SUZANNE NGATAI AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2915

Council Meeting: JUNE 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

On 30 April 2020, RNZ published an article on its website headed South Taranaki checkpoint discovers many flouting level 3 rules. Itfocused on iwi checkpoints that were being carried out with police support in South Taranaki during level three of the COVID-19 nationwide lockdown.Iwi volunteers estimated about half the 500 vehicles stopped should not have been on the road. Ngãti Ruanui iwi leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer was quoted as saying many of those stopped were not sure of the rules, and information pamphlets were handed out. Ms Ngarewa-Packer added the checkpoint was to help the whole community and they did not deserve the backlash they had received. "We have had death threats, we have had some revolting comments from people on Mãori radio Facebook pages… community pages. An absolute uprising of poor white fragility who cannot believe that we are taking the lead on this.”

The Complaint

Suzanne Ngatai complained that the article breached five Media Council principles.

Under Principle 1: Accuracy fairness and balance, Ms Ngatai objected to the reporter asking the volunteers for information while the crisis was still underway, saying a fairer account could have been given after the lockdown levels had been completed.

Under Principle 2: Privacy and Principle 8: Confidentiality, Ms Ngatai said iwi volunteers shouldn't have been asked for results while the situation was still developing and this might have risked exposing them to public censure.

Under Principle 4: Comment and fact, Ms Ngatai objected to the inclusion of quotes about "manipulating data", which she said risked portrayed iwi volunteers as doing something illegal and "an absolute uprising of poor white fragility who cannot believe we were taking the lead on this" which was highly emotional.

She also complained under Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity, saying the report was written in highly racial terms. She expressed concern that it might affect iwi funding and local co-operation. "It came across as inflammatory and inciting civil unrest during a time of genuine national crisis." When she referred her complaint to the Media Council she also complained about her treatment during a phone call toRNZ when she said she was interrupted and the RNZ spokesperson raised his voice and treated her with disrespect.

The Response

RNZ said the story had been written with the co-operation of iwi members, who were operating in public, so no issues of privacy arise. If the iwi members had concerns it was open to them not to be interviewed.

While some readers might not have been happy with Ms Ngarewa-Packer's comments they were her views and she had the right to express them.

RNZ also disputed that the report was written in "highly racial terms". It was a checkpoint run by iwi so it was likely to portray Maori undertaking roles at the checkpoint.

The RNZ representative denied raising his voice continually or treating the complainant with disrespect, although he said he did interrupt at some points in the conversation to try to focus on what the essence of the complaint was.

The Decision

Ms Ngatai's main concern seemed to be that interviewing the iwi representatives at the checkpoint was premature, and it would have been better to wait until the crisis was over to provide a more complete account of the situation, thus avoiding exposing iwi members to unwanted criticism and stress, or disadvantaging iwi in their relationships with other agencies.

However the Council felt that this was a legitimate news story and a matter of public interest at the time it was published. There would have been less of a public interest if publication had been later. The report was not unfair, inaccurate or unbalanced.

The iwi volunteers agreed to be interviewed and the checkpoints were in a public place so there is no privacy breach. The complainant may disagree about the wisdom of commenting publicly but that is the right of the iwi representatives. Readers were likely to understand that the phrase "manipulating data" referred to analysing of data rather than anything underhand.

The Council did not believe the report was written in highly racial terms. The story made it clear the iwi members were doing their job with public safety in mind and with the support of the authorities.

Regarding the telephone conversation with the RNZ representative, the Media Council cannot rule on this as it was not party to the conversation, but Ms Ngatai clearly found the process distressing andRNZ may like to consider whether it has done all it can to make complainants feel comfortable with its process.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon. Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.