9 Apr 2024

Watchdog says ZB comments 'misleading and discriminatory' 

From Mediawatch, 3:05 pm on 9 April 2024

Breaches of the broadcasting standard for discrimination and denigration are rare in news media - but hosts on just one network have now done it three times in the past four years. 

Kate Hawkesby of Newstalk ZB

Kate Hawkesby Photo: NZME

This week the broadcasting watchdog fined NZME for ‘misleading remarks’ by Kate Hawkesby, who told Newstalk ZB listeners Māori and Pacific patients were being “moved to the top of the very lengthy hospital waiting lists” due to their ethnicity.

The decision relates to Hawkesby’s Early Edition show on 19 June 2023 in which Hawkesby discussed Te Whatu Ora’s ‘Equity Adjustor Score.’

This places Auckland patients on the non-urgent surgical waitlist balancing five factors: clinical priority, time spent waiting, location, deprivation level and ethnicity.

Its use had been revealed by Newstalk ZB’s veteran political reporter Barry Soper and political editor Jason Walls in an exclusive story reported prominently by ZB that day. 

The scoop also filled the front page of its stablemate the New Zealand Herald under the heading: 'Surgeons express unease at new scoring tool, describing it as ethically challenging'.

The concerns of the unnamed Auckland surgeons kicked off a political debate about ‘race-based healthcare’.

The same day, the National Party declared “Race Has No Place In Surgical Decisions” and ACT launched a campaign to “end race-based waitlists.”

“Māori and Pacific Islanders waiting for surgery are being moved to the top of the very lengthy hospital waiting lists,” Kate Hawkesby told her listeners shortly after the news broke.  

She was echoing the news story on the Newstalk ZB website under the headline: ‘Auckland surgeons are being dictated to on ethnicity grounds over who should go under the knife first’.

The New Zealand Herald's front page reveals the Auckland surgery waiting list policy on Monday.

The New Zealand Herald's front page reveals the Auckland surgery waiting list policy on Monday. Photo: New Zealand Herald

Early risers hearing that Māori and Pacific patients were “getting to the front of the surgery queue” fired off angry text messages which Hawkesby read out on air.

“The person who leaked the medical apartheid should get a medal. What else is this racist government hiding in other areas?” said one message that Hawkesby read out on air within minutes of the news breaking.  

“Preposterous to have an apartheid system based on race. This is New Zealand democracy dismantled,” said another. 

The BSA found Hawkesby  - no longer on the air on ZB - “gave the misleading impression ethnicity was the only, or the key factor - and Māori and Pacific patients would be given immediate precedence on the surgical waitlist.” 

Te Whatu Ora has stated that in reality, patients are first prioritised according to clinical need, with the equity tool then taking account of a variety of factors to help determine the order in which they will be booked for surgery.

“Hawkesby’s comments played into the stereotype that Māori and Pacific peoples disproportionately take up resources and are given undeserved special treatment in Aotearoa New Zealand’s society, at the expense of other ethnicities. While not said explicitly, in our view, the exaggerated and misleading nature of Hawkesby’s comments had the effect of evoking this type of prejudicial bias,” the BSA said. 

Newstalk ZB's owner NZME initially rejected an audience member's complaints about the segment on the grounds of accuracy and denigration. It said the accuracy standard did not apply as  Hawkesby's comments were "her analysis of an emerging news story" rather than a statement of fact. 

It noted that another of its news properties, The New Zealand Herald, had published a more detailed story on the subject that day, while also arguing Hawkesby's statements did not meet that threshold of denigration. 

The BSA did not accept those arguments. It ordered NZME to air a statement summarising the decision within one month - and has also taken the rare step of ordering the company to pay the Crown costs of $1,500.

“The conduct was serious, featuring repeated and sustained inaccurate descriptions over the course of a one-hour broadcast . . .  embedding negative stereotypes about Māori and Pacific peoples. This was despite accurate information being to hand,” the BSA concluded. 

Those consequences were also imposed over NZME's objections. After being notified that the BSA would be ruling against it, NZME argued that having to broadcast an apology was unnecessary and "could draw further negative attention" to the Equity Adjustor Score which Hawkesby had strongly criticised in her show.

To protect freedom of expression, there is a very high bar for the ‘discrimination and denigration’ standard in the Code of Broadcasting Standards. 

The last broadcaster to fall foul of it was back in 2019 was also on Newstalk ZB when Drive host Heather Du Plessis Allan declared “the Pacific Islands are leeches on us.” 

She doubled down on it the next day when she was criticised for that. 

And earlier this year, NZME itself upheld a complaint against Barry Soper over pre-election comments he made last August which a complainant said was “bigoted and discriminatory language   . . against one of the most marginalised groups in New Zealand society - those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Soper- in conversation with Heather Du Plessis Allan described Green policy as “loony” and said “you’d have to be on the spectrum” to vote for Te Pāti Māori. 

“Many of their policies are blatantly racist. And I don't think racism has a place in this country. Many of the policies of the greens are loony. And that's why it would be called the coalition of chaos on the left by the National Party,” he said.  

About one in seven voters cast a vote for those two parties in the end.

“While no malice was intended, the comment could have the effect of reinforcing harmful stereotypes or stigma faced by this section - or sections - of the community,” NZME told the BSA. 

NZME also told the BSA Barry Soper and Heather du Plessis-Allan had both been “given feedback and counselled” on “fully considering the potential offence and impact of such comments.”

NZME acknowledging the potential harm and counselling staff “to avoid similar conduct” satisfied the BSA. 

It also noted NZME’s Chief Radio Officer was also “made aware of the outcome of the complaint.”

Chief Radio Officer Jason Winstanley is in a unique situation - two of the very few broadcasters ever sanctioned for breaching the standard for denigration and discrimination are a married couple on air most weekdays airing their political opinions to each other.