McCracken and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2022-099 (22 November 2022)
- Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
- John Gillespie
- Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i
- Aroha Beck
- Jared Mccracken
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint that it was a breach of broadcasting standards for an expert interviewee to suggest the anti-mask/anti-vaccination movement was behind bomb threats made to several New Zealand schools. The Authority found that while the issue of who was responsible constituted a controversial issue of public importance, the interview was clearly signalled as approaching the issue from a particular perspective, so the balance standard was not breached. It also found that anti-mask/anti-vaccination advocates are not groups to which the discrimination and denigration and fairness standards apply.
Not Upheld: Discrimination and Denigration, Balance, Fairness
 During a segment of Morning Report broadcast on 29 July 2022, host Susie Ferguson interviewed security expert Dr Paul Buchanan regarding his analysis of who could be responsible for a series of bomb threats made to schools in Aotearoa New Zealand.
 During the introduction to the segment, the host introduced Dr Buchanan as theorising that anti-mask groups were responsible for the threats:
A security expert believes members of the anti-mask movement could be behind the hoax bomb threats made to schools across the country. Thousands of students were forced to lock down or evacuate their classrooms yesterday after being threatened by phone. It is the second time this week serious threats have been directed at schools and there are warnings it won't be the last. With us now, security analyst Dr Paul Buchanan.
 When asked why he thought the threats were related to the anti-mask movement, Dr Buchanan had the following comments:
Well, I'm starting from the premise that over the last 18 months, the New Zealand intelligence community has issued repeated warnings that the most likely origin of an act of violent extremism will come from the anti‑vax movement, whether it's from the centre of that movement or whether it's from the fringes, whether it's a lone wolf or a small group, at least four times now in 18 months, the intelligence community has said that's the more likely possibility. And they rate it as a real possibility. So if you put that as a backdrop and then you think about the fact that right now the controversy is focussed on the government's recommendation that staff and students wear masks in schools. This is the latest of this conflict over vaccinations. Then it seems to me, even though I don't have, you know, perfect proof of this, that the more likely origins of these threats are coming out of that anti-vax movement. And I should point out, let's think of who else would want to target schools, you know? When you target schools, you're looking at the most vulnerable elements of our population. So there's evil intent there. There's intent to intimidate and sow fear. Who else would want to do this? Would it be some left activist? Hardly possible. Would it be Māori sovereignty activist? Hardly. I don't think so. And so just by a process of deduction…
 Jared McCracken complained the broadcast breached the discrimination and denigration, balance and fairness standards of the Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand for the following key reasons:
- Dr Buchanan’s comments were ‘an unfounded attempt to smear the reputation of a group of people with contrary views to the main stream media. This is blatant attempt at denigration.’
- Dr Buchanan implied anti-vaccination advocates were ‘evil and extremists’ based on poor reasoning, and he admitted he did not have proof of this.
- Other potential groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, or ‘stupid kid prank calling’ could have been responsible and Dr Buchanan only mentioned a couple of other potential actors who could have been involved.
- The host did not push back against these claims.
- There were no reasonable efforts to present significant viewpoints. It was a one-sided report where only one side of the issue got a voice.
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold McCracken’s complaint for the following key reasons:
- ‘It is very clear from the interview that Ms Ferguson asks for, and Dr Buchanan provides, his opinion.’
- ‘RNZ is entitled to depend upon Dr Buchanan’s expertise in matters of intelligence and defence.’
- ‘Dr Buchanan enumerates a cogent, deductive process by which he arrives at his conclusions about the likely source of the bomb threats. Dr Buchanan makes quite clear that the starting point of his assumptions in this matter is a warning from the New Zealand Security Intelligence community about the threat of violence from anti-mask/anti-vaccination groups.’
- ‘RNZ notes earlier decisions by the Broadcasting Standards Authority including Decision 2021-033 where it clearly states that neither the fairness nor the discrimination and denigration standards apply to people identifying as “anti-vaxxers” or in this case “anti-masks”.1’
 The balance standard2 ensures competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.3 The standard only applies to news, current affairs and factual programmes, which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.4
 We consider the complainant’s concerns are best dealt with under the balance standard, though the discrimination and denigration and fairness standards are briefly addressed at paragraph , below.
 We have listened to the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 As a starting point, we considered the right to freedom of expression. It is our role to weigh up the right to freedom of expression against any harm potentially caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.5
 Determination of a complaint under the balance standard occurs in two steps.6 The first step is to consider whether the programme discussed a controversial issue of public importance. The second step is to consider whether reasonable efforts were made by the broadcaster to present relevant perspectives on this issue.
 An issue ‘of public importance’ is something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, New Zealanders. A ‘controversial’ issue is an issue of topical currency which has generated or is likely to generate conflicting opinion, or about which there has been ongoing public debate.
 The issue being discussed in the broadcast is who was responsible for bomb threats made against multiple schools in New Zealand.
 We consider this issue is one of ‘public importance’. The question of who was behind bomb threats made against schools is likely to be of significant concern to New Zealanders. We also consider the issue ‘controversial’. It generated conflicting opinion on a number of topics including whether the threat was domestic or international,7 made by ‘cyberbots’ or real people,8 whether a group or individual was responsible9 and whether similar or worse action was possible in the future.10 The Authority has previously found the potential motivations of an attacker or the potential causes of an event may constitute a controversial issue of public importance.11 For these reasons, we consider the issue of who was responsible for the bomb hoax constitutes a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies.
 However, the balance standard does not require that multiple perspectives on an issue are required to be broadcast in every instance.12 The requirement to present significant points of view can be reduced where the programme does not purport to be a balanced examination of an issue, or is signalled as approaching the issue from a particular perspective.13
 In this case, the broadcast’s introduction clearly signalled it was an interview with Dr Buchanan, and signalled his particular perspective on this issue. The programme was not promoted as an investigatory piece analysing who was behind the threats but as an interview with one security analyst who had a particular perspective. Due to this, audiences would not expect alternative perspectives to be addressed in any detail and such ‘balancing’ analysis was not required.
 We do acknowledge the complainant’s concerns that Dr Buchanan’s opinions in this programme appear to be mostly baseless speculation which may have offended some people, and that the host did not push back against or question Dr Buchanan’s claims. However, this does not mean broadcasting standards were breached in this instance.
 In any event, as outlined in paragraph , the topic was the subject of other media coverage from multiple other outlets. Accordingly, the audience could reasonably be expected to be aware of significant alternative viewpoints.
 Overall, we consider the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression outweighs any harm potentially caused by the broadcast, and on this basis the standard was not breached.
 We consider the remaining standards did not apply:
- Discrimination and Denigration: The discrimination and denigration standard only applies when broadcasts refer to a recognised section of the community (ie a group chosen on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief).14 The Authority has consistently found that people who are opposed to vaccines are not a recognised section of the community for these purposes (and the same arguments apply to people opposed to mask use).15 On this basis, the standard does not apply.
- Fairness: The fairness standard only applies to individuals or organisations portrayed in a broadcast.16 This broadcast discussed anti‑mask/anti-vaccine views, but did not mention any specific individual or organisation. On this basis, the fairness standard does not apply.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
22 November 2022
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Jared McCracken's initial complaint – 1 August 2022
2 Radio New Zealand’s initial decision – 26 August 2022
3 McCracken’s referral to the Authority – 31 August 2022
4 RNZ’s response to referral – 26 September 2022
1Donald and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2021-033
2 Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
3 Commentary, Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 14
4 Guideline 5.1
5 Introduction, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 4
6 Guideline 5.1
7 “Offshore source may be behind bomb threats to schools, police say” RNZ (online ed, 28 July 2022); “Hoax bomb threats: 18 New Zealand schools phoned, police investigate possible international origin” NZ Herald (online ed, 29 July 2022)
8 Tess McClure “New Zealand schools hit by bomb threats in suspected overseas ‘cyberbot’ attack” The Guardian (online ed, 28 July 2022); “Hoax bomb threats: 18 New Zealand schools phoned, police investigate possible international origin” NZ Herald (online ed, 29 July 2022); “More threats made to several schools around the country, police say” RNZ (online ed, 28 July 2022)
9 “Threats to schools 'not a prank - it's a crime' - principal” RNZ (online ed, 29 July 2022)
10 Amber Allott “Police can't rule out further school bomb threats as they work to track down culprit” Stuff (online ed, 29 July 2022)
11Muir and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2019-039 at ; and Egan and Discovery NZ Ltd, Decision No. 2021-002 at 
12 Guideline 5.2
13 Guideline 5.4
14 Standard 4, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
15 See, for example: Gray, Scott, Vickers and Vink and Mediaworks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-020, at ; Laroche & Breed and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2021-132 at 
16 Standard 8, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand