TONY WILSON AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2858

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2019

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. A story on RNZ’s website on 22 August 2019 was headed Tonga’s PM accused of insincerity at Pacific Forum and said that while Tonga’s Prime Minister ’Akilisi Pohiva [who has subsequently died] was praised for shedding tears of empathy over the impact of climate change at the Pacific Forum, he had been accused of insincerity and hypocrisy, as homes and schools in Tonga had not been repaired a year after being damaged by Cyclone Gita.

2. The story reported that social media posts had accused the Prime Minister of putting on a “Hollywood act” while doing nothing for local people. An unidentified teacher said her school was still operating in tents, and the heat and lack of ventilation caused higher than usual rates of illness. A local newspaper editor was quoted as saying the Prime Minister was hypocritical, saying: "It is all an act in front of regional leaders. Here at home he is very hard hearted toward the poor and suffering, and is arrogant, and does nothing to ease the difficulties suffered by people.”

3. Two further stories were published and comments from these and links were added to the original story. In the second story on 28 August, the Prime Minister denied the allegations, and his spokesperson said the delays in school repairs were the responsibility of agencies such as the World Bank. In the third story, on 3 September, the government corrected the previous statement, saying the government was in charge of school repairs, apologised for the delay and said repairs would start by the end of the month.

The Complaint

4. Tony Wilson complained that the story breached Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. He also cited Principle 6: Headlines and captions. The original article had been based solely on unidentified sources and an editor, who was a political opponent of the Prime Minister, who had stood against him in elections many times. No balancing comment had been included. Mr Wilson said he had read the first article as a stand-alone piece and the updated article was published a week after the original. Mr Wilson said the journalist who wrote the original story had been consistently opposed to the Prime Minister.

The Response

5. RNZ replied that Mr Pohiva had been interviewed and the story updated to reflect this. In stories that develop, it was not always possible to capture all the perspectives at one moment and in the same published piece,RNZ said. “It is well accepted that balance can be achieved over a period of time for more significant stories and this is what happened on this occasion,”RNZ said. The story also contained balancing comments from the chair of the Pacific Environment Journalist Network, saying the “impact of climate change on Tonga was a real problem that the government was working to fix.”

The Decision

6. This was a piece of journalism that was strongly critical of Mr Pohiva. There was no balance to the criticism. Mr Pohiva was not given an opportunity to respond. A person reading the article would form a very adverse view about Mr Pohiva.

7. Principle 1 states: 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. This was a current story. In this case, while criticism of the PM and government was eventually balanced by a statement from the PM and an explanation from a government spokesman, the Council was concerned about the time that elapsed before a response was published.

8. Although politicians can expect to encounter robust criticism, the Media Council felt that fairness required the PM to be more promptly offered a right of reply to what were serious allegations.RNZ gave no reason for the delay, but if the PM or his spokesperson did not wish to comment or could not be reached for comment that could have been recorded in the story. The Council considered that the six-day delay was too long to wait before publishing a response to serious criticism. Complaint under Principle 1: Upheld.

9. Regarding the complaint under Principle 6: Headlines and captions - the headline accurately reflected the content of the story. Not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.