New Zealand Law Society - Judicial accountability item found in public interest

Judicial accountability item found in public interest

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The Broadcasting Standards Authority has dismissed a complaint about an item on MediaWorks' Story programme which discussed the accountability of judges in New Zealand.

In Newfield and MediaWorks TV Ltd 2016-093 (17 March 2017), the item complained about referred to a number of high profile criminal judgments by a District Court Judge that were overturned on appeal. The item looked at the broader question of how judges are held to account in New Zealand, and also compared the systems in New Zealand, Switzerland and the United States for the appointment, term and removal of judges.

The complainant said the item placed undue emphasis on the decisions of the featured Judge, failed to compare New Zealand with countries that had similar judicial systems (such as Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, and failed to refer to the judicial complaints service. He complained that this lack of information gave "a false impression of judicial tenure and discipline in New Zealand".

The complainant also complained that one of the presenters suggested the named Judge should be sacked, and used a "throat-cutting gesture" when making this comment.

In response, MediaWorks submitted that the item presented a range of significant points of view and, while the Judge featured was unable to comment on their own cases, comments were also sought from the Chief Justice and the Attorney-General, who refused these requests.

It its decision the BSA says MediaWorks has accepted, "and we agree", that the performance and accountability of judges in New Zealand, particularly in relation to sentencing and the recent decisions of the named Judge, is a controversial issue of public importance which has generated ongoing public debate and conflicting opinion, as well as considerable media coverage.

The discussion in this item therefore triggered the requirements of the balance standard as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

The BSA says the accountability of New Zealand's judiciary is an issue of public interest, and the item was a valuable exercise of the broadcaster's right to freedom of expression.

"Our media have an important role to play in investigating and highlighting issues about those who hold public office and whose decisions directly impact the country and the community. In this context we are satisfied that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to provide balancing viewpoints."

The BSA says the complainant’s view that a more appropriate comparison could be made between New Zealand and, for example, the UK, Australia or Canada, is understandable.

"However, while the jurisdictions of Switzerland and the United States may not be directly comparable to New Zealand’s judicial system, we do not find that the broadcaster’s use of these countries as an example resulted in an unbalanced (or inaccurate) broadcast. This segment gave viewers a general sense of where New Zealand sits internationally in relation to the appointment, term and removal of judges and audiences would not have been misinformed, in the context of a general example, by the omission of references to other countries."

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