Assignment – government defence policy – anti-government – unbalanced
Standard G6 – appropriate to consider implications of defence policy – not unbalanced – majority no uphold
Standard G19 – not applicable – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An Assignment programme which examined government policy on defence matters was broadcast on TV One on 4 May 2000 at 8.30pm.
John Urlich and Kevin Hackwell both complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the programme. Mr Urlich complained that it was unbalanced and anti-government. He identified a number of instances which he said demonstrated the item’s bias. Mr Hackwell complained that the programme had advocated strongly for the status quo, without providing the balancing argument for a change to a more specialised defence capability.
TVNZ did not agree with the complainants that the programme took an anti-government stance. It emphasised that its questioning of government policies demonstrated that the media was carrying out its watchdog role and this applied regardless of which government was in power. It noted that government representatives had been given an opportunity to comment. It declined to uphold the complaints.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s responses, Mr Urlich and Mr Hackwell referred their complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaints that standard G6 was breached. The Authority unanimously declines to uphold the complaint that standard G19 was breached.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read a transcript of the item and the correspondence which is listed in the Appendices. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.
An Assignment programme entitled "Threats and Promises" was broadcast on TV One on 4 May 2000 at 8.30pm. It examined New Zealand’s defence priorities in the light of the 1999 change in government, and in particular the so-called "balanced force" option, which was the policy of the previous government. Among those interviewed on the programme, a majority favoured retaining that option, with only two putting the alternative view.
Mr Urlich complained to TVNZ that the programme was anti-government. He cited a number of grounds which he said supported that allegation. First, he said, the programme added nothing new to the debate. It had been going on for some time, and had been a major election issue. In his view, no balance was provided between the opposing views, notwithstanding that the Prime Minister had chosen not to partipate. He suggested that film clips of the Prime Minister’s already articulated views on this subject could have been included. He contended that a significantly disproportionate number of interviewees held similar views, and only three political parties in government had been interviewed, one very briefly. No women, he noted, with the exception of former Prime Minister Hon Jenny Shipley, were included. Mr Urlich also complained about the number of academics and foreign affairs advisors who were interviewed and who took an "anti-government" line. In particular he questioned the credibility of the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University. He made further observations about questions which he felt could usefully have been asked by the programme, and about its selection of interviewees.
Mr Urlich then complained that the reporter had failed to ask several other important questions in response to arguments about the "balanced force" approach to keeping stability in the Pacific region.
Mr Hackwell complained about lack of balance in the programme. In his view, it had advocated a strong case for the defence status quo, ignoring the recommendations made by the multi-party defence and foreign affairs select committee which were supported by the Alliance, Labour, ACT and NZ First and which the government had signalled would be the basis of its defence policy. He contended that the programme was clearly aimed at discrediting the recommendations of the report.
Mr Hackwell then provided an analysis of the programme’s content. It was approximately 41 minutes in length, he noted, and of the 16 people who had been interviewed, 14 were opposed to the suggested change in government policy and supported the "balanced force" structure. Only two people, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, put the alternative view, he said. Mr Hackwell measured the length of time each person was interviewed, calculating an average of about one minute each. The remaining 26 or so minutes of the programme, he contended, strongly advocated for the retention of a balanced force structure.
Apart from what he described as "the huge imbalance" in the interviews, Mr Hackwell also argued that the editorial content of the programme was biased in favour of the status quo.
Mr Hackwell wrote:
Assignment is not an advocacy programme, it is a current affairs programme. Therefore the public expect, and should get, balance. It would be more acceptable to have some editorialising if the programme had first heard both sides of the issue so that the public could make up their own minds. In this case it was not possible because both sides were not given.
In Mr Hackwell’s opinion, the select committee’s proposal should have been explained. He named a number of members of that committee who he believed should have been asked for comment.
As a final observation, Mr Hackwell pointed out that it could not be argued that the programme was an attempt to provide balance to the past treatment of defence issues as he believed that no other programme had dealt with the proposed changes to defence policy. He suggested that TVNZ should produce an in-depth programme which gave a balanced treatment of the range of arguments surrounding the future role and structure of New Zealand’s defence forces.
TVNZ assessed Mr Urlich’s complaint under standards G6 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, and Mr Hackwell’s under standard G6. 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.
The other standard reads:
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.
TVNZ began with the observation that:
…it is a fundamental role of media dealing in news and current affairs to critically interrogate policies being implemented or followed by elected governments.
TVNZ did not agree with the complainants’ contention that the programme contained anti-government propaganda or that it discredited the findings of the select committee. It noted that during the term of the previous government, its news and current affairs programmes had also questioned the government’s defence policies. This, it said, demonstrated that it carried out its watchdog role, regardless of which political party was in power.
TVNZ advised that, although invited to appear, the Prime Minister had declined. However, it added, the government’s position had been put by the Defence Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, and through observations made by the reporter.
Responding to Mr Urlich’s concerns, TVNZ acknowledged that the points raised had probably been before the public in the past. However, it argued, there was merit in pulling the threads together to put the issue in a more coherent structure. It did not agree that defence had been a major election issue. To Mr Urlich’s argument that in lieu of her appearing, clips of the Prime Minister outlining the government’s policy could have been used, TVNZ responded that that would have been misleading unless the question answered was precisely that asked by Assignment. It said it was far preferable to speak to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence as the programme had done.
TVNZ did not agree with Mr Urlich that the interviewees held similar views. It found that those disagreeing with the government’s direction held a number of perspectives. It noted that the government’s view was clearly put, and maintained that the programme was balanced because the government had the opportunity to respond to the questions. Responding to the complaint that no women, except for the former Prime Minister, were interviewed, TVNZ said it did not seem the questions required a gendered response. As for the complaint about the number of academics and foreign affairs advisors interviewed, TVNZ noted that Mr Urlich was entitled to his view, but that did not form the basis for upholding a formal complaint. With respect to Mr Urlich’s view about the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, TVNZ repeated that he was entitled to hold his opinion, but this was not the basis for a formal complaint. As for the omission of the views of non-government people, TVNZ responded that there was a practical impossibility in including the voices of all community groups in every current affairs documentary. It noted that an editorial selection process had occurred and those whose contributions were judged most relevant had been selected.
In considering Mr Hackwell’s complaint, TVNZ said it was important to put the programme in the context of the political debate then in progress. It suggested that he could not complain about bias towards the status quo, because by the time the item was broadcast, the status quo no longer existed.
The programme, TVNZ said, did not take sides, but legitimately asked questions about the direction defence was taking under the Labour coalition government. In its view, Mr Hackwell’s reliance on a stop watch as a measure of balance was not appropriate. TVNZ explained that balance had been achieved by ensuring that the viewer was not left unaware of contrary arguments. In this case, it argued, the government’s voice had been clearly heard. It said it considered that it was regrettable that the Prime Minister and senior members of the defence forces had declined to appear.
In relation to both complaints, TVNZ concluded that the programme had been balanced, and that the government’s position had been made clear. It also noted that other views had been covered in other programmes during the period of current interest. It declined to uphold the standard G6 complaint.
As far as Mr Urlich’s complaint under standard G19 was concerned, TVNZ’s view was that the programme accurately reflected the substance of the questions being asked, and the government’s position. It concluded that the standard was not breached.
Mr Urlich repeated his concern that the programme did not seek the views of the wider public and was therefore unbalanced.
He outlined his belief that the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies had been appointed to advance the previous government’s defence policies, adding that his criticism of the director’s credibility had been fact, not opinion.
Mr Hackwell advised that he was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response to his complaint. He complained that the programme had clearly failed to provide editorial balance, as the many arguments which countered the line of questioning had not been dealt with. He contended that the government’s position had not been made clear, and noted that it had been given only a "tiny fraction" of the programme’s interview time to put its point of view. In his opinion, TVNZ had done a "very flimsy job" of stating the government’s position before spending the rest of the programme criticising it.
TVNZ advised that it had no further comments.
The Authority begins by noting that at the time of the broadcast, New Zealand troops were in East Timor on a peacekeeping mission of the kind envisaged under the select committee’s recommendations. Anzac Day had been commemorated the previous week, the order for F16 planes made by the previous government had been cancelled, a major review of defence policy had just been initiated, and the government had signalled that it intended to take a new direction on defence. These were all matters which were current, and it is in this context that the Authority considers the programme.
The complainants both contended that the programme’s overwhelming focus was on the virtue of the "balanced force" option which had been the policy of the previous government, and that it was critical of what was perceived to be the intended policy of the new government. In their view, the programme’s bias was demonstrated by the fact that the majority of participants on the programme favoured the balanced force option. Mr Hackwell emphasised that the proposed changes to defence policy had never been explained – either in this programme or any other – and therefore viewers would have been unable to make up their own minds about the validity of the competing propositions.
TVNZ argued that the media served the public interest when it posed questions which were pertinent to current affairs issues. In this case, it said, it had highlighted legitimate questions about the direction New Zealand’s defence policy was taking.
The Authority accepts that the programme had a particular focus. In the context of the government’s review of New Zealand’s defence force, the introduction identified the programme’s thesis as "assess[ing] the threats, and examin[ing] the politicians’ promises which will dictate our new defence posture." It began by noting that troops were currently deployed in East Timor on a peacekeeping mission, but that in analysing the lessons learned from that involvement, what emerged was profound disagreement among politicians, defence analysts and military experts as to the future direction of defence policy. These divergent views included a select committee recommendation that New Zealand maintain "a niche defence force in which a well equipped Army could undertake UN peacekeeping duties supported by a smaller Air Force and Navy", and defence analysts and military experts insisting that adequate funding be provided to ensure that New Zealand forces were properly equipped and retained at the present level.
A variety of participants, including politicians, strategic analysts, defence force personnel and Australian commentators, were of the view that the government’s proposed direction would have ramifications for New Zealand in its international relationships and serious implications for regional security and trade. The government’s view was articulated by two politicians (the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence) who maintained that New Zealand’s international obligations would be fulfilled by concentrating on providing a well-equipped peacekeeping force. The point was also made by some of those presently in East Timor that peacekeeping should not be seen as a "soft option." The officer in charge of troops there explained that it was still necessary to be trained for combat and to "have a fully professional focus" to be effective as peacekeepers. A defence analyst explained further that a small country such as New Zealand had a role to play in peacekeeping but should not underestimate what was involved and that defence spending had to be adequate.
The programme concluded with the observation that the troops then in East Timor supported retaining the balanced defence force, and that they considered this was a message the government could not ignore as it embarked on its review.
Turning first to Mr Urlich’s complaint that no women, apart from the former Prime Minister, had been included, the Authority agrees with TVNZ that the questions put did not require a gendered response. It also agrees with TVNZ that it would have been inappropriate to use existing film clips of the Prime Minister to report her views, particularly as she had declined to participate in the programme.
As for Mr Urlich’s concerns about the number of academics and foreign affairs advisors interviewed, and the programme’s failure to include the views of those who had been on the select committee, the Authority notes that those interviewed had been selected because, as the reporter specifically commented, there were "few key players in this debate whom we could persuade to appear on this programme." In the Authority’s view, this meant that it was inevitable that academics and other commentators would be called upon for comment.
Mr Urlich also made observations about the arms trade and questioned the credibility of the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies. These observations, the Authority finds, are personal views and do not raise issues of broadcasting standards.
To Mr Hackwell’s complaint that the length of time given to the various contributors demonstrated the programme’s lack of balance, the Authority records its view that this is not a means by which balance can be measured. The requirement for balance can be satisfied by ensuring that both sides of an argument are put.
With respect to the substantive issues, a majority of the Authority considers that the programme’s parameters were clearly delineated and that it was indeed legitimate to examine the possible implications of a change to defence policy. Given that the defence review had not then been completed and the outcome was not known, the majority does not agree that the programme was anti-government. On the basis that it was expected that some parts of the select committee’s recommendations would be adopted, and the Prime Minister’s known views on defence, the majority believes it was appropriate to consider the possible implications of a policy which might result in reducing the numbers of defence personnel, altering the disposition of resources and not maintaining spending on equipment and technology. It was made clear in the programme that even if the government chose to concentrate on its defence force in a peacekeeping role, it was still obliged to make a considerable investment in hardware and training for that role to be performed effectively. Taking these matters into account, the majority declines to uphold the complaint that standard G6 was breached.
The minority disagrees. It finds that despite the programme’s promise to examine the government’s preferred defence measure, there was no cogent or informative assessment of that scenario. It finds that the programme assumed that the government’s potential policy was specifically one of cost cutting, and that it failed to explain the real costs involved in bringing a land force up to an internationally compatible level and how such a land force might expediently dove-tail with the defence regimes of other countries. The minority also finds that personal comment from the pro-balance defence lobby was over-represented to the detriment of useful analysis and further, that the implications of the government’s apparent preference to implement a specialised defence position were not explored. It therefore upholds the complaint under standard G6.
Turning to Mr Urlich’s complaint under standard G19, the Authority is unanimous in recording that it finds no evidence of distortion of facts which threatens this standard. It declines to uphold this aspect.
For the reasons set forth above, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaints that standard G6 was breached.
The Authority declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaints.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
31 August 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. John Urlich’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 8 May 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 29 May 2000
3. Mr Urlich’s further letters to TVNZ – 2 and 9 June 2000
4. Mr Urlich’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 22 June 2000
5. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 29 June 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Kevin Hackwell’s Complaint to TVNZ Ltd – 10 May 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 30 May 2000
3. Mr Hackwell’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 June 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 13 July 2000