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NZME admits it misled listeners by buying into Trump’s ridiculous election fraud claims – but BSA somehow finds broadcasting standards not breached

By Steven | July 1, 2021

Something is going wrong here.

On NewsTalk ZB’s overnight talkback show, host Bruce Russell endorsed Trump’s claim that there was electoral fraud in Georgia, playing clips from people who said things like “there was fraud in Georgia’s election, we can prove it with data”. Russell concluded: “I think it speaks for itself, receiving 75 percent or more votes for one candidate in a precinct is historically abnormal.”

He also said, of Trump’s call to Georgia’s Secretary of State to persuade him to overturn the election result: “In fact, what Trump was doing was talking about the votes that had been given to Biden, and wanting them because they were Trump votes, to be credited to him.” There seems little doubt that Russell was saying Trump was right about this.

Someone brought a broadcasting complaint, arguing this breached standards of balance and fairness.

NZME admitted:

We recognise that there has been no concrete evidence presented by Trump or his allies to substantiate their claims of electoral fraud and that Brad Raffensperger’s office has launched a probe into whether Trump had violated electoral law during this call. The Content Director has spoken to the host about these matters.

The BSA did not uphold the complaint.

What’s going on? A mix of things, I think.

First, this isn’t really a fairness complaint. That’s about the treatment of individuals. It’s really more of an accuracy complaint. But the complainant didn’t raise accuracy. I have to say, it’s unlikely she would have succeeded anyway, because the BSA said it was a talkback show where topics and comments came from the host’s perspective and reasonable listeners would realise they were getting opinion.

There’s an element of truth to that. But I worry that  the BSA too readily classes things as opinion that are really assertions of fact. Here the host played clips containing unchallenged assertions of fact that were wrong. He made factual statements, one of them beginning with the words “in fact”. What’s more, there’s no indication in the network’s promotion of this show that listeners are getting opinion from a particular defined perspective. Someone tuning in couldn’t be expected to know where he was coming from.

But okay, listeners know that talkback has a lot of opinion, and this particular discussion contained bits of fact and opinion, so perhaps it’s not off the planet to say it didn’t breach accuracy standards.

What you might expect, though, is a finding that this was unbalanced. It was an attempt to convince listeners to believe in the “facts” presented. The host marshalled selective evidence to do so. He played clips as “proof”. The host clearly took some time over it. The station admits there is no concrete evidence for what he was claiming. Why was this not found to be unbalanced?

The answer lies in the BSA’s approach to balance, especially on talkback. Balance will almost never be found necessary in talkback, even when the host (who surely appears authoritative to listeners, and will certainly be doing his or her best to come off that way) makes claims of fact about controversial issues. That is built into the broadcasting codes, and the BSA’s commentary on them. But it’s also built into the BSA’s approach. In other cases, they have sometimes found that talkback like this doesn’t even amount to a “discussion” of a controversial topic. (Thank goodness this decision doesn’t take that approach).

The BSA found that the station was discussing a controversial issue of public importance. That triggers an obligation to:

… make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

But the BSA found the station didn’t have to do this. In effect, it found that making no effort at all to present the other side was reasonable. It’s not clear that Newstalk presented any evidence of its other coverage that provided the true picture. Nor did the BSA require it. But both agreed that there was a lot of other media coverage of the subject. And that was good enough.

Again, kind of a fair point. I would have hoped that Newstalk would have felt obliged to show the BSA how its recent news coverage on this point was accurate, but the guidelines make it clear that sufficient coverage on other media can be taken into account. I have to say that I’m a bit sceptical that Newstalk listeners would necessarily have tuned into, for example, Radio NZ or read Stuff or the NZ Herald to get accurate information.

Why not insist that talkback hosts on mainstream stations at least nod toward the existence of contrary views when they’re making factual assertions about significant controversies?

If you look at the context of Russell’s quoted remarks, he did say:

… media will tell you that Trump is coercing the Georgia Secretary of State into rigging the election result in his favour. In fact, what Trump was doing was talking about the votes that had been given to Biden, and wanting them because they were Trump votes, to be credited to him.

You could argue that this is at least cluing listeners in to the other point of view. But the BSA did not make that point. It didn’t require it. It seems that even this minimal level of balance is not necessary to meet the balance standard.

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