Morgenster and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2020-069 (16 December 2020)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Sitara Morgenster
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 a Checkpoint report breached the accuracy and balance standards by stating attacks against 5G cell towers internationally were due to ‘widely debunked conspiracy theories, linking telecommunications technology to illness, including COVID-19’. The Authority found the statement was unlikely to significantly affect listeners’ understanding of the segment and the balance standard did not apply, as the broadcast was not a discussion regarding the safety of 5G technology.
Not Upheld: Accuracy and Balance
 In the Checkpoint programme at 5.40pm on 15 May 2020, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) reported on suspected arson attacks on several 5G cell towers in New Zealand.
 During the broadcast the reporter stated:
There have been reports about attacks against 5G towers, internationally, due to widely debunked conspiracy theories, linking telecommunications technology to illness, including COVID-19.
 In considering this complaint, we listened to a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 Sitara Morgenster submitted the broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice as:
- no source or research was provided to support the statements that concerns about 5G technology can be labelled ‘widely debunked’ conspiracy theories
- it implies genuine concerns regarding 5G technology are unfounded conspiracy theories.
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint stating:
- The item was accurate.
- There have been other news reports on 5G not being linked to Covid-19.1
- In a three minute news item featuring a particular topic it is impractical to include every aspect of the debate.
- The focus of the story was the extent of damage to a number of cell phone towers. It was not an in-depth review of the effects of 5G so no issue of balance arose.
 The accuracy standard requires broadcasters to make reasonable efforts to ensure news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.2
 The balance standard requires broadcasters to present significant alternative viewpoints in news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.
 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 have been caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.
 Audiences may be misinformed in two ways: by incorrect statements of fact within the programme; and/or by being misled by the programme.3 Being ‘misled’ is defined as being given ‘a wrong idea or impression of the facts’.4
 The standard is 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.5
 The complainant argued this news broadcast was misleading by omitting to cite sources for the relevant statement and by implying there are no ‘genuine’ concerns surrounding 5G technology. Our focus is therefore whether the statement itself together with the omission of information on these topics was likely to significantly affect viewers’ understanding of the segment as a whole.
 This item focused on the suspected arson incidents in New Zealand and the risks and disruption generated by the damage. It was clear the broadcast was not intended to be an in-depth discussion of the merits and potential risks of 5G technology. Comments on this topic were accordingly unlikely to significantly affect listeners’ understanding of the segment.
 In any event, there is also information in the public domain supporting the position that concerns regarding adverse health impacts of 5G technology, at the frequencies used by cell sites, are not supported by scientific evidence. We refer to information provided by the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, which supports that there is no link between COVID-19 and 5G, and that the health effects of 5G continue to be monitored and no adverse health effects have been identified.6
 For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint under this standard.
 A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to ‘news, current affairs and factual programmes’ which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.7
 The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.8 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.9
 We have previously found the introduction of 5G to New Zealand is a controversial issue of public importance.10 However, this news broadcast did not amount to a ‘discussion’ of concerns regarding 5G technology. It focused on the recent damage to cell phone towers in New Zealand and the risks and disruption generated by such damage.
 The reporter did not speculate on the reason behind the attacks or link the attacks to groups who believe 5G poses health risks. The mention of international attacks to cell towers being linked to ‘widely debunked conspiracy theories’ was only a brief part of the overall broadcast. As such, the broadcaster was not required to present alternative viewpoints regarding the validity of concerns regarding 5G technology.
 As the item did not amount to a relevant ‘discussion’, the balance standard does not apply, 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
16 December 2020
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Sitara Morgenster’s complaint to RNZ – 16 May 2020
2 RNZ’s response – 16 June 2020
3 Ms Morgenster’s referral to BSA – 5 July 2020
4 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 4 August 2020
1 RNZ provided a link to a YouTube clip uploaded by Sky News titled ‘Coronavirus: 5G conspiracy theory is “absolute rubbish’’’ and featuring Professor Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director for England, who labelled the theory of Coronavirus being linked to 5G as ‘rubbish, nonsense and the worst kind of fake news’.
2 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 As above
4 Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd, CIV-2011-485-1110
5 Guideline 9b
6 See Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor “5G in Aotearoa New Zealand” <www.pmcsa.ac.nz>; Ministry of Health “5G and Health” <www.health.govt.nz>; Ministry of Health “5G questions and answers” <www.health.govt.nz>; Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment “5G information pack for media” <www.mbie.govt.nz>
7 Guideline 8a
8 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
9 As above
10 Guenole and Television New Zealand, Decision No. 2019-091 at