External Review of Decisions 2021 - Balance Standard
Date published: 08 July 2021
Reviewer: Emeritus Professor John Burrows, Media Law specialist
The BSA invited Prof Burrows to undertake an independent review of five decisions issued by the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) under the balance standard. The review was commissioned to provide feedback to the BSA, so it can consider any areas for improvement in the delivery of its functions, or its application of the standard as well as any areas where the Codebook should be updated.
The decisions reviewed were:
- BSA Decision No. 2020-154 - 1 News at Midday, item about the US presidential election
- BSA Decision No. 2020-112 - 1 News, forecast that the emperor penguin population could halve due to climate change
- BSA Decision No. 2019-039 - Breakfast, interview with religious expert on the possible motivation behind the Christchurch mosque attacks
- BSA Decision No. 2019-044 - The Box Seat, segments about blood spinning in harness racing
- BSA Decision No. 2019-061 - Checkpoint, interview inviting comparisons between PHARMAC and a UK health entity
Results and BSA Actions
Prof Burrows agreed that all decisions reached ‘good and workable conclusions’. He noted the challenges of interpreting a 1989 Act in the current environment and considered that the BSA at times interprets the balance standard in a ‘liberal’ way providing the flexibility to ‘keep the code a living document abreast of modern times’.
Key feedback included:
- What is of public importance to New Zealanders? – Prof Burrows agreed that an election in another country, in this case the United States, was capable of being a ‘controversial issue of public importance to New Zealanders’ to which the balance standard applies. The US election item was a ‘paradigm example’ of balance being achieved by other programmes in the period of interest.
- What is a discussion? – Prof Burrows considered it unclear what constitutes a discussion for the purposes of the balance standard. The importance the BSA placed on audience expectations to interpret the term was ‘bold’ but ‘common sense’. The Authority was encouraged to review previous decisions to assist in defining the term.
- Prof Burrows provided positive feedback on the structure of decisions, the citation of authorities in challenging matters, and said it was clear that freedom of expression was front-of-mind in the decision-making process. The Authority was encouraged to consider the ‘balance between clarity and brevity’ and refer to more previous cases.
The BSA will take the recommendations into account in future decisions and in the pending review of the Codebook.