Holmes – Waitara shooting – interview with eye-witnesses – failure to observe standards consistent with maintenance of law and order
(1) Standard G5 – no prejudice to any proceedings or disrespect for principles of law – no uphold
(2) Standard G6 – balance provided during period of current interest – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A Waitara couple who had witnessed some of the events which resulted in the shooting by police of Stephen Wallace was interviewed on Holmes broadcast on TV One on 2 May 2000 beginning at 7.00pm.
I B Owen complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the interview was tantamount to "trial by television" and breached the requirement for broadcasters to observe standards consistent with the maintenance of law and order.
In its response, TVNZ said it believed that the public interest justified the broadcast of the item. Rather than "trial by television", TVNZ described the broadcast as a "legitimate journalistic inquiry" which proceeded independent of any legal process. It also commented that the item was broadcast in the context of a developing story, and that coverage over the five days following the incident gave ample broadcast time to the police side of the story. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Owen 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 declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of 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 Waitara couple who had witnessed part of the events which culminated in the shooting by police of Stephen Wallace was interviewed in an item on Holmes broadcast on TV One on 2 May 2000 beginning at 7.00pm.
I B Owen complained to TVNZ that the interview was tantamount to "trial by television" and breached the requirement for broadcasters to observe standards consistent with the maintenance of law and order. In Mr Owen’s opinion, which he espoused in a letter sent to TVNZ after his original complaint but before he had received TVNZ’s decision, the eye-witnesses should not have been interviewed, and its broadcast of the item could only inflame the situation in Waitara.
As requested by Mr Owen, TVNZ assessed the complaint under standard G5 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires broadcasters:
G5 To respect the principles of law which sustain our society.
In its response to the complaint, TVNZ said that it was conscious of the role of the news media in keeping the public informed of major news events, their causes and their consequences. It considered:
It is the role of media interviewers to seek answers on behalf of the public and, in keeping with the Bill of Rights Act, to convey those answers to the public.
TVNZ’s response continued:
It is rare that police officers in New Zealand draw weapons to kill or disable, but the [TVNZ Complaints] Committee recognised that the very rarity of such occurrences means that there is an obligation on news gatherers acting in the public interest to closely examine the circumstances of such shootings when they do occur.
TVNZ disagreed that the interview amounted to "trial by television", as alleged by Mr Owen. In its view:
The fact that a matter has not been resolved, or that charges have not been laid, does not mean that the subject becomes off-limits for the public. A legitimate journalistic inquiry can proceed – should proceed – quite independently of any official probe taking place.
TVNZ also said that as the story was a developing one, it had assessed its coverage over the period following the incident. It noted that by the end of five days, it had given ample broadcast time for police comment. Further, as there was a strong public interest in the broadcast of eye-witness accounts of the Waitara shooting, TVNZ said that it believed the interview, in the context of overall coverage of the incident, was justified.
TVNZ said that it did not believe that it had shown any lack of respect for the principles of law, as contemplated by the standard. It declined to uphold the complaint.
When he referred the matter to the Authority, Mr Owen said that he had objected to the item because it was "so anti-police, with so many leading questions". He added that this:
must surely prejudice the outcome of any further investigation as it gave a biased view of the situation and could lead to claims of a "white wash".
In its response to the referral, TVNZ reiterated that the interview was only part of extensive coverage of the incident and it did not accept that it had shown any disrespect for principles of law.
In his final comment, Mr Owen repeated his contention that the broadcast showed disrespect for principles of law because:
the interview consisted of leading questions trying to elicit answers that would discredit the police – a trial by television based on one small aspect of the incident.
The Authority considers that standards G5 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice are both relevant to this complaint. Standard G5 is set out above. Standard G6 requires broadcasters:
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
Dealing with standard G5 first, the Authority considers Mr Owen’s complaint that the interview amounted to "trial by television", and that this breached the broadcaster’s obligation to respect the principles of law which sustain our society. For a breach of this standard to occur, there must first be a principle of law for which disrespect is shown by the broadcaster.
The Authority considers first whether there was any possibility that the broadcast jeopardised police or legal proceedings. It observes that the interview was a protracted eye-witness account of events culminating in a police shooting incident which was of high public interest at the time of broadcast. At that stage, police proceedings were contemplated, but no legal action was extant. Furthermore, at the date of this decision, no legal action has yet commenced in relation to the incident. Against this background, the Authority does not consider that any disrespect for police or legal proceedings was shown by the broadcast.
In the Authority’s view, the broadcast fell well short of being capable of prejudicing police or legal proceedings.
Secondly, the Authority considers whether the interviewer’s questioning showed any disrespect for the system of law and order. In the Authority’s view, the interviewer’s questions appeared to be designed to elicit a full account of the situation as observed by eye-witnesses. The Authority is unable to conclude that there was anything in the manner of questioning which evidenced a potential breach of standard G5.
Finally in relation to standard G5, the Authority considers the complainant’s allegation that the broadcast had the potential to inflame the situation in Waitara. In its view, a very high degree of unjustified inflammation would be required to show that the broadcaster breached standard G5. On this occasion, no evidence of such a response was adduced by the complainant. In any event, the Authority considers that any reaction which may have been caused by the broadcast was justified by the legitimate public interest in the incident. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
As to standard G6, the Authority records that it considers that this standard was relevant, although not specifically cited by the complainant. TVNZ addressed the standard implicitly in its response to the complainant in contending that balance was provided over the course of covering the event. The Authority considers that a police perspective was not required in the context of this particular item, given that it was an eye-witness account by two individuals whose recollections formed part of an ongoing story. It accepts that coverage of the shooting was extensive during the period of current interest, and that the contribution made by the couple was not presented as a definitive, objective version of the events. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 July 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined the complaint:
1. I B Owen’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 2 May 2000
2. Mr Owen’s Letter to TVNZ – May 2000 (undated)
3. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 17 May 2000
4. Mr Owen’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 May 2000
5. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 6 June 2000
6. Mr Owen’s Final Comment – 24 June 2000