TIM HINCHLIFF AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2975

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Tim Hinchliff complains about a RNZ morning report from 16 September 2020 entitledMost of Te Tai Tokerau taking Covid-19 seriously – community leaders

(https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018764195/most-of-te-tai-tokerau-taking-covid-19-seriously-community-leaders).This was an article with accompanying audio.

2. The publication’s introduction comments on the decision of then Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross to not contest his electorate and instead support Billy Te Kahika winning Te Tai Tokerau.The article noted “Billy TK’s New Zealand Public Party has a growing following – gaining traction through the sharing of conspiracy theory videos … including that Covid-19 is equivalent to a winter flu.”The reporter went to a local Te Tai Tokearau health clinic and spoke to some Nga Puhi to see how they, as potential voters, “viewed the virus”.In particular, the interviewees on the audio spoke about community compliance with measures such as social distancing, travel bans and getting tested in taking Covid-19 seriously.A couple of people commented on the nature of the virus in terms of how seriously they personally viewed it.

The Complaint

3. The complainant says that not only was there a lack of balance and accuracy byRNZ, but it attempted to “seriously discredit, a perfectly legitimate view, that covid is equivalent to seasonal flu.”

4. In particular, the complainant argues that the publication ought to have included “some concession” and acknowledgment “that the Covid outbreak does in fact share many similarities to flu outbreaks” and it “is not conspiracy theory” because:

5. The complainant says that RNZ “did not need to go to the ends” he had butRNZ’s lack of balance risks “moving down the partisan, “fake news”, polarised, screaming match that is the US currently” and he did “not want that in our country”.

6. As the “world is already afraid about the threat of covid” and “there has been so little calming coverage in our media”, the complainant stated that it is neither in New Zealanders’ interests “to make them more afraid” nor “necessary to fuel the flames of vigilantism”.

The Response

7. RNZ responded on 13 October 2020 and to the subsequent Media Council complaint on 20 October 2020 as follows.

8. The respondent did not dispute that “reasoned debate should be protected and honoured with factual and balanced reporting”. However, the respondent says that the complaint could gain little traction as its publication was not “focused on the mortality rates associated with winter flu and Covid-19 … However, the comments were more general than that and referred to other factors such as symptoms and ongoing ill-health which are associated with Covid-19.”.

9. From the respondent’s perspective, the two “conspiracy theories” outlined in the story were “rumours that the virus is about as harmful as the common flu” and the second being that “Covid-19 is equivalent to a winter flu”.

10. Whilst it was appreciated that the complainant went to “considerable lengths in analysing data to support his position, nonetheless advice received by the New Zealand government, and upon which it acted to implement different levels of lockdowns both nationally and then later in Auckland, is a view contrary to Mr Hinchliff’s.”

11. The respondent further states that “In any event, the focus of the article was on measures taken in Te Tai Tokerau as precautions during the pandemic. Whether or not Covid-19 is more or less harmful than the common flu or theories which have abounded addressing that was not the focus of this article and would not have misled the audience’s understanding of what was happening in Te Tai Tokerau.”

12. The complainant considered the response as being “bizarre”, “contemptuous”, “deliberately obtuse” and “missing the point” of the complaint for reasons including:

  • The publication does not mention symptoms or ongoing health problems and instead from his perspective “flu symptoms and covid symptoms are also very much equivalent” in reference to WebMD and USCDC websites.
  • He reiterated his view that Covid-19 and the flu are equivalent.
  • He questioned whether the scientific data he relied upon supported whether the New Zealand government measures were the right thing to do even if well-intentioned.
  • The complainant also stated that “The people interviewed talked about what they have done and what they are continuing to do to inhibit the spread. It isRNZ that overlays the conspiracy accusation”.

The Decision

Relevant principle

13. The relevant principle here is Principle 1, which provides:

Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

Discussion

14. One of the most discussed issues of the 2020 elections was the present and future Covid-19 response. It is undisputed that former MP Jami-Lee Ross’ decision to support Billy Te Kahika’s electoral candidacy efforts in Te Tai Tokerau were widely publicised as were the New Zealand Public Party’s views on the government’s Covid-19 response in that context. There have been many public commentators who have labelled, rightly or wrongly, Messrs Ross and Te Kahika, their political party and their views as ‘conspirational’.It appears to be in that context that the publication referred, in a very fleeting and passing way, to conspiracy theories equating Covid-19 to the flu.

15. Whether the views are conspirational, which the complainant refutes, putting aside the issue of correctness, they are alternative to the mainstream, which the complainant does accept.

16. Considering that acceptance, the question arises whether there should be balance by reporting on alternative views of Covid-19 being equated to the flu. The answer is not in this instance for the very reasons encapsulated in Principle 1, that is: “Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.”

17. That general answer is somewhat fortified here specifically because the article involved interviews of Nga Puhi leaders in Te Tai Tokerau noting earlier measures by Nga Puhi including its own checkpoint to prevent Covid-19 spread by impermissible travel during lockdown. As it turned out, the interviewees focused on their own personal concerns and community measures being taken to inhibit the spread of Covid-19.Perhaps, implicit in their concerns and measures was that the interviewees did not hold the same views as the New Zealand Public Party or its leaders equating Covid-19 to the flu. However, there was no explicit focus on the alternate Covid-19 views at all, or whether there was a specific view one way or the other about the comparison between flus and Covid-19.

18. The article was one where people were interviewed and reported in a relatively short piece. Conceptually, they are typical of the many street polls where people are asked their view on an issue of public interest, which do not usually require information to balance the views expressed. The Nga Puhi leaders in the Te Tai Tokerau region were not purporting to be medical experts in this area or proffering expert opinions. Rather, their focus was on how community leaders, like the rest of the country, viewed their obligations in these unprecedented and fluid times. Therefore, the absence of the interviewees’ commentary on whether Covid-19 was equivalent to the flu meant that no information for balance were required in this case to what is no more than an introductory throwaway line about ‘conspiracy theories’ in connection to a person running in the Te Tai Tokerau electorate.

19. The complainant says that the publication wrongly has an overlay about conspirational theories; however, that is a subjective view and still does not negate that ongoing publicity about these issues would not, in this instance, call for a voice for the opposition view.

20. The complainant has relied on the principle of freedom of public debate and discussion to underpin his complaint, and ultimately his personal view, that the New Zealand government and media have overreacted to Covid-19 and it should be treated like a flu outbreak. However, that does not establish a breach of principle 1 in respect of this specific article complained about.

21. In respect of freedom of public dialogue, the Media Council notes from its statement set out on its website; in summary, that the complaint process does not take away from the statutorily enshrined right in democracies of freedom of speech unless one or more of the principles have been breached. This fundamentally promotes debate and discussion of public interest issues through the media.

22. For those that contend that Covid-19 is equivalent to the flu in contrast to mainstream views, there may be articles that call for the rigorous analysis that the complainant sought in this instance. However, this publication did not fall into that category with any material specificity or intention requiring discussion of the alternative views.

Decision

The publication did not breach Principle 1.The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Liz Brown (Chair), Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.