DISABLED PERSONS ASSEMBLY AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 3007

Council Meeting: MARCH 2021

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Court Reporting
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. The Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) complains about an interview with its then president, Gerri Pomeroy, excerpts from which were published online by RNZ on December 4, 2020 as part of an item‘We don’t fit in’ – the struggle over Funded Family Care. The item comprised text, video interviews with carers and people in various forms of supported care and also audio of a Checkpoint item which aired on December 4.It also complains about the item. It considers there was a breach of Media Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), and 9 (subterfuge).

2. The Media Council upholds in part the complaint under Principle 1 but does not uphold the remaining complaints.

Background

3. On January 15, 2020, Catherine Hutton, a journalist working for RNZ, sent an email to the DPA saying that she was writing a feature about Funded Family Care. She asked to speak to someone at DPA about “your thoughts on the scheme and support for people with high and complex needs”.

4. Emily Tilley, Communications Co-ordinator for DPA, responded agreeing to make someone available and asking for more information about the proposed interview. No information appears to have been supplied, but after a further enquiry, Ms Tilley advised that Ms Pomeroy would be willing to talk to Ms Hutton and the interview duly took place on February 20, 2020.

5. Ms Pomeroy was upset by the approach taken by the interviewer. It was not what she had expected, and she describes it as “a very intense interview with at times very aggressive questioning and I felt very upset and vulnerable at the end of the process." She spoke to Ms Tilley, who then emailed RNZ asking to have the interview material reviewed in the light of the concerns expressed by Ms Pomeroy. The email was acknowledged but there was apparently no further response from RNZ either to the original email or to a follow-up on March 2.

6. On December 4, 2020, RNZ published audio from a Checkpoint item that focussed on the care and support policies and programmes for persons with severe and complex disabilities and on perceived deficiencies in those policies and programmes. The first half of the item described the three main options for the care of those with high and complex needs: care within the family, residential care, and independent living with support available. There were interviews with disabled persons in each category, with some of their family members and with their care and support personnel. The second half was more concerned with criticisms of government policy and especially with the difficulties experienced by families caring for both young and adult children with high and complex needs.

7. One mother in particular claimed that such families were excluded from consultation processes and were not represented or advocated for by disabled persons’ organisations (DPOs).It was claimed that no DPO represents those with significant intellectual disabilities. In this context, the audio included two short excerpts from the interview with Ms Pomeroy. In the first, she said it was not part of the DPA culture to exclude families of disabled persons. The second was in response to a question whether there is a difference between parents and their disabled children when it comes to the lived experience of disability. Ms Pomeroy said that the nature of parents’ experience, including, as it does, grief over the child’s disability and struggling with practical difficulties in obtaining necessary support and assistance, is different from that of the disabled person. Ms Hutton then commented “try telling [the mother] she can’t speak for her son because she does not have his lived experience”. There was then further discussion about the absence of a voice for those with high or very high needs.

The Complaint

8. There are two main elements to the DPA’s complaint. The first concerns the interview in February 2020. DPA says that having been asked to do an interview about the Funded Family Care programme, Ms Pomeroy found herself instead being aggressively questioned about disability representation. She felt bullied, was given no context for the line of questioning (she wondered if there had been a complaint about DPA) and was left “feeling very upset and vulnerable.”

9. The second element concerns the Checkpoint item of December 4. DPA has summed it up by saying:

“When the story finally aired, it became apparent that there had been little attempt towards understanding either DPA, a disabled person’s perspective, Disabled People’s organisations (DPOs) or the nuances of disabled representation.

The lack of understanding led to a story that lacked context and gave voice to numerous criticisms without any fair voice being given to a different point of view or . . . . counterbalanced by fact.”

10. In particular :

  • The impression was given that DPOs do not include those with learning (intellectual) disabilities when in fact one of the members of the DPO coalition is a self-advocacy organisation led and directed by people with a learning (intellectual) disability.
  • There was criticism of the “Enabling Good Lives” programme, on which Ms Pomeroy is an expert, without any counterbalancing comment from her
  • There was a major lack of balance in portraying disabled people and their organisations as being in a position of privilege, in indicating that by disabled people having a voice they are seeking to silence and disadvantage the parents of disabled people and their children, and in implying that DPOs do not care about the rights and needs of disabled people who have high and complex needs.

11. DPA emphasises the long struggle for disabled people to have a voice and be heard on matters that concern them. In this context, it finds it unfair and dismissive to suggest that it is a controversial idea that only those who have a lived experience of disability can talk about it. Such people do have a different experience from those whose experience is caring for someone with a disability, and they have a right to be heard. However this does not mean that disabled people or DPOs are trying to silence the voice of families. The families interviewed in the story have every right to be heard, and their difficulties in accessing adequate support need to be told.

12. It is unfair and a gross misrepresentation to portray DPA, DPOs and Ms Pomeroy as not caring about the inadequacy of disability support or the trauma and hurt that it causes disabled people and their whānau.

13. DPA also expressed concern that there was no indication that the interview was much earlier than the item, and said that in the intervening period Ms Pomeroy had become seriously ill. She was no longer the president of the DPA.

The Response

14. RNZ’s initial response to the complaint was quite brief. It rejected the idea that there had been any subterfuge or deception in setting up the interview, citing the email noted above and also the first question in the interview which noted that the interviewer was doing a story about Funded Family Care, that one of the issues that had come up was the issue of those with high and complex needs and that she wanted to talk about “how organisations like yours represent that group”. It considered this was adequate notice of the general purpose of the interview.

15. It considered Ms Pomeroy had been fairly treated during the interview. She could have terminated it at any time, but chose not to. She did not appear unsettled or unable to respond to the questions but was allowed to speak at length and gave comprehensive answers and comments. It commented that “It could be, in hindsight, that the DPA may wish to nominate more able media performers for media interviews”.

16. The Checkpoint item presented concerns from carers and family of disabled people with high and complex needs, and included relevant comment from Ms Pomeroy’s interview. Criticisms of organisations like the DPA were made, and the DPA was given a fair and reasonable opportunity to respond.

17. A rather more detailed response was supplied to the Media Council. It included an explanation of the failure to respond to the DPA’s original concerns and request for a review of the interview, saying that the matter had been overtaken by the pandemic requirements and the need to attend to “urgent and pressing requirements”. It said (but provided no evidence) that this was communicated to the DPA at the time.

18. RNZ also expanded on its original response to the complaint about the Checkpoint item. It said the thrust of the item was the plight of families and carers dealing with people who have high and complex needs and the adequacy of their representation by disabled persons’ organisations. It considered that both the families and the DPOs were able to give their perspectives and “the fact that the DPA may not like the criticisms that were levelled in the programme is not a matter that can be addressed by a formal complaints process”.

19. RNZ also addressed the issue arising from the second of the excerpts from the interview. It defines the point raised by parents in the interviews as “despite what the DPA asserts, there is a group of people with high and complex needs that due to their intellectual and communication difficulties are unable to communicate and rely on their parents or caregivers to communicate their position. That is a legitimate position held by carers and parents in that position and while DPA may wish to dispute that position, the public has a right to know that it is a view held by those parents and caregivers to claim”.

20. Finally, RNZ summarised its position by saying the Checkpoint item was a story about whether those parents and carers for people with high and complex needs, and the people themselves, receive proper attention from the relative government agencies who are supposed to support them. The interview with Ms Pomeroy on behalf of the DPA was clearly targeted at the two aspects of how organisations such as the DPA represent those with high and complex needs in the overall context of looking at the Funded Family Care system. The comments extracted from that interview for the Checkpoint item were a fair reflection of Ms Pomeroy’s comments.”

The Decision

21. The main points in this complaint concern claimed breaches of Media Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and 9 (subterfuge) and these are discussed below. There is also a subsidiary issue about the failure to respond to a request to review the interview

22. To cover the subsidiary issue first, RNZ submits (though it has provided no evidence) that it explained to DPA that the urgent requirements of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic meant that it was unable to respond to the review request. It did not explain why there was no reply over the ensuing months, but it is noted that DPA did not follow up the request either. The Media Council does not consider this is a matter it can take any further.

Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance)

23. There does not appear to be any question about the accuracy of RNZ’s reporting, but there are questions of fairness about both the interview and the Checkpoint item and questions of balance about the Checkpoint item. There are also questions of fairness about the failure to contact DPA before the Checkpoint item aired, given the length of time that had passed since the interview, and about RNZ’s initial response to the complaint.

24. To some extent, the question of fairness in the interview overlaps with the allegation of subterfuge, which is addressed below. However DPA also complains that the approach taken by the interviewer was aggressive and caused Ms Pomeroy to feel upset and vulnerable. Having listened to the recording of the interview, the Media Council concludes that while Ms Hutton presented as professional, detached and somewhat impersonal, she was not unfair or aggressive. Ms Pomeroy gave long, detailed and sometimes repetitive answers to the questions, but she was not interrupted nor did Ms Hutton talk over her. Towards the end of the interview, Ms Hutton became rather abrupt, possibly because she could see time running out while she still had questions to ask, but again, this could hardly be called aggressive. Ms Pomeroy was clearly more comfortable with some questions than others, but she did not give the impression of being unduly upset, and it was somewhat surprising when she expressed her concerns towards the end of the interview.

25. In considering the Checkpoint item, it is important to bear in mind that it was about severely disabled people, their families and carers, and their difficulties in getting the necessary support and assistance (mostly from government agencies). It was only incidentally about DPOs, when carers claimed that they did not assist or represent disabled people with high and complex needs or their families. In this context, it was not necessary to give a detailed description of the structure and role of DPOs, but it was necessary to hear at least one DPO’s views on the question. This was adequately done by using part of the interview with Ms Pomeroy where she explained that the DPA was an inclusive organisation that did not exclude families and sought to be as transparent as possible.

26. The item continued with contributions from a parent and a representative for a carers’ association who claimed, among other things, that DPOs represented mainly those with physical disabilities, that they had too big a say in consultation processes and that there was no DPO to represent those with a significant intellectual disability. These claims were clearly represented as the opinions of the speakers and were not endorsed as fact by the interviewer. However Ms Hutton then went on to talk about the “controversial” idea that only those with lived experience of a disability are entitled to talk about it, and to air a section of the interview where she asked Ms Pomeroy if a parent could have a lived experience of a disability. Ms Pomeroy had replied that for various reasons a parent’s lived experience of disability was different from that of a disabled person. She did not say that a parent could not have that experience, merely that it was different. However in the Checkpoint item Ms Hutton immediately went on to comment “Try telling [one of the parents interviewed] that she can’t speak for her son because she does not have his lived experience”, and the item discussion moved on to talk about the absence of a voice for those with high or very high needs.

27. In the view of the Media Council, this commentary was unfair and promotes the idea of a rift that does not exist. Ms Pomeroy was not saying that parents could not speak for or represent their children, merely that their personal experience was necessarily different. This reflects the DPA philosophy that wherever possible, disabled people should have their own voice in decisions that affect them, and that where communication is difficult, strenuous efforts should be made to overcome the difficulty.28.

28. The Media Council also considers it unfair that RNZ did not even attempt to contact Ms Pomeroy or the DPA in the ten months before the Checkpoint item aired. Much could have happened in the interim either in personal terms or to change the accuracy or relevance of the interview material, and much did happen. Ms Pomeroy was no longer president of the DPA (thus leading to a minor inaccuracy in the item when she was introduced as president) and had been very unwell in the interim. Knowledge of Ms Pomeroy’s illness could have caused RNZ to review the need to broadcast material from the interview about which she had expressed distress, or to seek more relevant and recent comment from her successor or another DPA representative.

29. There were also failings in the initial response to the complaint. It was short, and although it adequately addressed the complaint about the interview, the complaint about the Checkpoint item was covered in a single short paragraph that did not address all the expressed concerns. In addition it did not address any of the issues raised in an email dated 11 December 2020, shortly after the main complaint and before RNZ had issued provided a full response. More importantly, the comment about “a more able media performer” was unpleasant, patronising, and totally unnecessary. It gives the impression that RNZ is only prepared to be accommodating to interviewees trained in media communication skills and not to those doing vital work in the community but unskilled in contact with the media.

30. The Media Council accepts that the pandemic placed an exceptional burden on RNZ and it is understandable that there was some slippage of standards. However much of the pressure had gone by the last months of 2020 and in view of the established facts outlined above, it is not surprising that the DPA considered RNZ’s attitude to be dismissive. The Media Council agrees, and also finds it unfair.

Subterfuge

31. The initial approach from RNZ requested a discussion of the Family Funded Care scheme and support for people with high and complex needs. This is wide and general in scope as would be expected at an initial stage. The interview that subsequently took place was quite extensive. It lasted for about half an hour and covered many points, some raised by the interviewer and some by Ms Pomeroy. The issue of disability representation came up towards the end of the interview and although part of that discussion was eventually used in the Checkpoint item, there was no particular emphasis on it at the time.

32. The Media Council is of the view that disability representation is closely connected with support for those with high and complex needs and is a legitimate subject for discussion in that context, as were the other issues raised in the course of the interview. It follows that there was no subterfuge.

Determination

33. The complaint of unfairness is upheld, in respect to the Checkpoint item and also the general treatment of the DPA and Ms Pomeroy as described above. The remaining complaints are not upheld.

34. In the interests of general fairness, the Media Council suggests that RNZ review its actions and inaction in the light of this determination. It is not Media Council practice to recommend an apology, but this should not preclude RNZ from offering an apology if such a review concludes that one is warranted.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

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