Stopford and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2020-075 (14 October 2020)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Tadhg Stopford
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
An episode of The Panel included an interview with a professor from the department of preventive and social medicine, whose focus is respiratory epidemiology, about his research on the effects of smoking cannabis on the lungs. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the interview breached the accuracy and balance standards. The Authority did not consider the accuracy standard applied as the interview was a short conversation about the findings of the study where the interviewee was clearly giving his own perspective and analysis, having conducted his own research on the topic. The Authority accepted that the wider debate about cannabis legalisation is a controversial issue of public importance, of which the interview was narrowly focussed on one aspect (the alleged health effects). The Authority was satisfied the broadcaster met its obligations to present a reasonable range of other perspectives both within the programme and in other extensive coverage in the period of current interest.
Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance
 During an item on Radio New Zealand’s (RNZ’s) The Panel, host Wallace Chapman interviewed Professor Bob Hancox about his research into the effects smoking cannabis has on the lungs. Mr Chapman introduced the segment as follows:
Key findings from a review of research on the effects of smoking cannabis on the lungs are out. It was undertaken by respiratory specialist Professor Bob Hancox from the University of Otago and… Waikato Hospital’s respiratory department. And it has found that cannabis is harmful to the lungs, but in a different way to tobacco. In September, New Zealanders will decide in a referendum whether they support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, a yes or no question, being: should recreational cannabis be legalised? The use and purchase would be R20 and it would be a criminal offence to provide it to anyone under 20. With us is Professor Bob Hancox from the department of preventive and social medicine at the University of Otago, whose focus is respiratory epidemiology. Welcome to The Panel, Professor Hancox.
 Immediately following the interview with Professor Hancox, two guest panellists discussed their (differing) views on whether or not cannabis should be legalised, with respect to the upcoming referendum.
 The item was broadcast on RNZ National at 4.35pm on 18 May 2020. In considering this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 Mr Stopford complained that the broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, for the following reasons:
- ‘The paper published by Otago/Waikato is titled ‘Cannabis Use Disorder and the Lungs’. The title makes clear that this paper is about a subset of extreme cannabis users.’ Its introduction on RNZ stating that ‘key findings from a review of research on the effects of smoking cannabis on the lungs are out’ is ‘inaccurate and alarmist’. Mr Stopford submitted that ‘The correct title of this interview should have been, in the interests of accuracy and balance, “Yet another review finds that, unlike tobacco, smoking cannabis is not associated with significant health harms without uncommonly extreme use”’.
- Neither Professor Hancox nor Mr Chapman explained that the effects of cannabis on the lungs were not comparable to tobacco harms at all. Mr Stopford alleged that the effects of cannabis on the lungs are rare, isolated to a very small sub-group of users, affect mixed-smokers of both tobacco and cannabis and the effects in the form of bronchial symptoms are not permanent.
- Professor Hancox’s statement that cannabis causes bronchitis is ‘inaccurate, and unverified’.
- Professor Hancox’s statement that, ‘…we just don’t have enough evidence… there is some research including from New Zealand that suggests a link with lung cancer. Some international research…is less clear…’ is inaccurate and ‘calculated to feed public prejudice rather than inform accurately’.
- Professor Hancox’s statement that ‘cannabis has a number of concerns we are really worried about’ including ‘Mental Health’ is inaccurate.
- ‘Professor Hancox was fundamentally inaccurate in his approach to the topic. He materially misled NZ by exaggerating harms, conflating data and choosing not to explain why.’
- ‘Kiwis deserve to be told what cannabis is, a unique nutraceutical that is also the world’s most benign smoked substance.’
- Professor Hancox’s statements on cannabis vaping injuries were factually incorrect.
- The message implied by the introduction that smoking cannabis presumably increases harms to the lungs, was heavily emphasised by Professor Hancox at the end of the interview when he was questioned about the referendum.
- ‘Considerable build up was given to establishing the credibility of the authors and to the quality of Otago DLS data.’
- The statement made by Professor Hancox on the links between cannabis and lung cancer were unbalanced.
- The host ‘defers to Hancox, feeding him another opportunity to mislead without contest’ when he asks the question, ‘so how do we decide about cannabis, then?’
- ‘Professor Hancox has, perhaps unintentionally, produced an unbalanced presentation of exaggerated harms while ignoring the actual effect of cannabinoids.’
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold Mr Stopford’s complaint under either standard, saying:
- With respect to accuracy, in this relatively short piece, Professor Hancox gave his opinions with respect to recently completed research material and responded to questions from the programme host with phrases such as “I think…”.’
- RNZ is entitled to rely on the views of Professor Hancox as an expert in the subject matter.
- ‘Even if it appears there are some points of difference with respect to a range of scientific views documented in a range of studies, RNZ is still entitled to allow Professor Hancox to offer his views as a part of our coverage in the period of current interest.’
- ‘RNZ observes that the period of current interest in the topic is still open and will probably remain so even after the results of the upcoming referendum are declared.’
- ‘Professor Hancox expressed a number of opinions with respect to the effects of smoking cannabis on the lungs in the context of the upcoming referendum… he was careful to use phrases such as “I think” and “I’m not trying to…” and “that is a decision New Zealanders will need to make…” when responding to questions put by the programme host.’
- ‘The programme then moved on to a discussion with two panellists… The panellists were split in their support for the referendum so further balance in terms of perspective was brought to the programme at that point. Given the breadth and depth of coverage on both RNZ and other media of a range of views regarding the possibility of cannabis law reforms, RNZ found there was no breach of the balance standard on this occasion.’
The relevant standards
 The purpose of the accuracy standard (Standard 9) is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.1 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 balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme, or in other programmes within the period of current interest.
 The starting point for our determination is to recognise the importance of the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right of broadcasters to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information. In particular, this case involves the promotion of free and frank public discourse on a topical matter of significant public interest, which is especially important in the lead-up to a referendum, when interested groups are seeking to express views and share information, and audiences are seeking information to enable them to make informed voting decisions.
 Our task is to weigh this value and public interest in the broadcast against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused, with reference to the objectives of the standards described above. In this case we are mindful that voters rely on mainstream media outlets to provide reliable information and therefore they have the potential to influence voters’ views on the subject matter discussed. However, given the importance of public discourse in the lead-up to a referendum, we will generally only intervene to limit the exercise of that speech when we consider that the harm is great.
 The first question for us is whether the accuracy standard applied to the interview in question. The accuracy standard applies only to statements of fact, and not to statements clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion.2 In our assessment of whether the aspects of the item complained about were statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applied, or whether they were distinguishable as comment and analysis, we have considered the following factors:3
- It was clear from the introduction that the interview was a short conversation about Professor Hancox’s findings in his own published research.
- Professor Hancox is an expert in his field, and therefore can be expected to have authority and knowledge. He also referred to data from the Dunedin study, noting he’s had access to extensive and reliable data in his research, which had the effect of strengthening his findings.
- Professor Hancox used phrases such as, ‘I think’, ‘probably’ and ‘maybe’, which suggested he was giving his analysis and opinion.
- The subject matter is clearly one where a range of research and studies, with varying outcomes, has been conducted. Professor Hancox’s published research is one of many studies and he was careful to acknowledge where his findings were inconclusive.
 Taking into account these factors, we consider a reasonable listener would have understood Professor Hancox’s statements in the programme as presenting his own perspective and analysis, having conducted his own research on the topic, rather than as statements of fact.
 We therefore find the accuracy standard did not apply, and we do not uphold this part of the complaint.
 The balance standard is triggered when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news and current affairs programmes. A controversial issue is an issue that has topical currency about which there has been ongoing public debate, and an issue of public importance is something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, the New Zealand public.4
 We consider The Panel broadcast met these criteria and therefore the balance standard applied. The Panel is a current affairs programme, which in this instance was broadly focussed on the issue of whether cannabis should be legalised, with reference to the upcoming referendum. This is clearly a controversial issue of public importance. The alleged health effects of cannabis represent one aspect of this wider issue.
 The next question, then, is whether the broadcaster has made reasonable efforts to present significant viewpoints on the issue within The Panel broadcast, and/or within other coverage in the period of current interest. Our assessment includes consideration of the following factors:5
- the programme’s introduction, and whether the programme was clearly signalled as approaching a topic from a particular perspective
- the nature of the discussion, eg whether the issue was the focus, or was raised in a brief, peripheral sort of way
- the nature of the issue and whether listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage, including coverage in other media
- whether listeners can reasonably be expected to have a broad understanding of the main perspectives on the issue
- the likely expectation of the listeners as to the content.
 A key consideration is what listeners would expect from the programme, and whether they were likely to be misinformed by the omission of a significant perspective.6
 Applying these considerations in this case, we are satisfied that the broadcaster sufficiently presented balancing material both within the programme and within the period of current interest. We have taken into account:
- The programme introduction clearly signalled that the interview with Professor Hancox would be presented from his particular perspective, having conducted his own research concerning the effects of cannabis on the lungs. In this context, reasonable listeners would not have expected to hear another view countering Professor Hancox’s opinions and research findings.
- In any event, RNZ has provided other coverage regarding the health effects of cannabis.7
- Regarding the broader issue of cannabis legalisation, immediately following the interview, two guest panellists were invited to give their views on whether they would vote yes or no in the referendum. The two panellists held opposing views, engaged in a heated discussion, and explained in some depth their respective reasons for voting ‘yes’ and then ‘no’ to legalising cannabis. One panellist referred to the fact there is ‘a wealth of research on both sides of the argument’ and the other emphasised he was not aware of any study suggesting cannabis is ‘bad’.
- The broadcaster has provided a broad range of other coverage on the cannabis referendum,8 as have other media outlets.
- At the time of the broadcast in May 2020, it could reasonably be expected that the issue would continue to be covered extensively in the months leading up to the referendum with a range of viewpoints presented.
 In these circumstances, the likelihood of the audience being misled or left uninformed about the issue of cannabis legalisation, as a result of this one interview, was reduced. Listeners could reasonably be expected to be aware that a range of perspectives exist on the issue, and a wide range of coverage and information was readily available to the public.
 We have therefore not found actual or potential harm of the manner alleged in the complaint that would justify regulatory intervention or restricting the right to freedom of expression. We do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
14 October 2020
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Tadhg Stopford’s complaint to RNZ – 3 June 2020
2 RNZ’s decision on the complaint – 3 July 2020
3 Mr Stopford’s referral to the Authority – 13 July 2020
4 RNZ’s response to the referral – 11 August 2020
5 Mr Stopford’s final comments – 13 August 2020
1 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
2 Guideline 9a
3 With reference to Guidance: Accuracy - Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 64
4 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 Guideline 8c
6 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
7 See for example: How does cannabis use affect New Zealanders' health? (RNZ, 6 June 2020), Prof Benedikt Fischer discusses the pros and cons of legalising cannabis (RNZ, 16 February 2020), Medical cannabis ‘a remarkably useful drug’ (RNZ, 20 July 2019),
New NZ study on medical cannabis shows positive results (RNZ, 5 February 2020)
8 See for example: Reports find legalising cannabis could generate $1.4b in public money (RNZ, 9 September 2020), Medicinal cannabis causing confusion ahead of referendum (RNZ, 7 September 2020), Legalising cannabis may reduce 'biased enforcement' of Māori - chief science advisor (RNZ, 7 July 2020), Legalising cannabis is a much better option than decriminalising its use - expert analysis (RNZ, 16 February 2020)