Holmes (2 Items) – (1) unfair – unbalanced; (2) denigrated women firefighters
(1) G4 – guests treated fairly – no uphold
G6 – balance provided by presenter – no uphold
(2) G13 – intended to be light-hearted – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The question of whether taxpayers’ money should be spent on sport was discussed in an item on Holmes broadcast on TV One on 14 April 2000 between 7.00–7.30pm. The discussion arose in the context of the release of a report from the Hillary Commission calling for more government funding for sport. The guests were a representative from the Hillary Commission and the Minister of Sport.
A second item, broadcast on Holmes on 18 April, featured archival footage of an all-woman volunteer fire service in Northland. During a sequence in which the women demonstrated putting out a small fire, the Holmes presenter suggested that it was marijuana that they were burning.
Martyn Stewart complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that on both occasions, the presenter’s disparaging questions and comments breached broadcasting standards.
With respect to the sports funding item, TVNZ responded that a debate about government funding was always a matter of legitimate public interest. Here, where the two guests took one side of the debate it was, TVNZ considered, appropriate for the presenter to have adopted the role of devil’s advocate and challenged their respective positions. It declined to uphold the complaint.
The second item’s reference to marijuana was, TVNZ contended, entirely jocular and related to Northland’s popular reputation as a major source of the drug. It considered that there was no reason why there could not be a joke about drugs, and did not believe that viewers would have taken the remark seriously. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s responses, Mr Stewart referred the complaints 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 complaints.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the items complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.
14 April item
In the context of the release of a report from the Hillary Commission which examined New Zealanders’ involvement in sport, the presenter of Holmes asked the Minister of Sport and a representative from the Commission whether the initiative to get more people involved in sport could be seen as an exercise in paternalism and whether it was justified in putting government money into sport. The item was broadcast on 14 April 2000 on TV One beginning at 7.00pm.
Martyn Stewart complained to TVNZ about the manner in which the presenter conducted the item. He objected to what he described as the presenter’s "constant denigrating and disparaging" approach to his guests and to the topic. As an example he pointed to the introduction where the presenter had said that the Commission was "bleating about people not being engaged in sport".
TVNZ’s initial response to the complaint was an informal one. Later, at the complainant’s request, it provided a substantive response. It advised that it had considered the complaint in the context of standards G4 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters:
G4 To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
It described the debate as "a lively and good-natured affair" noting that both guests had been presented with some provocative comments and questions. It noted that the argument had been about whether sport could legitimately claim more taxpayers’ money, to which the presenter had questioned whether it was an exercise in paternalism to persuade people to partake more in sport.
TVNZ’s view was that Mr Stewart had misunderstood the role of the presenter in a debate such as this. It suggested that this was not a case where the Minister of Sport was likely to advance arguments to counter those of the Hillary Commission, so it was important that the presenter adopted the "devil’s advocate" position and offered those challenges himself.
Turning to standard G4, TVNZ responded that both guests had been treated fairly. It suggested that while the questions and comments were sometimes "provocative and teasing", the question line was not aggressive or rude. Neither of the guests had expressed any concern about the way in which the debate was conducted, it noted. It declined to uphold the complaint.
As far as standard G6 was concerned, TVNZ suggested that the item would have been unbalanced had the presenter not sought from the guests some justification for the Hillary Commission’s request for extra funding. In its view, it was legitimate and in the public interest to ask whether it was appropriate to spend government money on encouraging people to be involved in sport. It declined to uphold this aspect.
18 April item
Some archival footage, filmed in Northland in 1964, was broadcast on Holmes on 18 April. It was said to show the first all-woman volunteer fire service. The film had no sound-track and the commentary was provided by the presenter. When the film turned to pictures of the women dousing a small vegetation fire, the presenter suggested that it was marijuana which was being burnt.
Mr Stewart complained that this remark had no basis in fact and maligned innocent women by accusing them of committing a criminal act.
TVNZ assessed this complaint under standard G13 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which reads:
G13 To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual, or
ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs programme, or
iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.
TVNZ began by observing that it was obvious that the film had no sound track, and that the presenter had made up the commentary as it ran. In its view, the reference to marijuana had been "entirely jocular" and was a good-natured dig at Northland’s reputation as "a major source of the weed". It added to the jest, it considered, that the footage was filmed in the 60s which was famous for the emergence of the drug culture.
TVNZ agreed with Mr Stewart that the possession of marijuana was a criminal matter but said it did not believe that viewers would have taken the remark seriously. Because the reference to marijuana was a joke, it did not consider that the women had been treated in a disparaging manner. Further, it concluded that the women fire fighters had not been disparaged. It considered the "light-hearted touches" had not represented them as either inherently inferior or as people who should be discriminated against. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Mr Stewart referred both complaints to the Authority for investigation and review.
With respect to the 14 April item, he argued that the presenter’s opening comment began the item on a negative note when he said that officials were "bleating about people not being engaged in sport". In Mr Stewart’s view that "gratuitous utterance" denigrated the appeal to people to become more involved in sport. He also maintained that the presenter’s contribution to the discussion was "totally out of line" as the matter was not a debate, but an appeal by the government to promote a healthier nation. He contended that the presenter’s personal stance was totally irrelevant.
Mr Stewart rejected TVNZ’s argument that the appeal to be more involved in sport had a hint of paternalism. In his view, the purpose of the interview had been to convey information and that had been thwarted by the presenter’s contribution.
As for the second item, Mr Stewart repeated that the reference to marijuana had maligned innocent women by accusing them of committing a criminal act. He suggested that it was a crime to accuse someone falsely of committing a crime. Turning to the application of standard G13, he argued that none of the exemptions applied and that the women therefore were demeaned and denigrated by the reference to burning marijuana.
Mr Stewart also objected to the fact that the item appeared to trivialise the efforts of the women which, when coupled with the marijuana reference, was "outrageously unacceptable journalism".
With respect to the 14 April item, TVNZ stressed that while the report issued by the Hillary Commission could have been interpreted as an appeal for New Zealanders to live healthy lives, the debate on the item was whether the Commission’s call for a government policy on sport was either necessary or desirable. The presenter, it noted, had challenged the need for the government to be involved in people’s decisions on whether they should lead what the Commission regarded as healthy lives.
TVNZ defended the light-hearted style of the debate which, it said, was a style which often gave greater clarity to weighty issues.
Turning to the 18 April item, TVNZ suggested that Mr Stewart had overlooked the fact that the mysterious piece of film had deliberately been presented in a tongue in cheek style. It wrote:
The nature of the ad-libbed commentary was, in our view, so good-natured and affectionate that it could not possibly be interpreted as denigrating the women who were shown.
Mr Stewart advised that he had contacted the Hillary Commission representative interviewed in the 14 April item, and reported that "although he was loath to publicly so state, he appeared to be very dissatisfied with the presentation of the item."
As for the 18 April item, Mr Stewart reported that he had undertaken his own inquiries and found further information about the volunteer fire service which in his view should have been broadcast. He reported that the people involved had been disappointed with the item and "disgusted" that the footage had been treated in such an offhand fashion.
He provided letters from some of them.
14 April item
This item began with the presenter commenting that the Hillary Commission was "bleating on again" about the need for people to become more involved in sport. He then referred to some new research which gave "startling insights into the New Zealand psyche" with respect to attitudes to sport. The research was said to provide evidence of Kiwi males’ obsession with sport.
In the second part of the item, a representative from the Hillary Commission and the Minister for Sport were asked by the presenter to explain why they believed more taxpayer money should be channelled into sport. The guests both justified the expenditure, with the Minister suggesting that greater participation in sport would have implications for taxpayers by reducing expenditure in the health budget.
The presenter’s response, which the Authority accepts included being a devil’s advocate, was to question whether a "sports nazis" approach was desirable, and whether the government had any business in forcing people to engage in sport. He suggested that if people wanted to be involved in sport, that was for them to decide.
By the presenter asking the guests to justify why sport should be publicly funded, the Authority considers that viewers were given sufficient information for them to make up their own minds as to whether it was wise for the government to take such an initiative. As the presenter noted, not every New Zealander has an interest or ability in sport, and it was therefore legitimate to question why public money should fund it. In the Authority’s view, both guests put their views clearly and confidently. As a further point, the Authority considers that it is the media’s role to question government policies and a potentially controversial issue such as this was no exception. It declines to uphold the complaint either that the guests were treated unfairly or that the programme was partial or lacking in objectivity.
18 April item
The complaint about this item relates to the commentary provided to accompany the archival footage of women firefighters demonstrating their skills in putting out a vegetation fire.
It was contended that the women’s efforts were denigrated by the script, and in particular by the presenter’s suggestion that the fire was caused by "someone [being] careless with a pile of marijuana in the back yard".
Mr Stewart believed that this reference contained an implication that the women were involved in criminal activity. The Authority finds no such implication. In its view it was obvious that this was intended to be a light-hearted remark.
The Authority next considers whether the item as a whole represented the women firefighters as inherently inferior or encouraged discrimination against them. Although it acknowledges that the item might not have appealed to all viewers, including those featured, it does not consider that it breached the standard. Furthermore, the Authority notes, even if it had, the exemption for the use of legitimate humour under clause (iii) of standard G13 would apply, given the light-hearted manner in which the remarks were made.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
27 July 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined these complaints:
1. Martyn Stewart’s Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority
(referred to Television New Zealand Ltd) – 15 April 2000
2. TVNZ’s Acknowledgment of receipt – 26 April 2000
3. Mr Stewart’s Complaint about the 18 April item – 1 May 2000
4. TVNZ’s Informal Response to the Complaints – 11 May 2000
5. Mr Stewart’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority of the 14 April
Complaint – 12 May 2000
6. TVNZ’s letter to the Authority advising that it had not been dealt with as a formal
complaint – 17 May 2000
7. TVNZ’s letter to Mr Stewart – 17 May 2000
8. Mr Stewart’s further letter to the Authority – 18 May 2000
9. Mr Stewart’s letter to TVNZ – 18 May 2000
10. TVNZ’s response to the 14 April complaint – 30 May 2000
11. TVNZ’s response to the 18 April complaint – 30 May 2000
12. Mr Stewart’s referral of the complaints to the Authority – received 8 June 2000
13. TVNZ’s response to the referrals – 13 June 2000
14. Mr Stewart’s Final Comment – 20 June 2000
15. Mr Stewart’s Further Comment – 28 June 2000