ANDI LIU AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2855

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2019

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Columnists
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Misleading

Overview

On 21 October 2019, an article titled The fat that’s good for you was published on theRadio New Zealand website. Andi Liu complains that the article contains misinformation (Principle 1), does not distinguish between fact and comment (Principle 4), that the article is an opinion piece but not labelled as so (Principle 5) and the headline is misleading (Principle 6).

The Article

The article outlines information presented in the book The Good Fat Guide: How to Add Healthy Fat to Your Diet and material from an interview with the author David Gillespie.Much of the article is in quotations as an interview with the central thesis being that, drawing on research carried out in the 1960s-70s, replacing animal fat with seed oils is causing more heart disease, rather than reducing it as expected.The article was drawn from an on-air interview with the author.

The Complaint

Andi Liu complains that the article is an author interview and the material is presented as fact. The author is not questioned and there is no distinction between the presentation of opinion and fact. Liu presents links to critical reviews of the book.

Liu goes on to argue that, while the audio may contain information that questions the validity of the claims, none of this was included in the published version.In print, the reader has been given an uncritical, single view of an area of disputed science.

The Response

George Bignell replies on behalf of RNZ. Mr Bignell argues that audio that accompanied the written item clearly indicated that there was ‘push back’ from nutrition experts.There was also the inclusion of the written and spoken statements ‘[the author].. likes a good crusade.’

Mr Bignell goes on to cite pieces (in bold) from the written article to show that the reader would understand that the article is an author’s views about a contested area of science:

The former lawyer from Brisbane has written best-selling books warning about everything from sugar to psychopaths to the dangers of teen screen addiction.

In 2013, he wrote a book about the health risks of certain oils, oils that are present in almost all processed foods.His new book,The Good Fat Guide How to Add Healthy Fat to Your Diet, draws heavily on large-scale research carried out in the US during the 1960s and 70swhich he says showed seed oils were, in fact, very bad for us.

Mr Bignell goes on to say that the ‘devil’s advocate’ type questions asked in the interview audio reinforce that the author’s views were not universally accepted.The opening comments in the audio also state that this book was the author’s most controversial and drew considerable criticism from the Australian Heart Foundation.

He then states that ‘what must be evaluated is what is actually published’ and that ‘not all users of the website would be able to listen to the audio’.Mr Bignell argues that there was enough detail in the written portion of the article to alert the audience to the fact that it was the author’s opinions that were being explored.

The Decision

The mandate of the Media Council is to review published material and websites, including audio and video streams.In this case the audio of the interview is different from the published text material.

The audio that accompanies this website article contains questioning from the interviewer and audience and discussion about criticism of the author’s views from the Australian Heart Foundation.The listener to the audio would be left with the impression that the book and its thesis were contested.

However, the substantial article posted on RNZ’s website does not include such material.Vague references to the contested views of the author are made.The website article can be seen as a single source, uncritical interview with the author about the content of the book. The question for the Media Council is whether the article should be considered as a stand-alone text or not and if the reader should be expected to listen to the audio to get the more nuanced understanding of the topic.

Given the length of the article, it is the Media Council’s view that any reasonable reader would expect that the article could be read as standalone text. Indeed,RNZ concedes this in their reply by stating ‘what must be evaluated is what is actually published’.The link to the audio is included but it should not be necessary to listen to the more than 20 minutes of interview recording to get the balanced story.Indeed, any reader would not even know that there is a need to listen in order to do so.

Taken as a standalone article, the Media Council is not in a position to determine if the material presented is inaccurate as this is a technical scientific area of considerable debate and ongoing research.

However, the Media Council agrees with the complainant that the article does clearly present a single view of the issue and, as such, does not present a balanced view of the issue.

The Media Council also agrees with the complainant that the author’s opinions were presented as fact and the references that it was opinion were too subtle and vague.Indeed,RNZ concedes that the written article is ‘the author’s opinions’, however this is not made clear to the reader.

Given the content of the article, the headline is accurate, though acknowledging the claim contained in the headline is contested.The article could have been clearly labelled Opinion or other sources or questioning could have been included.

The complaint is upheld by a majority of eight Council members under Principle 1, lack of balance and Principle 4, opinion presented as fact.

Two members, Raynor Asher and Ben France-Hudson, dissented from this decision.

Dissent

The article “The fat that is good for you” is plainly an opinion piece.It is headed “Author Interview” and is stated to be from “Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan”.The opening sentence states that the author Mr Gillespie “likes a good crusade”.It goes on to say immediately that he has written best-selling books warning “about everything from sugar to psychopaths to the dangers of teen screen…”.

No-one having seen the plainly challenging headline, the reference to it being an interview and a hosted afternoon programme, and the opening statements about other controversial writing, could be in any doubt that what follows in the interview is the writer’s views on a controversial topic.This is confirmed by the statements that follow being in inverted commas, and there being frequent references to “he says”.

The unhealthiness or healthiness of fat is a matter of constant debate, and has been for years ever since the advent of the now notorious pyramid.Views and fashions as to what is good food ebb and flow.Plainly fat can be bad for you, but this has been said on countless occasions in the course of nutrition literature.

Views about the health effects of fat are therefore part of the long-running issue of what is good food.The article falls under the exception to the need to have balance, as is stated in Principle 1 of the Media Council principles.In my view it is not possible to distinguish it as a statement of point of view from other long-running food issues like veganism, the consumption of milk and no carbohydrate diets, where unbalanced articles are regularly published. It is in the category of endlessly debated issues where opinion pieces presenting opposite perspectives are often published, such as the effects of fluoride or abortion.

The fact that the article may be less balanced than the broadcast radio interview is a matter of note, but irrelevant to whether or not this is plainly an opinion piece.As a stand alone opinion piece it is unexceptional.

We would not have upheld the complaint.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin,