PACIFIC INSTITUTE OF RESOURCE MANAGEMENT AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 3168

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Summary

 

[1] Kay Weir, of the Pacific Institute of Resource Management, complained about the RNZ podcast series, Red Line, which examined concerns about China’s influence in New Zealand. Ms Weir said the podcasts were inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced and promoted hatred and racism towards China. The complaint is not upheld.

Background 

[2] RNZ’s four-part podcast series by Guyon Espiner and John Daniell, Red Line, was published on the RNZ website from June 28 to July 5 2021. It examined concerns about what some see as China’s growing influence in New Zealand, asking the question: “Can we walk the thin line between what some see as an evil empire and others as our greatest economic opportunity?”

[3] The four episodes, each about 40 minutes long, included interviews with New Zealand academics, Chinese and Uyghur dissidents, a former US general, a person involved with United Front (the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agency that seeks to promote CCP viewpoints) and former and current politicians (with varying views on China). The Chinese Embassy in New Zealand declined to be interviewed.

[4] Main points discussed included:

  • The response to a car crash that killed two Chinese dissidents headed to Parliament, who were intending to warn about the dangers of CCP influence in New Zealand. It reported concerns from Chinese dissidents and Chinese politics specialist Professor Anne-Marie Brady that the crash could have been sabotage, although police subsequently ruled it was simply an accident. It also reported Brady’s complaints that her car had been tampered with and her home had been broken into, and the journalists asked whether Brady was too suspicious of the CCP and was fear-mongering. 
  • The importance of China to New Zealand economically and the fine line New Zealand politicians were treading when raising concerns about China without wanting to upset an important trading partner. It reported former Prime Minister Sir John Key saying he thought China’s threat had been overblown, and on the issue of human rights, Key said many other countries had human rights concerns as well. 
  • The podcast canvassed suggestions that China used investment and debt to create dependency. It reported former Far North mayor Wayne Brown’s opinion that New Zealand should not criticise China too much or there could be economic consequences, and his suggestion that New Zealand should get out of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
  • The activities of the United Front in New Zealand, and concerns from the Chinese diaspora and New Zealand academics that they were being watched; concerns about political donations, targeting of political parties and taking photographs at demonstrations related to Chinese policies. 
  • China’s repressive effect on New Zealand’s Chinese media, who were said to be either pro-CCP or self-censoring to avoid upsetting the CCP.
  • Human rights concerns about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Tze Ming Mok, a NZ-born academic and human rights advocate of Chinese heritage, said the situation amounted to genocide, and “Sam” (not his real name), a New Zealand Uyghur who said he feared for his family in Xinjiang, compared the situation to the Holocaust. Most New Zealand Uyghurs were too afraid to be interviewed, the podcast said. Brady said over one million people were in concentration camps, there was evidence of forced sterilisation and torture. It also reported that Labour MP Louisa Wall had been more outspoken than most politicians about the Uyghurs, saying that a UK tribunal confirmed organ harvesting had taken place and that some Uyghurs were effectively slaves. 
  • The podcast reported concerns about former National Party MP Jian Yang, who had taught at a Chinese military school, but denied he was a spy. Key dismissed the concerns as “nonsense”. Brady said both National and Labour had selected candidates with United Front and CCP links. 

The Complaint

[5] Kay Weir complained about the podcast on behalf of the Pacific Institute of Resource Management, an organisation Ms Weir said was “dedicated to principles of peace, ecology, justice and sustainability”. 

[6] As a general commentary, Ms Weir said an increasing number of people were losing faith in mainstream media because of “narrow perspectives and partisan reporting”. There was a threatening geopolitical situation stirred by “war-addicted” US, UK and EU countries. Conflict was being orchestrated with propaganda from the US and UK against China. US-led allies had used false pretexts to launch illegal wars over 20 years, devastating many countries, said Ms Weir, so it was important to question allegations made by the US and its allies.

[7] Ms Weir suggested the CIA and possibly UK intelligence agencies had influenced the series and there were no Chinese, Muslim or independent perspectives. The podcast reported the UK and US allies’ allegations against China without analysis.  

[8] Ms Weir provided links to articles she said discredited allegations of human rights abuses by China. They were sent to the Red Line team on July 6 but ignored, leaving the impression that RNZ and Red Line was a mouthpiece for propaganda from the “US-UK-Euro alliance”.

[9] The series was inaccurate, lacked balance and breached principles relating to discrimination and denigration, said Ms Weir. She complained specifically about the following points, providing links to numerous articles to back up her allegations. 

[10] It was false to say China had 1 million Uyghurs in concentration camps, she said, citing reports to the contrary. Far from abusing Uyghurs, China was eradicating poverty among them, she said. Ms Weir provided a number of articles that discredited what she said were “manufactured allegations” of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. 

[11] It was false to say UN and human rights groups had not been able to go to Xinjiang. Deputations from many countries had visited, including from Muslim nations. The fact that Red Line failed to acknowledge the support for China’s policies in Xinjiang by the majority of the world’s Muslim people was evidence of Red Line’s lack of objectivity, accuracy and fairness. At two meetings of the UN Human Rights Council, motions condemning China’s conduct in Xinjiang were outvoted. Many of the countries supporting China’s positions were Muslim nations who had campaigned against extremism on their home soil.

[12] RNZ refused to acknowledge the validity of reports from journalists such as Max Blumenthal and Gareth Porter, which Ms Weir said clearly showed the overwhelming support from Muslim countries for China’s efforts to “improve the lives of Muslims, including Uyghurs, in Xinjiang”.

[13] Red Line journalists had unquestioningly reported allegations of Uyghur dissidents in New Zealand. Uyghur dissidents were funded by the US, and the UK-based Uyghur Tribunal reported on had also been discredited, she said, and was not a legally established court of law, but rather a “kangaroo court”. Its chair also had a tarnished reputation from his time as a judge, she said.

[14] It was understandable that the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand refused to participate, as they would realise they were not going to get a fair hearing. 

[15] Allegations against China were politically motivated, because the US saw China as threatening its supremacy and wanted to derail China’s Belt and Road initiative. RNZ should have been more sceptical of the allegations. 

[16] Red Line’s treatment of suggestions of CCP involvement in the car crash incident was spoof-like and distracted from the finding that it was simply an accident, Ms Weir said. 

[17] Ms Weir questioned why RNZ did not investigate US-led wars on Muslim countries and the case of Julian Assange. 

[18] Ms Weir called for the series to be withdrawn, saying it promoted misinformation about China and hatred, conflict and racism.

The Response

[19] RNZ responded that each episode of Red Line opened with the question: “Are we paranoid or are the CCP out to get us?”, so it was apparent that the series would examine to what extent the CCP has influence in New Zealand and the consequences of that.

[20] The podcast was an inquiry into legitimate concerns raised by dissidents and others. RNZ rejected Ms Weir’s claim that there were no Chinese, Muslim or independent perspectives. Balancing views from pro-China voices such as former Prime Minister Sir John Key, former mayor Wayne Brown and Far North Māori leader Haami Piripi were included. Comment was sought from the Chinese Embassy for months, and was repeatedly denied. When it was clear no one would speak for the Chinese Government, RNZ went out of its way to lay out the position on key issues as reported elsewhere, including excerpts from an interview China’s ambassador to Britain gave to media in the UK.

[21] The series did not set out to investigate every perspective and viewpoint on China’s foreign policies, or US foreign policy. 
 

[22] The podcast was even-handed with respect to concerns about the actions of the CCP, RNZ said. Regarding the investigation into the Waikato car crash, RNZ was the only news agency in New Zealand to report the police findings and court case which found the deaths were caused by driver inattention. This drew a line under speculation of CCP sabotage.

[23] Ms Weir complained material she sent on July 6 was not used, but the series was released on June 28.

[24] Ms Weir claimed the series was not supported by credible evidence, but there was extensive fact-checking and where claims were the views of those interviewed they were presented as opinion and contrary views presented.

[25] Regarding the parts of the complaint that suggested the allegations against China were politically motivated, and that the US and allies had justified aggression against Muslim countries on the basis of false allegations, RNZ said the series was about China and New Zealand, not US foreign policy failings, but, even so, those failings were acknowledged.

[26] On the claim of a breach of Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, regarding the situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, RNZ stood by its reporting, listing credible experts, human rights groups and rigorous media organisations who supported the claims of abuse and oppression. Requests for access to Xinjiang to investigate had been denied.

[27] Regarding Ms Weir’s concern about the UK Uyghur Tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, RNZ said the tribunal considered a range of perspectives before issuing its report. It received a short mention in the podcast, contrary views were canvassed, and referring to the tribunal was not a breach of standards, whether or not it had legal standing.

[28] RNZ also denied allegations the Red Line podcast was influenced by the CIA and possibly UK intelligence agencies. The same team made The Service podcast, which uncovered illegal activity by those agencies.

[29] In its final response, RNZ drew the Media Council’s attention to a Hansard record of the UK Parliament’s discussion on the Uyghur Tribunal, and concerns about human rights in Xinjiang. The UK Minister for Asia said he was disturbed to hear reports of attempts to intimidate those who appeared at the tribunal. The UK Government had repeatedly expressed concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and called on China to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding expert unfettered access to Xinjiang, he said. Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the Uyghur Tribunal was an independent investigation. It was set up because China had a veto at the UN Security Council, which prevents investigation by the International Court of Justice. The Chinese Government monitored, intimidated and harassed Uyghurs living abroad, he said. 

[30] Ms Weir was invited to respond to RNZ’s final response and reiterated her view that the series reported only the “minority views of US-led allies, which are hostile to China” and resulted in a distorted, blinkered narrative. The duplicity of the UK MPs was shown in their suggestion that China should be investigated by the International Criminal Court, when UK and US governments had refused to be held to account by the court, she said. By presenting the Hansard report as reliable evidence, RNZ showed gullibility about the real world and centuries of “brutal colonisation”.

The Decision

[31] Ms Weir complained about accuracy, fairness and balance, and that the podcasts would encourage discrimination and denigration.

[32] Principle 6: Discrimination and Diversity, states: “Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.”  As the podcast related to the policies of a particular country, rather than any particular race or religious group, the Council considers Principle 6 does not apply. 

[33] The general thrust of the complaint is that the Red Line podcast was biased towards the US and its allies’ view of China’s policies, and that alternative perspectives were not presented, and this is better dealt with under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. 

[34] Ms Weir complained extensively about what the podcast did not cover – in particular, the US and its allies’ foreign policy failings and their involvement in wars over the last 20 years. However, RNZ was entitled to limit the scope of the podcast, so it was quite reasonable for them not to cover these subject areas, and this part of the complaint is not upheld. 

[35] The nub of the complaint is whether the programme dealt fairly and accurately with the subject of China’s influence in New Zealand, and whether it took a balanced approach. The Council notes the questioning tone of the programme, and what appeared to be a genuine attempt on the part of the journalists to work out whether allegations of Chinese interference in New Zealand affairs were true. For example, in its coverage of Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s suggestions that her car had been tampered with and her home broken into, the journalists asked whether she was overly suspicious.

[36] Regarding the coverage of the car crash involving Chinese dissidents and suspicions of sabotage, it could be argued that this was drawn out for dramatic purposes, but the podcast clearly reported that it was simply an accident. 

[37] Ms Weir claimed the podcast did not contain opposing perspectives from those who support China. The Media Council does not agree. The views of John Key and Wayne Brown, who thought that fear of China’s influence was overblown, provided balance. RNZ also made repeated unsuccessful requests to the Chinese Embassy for interviews, showing a genuine attempt was made to garner an alternative perspective. 

[38] Ms Weir also complained about what she said were unquestioned allegations of Uyghur dissidents in New Zealand, who might be funded by the US, and the findings of the UK-based Uyghur Tribunal, which she said had no legal standing. The Media Council believes these were all quite reasonable aspects to include in the podcast and, while the UK tribunal might not be an official investigation, it is still relevant. 

[39] On matters of accuracy, Ms Weir says statements about repressive treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang are untrue and manufactured to show China in a bad light, and that it is also false to state that China has not allowed independent investigation of the situation. The Media Council cannot agree. While Ms Weir provided articles that suggest the allegations about the situation in Xinjiang are untrue, the overwhelming evidence from a wide range of sources relied upon by RNZ suggests that there is cause for concern about the situation of the Uyghurs. And while some groups have been allowed to enter Xinjiang, the balance of evidence suggests truly independent investigators have not been allowed unfettered access. 

[40] In summary, this was an important piece of work on a matter that is a significant one for New Zealand. The Media Council believes it was handled in an even-handed way, and balance was provided, even when local Chinese representatives were unwilling to take part. No errors of fact have been proven. The complaint is not upheld. 


Media Council members taking part in the consideration of this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten and Marie Shroff

Note: Media Council member Tim Watkin, who was an executive producer of Red Line, took no part in the consideration of this complaint. 

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