broadcast.
 In our view, this broadcast dealt with a statement by Mr Plunket which Mr Seymour chose to respond to directly, rather than a controversial issue of public importance.
 Accordingly the balance standard does not apply and we do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.
Discrimination and Denigration
 Finally, we do not uphold the complaint under the discrimination and denigration standard as this standard does not apply to individuals or organisations8 and the complainant did not identify a recognised ‘section of the community’ discriminated against or denigrated for the purposes of the standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
18 July 2019
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
- Lynn Marra’s formal complaint – 2 April 2019
- MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 30 April 2019
- Ms Marra’s referral to the Authority – 30 April 2019
- MediaWorks’ further comments – 20 May 2019
- Ms Marra’s final comments – 22 May 2019
1 Guideline 11a
2 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
3 As above
4 Guideline 11a
5 See, for example: Anderson and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-091 and Cape and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2018-018
6 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
7 As above
8 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 15