Te Whata and MediaWorks Radio Ltd - 2020-141 (31 March 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Phillip Te Whata
ProgrammeMagic Afternoons with Sean Plunket
BroadcasterMediaWorks Radio Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint about comments by Sean Plunket on his talkback programme regarding Christians and Christianity. While Mr Plunket made highly critical comments and expressed scepticism, this was not beyond audience expectations for a robust, opinionated programme and was unlikely to cause widespread offence. Equally, the comments were unlikely to encourage the discrimination or denigration of Christians. The Authority found callers in to the programme were treated fairly by Mr Plunket, given they had willingly phoned in to provide views on a discussion in which Mr Plunket was criticising the Christian faith, and were given the opportunity to express their own views. The remaining standards did not apply.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Discrimination and Denigration, Fairness, Violence, Accuracy, Balance
 During his programme on 9 September 2020, Sean Plunket discussed the COVID-19 ‘sub-cluster’ connected to Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship church and the compliance by members of the church with Ministry of Health contact tracing. Mr Plunket asked listeners, ‘what would your message be to people who don’t think they need to answer honestly…when they’re asked about contacts if they are a COVID carrier?’ Through discussion with listeners the subject of religion and God arose.
 One caller suggested banning all religions:
Caller: We need to get away from this hoax God lala land ... and get into the 20th century mate where we're science-based and New Zealand could be the first country in the world - let's just ban all religions.
Plunket: Oh –
Caller: You know what I mean, let's just do away with all churches. We'll keep St. Johns and the Salvation Army.
Caller: We'll keep them.
Plunket: Snowball's chance in hell of that.
 Other discussions and listener feedback included the following comments:
- [Plunket reading feedback] ‘“Please call all the faith people stupid conspiracy nuts like the hydrochloride crew.” Okay I will.’
- [Caller Sarah] ‘Good afternoon. I consider you a coward, Mr Plunket….Why are you deriding in a cowardly fashion the Christian religion?’
- [Plunket] ‘I'm not deriding the Christian religion. You're welcome to your religion. I just say I find it ridiculous.’…
- [Plunket reading feedback] ‘“Sean, Sarah is a typical Christian. No faculty for reason. I believe therefore, I am. Idiots,” says James. People are welcome to have their faith.’
- [Plunket] ‘I think there are large communities and ethnicities in New Zealand and certain parts of Auckland where religion is very, very strong. And I think religion is used to keep those people down, to take money from them and to actually limit their ability to have a bigger and wider understanding of life.’
- [Plunket] ‘I think religion had its place in Western society to give people something, to take them away from [the] sheer miserable lives that most people had. But I also think it's an opiate and I think it numbs us to our potential and to the real world.’
- [Plunket] ‘I'd say when your religion interferes with you doing the right thing in a society or puts other people at risk, then it's a real problem and it's like a penis. It's good to have. You can do what you want with it, but you shouldn't. I don't think you should… flap it around in public and you shouldn't, certainly shouldn't, force it onto young children.’
 Towards the end of the programme, Mr Plunket asked callers who had come to religion later in life why they had converted. He asked them what proof or signs they had. He then said ‘Yes, Lord. If you’re real could you do something that shows me you’re real…’ As the programme came to a close he said ‘I gave God the last hour to give me a sign. Nothing, and I mean nothing. No miracle, no lightning, no heat, shining light…’
 Phillip Te Whata complained the broadcast breached the good taste and decency, discrimination and denigration, fairness, violence, balance and accuracy standards for the following reasons:
- ‘His words and his rude Q&A offended my personal Christian faith.’
- He ‘constantly mocked’ callers.
- He ‘agreed with one caller who said all Churches should be removed but the Salvation Army Church should remain because of the work they do in the community’. This is inaccurate because ‘most churches are strongly involved with supporting their own communities’.
- ‘Sean mocked God. He stated that he felt "God was an A hole".’
- ‘He mocked at callers who could not form a logical argument which led them to believing God is real.’
- ‘He made statements [like] "if God is real then I will give God 5 seconds to respond," to which end he mocked, "see God never answered me".’
The broadcaster’s response
 MediaWorks did not uphold the complaint, commenting ‘Sean Plunket is a veteran media personality known for his often provocative and adversarial style of broadcasting.’ It provided the following reasons under the standards raised:
Good taste and decency
- ‘Talkback radio is recognised by the Broadcasting Standards Authority as “an opinionated environment” which is “granted some latitude to be provocative and edgy in the interests of robust debate”…’1
- ‘Mr Plunket did comment on numerous occasions throughout that programme [that] people are welcome to their faith…He simply pointed out that he disagreed with it’.
Discrimination and denigration
- The broadcaster did not agree ‘that any part of the Broadcast amounted to hate speech or a sustained attack on Christians’.
- The standard did not apply ‘because Mr Plunket did not refer to a specific person or organisation’.
- The standard did not apply as ‘the Broadcast did not contain any violent content’.
- The standard did not apply as the broadcast did not cover a controversial issue of public importance.
- Mr Plunket’s comments are not ‘the type of discussion this standard is designed to protect’.
- The standard did not apply as talkback programmes ‘will not usually be subject to the Accuracy Standard’.
The relevant standards
 We focused our consideration on the good taste and decency, discrimination and denigration and fairness standards as those were most relevant to the substance of the complaint. We deal with the remaining standards below at paragraphs  and .
 The good taste and decency standard2 states current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme and the wider context of the broadcast. It protects audience members from broadcasts likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.
 The discrimination and denigration standard3 states broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, 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.4
 The fairness standard5 protects the dignity and reputation of those featured in programmes.6 It requires broadcasters to deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in any broadcast.
 The right to freedom of expression is an important right in a democracy and we must weigh this right against the harm that may have potentially been caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.
 The harm alleged in this instance is the offence caused by the way in which Mr Plunket discusses Christianity with callers, and the way he treated some callers. We note the free and frank expression of opinions is an important aspect of the right to freedom of expression, and is fundamental to the operation of our democratic society. Talkback radio provides a forum for this exchange of opinions to occur.
Good taste and decency
 The context in which content occurs and the wider context of the broadcast are relevant to assessing whether a broadcast has breached this standard.7 Relevant factors in this instance include:
- Magic Afternoons is a talkback programme that was branded as ‘the free speech hotline for no-holds barred common sense talk’.
- It has an adult target audience, although it is broadcast during times children may be listening.
- Mr Plunket has a reputation for having a robust and challenging interviewing style and for offering strong, sometimes controversial opinions for the purpose of generating discussion and debate8 (although this does not give a broadcaster free rein, and conduct and comments will be considered on a case-by-case basis).
- Mr Plunket made it clear his statements were his own view, and others may hold different views.
- Throughout the programme Mr Plunket repeatedly sought callers’ experiences around finding and losing religion, and views on believing or not believing in God. Callers from a range of perspectives gave their views.
- The comments were made over the course of a four-hour broadcast. The statements ‘calling on God’ were at the end of the programme, by which stage listeners would have understood what they were listening to and been able to exercise choice and control in choosing not to listen.
 Taking into account the opinionated environment of talkback radio and the expectation that it will provide a forum for robust and provocative debate and critique, the comments did not reach the high threshold necessary to breach the good taste and decency standard.
Discrimination and denigration
 The discrimination and denigration standard also requires the consideration of contextual factors.9 ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment and ‘denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community.10
 With reference to the factors listed above at paragraph , we found Mr Plunket’s comments in the context to be a genuine expression of his opinion, and while highly critical and sceptical of the Christian faith, they did not encourage the different treatment of Christians nor devalue their reputation.
 Therefore, we do not uphold the complaint under this standard.
 The fairness standard applies to individuals or organisations participating in or referred to in a broadcast. Mr Te Whata was concerned Mr Plunket ‘mocked’ some callers to the show.
 A consideration of what is fair depends on the nature of the programme and its context (including the public significance of the broadcast).11 Participants and contributors should be informed, before a broadcast, of the nature of the programme and their proposed contribution.12
 We found the following factors relevant in our consideration of whether the callers, particularly ‘Sarah’, who called Mr Plunket a ‘coward’ were treated fairly:
- They willingly called in to a talkback show to participate in a discussion about Christianity, knowing Mr Plunket was taking a critical view of Christianity.
- While Sarah was occasionally interrupted by Mr Plunket, she was given time to present her views and opinions, including calling him ‘cowardly’ and ‘Judas’. She terminated the call.
- It is a standard format of talkback that the host takes a contrary position to that of the callers, in order to generate debate.
 On listening to the broadcast and taking into account those factors, we found that the callers, particularly Sarah, were not treated unfairly in the broadcast.
The remaining standards
 The violence standard rarely applies to radio13 and only where there is a description of or reference to violence,14 which there was not during this broadcast.
 The balance and accuracy standards apply only to news, current affairs and factual programming. The Authority has previously held that talkback radio does not fall within these genres.15
 Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under these standards.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
31 March 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Phillip Te Whata’s formal complaint – 10 September 2020
2 MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 8 October 2020
3 Mr Te Whata’s referral to the Authority – 16 October 2020
4 MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comment – 11 November 2020
1 Guideline 1c
2 Standard 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
3 Standard 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16
5 Standard 11 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
6 Commentary: Fairness, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 21
7 Guideline 1a
8 Marra and MediaWorks Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2019-023
9 Guideline 6d
10 Guideline 6a
11 Guideline 11a
12 Guideline 11b
13 Guideline 4a
14 Guideline 4b
15 See for example: Day & Moss and NZME Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2018-090 and Haines and NZME Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2017-039