HANNA WILBERG AND JANE NORTON AGAINST RADIO NEW ZEALAND

Case Number: 3303

Council Meeting: August 2022

Decision: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Radio NZ

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories:

Overview

1. The NZ Media Council received two complaints about articles Radio New Zealand (RNZ) published about the government’s decision on when to end Covid Managed Isolation Quarantine (MIQ) for international returnees. The complaint is upheld with dissent.

The Article

2. The first article was published online on 19 April with the heading MIQ not justified beyond November, health officials told govt last year. This article covered the advice, the delay, the potential impact on 40,000 people, some stories from those affected, and the response from the Covid-19 Response Minister about Omicron further delaying the removal of MIQ.

3. The second article was published online at 7.50 am on 20 April with the heading MIQ ending delay justified – Grant Robertson. This article was comparatively short and opened with the Deputy Prime Minister’s reference to Omicron delaying the end of MIQ. It then briefly covered the earlier advice, the impact on 40,000 people, and included comments from the National Party’s Covid-19 response spokesperson.

4. The third article was published online at 8.45 am on 20 April with the heading Delay in ditching MIQ system ‘incredibly frustrating’, returnees say. This article opened with reference to the impact on 40,000 people, covered the November advice from officials, and ran stories from some in the cohort of 40,000.

The Complaint

Complaint from Ms Wilberg

5. Ms Wilberg had complained to RNZ about five pieces that RNZ broadcast or published on 19 and 20 April 2022 about the ending of MIQ for international returnees. As the Media Council’s jurisdiction is limited to published material, this decision covers only the online articles. Complaints about broadcasting are covered by the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

6. In her complaint to the Media Council, Ms Wilberg said while the three articles included some qualifying information, they strongly conveyed the message that the government sat on its hands for three and a half months after being advised in November 2021 that MIQ was no longer justified.

7. Ms Wilberg said RNZ’s reporting of a three and a half month delay in acting on public health advice that meant 40,000 kiwis being wrongly subjected to MIQ was not accurate or balanced. Ms Wilberg said the public health advice recommended a carefully managed and staged transition away from MIQ and this advice was accepted and planning commenced. However, Ms Wilberg said the government delayed implementing the move away from MIQ following new public health advice after the Omicron variant arrived in New Zealand. Ms Wilberg said the reporting continued to say that the delay was against the public health advice.

8. In particular, Ms Wilberg said there was a clear lack of balance in the online story that reported on an interview with the Deputy Prime Minister. She said the article opened with an accurate reflection of the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments, but then reverted to a focus on the 40,000 people RNZ claimed could have skipped MIQ.

9. Ms Wilberg said the article on the interview with the Deputy Prime Minister gave only two lines for the Deputy Prime Minister’s explanation, before moving back to the earlier criticism of the delay. She also noted the third article devoted 473 words to criticisms and complaints of the claimed unfounded delay and only 19 words to the Minister of Health’s explanation based on the arrival of Omicron.

Complaint from Dr Norton

10. Dr Norton complained to RNZ about the same series of interviews and articles.

11. In her complaint to the Media Council, Dr Norton focused on the articles RNZ published on its website. Dr Norton said the reporting was inaccurate and unbalanced because it misrepresented the advice the government had received from the Ministry of Health. Additionally, Dr Norton said the reporting failed to give sufficient weight to the impact of the arrival of the Omicron variant on steps being taken to end MIQ.

12. Dr Norton said RNZ’s reporting ‘inaccurately represented the content of the material it was reporting on and omitted significant information that would have been available at the time of reporting”.

The Response

13. In responding to the complaint to the Media Council, RNZ relied on its earlier response to Ms Wilberg and Dr Norton, which RNZ said was its response to the various complaints it had received about its coverage.

14. RNZ said its coverage of the topic (both broadcast and published online) followed the classic news cycle of a significant story. RNZ outlined the genesis of the story in the Ministry of Health initially refusing to release its advice on MIQ, the advice itself, and then the government’s delay in removing the MIQ requirements. RNZ relied somewhat on the absence of a further Public Health Risk Assessment in reaching the conclusion that continuing MIQ from November 2021 was not a proportionate response under the Public Health Reponse Act.

15. RNZ acknowledged for some, the coverage appeared critical of government policy on how the government implemented the change to MIQ. However, RNZ said it is the nature of news reporting that it will detail events and the government’s response to those events.

16. RNZ said the coverage was balanced and accurate as the articles included comments from government and officials about the need for managed transition away from MIQ and the further delay from the arrival of Omicron.

The Discussion

The document on which the article was based

17. On 14 April 2022, after an appeal to the Ombudsman for refusing to provide documents under the Official Information Act, the Ministry of Health released a document headed “Updated Public Health Risk Assessment for international arrivals transmitting COVID-19”. The document sought the Director-General of Health’s agreement to an updated Public Health Risk Assessment (PHRA) that considered the risk posed by international arrivals transmitting COVID-19 was no longer higher than the domestic transmission risk of COVID-19. If the Director-General agreed to this PHRA, the effect would be that MIQ for border returnees would no longer be justified on public health grounds as the 'default' for people travelling to New Zealand (other than those who were part of a quarantine free travel arrangement). The document explained this was because a period of home isolation would be considered a more proportionate management measure.

18. The document (dated 12 November 2021) broadly contained a recommendation that the government start a managed transition from MIQ for all international travellers. The advice was qualified, noting that policy and implementation issues needed to be considered. It recommended the Ministry work with relevant agencies to develop a plan for the safe transition to self-isolation as the default setting for international returnees. In paragraph 18, the document said:

“...we are mindful that any transition will need to be carefully managed to reduce potential impacts on communities and the
health system resulting from the risks of changing from one system to another too quickly. We are aware of the following policy
and implementation considerations that will need to be worked through.”

19. There then followed nine considerations including “Relationship with other work programmes”, and “Increased demand for isolation for cases that cannot be managed in the community”. As the titles indicate, there were a number of matters that had to be worked through before transition from Managed Isolation could take place.

20. A further document (dated 22 November 2021) provided the recommended policy consideration and took into account peer reviews of the public health risk assessment and advice from Crown Law. This document confirmed a cautious approach should be taken, with no further changes to MIQ settings ahead of the timeframes existing for ‘Reconnecting New Zealanders’. However RNZ denies that it had a copy of this document at the time the articles were written, and the Council proceeds on that basis.

21. The documents preceded the arrival in New Zealand of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. This variant was first detected in New Zealand in mid December 2021, after the World Health Organisation declared it a variant of significance in late November.

Inaccuracy, unfairness and lack of balance in the first article

22. RNZ’s coverage of the information released by the Ministry of Health focused on the 12 November document, saying the government had failed to act on the advice received that MIQ “was no longer justified”. It included stories of some of the “up to 40,000 New Zealander”’ who were impacted by the ongoing requirement for MIQ.

23. The Council finds the first article was inaccurate in its bald headline and theme, unqualified for 21 paragraphs of a 28 paragraph article. The article led with the statement that MIQ was no longer justified, leading to a calculation of up to 40,000 people being impacted. In this statement and its positioning, RNZ omitted two important qualifiers: the advice recommended a careful and managed transition away from MIQ, and said policy and implementation issues needed to be carefully considered.

24. The document of 12 November 2021, while using the phrase “no longer justified”, was not saying that managed isolation should cease within any particular time frame. It was advising the Director General that subject to policy and implementation considerations being worked through, managed isolation may no longer be justified on public health grounds.

25. This is clear from the recommendations set out at the end of the document, and signed off by the Director of Public Health and the Director-General of Health. Recommendations 2 – 4 said:

Note      that the effect of the revised Public Health Risk Assessment is that Managed Isolation for all international arrivals may no longer be justified on public health grounds as self-isolation is now considered a more proportionate management measure for most arrivals

Note      the policy and implementation issues that will need to be considered because of the revised Public Health Risk Assessment outlined in this memo

Agree     that the Ministry work with relevant agencies to develop a plan for the safe transition to self-isolation as the default setting for international returnees, for Cabinet consideration

[Emphasis added]

26. It is clear from this signed recommendation that the Director-General was not agreeing that MIQ was not justified as at that date. He was saying it “may” not be justified, setting out the matters that had to be worked through.

27. The headline and the initial sentence and their positioning were based therefore on a selective reading of the advice to government.

28. The Council notes that towards the end of the article, RNZ included responses from the Covid-19 Response Minister and Ministry of Health officials. However the Council considers these inclusions do not sufficiently correct the initial inaccurate positioning, which led to RNZ’s calculation of the impact being on up to 40,000 people. This calculation might have been correct had the advice been to immediately remove the MIQ requirement, which it was not.

29. Therefore, we find that this first article was inaccurate unbalanced and unfair. 

Inaccuracy, unfairness and lack of balance in the second article

30. The second article leads with a summary of the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments and includes information on the 12 November advice not being the final advice. The article includes the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on Omicron further delaying the government implementing the advice. In that respect, the article provided fair balance.

31. However it repeated the statement in the earlier article that Dr Caroline McElnay and Dr Ashley Bloomfield “...told the government from November last year, [hotel isolation] was no longer justified”. As we have set out, this was not what they told the goverment. Their recommendation was that it “may” not be justified, and qualifying factors were set out.

32. The second article also goes even further than the first article by not just saying that there were 40,000 MIQ stays in the three and a half months, but asserting further that they “...could have skipped MIQ if the Government had followed that advice”. This is in effect a statement that up that during that period up to 40,000 people were forced into managed isolation unecessarily.

33. Therefore, we find that this second article was inaccurate unbalanced and unfair.

Inaccuracy, unfairness and lack of balance in the third article

34. As made clear by its heading, the third article focuses on the human interest aspects of the story. However, the statement “Up to 40,000 people could have skipped MIQ from November last year if the government had paid attention to top health officials” was, as in the second article, misleading. This continued the flaw in the first article and reinforced the message that the government had failed to follow unqualified advice that MIQ was no longer justified.

T35. herefore, we find that this third article was inaccurate unbalanced and unfair.

Decision

36. Investigative journalism is to be welcomed. But these articles summarised the Ministry of Health document incorrectly and the government responses recorded at the end of the first article and in the second article did not correct the unfairness.

37. The complaint that articles one and two breached Principle (1) is upheld by a majority of the Council with dissent from three members: Tim Watkin; Rosemary Barraclough; Jonathan Mackenzie.

38. The complaint that article three was upheld by the full Council.


Dissent
by Tim Watkin, Rosemary Barraclough and Jonathan Mackenzie.

In dissenting from the decision to uphold the complaint in regard to stories one and two, we would first agree that the third story is inaccurate in its claim that “up to 40,000 people could have skipped MIQ from November last year if the government had paid attention to top health officials”. There is nothing to suggest the government went against or – worse – ignored Ministry of Health advice. It’s an example of a follow-up story misinterpreting a carefully worded initial article. We support upholding the complaints on that inaccuracy in the third story.  

Where we strongly disagree with the majority is that the nuanced, substantial first story and the use of the 40,000 figure is inaccurate.

Contrary to the complainants' claims, the first story does not say Dr McElnay’s advice was ignored, that the MoH recommended “an immediate cessation” or that 40,000 were “wrongly subjected” to MIQ. It does report on the arrival of Omicron and the need for the transition to be “managed carefully” as reasons MIQ was not ended until February 28.  

A key consideration in our dissent is that all three stories published on April 19 and before 9am on April 20 were relying on the Dr McElnay’s memo alone.

Dr Bloomfield’s advice had not been released to RNZ at that point, so the stories cannot be labelled inaccurate for failing to include information not yet received. Dr McElnay’s memo was clear that MIQs could “no longer be justified” as of November 12 and the closure of MIQs may need to “speed up”. Dr Bloomfield signed that memo and circled “yes” to indicate he agreed that the risk posed by international travellers was no longer higher than domestic transmission as of that date, as the first article reports. 

Based on that release to RNZ, the first article’s opening line is correct in saying that Drs McElnay and Bloomfield agreed that as of November 12 MIQ was “no longer justified”. The following sentence is a simple statement of fact that between November 12 and February 28 three and a half months passed, 40,000 people stayed in MIQ and seven voucher lotteries were held. None of that is inaccurate, based on Dr McElnay.  

Criticism that the government acted slowly or contrary to Ministry advice comes from people quoted in the story. They have the right to those opinions. Equally, RNZ has every right to choose how to angle a story. In this case it led with the gap between the dates at which the memo said MIQ was “no longer justified” and at which MIQ ended. It left the qualifications about Omicron and the need for careful planning to later in the story. 

We note the Ministry's response arrived after deadline and the minister's statement was added as soon as it was put out. While it would have been fairer to have those important points higher in the story it is common practice to add late comments to the bottom of a story and judged as a whole the story covers all the points the complainants raise.  

As a result of all these points, we do not agree that the first or second articles are in breach of Principle (1).

Council: The Council member hearing the complaint were the Honourable Raynor Asher (chair), Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom Hank Schouten, Jonathan Mackenzie, Rosemary Barraclough and Tim Watkin.

 


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