Mosen and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2021-044 (2 August 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Jonathan Mosen
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 an item on Morning Report including an interview between reporter Phil Pennington and Minister for the Environment Hon David Parker, regarding toxic waste contamination at Tiwai Point. During the interview Mr Parker described himself as being ‘blind’ on the state of contamination at Tiwai Point. In the introduction to the interview, presenter Susie Ferguson referred to this comment, and in the course of examining Mr Parker’s awareness of the issue Mr Pennington queried it twice. The complainant submitted the use of ‘blind’ in this way denigrated people who are blind as it equated blindness with ignorance. The Authority found the use of ‘blind’ in this context did not meet the high threshold required to find a breach of the discrimination and denigration standard.
Not Upheld: Discrimination and Denigration
 An item on Morning Report broadcast on Radio New Zealand on 17 March 2021, included an interview between reporter Phil Pennington and Minister for the Environment Hon David Parker, about the impacts of rising sea levels on toxic waste contamination at Tiwai Point, and remediation options for dealing with this. During the interview, Mr Parker described himself as being ‘blind’ on the state of contamination at Tiwai Point. In the introduction to the interview, presenter Susie Ferguson referred to this comment, and in the course of examining Mr Parker’s awareness of the issue Mr Pennington queried it twice. The word ‘blind’ was used four times in total.
 Jonathan Mosen complained the broadcast breached the discrimination and denigration standard:
- The use of ‘blind’ in this way denigrated blind people by equating blindness with ignorance and a lack of information.
- The use of the term was ableist, damaged the reputation of blind people and perpetuated stereotypes.
 The Chief Executive of Blind Low Vision NZ provided a letter in support of Mr Mosen’s complaint with comments including:
- ‘We far too often hear expressions like “flying blind”, “being blindsided” or “turning a blind eye”.’
- ‘It is my understanding that blind people have contacted Mr. Mosen about the story, and commenting on how upset they were in the manner of how the word “blind” was portrayed and in what context.’
- ‘Just like some historically racist, sexist, and derogatory terms have been retired, so have a handful of ableist slurs that were used to dehumanise, stigmatise, and institutionalise people in the past.’
- ‘Journalists are in a privileged position to influence change in our vocabulary for the better through using more inclusive, non-ableist language.’
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint:
- Mr Pennington was employing a well-established meaning of the word ‘blind’, which has special significance when applied to matters of ministerial responsibility, in this case describing what the Minister for the Environment could be assumed to know (or not) about the hazardous waste at the aluminium smelter.
- The use of the term ‘blind’ was legitimate and the standard does not prevent any genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion.
- The meaning of the term ‘blind’ has evolved in English to one that is quite separate from the term referring to sightedness or visual acuity.
- The Authority has previously found that, whatever the etymology of the word, there is not now a link between blindness and ignorance.
- In any case, using the word ‘blind’ to describe ignorance is a legitimate and descriptive part of the English language and does not denigrate blind people.
 The discrimination and denigration standard1 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. It protects sections of the community from verbal and other attacks, and fosters a community commitment to equality.
 ‘Denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community. ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment.2
 We have listened to the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, which is our starting point. This includes the broadcaster’s right to offer a range of ideas, information and opinions and the public’s right to receive those. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the broadcast has caused actual or potential harm at a level that outweighs the right to freedom of expression.
 Where discrimination and denigration complaints are concerned, the importance of freedom of expression means that a high level of condemnation, often with an element of malice or nastiness, will usually be necessary to find a breach of the standard.3 The importance of the right is also recognised in the guidelines to the standard, which state it is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion.4
Discrimination and denigration
 The standard applies only to recognised ‘sections of the community’, which is consistent with the grounds for discrimination listed in the Human Rights Act 1993.5 People who are blind constitute a recognised section of the community for the purposes of this standard.
 First, we acknowledge the complainant’s concerns that the use of ‘blind’ in this manner may be considered offensive, particularly to those who are blind. However, as we have recently recognised:6
The Authority’s role is to reflect current, and evolving, community attitudes, including towards the acceptability of language. Although in our decisions we may raise awareness about changing views towards particular words and phrases, we are cautious about going too far or attempting to lead the way. We are limited to applying the relevant standard and guidelines…Context is also vitally important in determining what is acceptable.
 In the context of this broadcast, applying the relevant factors,7 we consider the use of ’blind’ did not breach the standard. In particular:
- The term ‘blind’ was originally used by Mr Parker as the Minister for the Environment to describe his awareness of the contamination at Tiwai Point. This constitutes a genuine expression of serious comment or opinion, which the standard is not intended to prevent.
- The term ‘blind’ was otherwise only used by Ms Ferguson and Mr Pennington in reference to Mr Parker’s own description of his awareness of the issue. The tone of these comments was not malicious or aggressive, but inquisitive and consistent with a critical examination of ministerial responsibility in relation to this issue.
- There was considerable public interest in the broadcast, examining a matter of significant environmental concern.
 Taken together, these factors mean the broadcast did not reach the high threshold for finding harm at a level that justifies restricting freedom of expression.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
2 August 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Mr Mosen’s complaint to RNZ – 19 March 2021
2 RNZ’s response to Mr Mosen – 22 April 2021
3 Support letter from Blind Low Vision NZ’s Chief Executive – 30 April 2021
4 Mr Mosen’s referral to the BSA – 3 May 2021
5 RNZ’s response to the referral – 1 June 2021
6 Mr Mosen’s further comments – 1 June 2021
7 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 1 June 2021
8 Mr Mosen’s final comments – 2 June 2021
1 Standard 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Guideline 6a
3 Guideline 6b
4 Guideline 6c
5 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16
6 Cant and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2021-030 at 
7 Guideline 6d