Hard News by Russell Brown


Closing off a complaint

You might recall that on April 19 and 20 this year, RNZ published and broadcast a series of reports – beginning with this one – that claimed the government had not followed Ministry of Health advice to end the MIQ system in November 2021.

The coverage was based on a misleading interpretation of an internal memo, which assuredly did not call for MIQ to be ended in November, and it repeatedly omitted key events and details in pursuing its case.

I was critical of this reporting on social media and was eventually approached by RNZ to submit a complaint via its formal complaints process. As my subsequent letter indicates, I wasn't wild about the required format, but I did my best.

RNZ's response missed the formal 20-day deadline and no extension was requested, but it did eventually arrive. The response was confusing, didn't seem to reflect the actual nature of the memo and made some strange claims, including that the memo meant MIQ was in breach of the law from the date the memo was sent.

I was advised to take to the complaint to the Media Council if I was not satisified with this response. But by that time I was very busy with work – and then I was knocked off my bike and I was injured and not in any position to write up a fresh complaint to the Media Council.

But I do want to close off this thing, so I've decided to just publish the complaint and the response here. I know there are other complaints, probably considerably more adept than mine, whose authors have been in a position to forward them to the Media Council and possibly the Broadcasting Standards Authority too.

The Complaint

To whom it may concern:

I was invited by John Edens to submit my critcisms of the reporting and interviews conducted by RNZ on April 19 and 20 2022 and following days regarding the reporting of the  internal memo about the future of the MIQ system circulated among Ministry of Health officials last November. I had expressed these criticisms on social media and had not intended to formally complain about a breach of broadcasting standards.

My preference would still be for this to simply be an editorial complaint,  but the format of RNZ’s complaints process obliges me to refer to standards. I have some difficulty separating the the audio and text in question – the reporting was clearly of a piece – and have consequently submitted this same complaint with reference to the BSA standards of accuracy and balance and the Media Council standard of Accuracy, fairness and balance.

The memo in itself was newsworthy and what I gather were the ministry’s attempts to frustrate its release under OIA are lamentable. But RNZ’s reporting of the memo’s contents was misleading and inaccurate.

An initial report by Katie Todd on April 19 referred to “the revelation that the director-general and the director of health had signed off on advice to phase out MIQ in November last year” and implied that 40,000 inbound travellers might have been spared MIQ had the government accepted this advice. This would appear to be number of border entries between November 12, the date of the memo, and March 1, the date when the phase-out of MIQ began.

This is simply not what the memo says. No sensible reading of it could take the meaning that the ministry’s advice was for the instant end of MIQ. There was, apart from anything else, no system to replace it as the primary means of border control. The Revised Public Health Risk Assessment the officials recommend did not exist. The memo explicitly recognises this and includes a list of nine “policy and implementations and recommendations that need to be worked through”. It further recommends that the Ministry of Health be asked to coordinate with other Crown agencies to develop policy, clarify legal implications and develop “a detailed transitional plan” for Cabinet.

What the report does not say is that on November 24, the government did in fact publicly announce the phasing out of MIQ from January 16, 2022. This is an extraordinary omisssion. The announcement came only two days after the receipt of the formal advice from Dr Bloomfield to Minister Hipkins – which is logically the first opportunity the government would have had to respond to the advice. RNZ itself reported the news on the same day, under the headline ‘Covid-19: Major MIQ changes from early next year’.

The formal advice was even clearer that the officials were not proposing an immediate end to MIQ.  It said the ministry sought legal and public heath advice on a "considered transition" away from MIQ as the border default – and at the same time, reaffirmed the legal basis for MIQ to continue.

The report also neglects to mention that the original January 16 phase-out was postponed on December 24 in response to the threat of the Omicron variant. This, too, was a public announcement and the decision to postpone was made with the overwhelming support of Parliamentary parties.

The effect of the report was to give a highly misleading account of the chain of events.

A report the following day on Morning Report was even worse. It claimed that: “Up to 40,000 people could have skipped MIQ from November last year if the Government had followed top health advice.” Again, there is no evidence at all that the officials recommended ending MIQ that month. They clearly and explicitly did not. There is also no evidence that the government did not follow the advice, as the script for the piece claims. Indeed, in naming a phase-out date only two days after Minister Hipkins received the advice from Dr Bloomfield, it seems to have acted with some alacrity.

There was some attempt at balance later in the programme with an interview with the Deputy Prime Minister. But the introduction to the interview again stated the nonsensical “40,000 New Zealanders” figure, a number which cannot be arrived at by any reasonable reading of the source memo. The text accompanying the interview on RNZ’s website said that “The Acting Prime Minister says Omicron held up an end to MIQ recommended last year.” It did not need to be up to the DPM to say so: the postponement and the reasons for it were both public. Again, RNZ itself reported on them.

The same, false claim that “Up to 40,000 people could have skipped MIQ from November last year if the government had paid attention to top health officials” appears in another RNZ report by Tessa Guest on the same day. Like the previous reports, this one omitted any mention of the the November announcement or the December postponement. Instead, it simply says “the system wasn't abandoned until almost four months later, causing stress for thousands of New Zealanders vying to come home for summer.”

Another report by Katie Todd that evening focused on the plight of pregnant women who had been unable to get MIQ places in December and claimed that “an internal Ministry of Health memo from November, revealed yesterday by RNZ, that shows the Director General of Health and Director of Public Health agreed it was time to shift to home isolation.” Again, the memo, which at that point had not been received by the government, did not propose ending MIQ in November.

This is not a failure by one reporter, it is an editorial failure on the part of RNZ. The reporting of this memo misstated its meaning, did not include key lines from the memo which would have made its meaning clear and omitted key events in the public timeline. It was inaccurate and misleading.


Russell Brown

The Response

Tēnā koe Russell

I write in response to your formal complaint regarding the following items:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/465510/miq-not-justified-beyond-november-health- officials-told-govt-last-year

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018838691/top-doctors- signed-off-advice-on-ending-miq-in-november

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018838769/miq-ending- delay-justified-grant-robertson

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018838761/covid-19-miq- returnees-want-compensation

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/465597/miq-assessment-adds-insult-to-injury-for- women-forced-to-give-birth-abroad

which were published on April 19 and 20, 2022.

RNZ has received more than one complaint regarding our coverage of the changes to the government's Managed Isolation Quarantine (MIQ) policies and this reply addresses all the standards issues which have been raised in those complaints.

At the outset, RNZ achnowledges that you were concerned about aspects of these stories but cannot agree with the gist of the complaints received. The coverage of the story which broke on April 19 followed that of the classic news cycle of a significant story. Not every element of every perspective was contained in the first story which ran on Checkpoint on April 19 and published on our website. This was partly because the Ministry of Health (MoH) had not responded by the deadline requested of them, but once their material was provided it was included in an update to the online story on the same day. Once reaction had been received from the New Zealand government via statements from Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, that material was covered on April 19 and statements from the acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson were covered the following day.

The Genesis of the story

In response to an OIA request sometime earlier, the MoH refused to release an internal memo to the MoH Director General, Dr Ashley Bloomfield from the Director of Public Health, Dr Caroline McElnay.

The gist of this memo was that it sought Dr Bloomfield's agreement to an updated Public Health Risk Assessment that considered the risk posed by international arrivals transmitting Covid-19 was no longer higher than the domestic transmission risk of Covid 19. The reason this is so important is that the imposition of MIQ restraints could no longer be justified under the Public Health Response Act and was, on the face of it, breaking the law to allow MIQ facilities to continue operating. Dr Bloomfield agreed with this assessment on November 15 and further agreed that the effect of this new assessment would be that managed isolation for returnees would no longer be justified on public health grounds as the default for people travelling to New Zealand. The memo posited that a period of home isolation was considered a more proportionate management measure to which Dr Bloomfield also agreed. The memo also called for advice to be given to government and Dr Bloomfield agreed to this course of action.

At that stage, RNZ was somewhat blindsided as the further advice to the Minister Chris Hipkins on 22 November was not included in the OIA release, when the MoH had been asked to provide "...any correspondence between the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister's Office and the office of Chris Hipkins that discusses allowing international arrivals to return to self isolate in the community prior to Christmas". Had RNZ had the benefit of receiving a copy of the November 22 advice to the Minister then that further information could have been included in the articles but that information was not supplied.

The Articles

The first article:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/465510/miq-not-justified-beyond-november-health- officials-told-govt-last-year

began with a headline “MIQ not justified beyond November, health officials told government last year” was published on April 19. It states that top health officials agreed in November last year that managed isolation quarantine (MIQ) was “no longer justified" for most returnees according to a document the MoH tried to keep secret. The MoH refused to release the document and only released it after an appeal to the ombudsman by requestees. The article goes on to outline how Dr McElnay wrote to Dr Bloomfield and agreement was reached that the risk posed by international arrivals is no longer higher than that of domestic transmission risk of Covid-19. Dr Bloomfield concurred and agreed to brief Mr Hipkins, but that briefing was not supplied as a part of the original OIA response from the MoH. The article then noted that the government might need to speed up its then plan for a phased easing of border restrictions in the first quarter of 2022 and provided a comment from Waikato law professor Al Gillespie noting that the Public Health Response Act requires responses to be proportionate and suggesting that the government had a question to answer as to why they continued with a such a disproportionate response. This is followed by comments from Martin Newell from Grounded Kiwis.

The article then gave quite some space to the the statement issued by Covid-19 response Minister Chris Hipkins who outlined that the public health risk at the border had changed but there was still a need to transition from managed isolation to a new approach and had to be considered and managed alongside implementation of the Covid-19 protection framework and “Reconnecting New Zealand”. He noted that the timing of the border reopening allowed "us the chance to get our vaccination and booster rates up and that he had a huge impact on our management of the current Omicrcon outbreak." This was followed by supportive comments from epidemiologist Michael Baker and a MoH statement received also was quoted at length in the article, noting that they MIQ system played an important role during December and January 2022 and managing the arrival of increasing number of border cases with Omicron, thereby delaying community transmission and allowing vaccination levels to increase in the population.

The MoH also noted that the transition from managed isolation needed to be managed carefully and safely for a period of time to minimise the impact on the health system, vulnerable communities and allow for increased support available for people isolating at home.

RNZ notes that everything recorded in this article was factual and accurate and given the range of opinions canvassed and statements published, no questions of balance arise on this occasion. While some complainants have made different inferences from what was published in this article, they remain clearly that, i.e. inferences and not implications which might have been contained in the wording of what was published.

RNZ notes that the second item published on our website on April 19 was the text accompanying the audio of the item which was broadcast on the Checkpoint programme:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018838691/top-doctors- signed-off-advice-on-ending-miq-in-november

That article recorded that the Covid Minister’s office noted that the memo received by the Minister's office on November 16, 2021, indicating that MIQ should be ended as it was no longer justified was followed on November 23 by further ministry advice that it had sought from Professor Anthony Blakely and Professor Philip Hill who having reviewed initial advice provided the professional and independent opinion. The Minister noted that the initial memo of November 16 was not “the final advice on this topic".

Readers and listeners would have therefore been aware that the story was a developing one and there were further perspectives bearing on the advice by Ministry officials that managed MIQ facilities could no longer be justified for most returnees. The acting Prime Minister was interviewed on Morning Report the following day on April 20 and provided comment on criticism that the government had waited until February to ditch MIQ isolation even though it had been flagged to government in November 2021 that it was no longer justified, see:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018838769/miq-ending- delay-justified-grant-robertson

It was reported in the April 20 story on our website that Mr Robertson stated that the "government-held back when the new variants spread wildly overseas” and that a “delayed end to MIQ bought time to lift vaccination rates”. A link to the full audio of that interview is available in that story as well. Again no issues of balance arise as the government was able to put its perspective on what had been significant advice it received in November 2021. A number of articles referred to the fact that it took 31⁄2 months, almost 40,000 MIQ stays and seven voucher lotteries before incoming travellers could enter freely. These were measures imposed between the government being advised that MIQ facilities could be no longer justified under the law up to the point when incoming travellers could enter the country freely and enter self-isolation.

RNZ observes that while the spread of Omicron was cited as a reason to delay the cessation of MIQ facilites, there is no published record of the MoH conducting a fresh Public Health Risk Assessment to indicate that contiuned operation of MIQ’s could be justified as a proportionate reponse under the Public Health Response Act.

It was clear from the range of coverage provided by RNZ that the MoH recognised in November 2021 that MIQ’s could no longer be justified and were on the face of it breaking the law, that the MoH did not recommend an immediate cessation of MIQ facilities but did recommend that a transition to self isolation as the "default" mechanism required management and some coordination with other ministries. RNZ has not denied that, indeed we reported that, but also pointed out that in the time it took from the receipt of the initial advice that the imposition of MIQ facilities was on the face of it ultra vires of the Public Health Response Act, that up to a further 40,000 MIQ stays had occurred, seven voucher lotteries had been conducted and some 14 weeks had elapsed. We also covered the fact that there had been an Omicron outbreak by dint of comments from the Covid 19 response Mr Chris Hipkins, and comments by Grant Robertson.

RNZ also covered the perspectives of a pregnant woman who had to give birth overseas because she could not get home in time and others, such as Grounded Kiwis and another gentleman who could not get home as an example of those that Grounded Kiwis represented. It is entirely legitimate to include the comments and opinions of those affected by a government policy when reporting a government policy.

For some, this coverage appears critical of the government policy of the day bearing on how the change to the MIQ policy was implemented. As noted, that is the nature of news reporting which details events that have occurred and the government's approach to such events. None of this amounts to a breach of the balance standard which calls for a range of perspectives to be reported over the period of current interest in a topic, and there is nothing which RNZ has reported which was inaccurate. For these reasons, RNZ could not take any of the complaints further and they were not upheld.

You have a right, if you wish to exercise it, to refer the outcome of your complaint for review to the Media Council, at www.mediacouncil.org.nz. You must do so within 10 working days, otherwise the Council may not accept your referral.

It remains for me to thank you for bringing this matter to our attention and for giving us the opportunity to respond to your concerns.

Nāku, nā

George Bignell Complaints Coordinator

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