What Now? PM – decriminalisation of cannabis – information intended for children – pictures of a joint being rolled – unsuitable for children
Standard G12 – visuals not consistent with voiceover commentary – unsuitable for children – uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The decriminalisation of cannabis was the subject of an item on What Now? PM broadcast on TV2 on 13 July 2000 at about 5.00pm. Footage accompanying the item showed a cannabis joint being rolled, and two people sharing a joint.
Sharon Wilton complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the visual content was unsuitable for inclusion in a programme intended for children.
TVNZ explained that the purpose of the item was to inform children of the legislative moves to decriminalise cannabis and the position of MP Nandor Tanczos. In its view, the item could not be judged simply on the basis of its visual content, but had to be assessed on the basis of the audio portion as well. It argued that it was an informative and responsible piece which aimed to tell younger viewers what the decriminalisation debate was all about. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Ms Wilton 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 upholds 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 item on What Now? PM which was broadcast on TV2 on 13 July 2000 at about 5.00pm dealt with the debate surrounding the decriminalisation of cannabis. MP Nandor Tanczos was interviewed and explained his view that people over 18 should be able to have cannabis for their personal use.
Sharon Wilton complained to TVNZ that the item was unsuitable for broadcast in a programme intended for children. She said that even though she had not heard the item, she objected to her 8 and 10 year old sons seeing its visual component, and said that drug use was a matter she wished to inform them of in her own time and on her terms. She said she was very disappointed by the programme and "would like some reassurance that this type of media hype will not be rammed down unsuspecting children and parent’s throats again."
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standard G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. That standard requires broadcasters:
G12 To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing hours.
TVNZ explained that "Wired", the segment of What Now? PM in which the item appeared, endeavoured to present news and current affairs issues in terms which were comprehensible to children. On this occasion, it noted, the purpose was to report – in terms which children would understand – the legislative moves to decriminalise cannabis, and to explain the views of MP Nandor Tanczos.
Noting that Ms Wilton had lodged her complaint on the basis of what she had seen of the visuals, TVNZ responded that it did not believe it was possible to make a judgment solely on that basis. Television, it said, was a visual and audio medium, each component complementing the other. The sound track, it continued, was an integral part of the item.
In TVNZ’s view, the item was "informative and responsible" and aimed to tell younger viewers what the decriminalisation debate was about in terms they would understand. In so doing, it argued, some myths were dispelled. In addition, Nandor Tanczos was seen to be specific in telling young people not to consider using cannabis before the age of 18.
TVNZ concluded that standard G12 was not infringed. Noting that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provided a right for children in signatory countries to be informed, it said the item was clearly made with young people in mind, and that the debate was pitched at their level. In its view, the very fact that such an item was produced was evidence that TVNZ had been mindful of the effect of the programme on children. It declined to uphold the complaint.
In her referral to the Authority, Ms Wilton reiterated her complaint about the visual portrayal of how cannabis was used. She also contended that the item condoned irresponsible drug use when it showed a joint being passed around. She complained that no thought had been given to the health risk of such behaviour.
Next, Ms Wilton reported that when she had telephoned the producer of the programme, he had admitted that the programme had not been aimed at children the ages of her children, but at young teenagers. If this was the case, she asked, why was the programme screened during a time when young viewers were watching? She emphasised that younger children were not interested in the "political stance", and reported that when she had asked her 10 year old what he remembered of the programme he had replied "a man smoking dope" and that he could not remember what had been said.
Ms Wilton said she agreed that children needed to be informed on this topic, but in her opinion, the item could have conveyed the information without showing the visual content.
When TVNZ responded to the Authority, it reiterated that it did not believe the item could be judged on its visual content alone as to judge it simply on the basis of the pictures was to consider those elements out of context.
Secondly, it submitted that the "Wired" segment was deliberately scheduled late in What Now? PM in the belief that it would appeal mostly to school-age children. In its view, the item contributed to children’s understanding of a current social issue being debated in New Zealand.
In her final comment, Ms Wilton questioned why the visual content was needed at all if, as TVNZ argued, the audio carried so much weight. She repeated that her concern was about the "irresponsible portrayal" of using cannabis, including the step by step coverage of how to prepare it, and the sharing of a joint. In her view, children could emulate the behaviour portrayed.
Ms Wilton said she did not consider the warning given in the item by Nandor Tanczos sufficed, especially as no reference had been made to the damage caused to young people by using cannabis. She referred to a Holmes item screened that day in which she said it was reported that 40% of children and young people who used cannabis committed suicide.
In conclusion, Ms Wilton wrote:
I would like to think that the Article 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child giving children the "freedom to seek and receive…information and ideas of all kinds"…does not mean in an irresponsible manner.
The item was contained in a programme intended for children. The question for the Authority is whether the broadcaster demonstrated that it was mindful of the effect it might have on children who were watching. Acknowledging that the debate about the decriminalisation of cannabis is a legitimate topic for discussion, and that a clear message was conveyed in the item that cannabis use was not condoned for people under the age of 18, the Authority also notes that the item was placed in What Now? PM, a G-classified programme which contains items intended for children and younger teenagers.
It is in this context that the Authority examines the content. The complainant, who had not heard the sound track, contended that the visual content showed an "irresponsible portrayal" of cannabis use. TVNZ argued that the visuals could not be separated from the sound, and that the sound track was an integral part of the item. It emphasised that children had the right to be informed, and that the debate had been pitched at an appropriate level for the audience. In addition, it noted, it was made clear that cannabis was "not for people under 18."
The Authority is not persuaded by TVNZ’s argument that the visuals could not be considered separately from the sound track. While it acknowledges the general principle that, as a visual medium television comprises both audio and visual components, the Authority considers that in this case the sound track did not bear a close relationship to the visuals depicted. The film footage showed a person rolling a cannabis joint, and then lighting, inhaling and passing the joint to another person. There was no visual indication that this activity was in any way problematic or illegal, and the step-by-step process that was shown could arguably be construed as acceptance, at the very least, that this was a normal everyday activity. This, the Authority considers, was not appropriate for a young and impressionable audience. Further, the Authority considers that what was shown was not compatible with the serious message conveyed to the young audience that even if marijuana was decriminalised, it was still not considered (even by an advocate for decriminalisation) to be suitable for use by people under the age of 18. The Authority concludes that the inclusion of the visuals was accordingly inconsistent with the broadcaster’s obligation to be mindful of children. Accordingly it upholds the complaint.
For the reasons given, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of What Now? PM on TV2 on 13 July 2000 at about 5.00pm breached standard G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act. Accordingly, it invited the parties to make submissions on penalty.
Ms Wilton submitted that the broadcaster should be required to make a statement and to pay costs to the Crown. TVNZ submitted that the publication of the decision was sufficient penalty.
Having considered those submissions, the Authority decides that no penalty is warranted.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
13 October 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Sharon Wilton’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 17 July 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 27 July 2000
3. Ms Wilton’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 2 August 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 11 August 2000
5. Ms Wilton’s Final Comment – 18 August 2000