BSA upholds complaints against Radio NZ over three strikes coverage

complained to and then the Broadcasting Standards Authority about a Nine to Noon item on 29 May 2013 regarding the law. The has ruled that the item was both unbalanced and inaccurate. Their ruling is here.

David has provided Kiwiblog with a guest post about the ruling:

“Three Strikes”, Radio New Zealand and the Broadcasting Standards Authority

 On 29 May Radio New Zealand’s “Nine to Noon” featured what was supposedly a panel discussion about how the “three strikes” (3S) law  was working, almost three years after its passing.  The only problem – or at least the  most obvious one – was that the panel consisted only of Professor John  Pratt,  who had voiced his strident views against the law from well before it was passed, and the lawyer for one Elijah Whaanga,  a man with 20 odd convictions as an adult, two of them  “strikes” for aggravated robbery.

 And of course there was the supposedly neutral  presenter, one Lyn Freeman, filling in for Kathryn Ryan, who in all fairness would probably  have done a much better job. As the recently released Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) determination on my complaint about the programme makes clear, while nominally presenting the programme – and supposedly acting as devil’s advocate :

“…the presenter appeared to largely adopt the position of the interviewees without any real challenge….[her questions] were insufficient to provide balance on the topic under discussion, especially considering the broadcast involved two people strongly opposed to  the law” (at para. [25])

The programme began with a major  inaccuracy: that persons on their third strike “had no possibility of parole”, when in  fact  the “no parole at strike three” provision  will  not apply if the Judge finds it to be “manifestly unjust” in the circumstances of a particular case. The insertion of this proviso occurred after Judith Collins took over negotiation of the contents of the 3S  law from then Justice Minister Simon Power, and the Nats stopped playing games.

It is an important qualification – and gives the lie to the oft repeated claim that the law removes judicial discretion.  ACT readily agreed to this provisio being included. Radio New Zealand simply ignored its existence in Freeman’s introduction. Things got much worse from that point on.

Throughout the discussion, Elijah Whaanga, the second strike aggravated robber whose lawyer was a panelist, was referred to constantly  as “Elijah” and “a playground bully ”, presumably because his second strike aggravated robbery was of a skateboard and a hat. What wasn’t  mentioned was that the robbery occurred  in the street not a playground; that the victim was “only” robbed of a skateboard and a hat because he had no money; and that in Whaanga’s first strike – also an aggravated robbery in the street – the victim had all his money taken, and his head  kicked in.

As the BSA puts it in its decision:

“The offender on his second strike…was referred to throughout the discussion and  used as an example of the type of people  targeted by the law , without balancing comment to challenge this…Given the participants strongly held views that the law operated in a way that was unjust and unfair, and out of proportion to the crime committed, there was a clear requirement of the broadcaster to ensure the discussion was balanced” [paras. 19 -20]

The BSA concluded that the programme was one to which the “balance” standard applied,  that  RNZ “…did not include sufficient balance on the issue”, and therefore upheld the  first limb of  my complaint.


My second complaint was about the many inaccuracies the programme contained, none of them corrected or challenged by the presenter.  I identified a lengthy list of statements – mostly by Professor Pratt  – (see para. [37] of the determination)  which were inaccurate or misleading.

The BSA found that the programme was misleading in two crucial respects: firstly by its  many completely inaccurate comparisions with California’s “three strikes” law; the second  was the way “playground bully” Elijah Whaanga was “portrayed and used as an example of the type of criminals (sic.)  targeted by the law “ (See para. [43] of the BSA decision).

The first  point  is of course indeed  crucial. From the outset, opponents of 3S have attempted to use the indisputable   excesses of the law in California as it was originally enacted   as a reason not to enact  a law with the same name here.

In 2007, Garth McVicar and I went to California specifically to find out whether the “life for stealing a chocolate bar” stories were true (we never verified  that one, although there were others which were clearly unacceptable and unjust) and if so, to work out how to draft our  3S law so  injustices like them  couldn’t happen here.

California recently modified its law to make it much more like ours: no more “technical felonies”, and much more prosecutorial and  judicial discretion. Rather than make those points, Freeman talked about California “backing away” from 3S, and rhetorically asked “What does that tell you? ” Professor Pratt obliging leapt on his soapbox and gave his version of what the changes in California meant, untroubled by any dissenting voice.

The BSA was perhaps  harshest on this point, saying:

“…comparing the legislation in this manner, without any countering views, and in particular the presenter’s unequivocal statement that California had started to ‘back away’  from the legislation, would have misled listeners as to the nature of New Zealand’s ‘three strikes’ law  and any comparison with California.” (see para. [42] )

The BSA concluded its decision on the balance and accuracy complaints thus:

“The programme omitted any alternative voice to counteract the one sided statements  made by the panelists, and the presenter failed to adequately challenge those statements. Compounding this, the panelists also made statements which created a misleading impression in the absence of any balancing comment.” (See para. [49] )

As I did on the morning  I heard this travesty of journalism unfolding, I have offered to  appear as “balance” for any future programme on 3S. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be getting a call, but at least after receiving  a spanking from the BSA like this one, they might be a bit more careful next time.

Well done to David for getting a successful ruling, and hopefully Radio NZ will be more balanced in future on this topic.

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