Holmes – Waitara shooting – interview with witness – anti-police – unbalanced – partial – prejudice to fair hearing
Standard G6 – eyewitness account necessarily focused on one perspective – balance achieved over time – no uphold
Standard G19 – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A witness to the shooting of a young man by a policeman in Waitara was interviewed in an item on Holmes broadcast on 17 July 2000 between 7.00–7.30pm. The item recorded that there was some discrepancy between what the eyewitness had told the police immediately after the incident and his statement to a private investigator some days later.
Martyn Stewart complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was an "emotive display of pure sensationalism" which would have incited the public to be biased against the police. He also contended that the item was unbalanced and that the matter was sub judice.
As TVNZ did not recognise Mr Stewart’s complaint as a formal one, its initial response was informal, but when asked to do so by the Authority, it provided a more comprehensive response. The incident, it said, was a legitimate subject of a news inquiry for a news media organisation acting in the public interest. In its view, the coverage of the event had been balanced and properly reflected the eye witness account of the shooting. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Stewart 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. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
An eyewitness account of the killing of a young man by police in Waitara was the subject of an item on Holmes broadcast on 17 July 2000. The eyewitness’s account was at variance with an account he had given to the police immediately following the shooting. It was also at odds with the police version of the shooting.
Martyn Stewart complained to TVNZ that the item was an "emotive display of pure sensationalism" which he believed was intended to incite the public to adopt a biased stance against the police. Mr Stewart noted that the witness’s account to the police differed from that which he made to a private investigator who had been hired by the victim’s family to conduct an investigation. In his opinion, the witness was in a highly emotional state and his testimony was suspect. He argued that the matter was sub judice.
In an informal response, TVNZ noted that the matter was not sub judice as no charge had been laid. It was, however, demonstrably a matter of genuine public interest, it continued, noting that the witness was speaking publicly for the first time about the shooting.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Stewart said that as he saw it, the matter was sub judice because it was under official investigation on three fronts. He acknowledged that no charge had been laid, but noted that none of the official parties was able to comment while the inquiries were in progress. For that reason he argued that the item was neither fair nor balanced, since it dealt with only one side of the story. He suggested that there was an inherent bias against the police actions which the police were prohibited from defending and as a result the public did not have the whole truth.
Mr Stewart also objected to what he described as a display of grief from the eyewitness during the item, which he said would have appealed to "the ghoulish nature of some viewers". In his view, no answers were provided concerning the shooting, and the item simply encouraged more speculation and should not have been broadcast. Concluding, Mr Stewart maintained that the proper place for the witness statement was at the "several inquiries" into the incident.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G6 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. 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 first dealt with the question of whether the item was sub judice. It concluded that it was not, since no proceedings were pending before a court. Its view was that the shooting was a legitimate subject of inquiry for a news media organisation acting in the public interest.
An important principle, TVNZ continued, was the public’s right to know, guaranteed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. In TVNZ’s view, the item carried significant information which the public was entitled to know. It noted that the interviewee had been a first hand witness to the shooting, and had been given the opportunity:
to describe in his own words what he saw and how he explained the discrepancy between his statement to the police and that to the private investigator.
TVNZ said that as far as it could tell, the only point at which the witness challenged what was in the police report was in connection with the word "minute" which he claimed he had not used when making his statement, and which he believed suggested that there was a time gap between the warning given to the victim and the firing of the shots.
TVNZ noted that the item made it clear that the witness’s statement to the private investigator had been made some days after his statement to the police. In those circumstances, it emphasised, he had had time to get over the shock and had begun to think more rationally about what he had seen and heard.
[TVNZ] believed that there was implicit in this observation a legitimate question about whether witnesses who make statements to police at a time when they are still reeling from the event, should perhaps have second statements taken at a later time. [TVNZ] did not believe that it was implied that the difference in the length of the statements was as a result of any underhand activity by the police.
At the end of the item, TVNZ continued, police were quoted as saying that if the witness wanted to add more information to his original statement, they would be happy to interview him again. In addition, TVNZ noted that the item included a description given by police of what occurred in Waitara that night.
Turning to standard G6, it was TVNZ’s view that the interview with the witness was but part of on-going coverage of the aftermath of the shooting. That coverage had been "broad and multi-faceted", TVNZ noted. In its view, coverage of the event had been balanced and, because the police account of the shooting was included, there was no unfairness in the broadcast. The witness’s views were his own, it continued, and were of considerable public interest because he was an eyewitness. TVNZ concluded that standard G6 was not infringed.
As for the complaint under standard G19, TVNZ’s view was that the item properly reflected both the witness’s opinions and his emotional state. It added:
It was not the role of the programme to either endorse his views or to dismiss them. Its role was to present them for public scrutiny within a proper context.
TVNZ declined to uphold this aspect.
Concluding, TVNZ argued that the public had a right to know of the eyewitness account of the shooting. It reiterated that a short piece from an earlier police statement had been included.
In his final comment, Mr Stewart expressed his disappointment with TVNZ’s responses to his complaint. He suggested that the public had not been enlightened by the item and that the broadcaster had not acted appropriately by interviewing the witness.
The complainant contended that the interview with the eyewitness was unbalanced and unfair to the police. TVNZ responded that the full story of the Waitara shooting had been covered in various media in the months following the shooting, and that this item was but a part of the overall coverage and had to be seen in that context. The Authority will consider these perspectives when it makes its determination on whether the item complied with the balance requirement of standard G6.
It begins by noting that the shooting, which occurred in April, had been the subject of much media attention in the ensuing months. According to the item, the interviewee approached Holmes to express his concern that crucial information had been omitted from his eyewitness account to the police of the shooting. He said that there had been a "glaring inconsistency" between the account recorded by the police immediately after the event, and that recorded some time later by a private investigator acting on behalf of the victim’s family. He said he was sure that he had told the same story, but that the police version had omitted his claim that the victim had not been warned before he had been fatally shot by the police officer.
The focus of the item was on the eyewitness account. The Authority’s task is to decide whether that focus resulted in any breach of broadcasting standards. It begins with the observation that, by definition, an eyewitness account is one person’s view of events. It is not necessarily either right or wrong. In the context of the police investigation, it was one interpretation of the circumstances surrounding the shooting. The eyewitness’s concern related to the apparent discrepancy between the two recorded accounts of the events. The complainant has contended that the item was anti-police. The Authority is not persuaded that this was the case. It notes that some background to the shooting was included in the item, as well as an excerpt from a statement made by the head of the police investigation. The item concluded with the observation that this witness was but one of 36 "significant witnesses" who had made statements to the police, and the presenter added that police were happy to re-interview the man if he had something more to contribute.
In the Authority’s view, the eyewitness’s account of the circumstances as he saw them stood on its own and, even if other witnesses disagreed with it, it was his recollection of events. Further, the Authority notes, the shooting was a much publicised event and various perspectives on it were heard over subsequent weeks. In these circumstances, the Authority does not consider that the specific interview required a balancing perspective. Accordingly, it declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
Next, the Authority turns to the complaint that the item breached standard G19. It is the Authority’s view that this standard was not relevant as there is no evidence to show that the item revealed anything but a true reflection of the events from the witness’s perspective.
Finally, the Authority notes the complainant’s argument that the matter was sub judice because it was the subject of an investigation. Even if this raised a matter of broadcasting standards, the Authority does not accept that proposition as no charges had been laid.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
12 October 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Martyn Stewart’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 18 July 2000
2. TVNZ’s informal response – 20 July 2000
3. Mr Stewart’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 22 July 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority clarifying the status of the complaint – 31 July 2000
5. TVNZ’s Response to the formal complaint – 10 August 2000
6. Mr Stewart’s Final Comment – 16 August 2000