BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Mclaughlin and Radio New Zealand Ltd – 2019-032 (17 September 2019)

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.] 


The Authority has not upheld a complaint that an interview by Kim Hill with former nun and lesbian activist Monica Hingston breached broadcasting standards by including the suggestion that the Catholic Church, and by connection, all Catholics are corrupt. The Authority found that the interview did not contain a high level of condemnation, nor would it undermine community standards of good taste and decency, as it was a nuanced, considered conversation that was narrowly focused on Ms Hingston’s personal views and experiences with the Catholic Church. Taking into account public interest in the interview and the fact that the interview was clearly signalled as being from Ms Hingston’s perspective, the Authority also determined that it did not result in any unfairness to the Catholic Church.

Not Upheld: Discrimination and Denigration, Good Taste and Decency, Fairness


The broadcast


[1]  A broadcast of Saturday Morning hosted by Kim Hill included an interview with former nun and LGBT rights activist Monica Hingston about her experiences with and views on the Catholic Church. The item was introduced as follows:

In 2004 Monica Hingston wrote a letter to her cousin. He was Australian Catholic Cardinal George Pell, and she was an ex-nun, a lesbian activist, and well, now he’s in jail for sexual assault and Monica has won the LGBTI Faith award for her efforts on behalf of the gay community.

[2]  The interview included a section where Ms Hill asked if Ms Hingston thinks the Catholic Church is corrupt:

Hill: You didn’t use this word … but corrupt was the word that was in my mind.  Is the church corrupt?

Hingston: Ah – well – I don’t know whether I’d use that word.  Ah  I think it’s [the Church] extremely hypocritical.

Hill: I mean it’s hard, you know, there must be a thin line between hypocrisy of the level demonstrated by the Catholic Church not only in supporting dictators but also the whole paedophile priest issue that is undeniable now and has been covered up. Corrupt – surely?

Hingston: Yes, yes you’re probably right. Yes.

Hill: I’m not trying to argue with you but I’m just wondering at what point you would accept that the Catholic Church is corrupt, given your experience.

Hingston: Yes . . . because on one level . . . it has this, almost like a façade to say we have the word of God and we are the keepers of the truth and yet on the flipside, it’s, we’re moving paedophile priests around, we’re protecting the image of the institution, they use a phrase it’s better not to scandalise the faithful, they’ve used that for – all my life.

Hill: That’s a ridiculous expression isn’t it?

Hingston: I know – I know – and it literally means we don’t tell them the actual truth and facts of the situation, whichever, whatever it might be at the time, they don’t talk about it like that, they say you don’t tell this bad side of the church because the faithful might be scandalised and I suppose literally walk away from them…that’s been a favourite cover up, and yes it does boil down to corruption in that sense.

[3]  The interview was broadcast on 20 April 2019 on RNZ National. As part of our consideration of this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[4]  James McLaughlin submitted the broadcast breached the discrimination and denigration, good taste and decency and fairness standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Standards for the following reasons:

  • Ms Hill’s statement that ‘the Catholic Church is corrupt’ was incorrect, as although there may be people within the Church who are corrupt, the Church itself isn’t.
  • This was a factual statement which she should have qualified as her opinion, not RNZ’s and the failure to do so suggests RNZ is complicit. ‘As the state broadcaster, [RNZ is] not allowed to hold such opinions.’
  • Ms Hill is a broadcasting journalist and ‘legally obliged to remain impartial’, which she is not. She is ‘roundly abusing’ the privilege of her position.
  • The statement is libellous and could be taken as hate speech.
  • The interview was broadcast during Easter, which is the biggest Catholic feast of the year.
  • The statement denigrated ‘a sizeable portion’ of the world’s population, including New Zealand Catholics.
  • It ‘made a mockery of the hundreds of thousands or even millions of Catholics who in their daily lives work wonders in the name of the Catholic Church.’
  • In its response, RNZ did not address the fact that Ms Hill ‘abused her position’ and ‘slander[ed] an organisation/state’. It tried to ‘defend an indefensible position by blaming a corrupt cardinal and as such, blaming the entire Catholic Church and calling over 1 billion people corrupt.’

The broadcaster’s response

[5]  RNZ did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

  • The interview did not include the phrase ‘the Catholic Church is corrupt’ as alleged by the complainant.
  • Whether or not a statement is libellous is not a standards issue.
  • The interview was scheduled as a result of Ms Hingston receiving the Faith award at the Australian LGBTI awards, not to coincide with Easter.
  • Ms Hill used the word ‘corrupt’ to reflect ‘a conversation where Monica has used every other word to explain the Catholic Church’s conduct, and after 24 minutes of a very comprehensive range of topics, including Monica’s cousin Cardinal George Pell, Kim zeros in on the one word Monica didn’t use but clearly meant.’
  • ‘RNZ, over time, has provided plenty of platforms . . . with people of faith including Catholics, and they are given a respectful hearing.’

Good taste and decency

  • This standard applies to ‘matters of our bad language, sex or violence’, none of which applied on this occasion.
  • The complainant did not make any direct links between this standard and the substance of his complaint.

Discrimination and denigration

  • The comments made were not those quoted by the complainant.
  • The words actually used were ‘a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion and therefore fall outside the purview of the standard.’

Fairness

  • ‘The Catholic church cannot be considered “an organisation” in the sense conveyed in the context of the fairness standard. The Church is a nation state by dint of its rule of the Vatican’.
  • Catholicism is a major religion which must expect criticism, such as in this interview.
  • The comments were the ‘honestly held belief of the interviewee based on facts quoted, which suggests the views delivered were legitimate.’
  • The complainant did not make any direct links between this standard and the substance of his complaint.

[6]  RNZ also submitted:

There will be factual situations where a party to those facts will always be seen in an unfavourable light and when it comes to Catholic priests committing paedophilia and the Church supporting corrupt regimes, such as the Pinochet regime, that will always be the case. RNZ observes that if interviews such as this were to require some form of a ‘right of reply’ from every organisation mentioned, that would constitute a significant chilling effect and restriction on the freedom of speech of both interviewee and interviewers, but more importantly it would restrict unnecessarily, and without legitimate cause, the right of the audience to receive information imparted by the programme participants.

The relevant standards


[7]  The discrimination and denigration standard 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.

[8]  The good taste and decency standard states that current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The Authority will consider the standard in relation to any broadcast that portrays or discusses material in a way that is likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress.1

[9]  The fairness standard states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in any broadcast. Its purpose is to protect the dignity and reputation of those featured in programmes.2

Our findings

[10]  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.

[11]  We note that the specific alleged statement complained about (‘the Catholic Church is corrupt’) was not stated as such but was part of a question and answer exchange in which Ms Hill put the proposition to Ms Hingston, and challenged Ms Hingston as to why, in light of her other critiques of the Church, she would not use the word ‘corrupt’:

I’m just wondering at what point you would accept that the Catholic Church is corrupt, given your experience.

[12]  We understand that Mr McLaughlin took this to be Ms Hill’s view. While that interpretation is open to the complainant, journalists and interviewers may often present a position and play devil’s advocate in order to elicit the views of the interviewee. Expressing an opinion is not, in itself, a breach of broadcasting standards and the right to freedom of expression allows broadcasters to voice opinions and to present positions for the purposes of debate that may be unpopular, provided they do not cause undue harm.3

Discrimination and denigration

[13]  The discrimination and denigration standard states that ‘broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community… as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.’ The standard applies only to recognised ‘sections of the community’ which is consistent with the grounds for discrimination listed in section 21 of the Human Rights Act 1993.4

[14]  The complainant has identified Catholics as the relevant section of the community. As a group that is defined by its legitimate expression of religion, we accept that Catholics may be a section of the community to which the discrimination and denigration standard applies.5

[15]  However, the standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is a genuine expression of serious comment or opinion.6 We consider that the interview was a genuine expression of serious comment and opinion, as it was narrowly focused on Ms Hingston’s personal views and experiences, for the following reasons:

  • The interview questions were focused on Ms Hingston’s motivations for her activism and decisions, for example ‘is that why you left the church?’ and ‘if you had still been a member of the church, would you have written that letter?’, ‘did you really expect a response from George?’
  • Ms Hingston’s answers frequently including phrases like ‘I think’, ‘I wanted’ and ‘I suppose’.
  • She discussed her personal reasons for becoming a nun and later leaving the church and becoming an activist.
  • She talked at length about her decision to write to her cousin Cardinal George Pell and her subsequent decision to publicly release the letter.
  • She provided her views on his conviction and why she believed his accuser.

[16]  Context must always be considered when assessing whether the broadcast ‘encouraged’ discrimination or denigration.7 Relevant contextual factors in this case include:

  • Saturday Morning is a news and current affairs programme with an adult target audience.
  • Saturday Morning and Kim Hill are known for presenting challenging long-form interviews which may include controversial critique or robust debate.8
  • There is a public interest in Ms Hingston’s experiences as an ex-nun and lesbian activist who has campaigned for marriage equality in Australia and been vocal in critiquing the Catholic Church’s position on LGBT issues.
  • The interview was a lengthy discussion which included nuanced critique of the Catholic Church and specifically Ms Hingston’s opinions about the Catholic Church.
  • Ms Hingston’s critique was focused on systemic issues within the Church as an organisation, and made a legitimate contribution to the wider debate about the Catholic Church.9
  • She clearly distinguished between ‘the clerical cast’ (for example, cardinals, bishops and the Pope) and ordinary Catholics.
  • The views presented were reflections on specific events such as Cardinal Pell’s trial and conviction, the Catholic Church’s support of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Church’s encouragement of political action against LGBT rights.
  • Ms Hingston presented her views in a measured, nuanced way, and gave careful consideration to the way she responded to Ms Hill’s question about whether she thought the Catholic Church was corrupt.
  • Listeners would have understood that Ms Hingston’s critique of the Church was directed at the official organisation of the Catholic Church and not people who practice Catholicism more generally.

[17]  The importance of freedom of expression means that a high level of condemnation, often with an element of malice or nastiness, will be necessary to conclude that a broadcast encouraged discrimination or denigration in contravention of the standard.[10]

[18]  The complainant argued that calling the Catholic Church ‘corrupt’ made a ‘mockery’ of all Catholics. While allegations of corruption within the Catholic Church can reflect negatively on members of the Church, comments will not breach the standard simply because they are critical of a particular group, because they offend people or because they are rude.[11] The discussion of corruption within the interview was measured and considered, and did not contain elements of malice or nastiness.

[19]  Considering the relevant contextual factors, and the nuanced and measured nature of the interview, we find that this interview did not encourage the discrimination or denigration of Catholics and do not uphold the complaint under this standard.

Good taste and decency

[20]  The purpose of this standard is to protect audience members from material likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or undermine widely shared community standards.12

[21]  Context will always be relevant when determining a complaint under this standard.13 Where broadcasters take effective steps to inform their audiences of the nature of their programmes and enable listeners to regulate their listening behaviour, they are less likely to breach this standard.14

[22]  The item was introduced as covering Ms Hingston’s experiences and views, as quoted at paragraph [1]. This clearly signalled to viewers the content and nature of the interview, including alerting them that the interview may contain material critical of the Catholic Church. We understand that some people may have found this material offensive. However, taking into account this introduction and the contextual factors at paragraph [16], we consider that the broadcast did not go beyond audience expectations for the programme, audiences would have been sufficiently prepared for the content of the broadcast and the broadcast was therefore unlikely to cause widespread undue offence. We accordingly do not uphold the complaint under the good taste and decency standard.

Fairness

[23]  The fairness standard applies only to individuals or organisations taking part or referred to in a broadcast. It does not apply to the listening audience generally. The Authority has previously recognised the Catholic Church as an organisation to which the fairness standard applies.15

[24]  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 (including the public significance of the broadcast).16 It must also take into account whether the audience would have been left with an unduly negative impression of the organisation.17  Where an organisation referred to or portrayed in a broadcast might be adversely affected, that organisation should usually be given a fair and reasonable opportunity to comment.18

[25]           We note that, as the largest Christian church19 with substantial wealth and influence,20 the Catholic Church is not a vulnerable subject, and is frequently subject to nuanced and considered criticism as in this interview. In addition, in the context of Ms Hingston’s measured reflections (which included suggestions to remedy some of the issues she was describing), we do not consider a brief exchange regarding alleged corruption (which in our view, by necessary implication, focussed on leaders of the church rather than all Catholics) was likely to leave listeners with an unduly negative impression of the Catholic Church.  

[26]  Taking into account the public interest in the broadcast and other factors listed above at paragraph [15], particularly that the interview was clearly signalled as being from Ms Hingston’s point of view, we are satisfied that the item did not result in unfairness to the Catholic Church as an organisation and did not require the Catholic Church to be given an opportunity to respond to the views presented.

[27]  In the circumstances, we consider that our intervention in upholding the complaint would represent an unreasonable and unjustified limit on the right to freedom of expression.  For these reasons, we do not uphold the complaint under the fairness standard.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair
17 September 2019

 

 

Appendix

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

1                 James McLaughlin’s formal complaint – 20 April 2019

2                 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 22 May 2019

3                 Mr McLaughlin’s referral to the Authority – 25 May 2019

4                 RNZ’s final comments – 26 June 2019

5                 Mr McLaughlin’s final comments – 10 July 2019



1 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
2 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
3 See, for example, Day and Moss and NZME Radio, Decision No. 2018-090 at [15]
4 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 15
5 See, for example, Saunders and NZME Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2016-089 and Barry and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2016-077
6 Guideline 6c
7 Guideline 6d
8 See Cape and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-013 at [17]
9 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16
10 Guideline 6b
11 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration,  Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16
12 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
13 Guideline 1a
14 Guideline 1b
15 See Right to Live and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-007 at [21]-[23]
16 Guideline 11a
17 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
18 Guideline 11d
19 See <https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2019/03/06/190306b.html> and <https://teara.govt.nz/en/catholic-church/page-6>
20 See Dr Thomas Finegan, 'What has the Catholic Church ever done for the world? Quite a lot, actually' (The Journal, 24 August 2018)