LEE SHORT AGAINST RNZ
Case Number: 2931
Council Meeting: JULY 2020
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Radio NZ
Balance, Lack Of
1. Lee Short has complained about an RNZ video and podcast series The Citizen’s Handbook published on RNZ’s website under the Podcasts and Series tab on April 16, 2020 and subsequently on YouTube.
2. The 10-part series was funded by NZ on Air and is described by its makers as a “comedy series and civics class for all New Zealanders created by the award-winning team behind the popular satirical web showWhite man behind a desk.
3. The show targets 15 to 25 year olds and covers five topics: history, politics, law, economics, and international relations in an effort to educate young people who might otherwise not engage with a series on civics and history.
4. It was created by Robbie Nicol and Finnius Teppett who teamed up with “relevant experts and a writers’ room built on a partnership between Māori and Pākehā to ensure that all information is culturally and historically accurate”.
5. In a letter to RNZ’s chief executive Paul Thompson, Mr Short describes the series as “targeted, anti-white anti-colonisation, crusading abuse”.He maintains that it “sets out to set citizen against citizen and seeks to promote separatism in society”.
6. He says the series is factually incorrect and “seeks to rewrite history”.
7. He asserts that as a publicly funded body, RNZ has an obligation to “present news in a fair and balanced manner”.
8. Mr Short complains that the creators and promoters of the series use a “privileged position to further political activism, using racial (sic) charged statements and innuendo to denigrate those with a colonial history.
9. He says: “When no alternative balanced view is offered it is clear to me that they are promoting the rewriting of history to suit a political agenda”.
10. Mr Short says “historical facts”, written at the time, show “a very different account of our history” and the “factual history” is based on “corroborating documents and correspondence from a wide variety of sources”.
11. He maintains that the producers deliberately set out to “dismiss these written records and appear to rely on anecdotal oral recollections.”
12. He believes the series “clearly sets out to single (sic) Pakeha New Zealanders as racist” and positions Pakehas to “feel guilty for and do something about the alleged misdeeds”.
13. The complaint also highlighted six extracts from episodes 1,2, 6 and 10 from the series which Mr Short believes reinforce his position.
14. In the first example the narrator describes battles between Maori breaking out “occasionally” with “pretty low casualty rates” compared to European conflicts.
15. “Usually, only a few people would die, if any at all before someone stepped in and was like ‘all right, all right, let’s all just, can we take a chill pill okay? Can we just find a peaceful resolution now? Please and thank you. Awesome’.”
16. Mr Short says “this is absolute lies, and paints a completely distorted, romantic view of history. Over 20,000 Maori died in the intertribal musket wars”.
17. Also from episode 1:”But unfortunately, like television in the 90s, the British weren’t huge fans of diversity. Lots of Brits were very into the idea of racial supremacy and refused to accept that they might be equal to everyone else.”
18. Mr Short says that by the end of the 18th Century Britain had become “concerned about the great harm done by previous European explorers and Colonists.
19. He says: “That remarkable cultural change, largely carried out consciously, is absent from this series, sadly buried beneath a blanket of denial of positive British intentions and actions and ignoring the desires of Maori for a change from tribalism to rule by a central authority that alone would bring peace and security.”
20. In episode 2 the narrator states: “Europe had known about New Zealand since the Dutch East India Company stumbled across it in the 1600s on a racist adventure for jewels.”
21. Mr Short believes the statement is “pure supposition and unfounded”.
22. Later in the same episode the narrator says: “And then in the 1700s, Captain Cook popped by, apparently for scientific reasons. And he used his scientific guns to kill locals and wrote a lot of notes in his little science book about how nice it would be if the English started living here.”
23. Mr Short observes that the aims of the first expedition were to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the Sun.
24. In episode 4 the narrator says”...The good thing about not having a written constitution is that the government can change the rules at any time and we’re not tied down to stupid rules written by people who thought it was okay for humans to be slaves, America.
25. Mr Short asks: “...where is the mention of Maori who actually kept and ate slaves who had been acquired during the inter-tribal war in the years before the treaty.”
26. In episode 6 Maori representation in prisons is discussed, the narrator says”...It’s 50 percent now, even though Maori are only 15 percent of the population. What’s going on? Well part of the reason for that is straightforward racism.”
27. Mr Short contends that the prison population is a reflection of the crimes committed against society, “not some racist construct”.
28. In episode 10 the narrator says: “We’re also still part of the Commonwealth, which is made up of all the countries Britain colonised who still want to be associated with Britain for some reason.”
29. Mr Short says there are “very good reasons 54 countries with 2.4 billion citizens are in the Commonwealth” including working together for “prosperity, democracy and peace”. “Clearly it is very desirable to be associated with Britain.”
30. RNZ Complaints Coordinator George Bignell observed that the complaint “failed at the first hurdle” because the series was not published in the news and current affairs genre on the website so the standards of accuracy, fairness and balance do not apply. The Citizen’s Handbook is a comedy series so the items should not “be taken as standard news and current affairs”.
31. Pointing out that the series was not funded under a “factual content stream” but rather as part of a Signature Project for the Joint Innovation Fund, Mr Bignell described the series as a combination of “scripted factual, scripted comedy and satire material”.
32. “Humour and satire have been employed to deliver important civics education to a younger audience.”
33. Respected academics were consulted in the development of the series and a variety of “published resource materials were used in the research and scripting phase”.
34. Mr Bignell contends that RNZ believes that it is legitimate “to construct a series such as this using skits and comedy elements which employ hyperbole and metaphor. They are definitely unsubtle so as to maintain audience engagement”.35. RNZ chose not to engage in a debate over whose version of history was correct so it did not respond point by point to Mr Short’s specific allegations of imbalance or factual errors in some of the material. 36. Mr Bignell said the Media Council did not have to engage in a debate about which version of history is accurate in order to reach a decision “under each of the principles referred to in this complaint”.
36. At the heart of this complaint appears to be an assumption that the established historical version of the colonisation and settlement of New Zealand is written in stone and is therefore not open to interpretation.
37. The Media Council does not agree. It accepts that history is open to interpretation from a variety of voices and viewpoints. The Council does not have a remit or the expertise to adjudicate on a definitive version of New Zealand’s history, if such a thing is even possible. This complaint will be broadly considered under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.
38. RNZ says the complaint should not be considered because the items are homed in Podcasts and Series as opposed to theNews and Current Affairs genre. However, Media Council jurisdiction applies to all content that comes under editorial control and we note that the RNZ, NZ On Air funding document indicates that RNZ had editorial control over all this material.
39. Although Mr Bignell says the series is not strictly news and current events and the Council agrees, it does however note that in the funding application documents - provided under the OIA by Mr Short - RNZ agrees that the series will comply with NZMC’s principles.
40. Although not strictly news or current events the series does have an educational thrust. Clearly its intention is to inform the audience about - among other things - the process of colonisation in New Zealand.It is irreverent, satirical, comedic and scripted in the vernacular of young people - its target audience.
41. Mr Short believes the purpose of the series is to promote separatism, to rewrite history, to single out Pakeha as racist and to make them feel guilty for past “misdeeds”.
42. The Council does not agree. We see plurality or history told through a different lens - that of the tangata whenua. Where Mr Short sees a “rewriting of history” and “dangerous propaganda” we see a challenge to the historical hegemony that should be encouraged in a free society.
43. Mr Short seeks a “balanced view” but fails to recognise that until relatively recently there was only one dominant view - the established ethnocentric colonial view.Moreover Mr Short’s view that the episodes about which he complains “are at best a dishonest representation of the facts” relies on the diminution of Maori oral history for veracity.
44. The Council has examined the matters raised by Mr Short in his complaint and is of the view that for the most part they no not stand up to critical scrutiny in terms of the Principles. They appear to be statements or rhetorical questions which are not framed as individual complaints but rather meant to demonstrate the issues which we have already dealt with. However for the sake of probity we have selected three examples for comment.
45. In example one the combined death toll from wars in Europe would far exceed Mr Short’s quoted 20,000 casualties in the musket wars. In the Napoleonic wars, for instance, Wikipedia estimates that in military deaths alone 2.5 to 3.5 million people died and up to 3 million civilians.
46. In example two, Mr Short argues that Abel Tasman was not on a “racist adventure for jewels” but admits that the Dutch East India Company was searching for “exploitable” southern lands. RNZ has vigorously pointed out that the programme has deliberately been unsubtle in order to maintain audience attention. The Council does not believe this constitutes a breach of Principle 1.
47. In example three the narrator acknowledges a scientific reason for Cook’s visit and therefore is in agreement with Mr Short who points to the transit of Venus as the reason for the expedition.
48. While the Council acknowledges that history can be confronting - particularly when viewed from a different perspective - it does not agree with Mr Short that RNZ has presented a biased version.A different perspective does not make it biased. Nor does the Council agree that the series is not factual. RNZ hired academics and historians for the development phase of the series to ensure authenticity.
49.. Media have a vital role in allowing challenges to the orthodoxy to be heard, particularly in an historical contest when one voice has been dominant and the other - for whatever reason - suppressed or ignored.
50.The complaint is not upheld
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten and Christina Tay.
Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.