60 Minutes – decriminalisation of prostitution – unbalanced – partial
Standard G6 – s.4(1)(d) – balance achieved within the period of current interest – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The proposal to introduce legislation to decriminalise prostitution was the subject of an item on 60 Minutes which was broadcast on TV One on 21 May 2000 at 7.30pm. The report examined how decriminalisation had worked in New South Wales, where prostitution had been legalised for some time.
Stephen Yeats complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast was unbalanced because no views which opposed the proposal were heard. As he received no response to his complaint, he referred it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
When the matter was referred to TVNZ, it advised that it had no record of having received Mr Yeats’ original letter of complaint. In its response to the Authority it emphasised that the item was not about the rights and wrongs of prostitution, but that it sought to inform viewers how a decriminalised sex industry – soon to be introduced in New Zealand – worked in New South Wales. It accepted that the item did not reflect any significant views against the proposal, but contended that in the context of the proposed legislative change, the item’s focus was appropriate. It declined to uphold the complaint.
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.
The proposed Prostitution Law Reform Bill – and its likely implications for New Zealand – was the subject of an item on 60 Minutes broadcast on 21 May 2000 beginning at 7.30pm. The item explained that prostitution had been decriminalised in New South Wales for some time, and examined how the sex industry operated in practice there. The report examined the impact of the law change on sex workers, the police and those working in the public health sector.
Stephen Yeats complained to TVNZ that the item was neither fair nor balanced. He said he was left with the impression that everyone who appeared on the programme favoured the proposed legislation, and that the country would benefit from it. In his opinion, viewpoints which opposed the legislation and any negative aspects of de-criminalisation had not been given adequate coverage.
Mr Yeats argued that as the issue was a controversial one of public importance, there was a statutory obligation on the broadcaster to provide other significant points of view. He said he was appalled "to be fed this one-sided and blatantly biased journalism." In his view the broadcast of the programme prior to the bill being debated would potentially prejudice the outcome of debate in the House.
As Mr Yeats did not receive a response from TVNZ he referred the matter to the Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. In his referral, he repeated his view that the broadcast presented a very unbalanced view of the proposed legislation.
TVNZ advised the Authority that it had no record of having received Mr Yeats’ complaint. It apologised for not having provided him with a response.
It reported that it had assessed the complaint under standard G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires broadcasters:
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
It said it had also applied s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act, which reads:
s.(4)(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with
(d) The principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.
TVNZ emphasised the context of the item, noting that the introduction made clear that the government had a commitment to de-criminalising prostitution in the forthcoming Prostitution Law Reform Bill. Therefore, it argued, it was not a matter of whether prostitution would be de-criminalised, but when it would happen and what the consequences would be.
TVNZ submitted, given the inevitability of the legislative change, that it was legitimate for a current affairs programme to examine how decriminalisation worked in practice, and for that reason it believed it was appropriate to examine the position in New South Wales.
Essentially, TVNZ continued, this was an information piece, and not a current affairs debate. In reviewing the decriminalised sex industry in Sydney, it was made clear that there was a perceived benefit to the sex workers themselves, to the police and to people working in the public health sector.
TVNZ acknowledged that views opposing decriminalisation were not reflected in the item, but argued that there had been widespread debate over the years on the issues, and that further debate would not have moved the subject forward. It maintained that the item was but one part of a wide public debate and that coverage of the topic here was "within the period of current interest". It declined to uphold the complaint.
In his final comment, Mr Yeats advised that the Prostitution Law Reform Bill was a private member’s bill and as such had to go into a ballot to be voted on by a conscience vote. TVNZ, he noted, had considered it a foregone conclusion that the law would be revised. However, he observed, there was no guarantee that the bill would pass through the house entirely unchanged. There was, he said, still room for public debate and the opportunity for the public to influence their MPs.
In concluding, Mr Yeats argued that regardless of whether the legislation was passed, TVNZ was required to provide balance. In this case, he said, balance was notably missing.
First the Authority deals with TVNZ’s apparent failure to respond to the complaint. It notes that TVNZ explained that it had no record of having received Mr Yeats’ undated letter in which he outlined the grounds for his complaint. The Authority accepts TVNZ’s explanation and notes that when the matter was referred to it, a full response was provided.
Turning to the substance of the complaint, the Authority notes that Mr Yeats’ objection related to the item’s apparent presumption that the proposed legislation would inevitably be enacted, and its failure to acknowledge any negative aspects of decriminalisation of prostitution.
The item began by noting that the government was committed to the law change. It acknowledged that the proposed legislation was contentious. It also acknowledged the competing arguments: that it was desirable to legitimise an already existing business activity, and the moral argument, including the degradation and exploitation of women. As the Bill was about to go before the House, the item examined the situation existing in Sydney following decriminalisation of prostitution there, and asked whether decriminalisation would work in New Zealand.
Although not material to the Authority’s conclusion, it notes that the proposed legislation is in fact a private member’s bill, and is not government policy, as the programme stated. It acknowledges Mr Yeats’ point that it was therefore not a foregone conclusion that the Bill would be passed, and that there was still an opportunity for public debate on the matter.
It is in this context that the Authority assesses the complaint. First, it notes, while the item dealt with a contentious issue, its focus was clearly stated at the outset. As the report could only speculate on the outcome of decriminalisation in New Zealand, it was, the Authority considers, relevant to examine the situation in Sydney. Among the advantages cited, the reporter referred to an improvement in the health and safety of sex workers. TVNZ accepted that the item did not reflect any significant views against the decriminalisation of prostitution, but pointed out that the topic had been the subject of widespread debate in the community in various media over the years.
The Authority notes that s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act specifically provides that when controversial issues are discussed, balance can be achieved by other programmes during the period of current interest. Here it considers that that provision applies. In its view, the programme’s presumption that a law change was inevitable was a legitimate focus for the programme, and did not threaten the standard requiring balance, because the matter has been and will continue to be the subject of public debate. The Authority notes TVNZ’s submission that this was more of an information programme than current affairs. As such, the Authority considers that the programme provided a contribution to a wider debate, and that it was not necessary for it to re-litigate arguments for and against the proposition. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
31 August 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined this complaint:
1. Stephen Yeats’ Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – undated
2. Mr Yeats’ Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 July 2000
3. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 2 August 2000
4. Mr Yeats’ Final Comment – 14 August 2000