NICK STRIDE AGAINST RADIO NEW ZEALAND
Case Number: 3245
Council Meeting: March 2022
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: Radio NZ
Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Balance, Lack Of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
1. The complaint is about an analysis piece headlined Who is the New National Party leader Christopher Luxon? written by an RNZ political journalist and published on RNZ’s website on December 1, 2021.
2. The piece examines Christopher Luxon, the recently appointed leader of the National Party and touches on his business, political and personal life.
3. Nick Stride complains that the article breaches the Media Council’s Principle 1: Accuracy, fairness and balance
4. “The entirety” of the complaint concerns the following sentence in the story - “He (Luxon) is an evangelical Christian - though he does not like the label”. The sentence is the third paragraph in the article and therefore has some prominence. Mr Stride complains that Mr Luxon has denied that he is an evangelical Christian, that he doesn’t like the label and the combination of the two represents, “in essence, Mr Luxon is a spade who does not like being called a spade - in other words he seeks to deceive by concealing his true nature”.
5. The complainant believes that that is a serious misrepresentation of Mr Luxon “who seeks to lead his party into the next general election”. He believes that calling somebody an evangelical Christian is potentially politically damaging for a politician.
6. The introduction to the article is also criticised because it describes Mr Luxon as a “messiah” for the National Party, which reinforces the notion that Mr Luxon is to be defined by his religious beliefs.
7. Mr Stride also complains that the article fails to state Mr Luxon’s “own-avowed religious position” and that RNZ’s statement that Mr Luxon is an evangelical Christian is based on hearsay from a media article.
8. Complaints Coordinator George Bignell rejected the complainant’s assertions. He said that the article outlined terms which had been used to describe Mr Luxon such as evangelical Christian and Christian fundamentalist, but the important point was that Mr Luxon’s reactions to the terms were documented when he rejected the use of the terms.
“It is for the reader to evaluate the substance of Mr Luxon’s replies to the questions that were put to him about the appropriateness of those descriptions. The inferences drawn in the complaint and the subsequent referral to the Council were not implications contained in the text of the article.”
9. Several source articles were linked to in the item published so readers would have been aware of the original source of the descriptions.
10. “The important thing to note is that while the complaint appears to draw some conclusions from what was published, RNZ did not make those conclusions itself.”
Mr Stride’s response to RNZ
11. Readers trust RNZ to report facts. RNZ presented no evidence that it had attempted to verify the accuracy of the “politically freighted descriptor” applied to Mr Luxon. Not every reader would have clicked on the links in the piece to view the source articles.
12. The complaint boils down to the question, is it fair and accurate to describe Mr Luxon as an evangelical Christian? The piece in question falls under the category of political analysis/opinion as distinct from a news story. Mr Bignell says the story contains source material or hyperlinks to other published stories which contain the terms complained about and Mr Luxon’s reactions to those terms. The piece at the centre of this complaint highlights Mr Luxon’s aversion to the descriptors and devotes eight paragraphs to his religious convictions. As Mr Stride states his complaint relates to two words – evangelical Christian - used in the third paragraph of a lengthy piece.
13. The Council’s view is that the term has not been used in an offhand, gratuitous or pejorative fashion but rather as shorthand to differentiate Mr Luxon’s devotion to non-traditional or denomination-based versions of Christianity such as Catholicism.
14. The issue of Mr Luxon’s religion and the way that voters might perceive it has been front footed by Mr Luxon himself in his maiden speech to Parliament. That demonstrates that he is aware that his particular brand of Christianity - whatever that is - could be seen by some in a negative light.
Nevertheless, he is a politician and the bar for press scrutiny is set high for politicians. What is known is that Mr Luxon is an avowed Christian who has been consistently described as an evangelical Christian in numerous media reports.
15. A dictionary definition of evangelical refers to a person, church, or organisation that is committed to the Christian gospel message that Jesus Christ is the saviour of humanity. The Council does not believe that the definition of evangelical is inconsistent with Mr Luxon’s Christianity or indeed many iterations of modern Christianity, given the breadth of the definition and plethora of interpretations that individuals might have.
16. In his maiden speech Mr Luxon said: “I see Jesus showing compassion, tolerance, and care for others. He doesn't judge, discriminate, or reject people. He loves unconditionally. “This clearly puts Jesus Christ at the centre of Mr Luxon’s faith, as expected, and is consistent with the broad definition of evangelism which puts Jesus Christ as saviour.
17. The Media Council finds that it is therefore not inaccurate to describe Mr Luxon as an evangelical Christian, given the broad definition of the term.
18. Further it was not unfair for the journalist to include the term in the article. The mention was scant and played on the use of the word messiah in the introduction - to depict Mr Luxon as a possible saviour for the National Party.
19. Mr Luxon’s faith was discussed within the context of a much broader political piece entitled Who is the new National Party leader Christopher Luxon? The piece was divided by the subheadings Politics and Business and Personal life and faith and was a means of introducing readers to the new leader and documenting what makes him tick. Essentially it was a profile piece that sought to cover the important aspects of Luxon the man and his background.
20. The Media Council does not believe that the article gives readers the impression that Mr Luxon is seeking to deceive by concealing his true nature, as Mr Stride believes, because Mr Luxon’s own views are canvassed so widely both within the article and the hyperlinked stories.
21. The Media Council finds that the piece has not breached its accuracy and fairness principles.
Decision: Not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were: Hon. Raynor Asher (chair), Hank Schouten, Tim Watkins, Jonathan MacKenzie, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Liz Brown, Katrina Bennett, Reine Vaai and Richard Pamatatu.