JOHN MCDONALD-WHARRY AGAINST RNZ
Case Number: 3474
Council Meeting: December 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: Radio NZ
Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
- In June 2023 Radio New Zealand published a seven-part podcast series titled Undercurrent. John McDonald-Wharry complained that in episode five the presenter unfairly framed comments made by ACT Party deputy leader Brooke van Velden and this breached Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The complaint was not upheld.
- The podcast series dealt at length with misinformation and disinformation - the problems posed by propaganda, false information, fake news and the widespread dissemination on social media of comment and graphic material that fosters racism, antisemitism, white supremacy, climate change denialism, misogyny, sexism, toxic masculinity and a raft of conspiracy theories.
- The series reported how it can whip people into states of frenzy that has led to violence and acts of terrorism such as the 2019 attack on the Christchurch mosques and the 2016 murder of British MP Jo Cox. Episode five titled Muddying the water looked at the impact of disinformation and misinformation on mainstream politics in New Zealand and how the fomenting of hatred and division leads to violence and threatens democracy.
- It included comment from MPs who had been subjected to physical and social media attacks including Green Party co-leader James Shaw, who was punched in the street by a man who was inflamed by something allegedly being done by the United Nations. Other MPs including Mārama Davidson, Golriz Ghahraman and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer also spoke of how they had been subjected to streams of abuse and threats by people who objected to what they said or done.
- Episode five also had comment from then National Party finance spokesperson Nicola Willis who noted some women of colour felt very threatened and ACT deputy leader Brooke van Velden who said she was only rarely threatened but did not go on Twitter.
- After running comment from Ms Ngarewa-Packer, who urged the passage of a proposed hate speech law, the presenter said that at the other end of the political spectrum Ms van Velden believed fake news and beliefs should be discussed.
- The podcast ran Ms van Velden’s comment that: “During the Covid political situation, a lot of people genuinely didn’t feel like they were being listened to, you know, we did have limitations on rights and freedoms. And some people felt like the freedom of choice over their own lives was actually taken away from them. And so there are some genuine grievances.”
- She went on to say she was open to people turning up in person to debate ideas and that public open debate was only good for democracy. This was followed by the podcast presenter Susie Ferguson's comment that "I have spoken with lots of experts about this, not one has agreed that airing and debating disinformation would be a good idea."
- Dr McDonald-Wharry's main complaint was about how the presenter framed Ms van Velden’s comment. He said the presenter’s introduction to her comments was inaccurate, unfair and misled the audience into thinking that Ms van Velden was about to talk primarily about misinformation when she was in fact going to be talking mostly about people’s genuinely held views. The presenter was also being inaccurate and unfair to the large numbers of New Zealanders who had concerns about Covid-19 policies which limited rights and freedoms and caused societal damage.
- He said that whether Covid-19 limitation on rights and freedoms were justified was a matter of controversy and not misinformation, disinformation, fake news or a fake belief.
- He also complained that the programme had selectively interviewed politicians to give the impression that opposition to Covid-19 policies was only a concern of a small, fringe minority. This was inaccurate, unfair and denigrating to a sizable group of New Zealanders with those concerns.
- The podcast also falsely portrayed Ms van Velden as some kind of lone voice and implied there was consensus among experts that it was not a good idea to debate disinformation. RNZ could have sought experts with differing opinions to present a wider perspective.
- RNZ said it disagreed with Dr McDonald-Wharry's claim that the narrative framing of Ms van Velden’s quote may have been misleading.
- It also did not agree the choice of politicians interviewed in the podcast gave the impression that certain views about vaccination and individual freedom were only held by a small, fringe, right wing minority.
- Balance of political ideologies of contributors was achieved over the seven-part series and pointing to an isolated statement in a single episode and labelling it “unbalanced” misunderstands the concept.
- There is no requirement for a documentary podcast series to be presented impartially or without bias. Within the limits of the applicable laws, podcast producers are free to promote or challenge particular ideas, philosophies or people (e.g. politicians).
- Freedom of expression is of particular importance. The Bill of Rights Act states everyone has the right to freedom of expression including the right to seek, receive and impart information and opinions if it was genuinely trying to produce a fair and balanced documentary.
- The Media Council notes the podcast series was about misinformation and not about Covid-19 restrictions. Episode 5 was focused on the dangers faced by politicians and threats to democracy by the dissemination of disinformation and misinformation.
- The central complaint was a narrow one and that is whether the presenter had unfairly and inaccurately framed Ms van Velden’s comments.
- The Media Council has listened to the whole episode - the lead up to Ms Velden’s comments, her reference to people’s concerns about Covid-19 limitations, as well as the material that followed on from that. The Council has no evidence to support the complaint that her comments were framed unfairly or inaccurately.
- The voicing of the podcast has the presenter saying that in contrast to others, including Ms Ngarewa-Packer, who had supported a proposed hate speech law, Ms van Velden believed fake news and beliefs should be debated.
- This framing statement was backed up by Ms van Velden’s comment that she didn’t want to see disinformation go underground. She said that open public debate was good for democracy.
- Ms van Velden also made the point during this segment that some people didn’t feel as if they were being listened to and had genuine grievances. It was clear at this point that she was talking about people who genuinely felt their freedom was limited, rather than those who spread disinformation.
- The presenter followed Ms van Velden's remarks by referencing what Ms van Velden said about disinformation. She said: "I have spoken with lots of experts about this, not one has agreed that airing and debating disinformation would be a good idea."
- The Media Council does not agree that this statement by the presenter challenged Ms van Velden’s comment that people had genuine grievances about Covid-19 restrictions or that their concerns were misinformation or fake news.
- The complainant also raised the question of balance and said RNZ should have sought experts with differing opinions if it was genuinely trying to produce a fair and balanced documentary. He even suggested an academic who he believed may have a differing opinion.
- The Council notes that the presenter said she spoke to many experts and the views of many people were reported in the series. There is no evidence that people with differing opinions were excluded and the inclusion of Ms van Velden’s comments goes some way to disproving the point. She may be a lone voice in this instance but the fact that her views were not backed up by others did not make them invalid.
- When providing his final comments on RNZ’s response to his complaint, Dr McDonald-Wharry changed the main thrust of his complaint. His initial complaint mainly centered around the comments that framed Ms van Velden’s remarks, yet in his final comment he said his main concern was not unfairness to Ms van Velden, but that RNZ was using her “as a tool to falsely frame a collection of widely held views...as inherently fringe, invalid, disinformation and right wing.”
- The Media Council considers that this last-minute extension of a fairly narrow complaint about one segment of one episode to such a sweeping complaint is drawing a long bow. The Council has not seen evidence that would support such a claim.
- Dr McDonald-Wharry's criticisms are a matter of opinion. He is entitled to those opinions and he is within his rights to complain. However, the Council does not believe there is a case to show RNZ has breached Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The podcast presented a wide and diverse range of opinions, and it was not demonstrably inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced.
- Decision: The complaint is not upheld
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Scott Inglis, Jonathan
Mackenzie, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau.
Council member Tim Watkin declared a conflict of interest and withdrew from the discussion.