‘Hysterically laughing’: BSA finds radio host ‘ridiculed’ teen activist

Newstalk ZB drive host Heather du Plessis-Allan was found to have ‘ridiculed’ the 16-year-old activist. Photo / NZME

Action by NZME to uphold a complaint about an interview by Heather du Plessis-Allan in which she “ridiculed” a young climate activist was correct, the Broadcasting Standards Authority has found.

In the Newstalk ZB radio interview in September last year, du Plessis-Allan “hysterically” laughed at and teased the interviewee Izzy Cook, a 16-year-old School Strike 4 Climate organiser.

The interview made international headlines in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The BSA accepted NZME’s action in upholding the complaint directly and did not uphold a complaint that the response was insufficient.

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While talking about the climate effects of unnecessary air travel and her organisation’s demand to restrict it, Cook admitted to du Plessis-Allan she had recently taken a trip to Fiji with her family.

“Don’t you care about the climate?,” du Plessis-Allan replied. “Come on, mate. Are you serious?” she added between bouts of laughter.

After the interview, du Plessis-Allan read out messages from listeners, some stating she had bullied the interviewee, and others finding it a “great interview” for exposing the interviewee’s “hypocrisy”.

Nick Wilson complained to the authority, alleging the interview breached the fairness standard, while Alisdair Newton-Wade further alleged the interview breached the standards for children’s interests, offensive and disturbing content, and discrimination and denigration.

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New Zealand Media and Entertainment [NZME], the owner of Newstalk ZB and also the Herald, upheld the complaint directly, acknowledging the potential embarrassment the interview caused, but denying it amounted to bullying.

“Although [the interviewee] is a young person, as organiser and spokesperson of the School Strike for Climate protest it is to be expected she would be more accustomed than other persons of the same age to speaking in public and, by extension, giving media interviews,” the media organisation said.

“Notwithstanding these factors, ‘In view of [the interviewee’s] age and potential vulnerability, and having regard to the above guidelines, both the host and Newstalk ZB acknowledge the embarrassment that the segment may have caused the interviewee, and we uphold [the] complaint. We apologise to [the interviewee] for any harm this may have caused her.”

NZME confirmed the company and du Plessis-Allan had apologised to Cook.

The authority said there were a number of mitigating factors, such as the fact Cook had appeared on the show before and presumably knew what to expect, and that she had voluntarily placed herself in the position of a public figure lobbying for a particular cause.

But there still needed to be consideration given to her age, it said.

“Despite the interviewee’s role as a climate activist, which meant she necessarily put herself in the public eye and sought publicity to an extent, given her youth she was nevertheless likely to be more vulnerable and less experienced with dealing with this type of interview and strong critique.”

“Du Plessis-Allan’s tone was dismissive and condescending throughout the interview, and she spoke over the interviewee multiple times. There was an evident power imbalance, in our view”.

The questions asked and the points being made could have been achieved without the prolonged, over-the-top laughter, the authority said.

In the circumstances, the BSA declined to take further action, believing NZME’s response was adequate.

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“Additionally, we note that some of the coverage reacting to the broadcast, including a lengthy piece by the interviewee’s mother, gave an effective platform in the interviewee’s defence.”

The complaints were not upheld.

An NZME spokesperson said the company had no further comment.

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