Case Number: 3500

Council Meeting: March 2024

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: TVNZ

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters

Ruling Categories: Bias
Columnists Opinion


  1. Susan Fogarty has complained about an opinion piece published on TVNZ’s 1News site on 25 November 2023 headlined John Campbell: I hoped to be surprised – actually I’m amazed.
  2. Ms Fogarty said the article breached Media Council Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; (4) Comment and Fact; and (5) Columns, Blogs Opinion and Letters. The complaint is not upheld. 

The Article

  1. The article was written by TVNZ’s Chief Correspondent, John Campbell and was published the day after the new, three-party coalition government signed and revealed their coalition agreements to the public.
  2. The column expresses John Campbell’s disappointment at the coalition agreements and, in his view, their lack of attention to climate change and poverty, a “deeply regressive” approach to race relations and misguided support for landlords and gun-owners. It is strongly critical of the three coalition parties and their leaders.

The Complaint

  1. Susan Fogarty is, in turn, disappointed in John Campbell’s column. In her initial complaint to TVNZ she argued that as a senior journalist she expects him to give the public impartial and useful news “about all manner of events”. She calls his piece “a rant” and says it provided her as a reader with no impartial information.
  2. Ms Fogarty made her complaint to TVNZ under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. In its response, TVNZ said this Principle does not usually apply to opinion pieces and did not uphold her complaint.
  3. In her subsequent complaint to the Media Council, Susan Fogarty argues that while the piece is labelled ‘opinion’, John Campbell’s “experience and long career” and the fact he is a well-known and senior journalist means “he needs to be held to a higher bar than other opinion writers (who often have never been journalists) because readers’ expectations would  clearly be that he’s written this in his working capacity as a journalist.” She argues more is expected of senior lawyers than junior lawyers.
  4. Ms Fogarty continues that readers might expect that anything John Campbell writes, given his prominence as a journalist, is based on well-researched facts and is “correct” information, not just his personal views. That could influence their decisions and votes. She says all journalists need to do these days when critiqued is “cry ‘opinion piece’… what a convenient loophole!... So how is the public supposed to know when Mr Campbell’s writing opinion pieces and when he’s being a journalist?”
  5. Under Principle (4) Comment and Fact, which covers opinion pieces such as this, commentators are required to base their opinions on accurate facts. Ms Fogarty says it is inaccurate of Mr Campbell to describe the new government’s vision of the future as “limp” and “narrow” because it “had not come out with their view of the future or policies”. She also says his criticism that the coalition agreements ignore child poverty is not counter-balanced  with the view that the previous government did not solve or often address poverty. Finally, on Principle (4) she says it is not factual to say “there is a kind of re-colonising here” because John Campbell is not an expert on colonisation or New Zealand history.
  6. Ms Fogarty also complains about the re-colonising comments under Principle (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters, which requires columns to be underpinned by “a foundation of fact”. She believes the claim is not factual because the government “had not done anything at the time of publication”.
  7. The complainant says TVNZ as a whole has breached Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance because as a public broadcaster it is required to be neutral. She says public media should be held to different standards than commercial media. She has no political affiliation and has voted for different parties over time, but expects publicly funded media to be fair, balanced and factual, even with opinion pieces. She worries people are losing trust in media because of such columns. She again stresses that John Campbell’s experience, role and influence means special care must be taken 

The Response

  1. In its response, TVNZ asks the Media Council to limit Ms Fogarty to the initial complaint she made to them and not to consider the additional points she raises in her complaint to the Council. The Media Council has recently ruled on this point in case case 3471 Jeanette Wilson against The Spinoff saying “ Media organisations should be aware that the Council takes both the initial complaint to the publisher and the subsequent complaint to the Media Council into consideration when making its decision. Publishers may therefore want to cover matters raised in both when responding to formal complaints.The Media Council recognises complainants’ thinking can evolve in the time between their initial complaint to a publisher and their subsequent complaint to the Media Council.
  2. TVNZ says John Campbell, like any journalist, is not limited to writing straight-forward news stories. As Chief Correspondent he has a mandate from TVNZ to “examine topical issues from his perspective”. Readers of his work as Chief Correspondent understand it includes “his personal insights and opinions”.
  3. This column is clearly an opinion piece and is labelled as such. Those opinions cannot be perceived as statements of fact. The discussion of issues such as child poverty and “re-colonisation” were clearly presented as Mr Campbell’s opinions, not as fact.
  4. TVNZ disagrees Mr Campbell should be held to a higher bar than other opinion writers. Media Council Principles apply to all and make no distinction. Ms Fogarty is wrong to say that public media is or should be held to different standards than commercial media. All member organisations are equal before Council Principles.
  5. TVNZ continues that, contrary to Ms Fogarty’s claims, the coalition government’s policies were well known as NZ had just been through an election campaign where they were announced and debated.

The Discussion

  1. When the Media Council began in 1972 it was less common than it is today for journalists to express opinions. But even then there was a tradition of advocacy journalism and opinion writing. In the years since it has become increasingly common for journalists from any number of political persuasions to write opinion pieces.
  2. The piece complained about as “a rant” is certainly one with much personal opinion and little analysis, which seems to be core to Susan Fogarty’s concerns. For context, the strength of opinion in this and other recent pieces by John Campbell have sparked debate in the media and on social platforms as it is unusual for someone designated a “correspondent”. More commonly those expressing personal opinions distinguish themselves as “broadcasters” or “writers”, or if they are news gatherers writing something other than news, offer analysis rather than straight opinion.
  3. For the complainant, seeing a senior correspondent expressing strident personal opinions raises doubts about the impartiality of its reporting and the public’s trust in the media. As it says in the preamble to our Principles, the Council strongly believes that distinctions between fact and opinion must be maintained for just this reason, so it is important that those who call themselves journalists and do original reporting take care with that distinction. But our preamble continues that “Editors have ultimate responsibility for what appears in their publications”, as long as they don’t breach the Principles.
  4. TVNZ editors are clear they have given Mr Campbell “a mandate” for such columns. And in this matter the principles are clear. Principle (1) on accuracy, fairness and balance typically applies to news reporting; expectations around opinion writing are covered particularly in Principles (4) and (5). Opinion must be clearly presented as such so that readers understand what they are reading. Material facts on which an opinion is based should also be accurate. Balance is not required.
  5. This column, as the complainant acknowledges, is clearly labelled ‘opinion’. Readers can be under no illusion John Campbell is reporting on the coalition agreements or providing ‘news’; he is expressing personal views and the label makes that clear. It seems unfair to dismiss clear labelling as “a loophole”. To answer Ms Fogarty’s question, the public can know when John Campbell is writing opinion by the fact the column is labelled as such.
  6. As for the material facts, there is no suggestion the content of the coalition agreements, the quotes used, or any facts relied upon are inaccurate. Describing the government’s vision as “limp” is clearly an opinion and does not pretend to be a fact. The same can be said for John Campbell’s “re-colonising” claim. Many columnists write on race relations in New Zealand without being historians or colonisation experts; that does not disqualify them from holding an opinion or offering insights. Readers might disagree with those views, but that does not make the writer (or reader) inaccurate. 
  7. Despite the complainant’s concerns the column is unbalanced, balance is expressly not required in opinion pieces. They are, by definition, biased. Freedom of speech makes room for strong, sometimes even challenging and offensive, opinions.
  8. TVNZ is correct to say that Media Council Principles apply equally to all member organisations. Public media organisations cannot and should not be held to a higher standard than commercial media organisations. The same can be said for John Campbell himself. The length of his career and prominence are irrelevant. The Principles hold all journalists to the highest standards, while also allowing editorial independence and promoting robust free speech. Readers can expect more of a ‘chief correspondent’ if they choose (better writing, context and insight, for example) just as a judge might expect more of a senior barrister but the rules covering courts are the same for all lawyers.
  9. Opinion pieces are not expected to be “neutral”. It is in the public interest for public media and commercial media alike to offer a wide range of views to encourage understanding, critical thinking and debate.
  10. The complainant is wrong to say the government had not come out with its policies on the topics discussed and that Mr Campbell could not know about its intentions on Māori issues. The three parties’ policies had been heavily reported during the election campaign and the article was specifically in response to the coalition agreements which set out the government’s policies in black and white.
  11. Mr Campbell does, alongside these opinion pieces, still report on “all manner of events”. There is no claim his news reporting is inaccurate or unbalanced. So it is up to audiences – the complainant included – to decide whether his opinion pieces alter their views of that reporting.
  12. Decision: The complaint is not upheld under Principles (1), (4) and (5)

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Marie Shroff, Richard Pamatatau, Rosemary Barraclough and Reina Vaai.



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