Van Der Merwe and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2023-072 (7 November 2023)
- Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
- John Gillespie
- Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i
- Aroha Beck
- Kris Van Der Merwe
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 news report on RNZ National on Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’s then upcoming meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The complaint said the broadcast breached the balance and fairness standards by focusing on Ukraine’s intended usage of cluster munitions without canvassing Russia’s aggression and use of the munitions. The Authority found the nominated standards did not apply. It considered the issue was not discussed (as contemplated under the balance standard) and, in any event, the balance standard would not have required the presentation of additional perspectives in such a broadcast. The fairness standard did not apply as Ukraine, as a nation, was not an organisation (for the purposes of the standard).
Not Upheld: Balance, Fairness
 An item, during the 7am news bulletin on RNZ National on 11 July 2023, reported on Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’s upcoming meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The bulletin stated:
Newsreader: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins will bring up the subject of cluster munitions when he meets Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the crucial NATO Leaders' Summit opening in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius. Mr. Hipkins has just arrived from Sweden. Many countries shun the use of cluster munitions, which can leave unexploded bomblets that are a danger to civilians for years to come. Chris Hipkins says he will bring up the subject with Mr. Zelenskyy.
Hipkins: I'll re-state New Zealand's opposition to cluster munitions. But ultimately my main message will be that New Zealand is continuing to support Ukraine and we will continue to support Ukraine.
Newsreader: The US has approved supplying the munitions, saying Ukraine needs more shells to defeat Russia's invasion.
 Kris van der Merwe complained the broadcast breached the balance and fairness standards of the Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand as:
- The report singled out Ukraine’s intended use of cluster munitions without noting Russia ‘is the aggressor, attacking Ukraine and perpetrating numerous war-crimes during an unprovoked attack’ and has also been using cluster munitions that leave ‘20% bomblets unexploded compared to the 2% unexploded of Ukraine munitions’.
- Ukraine was using the weapons in its defence, not as a means of offence and was not planning to use them in areas where there are civilians.
- RNZ provided ‘a one-sided broadcast where there is no opportunity for the victim to respond’.
 We note the complainant had concerns with RNZ’s coverage of cluster munitions more generally. However, as only one broadcast was identified in the original formal complaint to RNZ, the Authority is unable to consider other broadcasts.1
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint, considering there was nothing in the broadcast to support the claim the broadcast was ‘biased “cheerleading” against Ukraine’ or that RNZ was ‘unbalanced and acting as a Russian apologist.’
 The balance standard2 ensures competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.3
 The fairness standard4 protects the dignity and reputation of those featured in programmes.5 It ensures individuals and organisations taking part or referred to in broadcasts are dealt with justly and fairly and protected from unwarranted damage.
 We have listened to the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 As a starting point, we considered the right to freedom of expression. It is our role to weigh up the right to freedom of expression against any harm potentially caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.6
 From the outset, we note the complaint focuses on what should have been broadcast, being information concerning Russia’s shortcomings. This is generally an issue of personal preference and editorial discretion which does not raise broadcasting standards issues capable of being resolved through a complaints process.7
 A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard only applies to news, current affairs and factual programmes, which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.8
 An issue of public importance is something that would have significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public.9 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.10
 The broadcast was a straightforward news report, of less than a minute, on Prime Minister Hipkins bringing up the issue of Ukraine’s intended use of cluster munitions in his upcoming meeting with President Zelenskyy. The broader issue of the morality around the use of the munitions during wartime, or other war tactics more generally, was only briefly referred to (‘many countries shun the use of cluster munitions…’). We have previously found that such brief news reports do not constitute a discussion for the purposes of the standard.11 Accordingly the standard does not apply.
 In any event, we consider the balance standard would not require the presentation of further perspectives in this instance, taking into account:12
- The narrow focus of the report, being on Prime Minister Hipkins’s upcoming meeting with President Zelenskyy, meant listeners would not have expected a discussion on the broader topic.
- While Prime Minister Hipkins stated he would voice New Zealand’s opposition to the use of cluster munitions, he also noted his ‘main message will be that New Zealand is continuing to support Ukraine and we will continue to support Ukraine.’
- The United States’ perspective was briefly included, which supported Ukraine having the munitions, saying ‘Ukraine needs more shells to defeat Russia’s invasion.’
- Given the considerable quantity of reporting (by multiple media outlets) on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the audience could reasonably be expected to be aware of other perspectives on this issue so were unlikely to have been misled by the report.13
 The complainant does not state who he considers was treated unfairly in the broadcast.
 To the extent the unfairness related to Ukraine and opposition to their intended use of munitions, the standard does not apply to Ukraine as a nation (as the standard only applies to individuals and organisations).14
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
7 November 2023
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Kris van der Merwe’s formal complaint to RNZ – 11 July 2023
2 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 1 August 2023
3 Van der Merwe’s referral to the Authority – 6 August 2023
4 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 16 October 2023
1 Broadcasting Act 1989, ss 6 and 8
2 Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
3 Commentary, Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 14
4 Standard 8, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
5 Commentary, Standard 8, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 20
6 Introduction, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 4
7 See section 5(c) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, which states that complaints based merely on a complainant’s preferences are not, in general, capable of being resolved by a complaints procedure
8 Guideline 5.1
9 Guideline 5.1
10 Guideline 5.1
11 See Wilson and NZME Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2023-045 at 
12 Guideline 5.4
13 See for example Thoman Manch “New Zealand tells US of opposition to cluster bombs after promised Ukraine delivery” Stuff (9 July 2023); and Elise Morton and Felipe Dana “Russia-Ukraine war: Vladimir Putin says Russia has ‘sufficient stockpile’ of cluster bombs as Ukraine gets its own supply from US” NZ Herald (online ed, 17 July 2023)
14 Wakeman and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2022-057 at