Documentary New Zealand: "Finding Family" – violent family relationship described by woman victim – inaccurate – unfair – unbalanced – discriminated against men
Programme about family reunification, not spousal abuse
Standard G1 – no uphold
Standard G4 – no uphold
Standard G6 – no uphold
Standard G13 – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The theme of Documentary New Zealand: "Finding Family", broadcast on TV One on 31 July 2000 beginning at 8.30pm, was the reunification of family members who had been separated. One woman described how she had become separated from her son when she escaped from a violent relationship some 30 years previously. He was tracked down by the Salvation Army in Australia.
Bruce Tichbon complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the effect of the programme had been to portray the woman as victim and the husband as a violent abuser who was generally socially inferior. In his view, the programme breached broadcasting standards relating to accuracy, fairness, balance and discrimination against men.
TVNZ observed that the woman’s recollection of events in her past were important in the context of the documentary, because they explained how she had become separated from her son. The programme’s focus, it said, was not on spousal abuse, but on how the woman became reunited with her son. It said it found no breaches of broadcasting standards.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Tichbon 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.
One of the stories told on Documentary New Zealand: "Finding Family" concerned a woman who had been separated from her children when she was in a violent relationship, but was reunited with one of her sons many years later when he was tracked down in Australia by the Salvation Army. The programme was broadcast on TV One on 31 July 2000 beginning at 8.30pm.
The woman described the circumstances which led to her leaving her children and said that she had the choice of "being beaten up and going insane, or giving away [her] children". She said that a non-molestation order against her husband had been in effect at the time.
Bruce Tichbon complained to TVNZ that the programme was one-sided and unfair in focussing on the woman’s side of the story. He said that the husband – or his representatives – should have been given the right to respond. He suggested that TVNZ had in effect conducted a public trial without allowing the father to provide any defence.
In his view, the programme portrayed the woman as a victim, and the husband as a violent abuser, and generally socially inferior. He wrote:
This kind of one-sided, anti-male, sexist propaganda does not serve the interests of women or children under s.36 of the Broadcasting Act. Trying to destroy a father’s reputation in front of his sons in this way is unacceptable.
In Mr Tichbon’s view, the programme’s bias prejudiced the political process relating to gender issues, and the rights of New Zealanders.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards. Standards G1, G4, G6 and G13 require broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G4 To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.
G6 o show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
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 noted that the programme was not about spousal abuse, but about three missing persons cases in which the Salvation Army assisted in bringing separated families back together again. In its view, the focus of the story would have been lost if the documentary had diverted to the issue of domestic abuse. It noted that the woman’s partner was not identified, and said it believed her description of the violent relationship was supported by the fact that she had taken out a non-molestation order against him. Further, the broadcaster noted, the woman’s memories were not stated as fact, but as her genuine recollections of her past.
TVNZ did not believe standard G1 was breached, and said that nothing in the complainant’s letter had identified anything that was either untrue or inaccurate. It said that the production team was satisfied that the woman’s account of her relationship was accurate.
TVNZ’s view was that standard G4 was not infringed either. It noted that the programme’s focus was on the woman trying to track down a son she had lost in the context of a domestic abuse case many years earlier. The programme was not to do with spousal abuse, and therefore did not require the husband’s response, it added.
TVNZ said that Standard G6 was not breached because balance relating to spousal abuse was not required in a story about missing people.
TVNZ did not accept that standard G13 was breached. It said that the unidentified man was not depicted as inherently inferior because of his gender, but because he was apparently an abuser. Similarly, it added, the woman was not portrayed as a victim because of her gender, but because she had been abused.
Mr Tichbon maintained that the identity of the alleged violent partner was obvious and he was therefore identified. He also argued that the woman’s view was stated as fact, and would be treated as such by viewers. He added that the claimed existence of a non-molestation order was not proof of the accusations made.
Mr Tichbon then asked whether the producer had spoken to the alleged abuser or his representatives to verify the claims. In his view, establishing facts to the producer’s satisfaction was hardly adequate when a person’s reputation was attacked.
He described the programme as "gender biased propaganda".
The Authority notes that the documentary was about family members being reunited, not about spousal abuse.
The Authority considers that standard G1, requiring broadcasters to be truthful and accurate on points of fact, does not apply in the context of this complaint. Nowhere does the complainant demonstrate any inaccuracies on the part of the broadcaster and, in any event, the Authority considers that the woman who featured in the documentary was entitled to recall events as she remembered them.
As to whether the husband was dealt with fairly, the Authority reiterates that reunification, not spousal abuse, was the theme of the programme. In these circumstances, it believes the existence of the non-molestation order, the woman’s personal recollection of events, and the broadcaster’s satisfaction with the accuracy of the woman’s description, were sufficient to confirm the assumption that the husband had been violent. It was not necessary to interview him or his representatives in a programme about families who had been separated and were seeking to be reunited, and the Authority finds there was no breach of standard G4.
For the same reasons, the Authority does not consider that G6 was breached, there being no requirement to provide balance on the question of spousal abuse in a documentary about family members being reunited.
Finally, the Authority declines to uphold the aspect of the complaint that the programme portrayed the husband in a way which represented him as inherently inferior, or was likely to encourage discrimination against him, on account of his gender. The husband was referred to only in the context of the existence of the non-molestation order, and of the woman’s personal recollection of events of violence she had suffered. In its view, the Authority does not believe the husband was portrayed as inherently inferior because he was male.
For the reasons given above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
30 November 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: