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Sunde and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1999-243

Members

  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • L M Loates
  • R McLeod
  • J Withers

Complainant

  • Gordon Sunde of Auckland

Dated

20th December 1999

Number

1999-243

Programme

One Network News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Summary

A soccer game between Croatia and Yugoslavia ended in a riot, according to a news item on One Network News broadcast on TV One on 19 August 1999 between 6.007.00pm. The footage which accompanied the item showed baton-wielding police, players and spectators fighting on the soccer field.

Gordon Sunde complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item had been fabricated and was totally misleading. The game, he said, had been played without incident. The video clip shown related to a game which had been played between the same two countries in 1991 and had no relationship to the one being reported. He sought an apology and correction.

TVNZ responded to the complaint informally and advised that a correction would be prepared for broadcast. It explained that the footage had been used by mistake and apologised to Mr Sunde. The correcting statement was broadcast on 31 August. As he was dissatisfied with the action taken by TVNZ and its failure to make a public apology for the error, Mr Sunde referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority upholds the complaint. It orders TVNZ to pay costs to the Crown of $1500.00.

Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

A soccer match between Croatia and Yugoslavia had ended in an "all-out riot" according to an item on One Network News broadcast on TV One on 19 August 1999 between 6.007.00pm. The match was the first between the countries since the end of the Bosnian war, the report continued, and tensions between rival supporters had erupted into violence after forty minutes of play. According to the item, as the fans invaded the pitch, they were met by riot police and the players also joined in until tear gas brought matters under control. Video footage showed the rioting spectators, players and police.

Mr Sunde complained to TVNZ that the report was totally misleading and incorrect. The game, he noted, had correctly been reported as having been a 0-0 draw. However, he continued, there had been no sign of violence or unpleasantness by any players or spectators at the game. The story that a riot occurred was therefore a fabrication by TVNZ, he argued. The video footage accompanying the item was 8 years old and showed a riot which occurred at a game when the two teams had met in Zagreb in 1991. Mr Sunde sought an apology from TVNZ.

TVNZ responded – over a week later – and advised that it would prepare an appropriate on-air statement. It apologised to Mr Sunde.

In his response to TVNZ Mr Sunde wrote that he looked forward to hearing from TVNZ the reasons why the item had been put to air. He asked for an assurance that it would adopt procedures that would ensure such errors would not happen again. He sought a copy of the transcript of the item.

TVNZ responded with a copy of the on-air apology and the original transcript of the item. It explained that the broadcast was the result of a mistake by a news producer which should have been spotted before the item went to air.

Having received the transcript of the "on-air apology", Mr Sunde complained that the statement was not an apology at all. The word sorry did not appear, he noted, and there was no expression of regret. He continued:

Your original story together with the false video clip gave a lengthy description of a riot which never took place.  One would expect the correction and apology to be equally if not more fulsome to at least attempt to be giving the impression of trying to remedy the damage done by your original transmission. Sadly you fail this test.

Your "APOLOGY" is NOT AN APOLOGY.

Mr Sunde said he still awaited an explanation as to why this "botch-up" had happened.

In its further response, TVNZ said that it had complied with broadcasting standards by correcting the error "at the earliest opportunity". It contended that there was quite clearly an implicit apology in its correction. The incident, it advised, had occurred with a young producer who had since been made aware of the need to check and re-check material. TVNZ said it was not required to give any further details surrounding the production error. It advised that Mr Sunde could make a formal complaint and that the same staff member would re-investigate the complaint on its behalf.

Mr Sunde subsequently made a formal complaint to TVNZ. He emphasised that apart from his concerns about a "completely fictitious" story, he was concerned that TVNZ had at no stage expressed any regret, remorse, or apologised. In his view, the apology should be "just as fulsome" as the original "fabrication".

In its response to the formal complaint, TVNZ acknowledged that an error had been made. It was, it said, a lapse which was a major embarrassment to One Network News, but it was satisfied this was a genuine mistake. On this occasion, it continued, there was a misunderstanding and a subsequent mix-up.

TVNZ recognised the error was a serious one but, it said, it was unfair to use the term "fabrication" in relation to the item because that carried an implication that the action was deliberate and sinister. It said it was convinced that was not the case, but agreed that the item showed as news something which was not.

As for the adequacy of the correction, TVNZ reported that the statement read:

Twelve days ago, One Network News ran a story about a soccer match between Yugoslavia and Croatia. We reported it ended in a riot, showing footage of some violent scenes. However, we wish to acknowledge that the recent game was in fact played without incident and file footage of a game played several years ago was mistakenly put to air.

In TVNZ’s view, the statement accurately summarised what took place and acknowledged the error. Noting Mr Sunde’s view that the correction should have been "as fulsome" as the original item, TVNZ reported that its duration of 20 seconds compared to 29 seconds for the original item. It emphasised however that it was not the duration that was important but the fact that the information was corrected.

While no apology was explicit in the correction, TVNZ contended that the acknowledgment of the error had implied regret. It suggested that Mr Sunde had perhaps not recognised the level of embarrassment a correction published in these circumstances caused a broadcaster. It considered its News and Current Affairs Department had acted properly and professionally in undertaking an inquiry and in making a public acknowledgment of the error.

The complaint was assessed under standards G1 and G4 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters:

G1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

G4  To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.

TVNZ acknowledged that standard G1 had been breached. However, as far as standard G4 was concerned, it said it was satisfied the mistake was a genuine one and no sinister connotations could be attached to it. It considered therefore that standard G4 was not relevant. It reported that the News and Current Affairs Department had taken the matter very seriously and had reviewed its procedures to ensure that such an incident did not occur in the future.

Mr Sunde referred the matter to the Authority because he was dissatisfied with the action taken by TVNZ. He repeated his view that the item had been fabricated. The correction, he said, was minimal and totally unsatisfactory.

In its report to the Authority, TVNZ acknowledged that a mistake had been made and that a correction had subsequently been broadcast. It rejected the inference from the correspondence that there was something "sinister" about the screening. It was, it said, simply a misunderstanding over the status of the pictures which had resulted in "a most embarrassing error".

In his final comment, Mr Sunde repeated that the description of the game as ending in a riot with police batons and tear gas being used was a complete fabrication and had no basis in fact. The video shown was 8 years old and completely unrelated to the match which was the subject of the item. When the error was pointed out to TVNZ, he noted that it had admitted the error but had not apologised and had not broadcast footage of the actual game. He continued:

This whole sorry saga I consider an example of totally unsatisfactory irresponsible journalism that has no place on our TV screens.

He suggested that as television was a visual medium, in order to make amends, TVNZ had to broadcast the correct visual coverage of the game.

The Authority’s Findings

The Authority sought additional information from TVNZ before it made its decision on this complaint. It sought clarification as to how the report about a game which was played 8 years ago was presented as relating to the game played that day.

TVNZ’s response was that its satellite news feeds may include material from agency libraries requested by any of their hundreds of subscribers worldwide. What was library material and what was the day’s news was not always clearly marked, it wrote. It continued:

On this occasion the status of the pictures was not clear and some incorrect assumptions may have been made.

Since this incident TVNZ has take steps to tighten its procedure in dealing with the hundreds of satellite tracks that arrive each day.

TVNZ was asked to assess the complaints under standards G7, G19 and G21 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standard G7 requires broadcasters:

G7  To avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting.

The other standards read:

G19  Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed.

G21  Significant errors of fact should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

TVNZ submitted that standard G7 was not appropriate because the phrase "deceptive programme practice" carried a pejorative meaning which implied that the practice referred to was deliberate. Quite clearly, that was not the case here, it argued.

Standard G19, it said, did not seem particularly relevant. The pictures accurately reflected the event depicted. The problem was that the event took place some years ago. TVNZ argued that as the programme was untruthful and inaccurate, it had correctly dealt with the complaint as a breach of standard G1.

TVNZ agreed that standard G21 could be relevant. It noted that although it had broadcast a correction, an earlier one could have been desirable.

The Authority now assesses the complaint under the standards cited.

Standard G1 – truthful and accurate

As TVNZ has acknowledged, there was a clear breach of the standard when a game which was played 8 years ago was represented as being current news. The Authority makes no further comment on this aspect of the complaint.

Standard G4 – dealing justly and fairly

Although the Authority acknowledges that it was unfair to the teams and the players to imply that the game resulted in a riot, it considers the essence of the complaint relates to the process followed by TVNZ which resulted in a misrepresentation of the actual event. Accordingly, it subsumes this aspect under the standards considered below.

Standard G7 – deceptive programme practice

The Authority notes TVNZ’s submission that this standard does not apply because it carries a connotation that is pejorative as it implies that the practice referred to was deliberately deceptive. The Authority’s application of the standard in previous decisions is not based on such an assumption. A deceptive practice is one which misleads viewers. The Authority has found that it is invariably confined to instances of technical trickery which could be either deliberate or inadvertent. In this case, it accepts TVNZ’s assurance that the action was not deliberate, but simply careless. In view of the explanation provided by the broadcaster, it finds that the standard is not relevant in the circumstances.

Standard G19 – care to be taken in editing programmes

Standard G19 requires a broadcaster to ensure that when it edits programme material it is a true reflection of the event. TVNZ has submitted that the pictures were a true reflection of the event which occurred some 8 years ago and that therefore there was no breach of this standard. The Authority is not so persuaded. It notes the text of the item which reads:

A soccer match between Yugoslavia and Croatia has ended in an all-out riot. Tensions between rival supporters erupted in violence after forty minutes play. But as fans invaded the pitch they were met by riot police. The players also joined in…until tear gas brought the matter under control. The match was the first between the two countries since the end of the Bosnian war.

While the pictures accurately reflected the game played 8 years previously, the presenter’s script clearly indicated that it was a game played in the present, being the first between the two countries since the war ended. In the Authority’s view, the pictures were therefore not a true reflection of the event which was being reported, and this was the result of an error in the editing process. The Authority considers this to be a serious breach of broadcasting standards because it was misleading and totally distorted the newsworthy aspect of the story which was that despite the recent war and the political tensions between the two countries, the game had been played without incident. Accordingly, it upholds this aspect of the complaint.

Standard G21 – significant errors of fact to be corrected at the earliest opportunity

TVNZ has conceded that an earlier correction "may have been desirable". The Authority notes that the correction was not broadcast until 12 days after the original item went to air, despite the fact that this complaint was lodged within 3 days of the item being screened. In his complaint, faxed on 22 August, Mr Sunde sought an apology. He did not receive a response from TVNZ until 30 August – eight days later- when he was advised that inquiries were being made into the matter. After Mr Sunde’s further faxed letter, dated 31 August, TVNZ responded on 2 September that an on-air apology had been made that day. It provided a copy of the script. Mr Sunde complained to TVNZ on 5 September that the "on-air apology" was not an apology at all and noted that no expression of regret had been conveyed. TVNZ’s response was that there was "an implicit apology" in its correction. It advised that it was not required to give any further details surrounding what it described as an internal production error.

The Authority finds TVNZ’s handling of this matter to be unsatisfactory. It notes first the length of time it took before TVNZ acknowledged receipt of the complaint, and further that the broadcast of the acknowledgment of the mistake provided neither an explanation nor an apology. It upholds the complaint under standard G21.

Action taken by TVNZ

The Authority’s findings on the application of standard G21 make clear that it did not consider the action taken by TVNZ was satisfactory in the circumstances. It therefore upholds this aspect of the complaint.

 

For the reasons set forth above, the Authority upholds the complaint that standards G19 and G21 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice were breached in a news item broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd on TV One between 6.007.00pm on 19 August 1999 and, having upheld a complaint under standard G1, the action taken by the broadcaster was insufficient.

The Authority declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaint.

Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act. It invited the parties to make submissions on penalty. In his submission, Mr Sunde sought a full apology and rectification of the error during a news broadcast, and an explanation to be published in all metropolitan newspapers. TVNZ submitted that as it had already broadcast a correction, apologised to Mr Sunde and upheld his complaint, no further action beyond publication of this decision was necessary.

The Authority has considered these submissions and concludes that in this case an order is appropriate. It is firmly of the view that the integrity of the news should never be compromised by this kind of mistake. It takes into account that a broadcast correction has already been made, albeit somewhat delayed. In these circumstances, the Authority makes the following order:

Order

Pursuant to s.13 of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders Television New Zealand Ltd to pay costs to the Crown in the sum of $1500.00 within one month of the date of this Decision.

That order shall be enforceable in the Wellington District Court.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Sam Maling
Chairperson
20 December 1999

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined this complaint:

1.    Gordon Sunde JP’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 22 August 1999
2.    TVNZ’s Informal Response – 30 August 1999
3.    Mr Sunde’s Further Correspondence – 31 August 1999
4.    TVNZ’s Response (and copy of transcripts) – 2 September 1999
5.    Mr Sunde’s Further Correspondence – 5 September 1999
6.    TVNZ’s Response – 6 September 1999
7.    Mr Sunde’s Formal Complaint to TVNZ – 7 September 1999
8.    TVNZ’s Initial Response – 8 September 1999
9.    Mr Sunde’s Further Correspondence – 10 September 1999
10.  TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 22 September 1999
11.   Mr Sunde’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 30 September 1999
12.   TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 7 October 1999
13.   Mr Sunde’s Final Comment – 17 October 1999
14.   TVNZ’s Further Comment – 16 November 1999
15.   Mr Sunde’s Submission on Penalty – 6 December 1999
16.   TVNZ’s Submission on Penalty – 9 December 1999