BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Minister of Justice (Hon Tony Ryall) and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 1999-195

  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • J Withers
  • L M Loates
  • R McLeod
  • Minister of Justice (Hon Tony Ryall)
Morning Report
Radio New Zealand Ltd
National Radio
Standards Breached


There was controversy over the government’s proposal to enact legislation dealing with crimes of home invasion, according to news reports and an extended news item on Radio New Zealand Ltd’s Morning Report programme broadcast on 23 June 1999 at 7.00am, 7.30am, 7.40am and 9.00am. The former Justice Minister was said to be willing to admit that the bill had "some flaws".

Hon Tony Ryall, Minister of Justice, complained that the reports were inaccurate when they reported that Sir Douglas Graham, the former Minister of Justice, "had admitted the bill was flawed". Mr Ryall advised that he had spoken to Sir Douglas, who confirmed that he had not made the remarks attributed to him.

RNZ acknowledged that Sir Douglas had not used the word "flawed". However, it argued, the phrase was used accurately to reflect Sir Douglas’s view that the bill had limitations. In RNZ’s view, it was therefore reasonable to state that he was of the opinion that the bill was flawed. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Ryall referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, a majority of the Authority upholds an aspect of the complaint.


The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of one of the items complained about, and have read transcripts of the items. It has also read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

A report dealing with the government’s proposed home invasion legislation described the former Minister of Justice (Sir Douglas Graham) as "willing to admit the bill has some flaws". The report was broadcast on RNZ’s Morning Report programme on 23 June 1999 at 7.00am, and repeated at 7.30am and 9.00am.

Hon Tony Ryall, Minister of Justice, complained to RNZ that the report was inaccurate in ascribing to Sir Douglas the view that the "bill was flawed". Mr Ryall emphasised that Sir Douglas had said no such thing. He also noted that he had telephoned RNZ immediately after the first bulletin had been broadcast to register his concern. Notwithstanding his telephoned complaint, Mr Ryall noted that RNZ had repeated the contested wording again at 7.30am, in a fuller story at 7.40am and in the 9.00am bulletin. It was its failure to take action which had provoked his complaint, he advised.

In its response, RNZ advised that it had considered the complaint under standards R1, R12, R15 and R17 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The first two require broadcasters:

R1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact in news and current affairs programmes.

R12  To correct factual errors speedily and with similar prominence to the offending broadcast or broadcasts.

The other standards read:

R15  Listeners should always be able to distinguish clearly and easily between factual reporting on the one hand, and comment, opinion and analysis on the other.

R17  The standards of integrity and reliability of news sources should be kept under constant review.

RNZ acknowledged that Sir Douglas had not used the word "flawed". However, it argued, it did not consider that when the report said Sir Douglas had admitted the bill was flawed, it had attributed those exact words to him. In its view, the words indicated clearly that Sir Douglas held that opinion. It wrote:

It is an essential part of news reporting to say when it becomes clear that a newsworthy opinion is held, even if the person holding it is not expressing it in a direct way. We do not only report statements.

RNZ pointed to the Bill’s introduction which stated that there was concern that there was not a sufficient deterrent to home invasion crimes, and to Sir Douglas’s speech to Parliament in which he stated that he did not believe that long sentences deterred criminals. In addition, RNZ noted, Sir Douglas acknowledged that there were a number of other limitations to the bill.

On the basis that the bill was intended to make people safer in their homes, and as Sir Douglas had drawn attention to what it called a number of its limitations, RNZ contended that it seemed entirely reasonable to say that he was of the opinion that the bill was flawed. It wrote:

Listeners were told the basis on which Sir Douglas’s opinion was made, and in the total context of Morning Report’s broadcast would have been in no doubt as to exactly what his views were.

RNZ concluded that its reporter had accurately summarised Sir Douglas’s response to the bill. However, it acknowledged that the word "admit" was a stronger word than was warranted, and that it would have preferred either "acknowledge" or "accept". Nevertheless, it maintained, no breach of standards had occurred.

RNZ then referred to a matter which it said had not been the subject of Mr Ryall’s complaint. It noted that a headline bulletin had reported wrongly that Sir Douglas had said the bill was flawed. It advised that the origin of the error had been identified and staff had been counselled appropriately. In addition, it noted, it had approached Sir Douglas to help determine whether a correction should be broadcast.

Finally, RNZ referred to Mr Ryall’s argument that the word "flaw" had been derived from Labour Party material which had been released to the media. It advised that it operated under a strict policy of impartiality and that it could see no evidence that its story had been based on anything other than the facts of the matter.

When he referred the matter to the Authority, Mr Ryall cited standards R1, R5, R9 and R16 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which he contended had been breached by the broadcast. He repeated that his complaint was confined to the report that Sir Douglas Graham had "admitted the bill was flawed". This, he said, was not only wrong, but it gave the wrong impression of Sir Douglas’s opinion and speech.

Mr Ryall also took issue with RNZ’s response when it drew a distinction between the statement "Sir Douglas has said the bill was flawed", which it upheld, and "Sir Douglas Graham has admitted the bill was flawed", which it found did not breach the standards.

Mr Ryall repeated that RNZ had misrepresented Sir Douglas’s view, pointing out that as a former Justice Minister, his views carried great weight. Mr Ryall maintained that the report had reflected badly on the legislation, on the government and on him in particular.

When it responded to the Authority, RNZ observed that as Mr Ryall had not nominated any standards in his initial letter of complaint, it had dealt with it under standards R1, R12, R15 and R17. While the complaint was not upheld, RNZ had identified a statement which had not been complained of which it had found to be inaccurate. Subsequently, it noted, Mr Ryall had nominated standards R1, R5, R9 and R16 as being relevant.

RNZ pointed out that it had not assessed the complaint under the standards nominated in the referral and that it did not consider it appropriate to do so. It maintained that neither of Mr Ryall’s letters provided any evidence to support his contention that R5, R9 or R16 had been breached. It absolutely rejected the suggestion that the content of any of its broadcasts resulted from bias or a lack of impartiality in political matters.

In concluding, RNZ repeated that in its view the words complained of ("willing to admit the bill has some flaws") was an accurate summary of what Sir Douglas said. The word "flawed", it argued, had a clear, common meaning of "imperfect" and that was what it meant in the sentence complained of. It reiterated that Sir Douglas had expressed his view that there were limitations to the bill. However, it continued, his position had been clarified in the report and other news bulletins where it made clear that despite his reservations, he still supported the bill.

In his final comment, Mr Ryall repeated that the statement broadcast that "Sir Douglas is willing to admit the bill has some flaws" was an inaccurate summation of what was actually said. It was wrong, he said, to attribute that opinion to Sir Douglas. First, he argued, it was clear that the overall theme of Sir Douglas’s speech was that the bill was justified. Mr Ryall provided a copy of the speech and noted that it referred to both deterrence and rehabilitation and punishment. He contended that RNZ had inaccurately reported the central message in that speech, and by dwelling on the parts of the address concerning the ambit and purposes of the bill, the RNZ report showed a clear lack of balance.

Secondly, Mr Ryall continued, it was difficult to see that any particular bill could ever be regarded by anyone as flawed, or for that matter, perfect. That was not a consideration when a bill was being enacted. He wrote:

Parliament is about enacting laws. It may be that Parliament decides to exclude certain matters from legislation or to address only certain purposes. If Parliament chooses to do that, it cannot reasonably be said that the bill under consideration is flawed or imperfect. Against just what criteria you judge a "perfect" bill is difficult to say, let alone that anyone, and in this case Sir Douglas, can ever be of the view that a bill is flawed. Conceptually "limitations", or matters outside the scope of a bill, cannot be equated with "flaws". There is, therefore, no flaw, imperfection, or invalidating defect in the bill.

The Authority’s Findings

The context of the news items is the enactment of controversial legislation dealing with crimes of home invasion. RNZ’s report included a comment from the Labour Spokesperson on Justice which was highly critical of the proposed legislation, and then stated that the former Minister of Justice was willing to admit the bill had some flaws. The complaint relates to the use of the words "admit" and "flaws", both of which Mr Ryall contended misrepresented the former Minister’s views.

The Authority notes that RNZ, in its assessment of the complaint, acknowledged first that instead of the word "admit" it would have preferred either "acknowledge" or "accept". However, it maintained, the use of the word "admit" did not breach any standards. Nevertheless, it noted, it had identified another news headline – which was not the subject of this complaint – where the report had stated that Sir Douglas had said that the bill was flawed. That, RNZ conceded, was an error of fact. It reported that it had identified the origin of the error and counselled staff appropriately. It had also approached Sir Douglas to determine whether a correction should be broadcast.

The Authority considers the phrase "was willing to admit" is a fair summary of Sir Douglas’s views on the bill and, in the context of the report, concludes that it was not inaccurate.

The second aspect complained about was that it was inaccurate to state that Sir Douglas considered that the bill was "flawed". It was not accurate, Mr Ryall contended, to attribute this opinion to Sir Douglas.

The Authority has been referred to Sir Douglas’s speech in Parliament where he acknowledged that there were good arguments on either side, but that he considered the Bill was justified because it went some way towards giving people protection in their homes. In the majority’s view, while Sir Douglas might have conceded the Bill had limitations, his speech did not convey any sense that he considered it flawed. It therefore upholds this aspect under standard R1 on the basis that it was a misrepresentation of his actual position.

The minority disagrees. It notes that Sir Douglas had questioned whether the proposed bill was capable of providing the protection people sought. In this context, the minority considers that it was not sufficiently inaccurate as to breach the standards to summarise his position as believing that the bill was flawed.

The Authority has subsumed the other standards raised under standard R1, as it considers that standard encapsulates the gravamen of the complaint.


For the reasons set forth above, a majority of the Authority upholds the complaint that an aspect of news items broadcast by Radio New Zealand Ltd on National Radio on 23 June at 7.00am, 7.30am. 7.40am and 9.00am breached standard R1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It considers no order is appropriate in the circumstances.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Sam Maling
4 November 1999


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

1.     Hon Tony Ryall’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 23 June 1999

2.    RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 25 June 1999

3.    Mr Ryall’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 21 July 1999

4.    RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 19 August 1999

5.    Mr Ryall’s Final Comment – 8 September 1999