There’s no such thing as totally free expression anywhere—one can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre, for example. But where are the boundaries when a broadcaster discusses controversial issues of public importance? Do they have a duty to be balanced?
Legally, they do, and New Zealand’s Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) serves as a sort of mediator between often conflicting interests. Last week, the BSA released a bunch of decisions. Many complaints were silly, but among them was one against TVNZ’s Breakfast programme that I think illustrates the struggle between protecting free expression—and freedom of the press—and ensuring balance in controversial debates.
In an interview broadcast on December 18, 2008, the Breakfast host asked Garth McVicar from the Sensible Sentencing Trust to comment on a 21-month sentence imposed on a man who sold a large firearms collection on the black market. McVicar said the judge “got it wrong”, and went on to discuss sentences in New Zealand, repeating his claims that sentences handed down are too lenient. There was no alternative opinion presented, and the TVNZ presenter implicitly agreed with McVicar.
So, Roger Brooking made a formal complaint to TVNZ, alleging the interview let McVicar “repeatedly air his right wing populist views about law and order, generally criticise judges for being lenient on criminals and expound his belief that this fails to send a message of deterrence to other criminals in the community”. He went on, “no attempt was made to present the other side of the argument on sentencing and law and order issues”. And, he also argued it was inappropriate to air unchallenged “the reactionary views of an unqualified right wing individual as if he was the oracle on sentencing law”. TVNZ disagreed, and Brooking took the matter to the BSA.
The Authority had to consider whether there was, in fact, a breach of Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which deals with balance. The Decision (No: 2009-012) found that TVNZ did breach Standard 4 because of the one-sided interview, and noted that TVNZ could have avoided the problem if the interviewer had simply played “devil’s advocate”, or if an alternative viewpoint had been presented “within the period of current interest”.
However, the Authority declined to impose any sanctions, arguing “the Authority is satisfied that its decision will serve as a reminder to TVNZ to ensure that when interviewees coming from a particular perspective discuss controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or factual programmes, efforts are made to challenge those views or to provide alternative viewpoints during other programmes within the period of current interest.”
I think the BSA struck precisely the correct balance. But it kind of surprised me that anyone complained; I’ve seen plenty of one-sided interviews on New Zealand TV news, and reporting that was shallow enough to be one-sided, too. So I kind of mentally tune out when a right-winger is on TV, knowing that they’ll be spouting rubbish; I have better things to occupy my mind.
But maybe we should all take more interest in what’s being reported, challenging not just inaccuracy but also balance when the lack of either can influence public thought on controversial issues. Democracy requires that we police the media’s boundaries, too.