Hard News by Russell Brown

Corngate revisited

On Friday afternoon, in the hours after the Broadcasting Standards Authority released its decision on complaints over TV3's so-called "Corngate" special, the news angle you heard depended greatly on what radio station you were listening to.

While National Radio was reporting that the BSA had upheld several of the complaints against TV3 (from the Prime Minister's office, the Life Sciences Network and individual citizens) and Newstalk ZB was telling its listeners TV3 had been "rapped over the knuckles" and that the BSA had "on most counts" agreed with the complainants, Canwest radio stations were giving every impression that TV3 had been vindicated.

Canwest is also, of course, the owner of TV3. The usual opponents of foreign cross-media ownership do not appear to have been jumping up and down about what might be seen as a toeing of the company line.

Before I go further, I want to note that the timing of this story, and the way in which it was mounted was the undoing of a number of journalists - myself included. It took me several tries to unwind Hard News from the rather rash statements I made in the first 48 hours of the story, and I hosted what I now regard as a fairly poor Mediawatch programme that week. I would hope to do better next time, and I would also hope I'm not the only one feeling that way.

I'm not looking here at the government's role in this, largely because its reckoning will come in the form of the select committee inquiry into the original allegations.

So what did the BSA actually say? Well, the full decision is here on Scoop and I think it's a literate and nuanced document. By all means, read the whole thing. But BSA decisions, because of their structure, can take some wading through. So here's what I think.

Both TV3 and Seeds of Distrust author Nicky Hager himself have welcomed the fact that the BSA did not find fault with the facts of the story. This is more than a little disingenuous. What the BSA did - as it almost always does in such cases - was decline to determine the scientific facts.

[377] The Authority notes TV3's comment as to whether the seed was or was not contaminated, when it wrote in response to the complaints that the item was inaccurate in describing the corn as contaminated:

It is not the function of this Committee to determine whether the corn had been genetically modified. This Committee lacks the expertise to determine such an issue. It appears that scientists, who are experts in this area, cannot themselves agree on whether the tests confirm that the corn was genetically modified.

In other words, TV3 wasn't prepared to unequivocally state that GM corn was present in responding to the complaints, so it's a bit rich to expect the BSA to do:

[378] The Authority is similarly unable to determine those aspects of the accuracy complaint. It notes from recent discussions in Parliament that the matter is apparently yet to be resolved. It accepts that the early tests which were conducted suggested that GM material was present but this finding was not confirmed by later tests. It also accepts the scientific view that there was an acceptable confidence level which allowed the Minister for the Environment (Hon Marian Hobbs) to state when interviewed on 3 News on 11 July:

From the testing and retesting I've been able to confidently say there was none planted, there was none there.

What the authority did do was to uphold TV3's right to conduct a demanding and aggressive interview without tipping off the Prime Minister in advance as to its specific content. Complaints about the interview per se were not upheld:

[319] In sum, the Authority considers that both the interviewer and the Prime Minister, who is an experienced interviewee, were challenging in their questions and comments, and that the Prime Minister was not treated unfairly given the nature of the interview. The Authority accepts that not all members of the public support an aggressive interviewing style, but aggression per se does not constitute a breach of the requirement for fairness.

But, on the other hand, the authority takes the view that there was a public interest justification for the story and the interview, but believes that the Prime Minister had a right to know when she was interviewed what was specifically being alleged against her, and by whom:

[325] The Authority upholds the complaint that the fairness requirement in Standard 6 was breached on the grounds that the presentation of the interview was unfair because the Prime Minister was not advised of the source of the specific allegations. It was also unfair that the Prime Minister was not told that the person who advanced the allegations had presented his conclusions in the same programme as the interview with the Prime Minister, but before her.

But I think it's the following part of the decision that gets to the nub of the matter. The authority again endorses the right of the broadcaster to conduct a tough interview in the public interest. But it believes that tough questions ought also to have been asked of the source of the allegations. Interestingly, the decision specifically harks back to the Holmes' show's infamous "brain drain" story - a case in which the broadcaster had an exclusive deal with an interview subject (in that case, the hapless Richard Poole) to whom it failed to apply sufficient public scrutiny.

[396] The Authority notes that it is not considering again the aggressive style said to be adopted by the interviewer when questioning the Prime Minister. That is a matter of fairness and the Authority has discussed and declined to uphold that matter in its review of Standard 6. Rather, it is now determining the aspect that the interviewer adopted different approaches when interviewing Mr Hager and the Prime Minister and, in doing so, breached the requirement in Standard 5 for objectivity and impartiality. The Authority notes the absence of the field tape of the interview with Mr Hager and records that it probably would have been useful in determining this aspect of the complaints.

[399] The Authority considers that reasoning should also apply to Mr Hager. As Mr Wierda pointed out as an aspect of his Standard 4 complaint, Mr Hager is a skilled publicist and has considerable expertise in television. In addition, while not standing for political office, Mr Hager published his book during an election campaign. In the Authority's opinion, he should have been exposed to similarly robust questioning in the interests of impartiality. Instead, in the 3 News Special and subsequent programmes submitted by the broadcaster as being in the period of current interest, Mr Hager was treated in either a deferential or neutral manner in the segments of the interview which were broadcast.

[400] The Authority accepts the validity of TV3's view as to its responsibility to make public those issues which are of public interest. Nonetheless, it also has an obligation in that type of situation to ask difficult questions on behalf of the public, which, the Authority finds, it failed to do in its questioning of Mr Hager.

It really couldn't be more clear than that. In sizing up the interviews, the BSA had asked for the "field tapes" containing the full interviews with both Clark and Hager:

[393] … TV3 provided the former which showed that the interview was approximately seven minutes longer than the interview which was broadcast. There were about four minutes of scene setting, before any part of the interview was screened, in which the interviewer raised the issues and asked some questions about the labelling of GM content on food. Then there is about a three minute sequence in the middle of the interview which was not broadcast. The focus during this segment is on ERMA's reports to the Minister about specific events in late 2000 and early 2001. The format and style of the segments not broadcast were consistent with the substantial segments of the studio interview which were broadcast.

[394] TV3 was unable to provide the full tape of the interview with Mr Hager, advising:

The field tapes of the interview with Mr Hager were not preserved and have been reused in accordance with normal procedure.

[395] The Authority is astounded at TV3's actions. In view of the way TV3 promoted the item, and the 300 emails and 200 calls to the switchboard TV3 claimed to have had, the broadcaster must have suspected that it could have a substantial impact on the election campaign. Given that reaction and the publicity the interview did in fact generate, it would have been reasonable for TV3 to expect a formal complaint. The Authority is unable to view the field tape with Mr Hager and can, therefore, make no conclusions on the basis of the Hager field tape.

This is a very poor look for an organisation seeking to accuse somebody else of a cover-up, and the authority, in my view, had every right to be "astounded".

Perhaps there was nothing embarrassing or compromising on the raw tape of the Hager interview. The point is, we don't get to know, because TV3 destroyed the evidence. Yes, field tapes are recorded over as a matter of course. But TV3 also has a detailed logging system under which potentially controversial content on field tapes is kept. They can hardly claim they didn't know that this interview wasn't going to be controversial.

The lingering impression is that TV3 agreed too readily to a confidential, exclusive deal that hampered its ability to do the story justice by scrutinising all sides. The irony is that the resulting furore probably had the net effect of damaging the credibility of the book itself, which, whatever view you take of its more incendiary conclusions, is about things that really happened.

I hope that any punishment applied to TV3 is kept light - for the BSA to exercise its ultimate sanction of removing the station from air for all or part of a day would be counterproductive. After all, democracy does depend on the media's ability to write and screen stories like this. So, by all means, keep doing the hard stories. Just do them better in future.