Morton and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2020-150 (20 April 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Rachel Morton
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint about a question during a social welfare debate on Morning Report suggesting an ACT Party policy ‘smacks of eugenics’. In the context it was not outside audience expectations for Morning Report and political debate. It would not have caused widespread offence. The complaint did not raise any issues under the balance standard. The question was comment and analysis, to which the accuracy standard does not apply. Ms McKee and the ACT Party were treated fairly in the context of the debate.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Balance, Accuracy, Fairness
 On 2 October 2020 Morning Report held a debate in the lead-up to the 2020 General Election with representatives from the Labour, National, New Zealand First, ACT and Green Parties:
About 50,000 people who've lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic are now on the job seeker benefit. Treasury projections show unemployment is expected to peak at 7.7% next year before slowly falling. But those figures will be worse if the border can't reopen. So what does each political party think the role of the welfare state should be for the next three years or so? And what role does the state play in getting people back into jobs? We're going to debate these issues until around half past eight this morning.
 During a segment about children living in poverty, host Susie Ferguson and ACT Party spokesperson Nicole McKee had the following exchange:
Ms McKee: We also have to help those 6,000 babies a year that have been born onto a benefit. So, I mean, if you're addressing 18,000 [children living on a benefit], we've got 6,000 new ones coming in.
Ms Ferguson: Now, I was actually just about to talk to you about this, Nicole. The ACT policy says we cannot continue to have so many children born onto a benefit.
Ms McKee: Yes.
Ms Ferguson: Does that not smack of eugenics?
Ms McKee: Look, you know, when we have a look at what's going on, we've got these babies coming into welfare. Their life is starting on welfare. Their parents can do so much more for them if they're in a working environment. Look, we understand that we have to be able to have something available for parents who need it, but when I met a woman in Whanganui who proudly told me that she had seven children to five fathers so she could stay on a benefit, we have to look at addressing how we're going to make sure that we can get the youth of New Zealand up working and progressing.
 Rachel Morton complained about Ms Ferguson’s question ‘Does that not smack of eugenics’, saying the statement referred to was about ‘a preference to have parents in work, rather than on a benefit’, and breached standards:
Good taste and decency
- The question was ‘offensive to people on the benefit and to ACT MPs’.
- ‘To most reasonable people eugenics has connotations of Nazi Germany’, rather than the dictionary definition cited by RNZ in its response.
- ‘Ms Ferguson regularly makes statements like this to National and ACT MPs while carrying out soft interviews with those on the left.’
- ‘No other candidate received a provocative question of this nature. This is despite the National Party also frequently saying they want fewer children born into benefit dependent households.’
- ‘The ACT Party has never talked about eugenics and to state that they have is wrong and deliberately misleading.’
- ‘The ACT Party has never advocated for eugenics, it is not a policy, it never has been.’
- Ms Ferguson claimed she had read the policy, but ‘by having read the policy…it would have been clear that eugenics is not a policy. The statement "fewer children in benefit dependent homes" is about having more parents in work. Nowhere on the website does it say the child shouldn't be born. The policy is also called "welfare as a hand up." The presenter has not accurately described [the] policy’.
- The question was unfair to the ACT Party and Ms McKee. ‘Ms Ferguson has deliberately twisted the quote by the ACT Party to make a disgraceful comment that should never have been put to Ms McKee.’
- ‘RNZ uses Ms McKee's answer as a defence in their response. It's important to note that my complaint is about the question being asked in the first place, not the response. It was not a fair question to pose in the first instance.’
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold Ms Morton’s complaint for the following reasons:
- ‘Eugenics, as defined by Oxford Languages, is the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. Your complaint itself refers to ACT’s “preference to have parents in work rather than on a benefit”.’
- ‘Provocative questioning is a legitimate journalistic tool’ and ‘we see no danger in Ms Ferguson asking about eugenics’.
- ‘RNZ cannot control how a candidate chooses to respond to a question. In this case, Nicole McKee was free to discuss the provenance or intent of the policy but did not, preferring instead to talk about a woman in Whanganui with seven children by five fathers.’
- ‘Certainly nothing about the question itself was misleading, offensive, inaccurate or “disgraceful”.’
 The good taste and decency standard1 states current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The standard is intended to protect audiences from content likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.2
 The balance standard3 ensures competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.4 The standard only applies to news, current affairs and factual programmes, which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.5
 The purpose of the accuracy standard6 is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.7 It states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.
 The fairness standard8 protects the dignity and reputation of those featured in programmes.9 It ensures individuals and organisations are dealt with justly and fairly and protected from unwarranted damage.10
 The Authority’s Election Complaints Fast-Track Process contemplates fast tracking of ‘programmes that relate to election or referenda matters that may influence a vote’.11 This complaint could not be considered for the fast track process, as it was only referred to us after the 2020 General Election. Accordingly, it was processed under our standard procedures.
 We have listened to the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 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 enables the public to be informed and engaged, which is critical to a free and democratic society, particularly in the lead-up to an election. 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.
Good taste and decency
 Ms Morton alleged it was in bad taste to reference eugenics due to its association with Nazi Germany. The term ‘eugenics’ refers to ‘the selection of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations, typically in reference to humans’.12 Although often associated with the Nazi era in Germany, eugenics movements were not ‘unique to the Nazis’.13
 Listeners of the programme would have understood Ms Ferguson’s statement to be referring to the fact the ACT Policy is stating a preferred characteristic of future or current parents (namely, being in work), rather than suggesting the ACT Party are Nazis or trying to enact a policy of eugenics.
 Additionally, the following contextual factors are relevant:14
- the nature of Morning Report, a news and current affairs programme targeted at adult listeners
- the adult target audience and audience expectations of a political debate discussing social welfare issues, which can be emotive and heated
- the nature of the comment itself, which was used to challenge and provoke a response from Ms McKee on ACT’s welfare policy
- the absence of any malice or intent to target a particular group
- the item was a political debate with representatives from major political parties in the lead up to the General Election 2020.
 While the good taste and decency standard is primarily aimed at broadcasts containing sexual material, nudity, violence or coarse language, it may also be considered in relation to broadcasts that portray or discuss material in a way that is likely to cause offence or distress. The reference to eugenics may be challenging for some listeners but, in the context of a robust political debate, audiences expect politicians to be challenged. In the context, the statement was unlikely to cause offence or distress resulting in a breach of the standard.
 Therefore we do not uphold the complaint under this standard.
 The balance standard applies only to ‘news, current affairs and factual programmes’ which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. 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’.15 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.16
 Ms Morton did not identify any particular ‘controversial issue of public importance’ in respect of which additional points of view should have been presented. Ms Morton’s complaint under this standard was focused on her concern that parties on the left were receiving ‘soft interviews’ and no other candidates had received such a ‘provocative question’, even where their political party may have held similar positions. This is not a matter addressed by the balance standard.
 We also note that the comment was put to Ms McKee for her response, and she was given the opportunity to speak on the ACT Party position.
 For these reasons, we do not consider any issues of balance arise within the broadcast.
 The complainant alleged that Ms Ferguson’s question misrepresented ACT’s policy ‘Welfare as a Hand Up’ by suggesting the ACT Party is advocating for eugenics.
 We disagree with the complainant’s interpretation. The term ‘smacks of’ means ‘sounds like’ or ‘seems like’. Ms Ferguson was drawing a comparison between the ACT Party policy and eugenics, and challenging Ms McKee to refute that comparison through her negative phrasing of the question, ‘does that not…’
 However, regardless of what may be suggested by this question, it represented comment, analysis or opinion presented as an opportunity for Ms McKee to advocate for the ACT Party policy. The accuracy standard does not apply to comment, analysis or opinion.17 In any event, Ms McKee was given the opportunity to respond to this question, minimising any risk of listeners being misled.
 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.18
 The Authority has previously recognised that it is an essential element of free speech that even the most trenchant criticism of public figures, in their professional capacity, be allowed. The question is whether such criticism overstepped the boundaries of fairness and strayed into personally abusive territory.
 The comparison between ACT Party policy and eugenics did no go beyond what Ms McKee or the ACT Party could reasonably expect in terms of robust political commentary and scrutiny. No unfairness arose, particularly given the public interest and because Ms McKee had an opportunity to comment.
 Accordingly, we do not uphold this complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
20 April 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Rachel Morton’s formal complaint – 2 October 2020
2 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 14 October 2020
3 Ms Morton’s referral to the Authority – 1 November 2020
4 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 14 December 2020
1 Standard 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
3 Standard 8 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 As above
6 Standard 9 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
7 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
8 Standard 11 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
9 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
10 As above
11 Broadcasting Standards Authority “Fast track complaints process for election related content” <www.bsa.govt.nz>
12 Britannica “Eugenics” <www.Britannica.com>
13 Daniel J Kevles “Eugenics and human rights” British Medical Journal (online ed, 1 July 1999)
14 Guideline 1a
15 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
16 As above
17 Guideline 9a
18 See, for example, Hagger and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2020-032 and Marra and MediaWorks Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2019-023