Sawyer and Radio Pacific Ltd- 1996-076
- J M Potter (Chair)
- A Martin
- L M Loates
- R McLeod
- Calum Sawyers
ProgrammeBanksie on Sunday
BroadcasterRadio Pacific Ltd
Abortion was a topic touched on during the talkback programme Banksie on Sunday,
broadcast on Radio Pacific between 10:00am – 2:00pm on Sunday 14 April 1996. The
host (Hon John Banks MP) described doctors who perform abortions as baby
murderers, and claimed that the aborted foetuses were put into the hospital waste
disposal systems or in "Kleensaks".
Mr Sawyers complained to Radio Pacific Ltd that the "highly emotive" remarks were
inaccurate, unbalanced, and unfair to the doctors who carried out abortions.
Explaining that the host had been expressing his own strong opinion, that other hosts
had different opinions, and that callers were able to present a diversity of views on the
subject, Radio Pacific denied that the standards had been contravened.
Dissatisfied with Radio Pacific's decision, Mr Sawyers referred his complaint to the
Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the aspect of the complaint that the host's
comments denigrated doctors who perform abortions, and orders an apology.
The members of the Authority have listened to part of the programme complained about
and have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). As is its practice, the
Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
Abortion was a subsidiary topic discussed on the talkback programme, Banksie on Sunday,
broadcast by Radio Pacific between 10.00am - 2.00pm on Sunday 14 April. Talking about
abortions, which he described as "state funded genocide," the host made the following remark:
I'm compiling a list of all the doctors in the hospitals up and down the country
that commit these murders every morning of the week, and put these bodies either
into the waste disposal unit in the hospitals or into a kleensak, and I'm going to
release their names publicly so that you'll be able to walk down the street, and say
that's a killer, that one lives in that house, he's another murderer, she kills babies
before they're born, and I'll be able to identify the abortionists – dash – state
funded killers, because I'm getting the list together and I’m going to release it in
Parliament so it can be published in every newspaper in the country, and I know
that these abortionists make huge, huge, money from the government by doing
this. They are making huge money. There are doctors earning hundreds and
thousands of dollars a year killing babies for a living. Baby killing doctors.
Pointing out that these doctors were operating within the law, Mr Sawyers complained
to Radio Pacific that it was inaccurate to describe them as murderers. Moreover, the
comments about the disposal of the foetus were inaccurate as they were disposed of by
funeral directors and/or crematoriums. Mr Sawyers maintained that the comments breached
standards R1, R6, R9 and R14 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice and the absence
of a correction was a contravention of standard R13.
Claiming also that the comments amounted to electioneering in a breach of the Electoral Act,
Mr Sawyers believed that an apology and a correction from the host were appropriate.
Radio Pacific assessed the complaint under the nominated standards. They require broadcasters:
R1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact in news and current
R6 To respect the principles of law which sustain our society.
R9 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters,
current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature, making reasonable
efforts to present significant points of view either in the same programme or
in other programmes within the period of current interest.
R13 To act responsibly and speedily in the event of a complaint and when an
accusation of unfairness is found to be correct, to provide appropriate redress
as early as possible after the original broadcast.
R14 To avoid portraying people in a manner that encourages denigration of or
discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race,
age, disability, occupation, status, sexual orientation or as the consequence of
legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement is
not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is
a) factual, or
b) the expression of serious opinion, or
c) in the legitimate use of humour or satire.
Pointing out that abortion was a highly emotional topic, Radio Pacific explained that it did not
hold an editorial view on the issue. Different hosts had a known variety of views and each host,
in the interests of fairness and balance, encouraged the expression of differing views from callers.
Radio Pacific then declined to uphold the complaint under each specific standard. It
maintained that as the comments were an expression of opinion, standard R1 had not
been breached. Standard R6 was not contravened as it did not prohibit criticism of the
law. The opportunity for callers to present a variety of views ensured that standard R9
was complied with, and standard R14 was not applicable as the host had referred only
to doctors who perform abortions - not to all doctors. As it had responded seriously to
the complaint, Radio Pacific argued that standard R13 was not transgressed.
When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Sawyers emphasised that he was
not complaining about the views on abortion which were expressed. He said that he
was complaining about the description of foetuses as "babies", about the comments
relating to the method of disposal, and the denigratory references to doctors. The
remarks, Mr Sawyers maintained, were presented as matters of fact, and not as matters
Mr Sawyers advised that he had written to hospitals to obtain confirmation of the
newspaper reports that foetuses were disposed of through funeral directors and
In his final comment, Mr Sawyer attached replies from three hospital authorities. In
summary, two said the women were offered the foetus/tissue to dispose of as they
wished. If the offer was declined, the foetus/tissue was incinerated with other
The Authority considers each standard in its approach to the complaint. Standard R1
requires factual accuracy in news and current affairs programme. Whether any
particular talkback programme is "news" or "current affairs" requires an assessment of
the specific programme. The Authority, having listened to part of the programme
broadcast on 14 April, concludes that it could not be described as a "news or current
affairs" programme. Accordingly, standard R1 is not applicable.
As for standard R6, the Authority agrees with Radio Pacific that the remarks on this
occasion were principally criticism of a specific law, and did not show disrespect for the
principles of law. Thus, standard R6 was not breached. In view of the opportunities
for callers to present a contrary view of the issue of abortion – as at least one caller did –
the Authority reaches the same conclusion in regard to standard R9. As Radio Pacific
responded speedily and responsibility to the complaint, the Authority is of the view that
standard R13 was not transgressed.
The Authority believes that standard R14 is the principal issue raised by the
complainant. Under this standard, a broadcaster is not allowed to portray a group
(which falls within a category included in the standard) in a manner that encourages
denigration or discrimination against it. On this occasion, doctors who carry out
abortions within the law was the group focussed on. This is an occupational group
which is recognised by the standards.
The Authority is in no doubt that the host's comments, recorded above, encouraged
both denigration of and discrimination against this group and thus breached the
substance of the standard.
Standard R14 states that the rule is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material
which is "the expression of a serious opinion". Radio Pacific argued that the host's
comments were his opinion. The Authority does not agree.
The host, a cabinet minister in the present government, presented the statements
included in the broadcast as fact. While it is possible nevertheless to interpret a number
of the remarks on the abortion issue as opinion, some of them were presented
unquestioningly as fact, and were meant to be understood as such. In these
circumstances, the Authority concludes that the exception in standard R14 (ii) does not
For the reasons above, the Authority upholds the complaint that some of
the host's comments broadcast by Radio Pacific Ltd, during the talkback
programme Banksie on Sunday on 14 April 1996, breached standard R14
of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
It declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaint.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose an order under s.13(1) of the
Broadcasting Act 1989. In view of both the degree and extent of abuse contained in the
broadcast and directed at doctors who perform abortions, the Authority considers that
the broadcast of an apology is appropriate. Although the order acknowledges the appeal
provisions in the Act by referring to one month before the apology must be broadcast,
in view of the forthcoming general election, the Authority believes that it would be
appropriate to broadcast the following order as soon as possible.
The Authority orders Radio Pacific Ltd to broadcast within one month of
the date of this decision a statement, approved by the Authority, which
apologises for the remarks broadcast on Banksie on Sunday on 14 April
1996, which breached standard R14 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting
Practice. The statement will be broadcast between 10.00am and 2.00pm
on a Sunday during the programme Banksie on Sunday.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
18 July 1996
Mr Sawyers' Formal Complaint to Radio Pacific Ltd – 24 April 1996
Calum Sawyers of Wellington complained to Radio Pacific Ltd about comments made
by the host (Hon John Banks MP) during the talkback programme, Banksie on Sunday,
broadcast between 10:00am - 2:00pm on 14 April 1996.
The host, Mr Sawyers wrote, had accused doctors who performed abortions of
murdering "babies" and disposing of the foetuses by putting them into the hospital
waste disposal systems or using plastic rubbish bags.
Explaining that the doctors who performed abortions in hospital were operating under
the law, Mr Sawyers said that the claims about murderers and the disposal of foetuses
were incorrect. He argued that the broadcast breached standards R1, R6, R9, R14 and
R13 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Further, because he considered the host's comments amounted to political advertising,
Mr Sawyers said he had also complained to the Electoral Commission.
Mr Sawyers considered that a public apology from the host about the false statements
would be appropriate.
Radio Pacific's Response to the Formal Complaint – 1 May 1996
Brent Impey, Radio Pacific's Counsel, advised Mr Sawyers that as the complaint did
not specify an exact comment, he had treated the complaint as one which focussed on
the four hour programme as a whole. Mr Impey began:
This issue is a highly emotional one where both pro and anti abortion views are
expressed in strong terms. It is not surprising that some talk hosts have strong
views on the subject; in the case of Radio Pacific there are those such as John
Banks who are strongly anti abortion, while others have pro choice or liberal
views. Examples include Jenny Anderson, Felix Donnelly and Ewing Stevens.
He added that Radio Pacific did not have an editorial view on the issue, and, to obtain
balanced and fairness, engaged hosts with a variety of opinions and encouraged callers
to express a variety of views on every subject. He then dealt with the specific standards
raised in the complaint.
R1 The host had expressed a strong opinion. It was not a question of fact.
R6 It was justifiable to criticise the law as had occurred on this occasion.
R9 Balance and fairness were achieved as explained above, and, Mr Impey wrote,
abortion had been a subject which attracted strong opinions since Radio Pacific
began broadcasting in 1979. He argued:
It is the station's policy to allow the opinions to be aired whether they be by
hosts or callers. Radio Pacific claims that it has achieved balance when
taking into account all its programmes.
R13 Radio Pacific had responded responsibly to the complaint.
Denying also that the broadcast was in breach of the Electoral Act, Mr Impey on Radio
Pacific's behalf declined to uphold the complaint.
Mr Sawyers' Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 3 May 1996
Dissatisfied with Mr Impey's reply, Mr Sawyers referred his complaint to the
Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
As he did not have a transcript of the show, he explained, he had attempted to
paraphrase the host's comments as accurately as possible. He was not complaining
about the entire show, he added, but the specific comments when the host accused
doctors of murdering foetuses and disposing of them through the waste disposal
system. This comment, he repeated, was false as the foetuses were disposed of by
funeral directors and/or crematoriums on behalf of hospitals. Mr Sawyers observed:
I agree that abortion is a highly emotive topic, but that was not what I was
complaining about. Whether other talk show hosts have opposing views on
abortion to Banks is therefore irrelevant. The disposal of foetuses was what the
complaint was laid about, and not about Banks', or any other hosts', attitudes to
abortion. The complaint is not based on the rights or wrongs, immorality or
morality of abortion.
Insisting that the host spoke about the disposal of foetuses as a statement of fact, he
mentioned again that there had been a reference to the disposal of "babies". Mr
Because Banks worded his statement as a matter of fact, and that he is wrong in
this case does indeed, in my belief, contravene section R1 of the programme
standards for Radio.
Moreover, Mr Sawyers wrote, he had written to hospitals to obtain confirmation of the
newspaper reports that foetuses were disposed of through funeral directors and
Standard R6 was contravened as the host had not criticised the law but had accused
doctors of acting illegally and murdering babies. Standard R9 was breached as the
host's incorrect statement was not corrected during or following his session. Although
Radio Pacific had ignored the standard R14 aspect of the complaint, Mr Sawyers
considered that the host's comments had denigrated medical practitioners.
While acknowledging the prompt response from Radio Pacific, Mr Sawyers believed
that his complaint had not been treated seriously. Rather, he felt that he had received a
standard reply. He also said he was awaiting a reply from the Electoral Commission as
to the status of all MPs who hosted talkback programmes.
Radio Pacific's Response to the Authority – 11 June 1996
In his report on Radio Pacific's behalf, Mr Impey said that the delay had occurred as he
had been waiting for the confirmation from hospitals that Mr Sawyers had promised in
his letter of complaint. Nevertheless, although it had not yet arrived, he intended to
respond at this time to the referral.
Mr Impey said that his reply to Mr Sawyers had dealt with the substantive issues:
abortion was a contentious issue and the host's "pro life" views were well known. He
also argued that the complaint should deal with the whole broadcast as abortion, and the
role played by doctors, were referred to frequently and in strong terms.
As for the standards raised, Mr Impey maintained that the host was expressing an
opinion; that standard R14 was inapplicable as the host had been referring only to
doctors who performed abortions – not all doctors; and that he received a full reply to
the specific matters raised. Radio Pacific continued to decline to uphold the complaint.
Mr Sawyers' Final Comment – 21 June 1996
Mr Sawyers said that he had received only one reply from a Regional Health Authority
and he had followed up his request to the others with phone calls and faxes. The
information obtained suggested that the usual practice involved allowing the woman to
take the foetus home if she so wished or, if she declined, to sent it to a funeral director
to arrange a cremation, or for incineration within the hospital system.
Mr Sawyers wrote:
... I agree that abortion is a highly emotive and divisive issue, and is indeed a
conscience vote in Parliament. Comments like those made by Banks do not help
this, but inflame the situation, further increasing polarity on the issue. Being
known as pro-life is no reason for him to introduce misleading or untrue
information that would be accepted by the more extreme pro-life groups as the
Repeating that his complaint focussed on the host's comments that doctors who
performed abortions were "baby murderers" and aborted foetuses were treated as waste,
Mr Sawyers insisted that the comments were presented as fact - not opinion. The
comments had referred, in breach of standard R14, to doctors who carried out abortions
and the comments would encourage denigration and discrimination against them. Mr
Sawyers considered that a retraction and apology were appropriate.