One News – inaccurate to state that Maori have a direct genealogical link with flora and fauna
Standard G1 – clearly identified as a belief – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The Maori perspective on the genetic engineering debate featured in an item broadcast on One News on 18 September 2000. It was explained that Maori opposition to genetic engineering was based on traditional beliefs, including that Maori were descended from flora and fauna.
Mr R D Hutchins complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that it was "astoundingly untrue" to suggest that human beings were descended from plants and the various insect, reptile, bird and rat species of New Zealand.
TVNZ emphasised that the statement had a cultural context and, within that cultural dimension, the statement to which Mr Hutchins took exception had not breached standard G1.
Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision, Mr Hutchins 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.
A news item which reported on Maori reaction to genetic engineering was broadcast on One News on TV One on 18 September 2000 beginning at 6.00pm. It was reported that the concept was "spiritually abhorrent" to Maori and would have an impact on their spiritual and cultural traditions. The reporter explained that:
Maori have a direct genealogical link with flora and fauna…
The item went on to state that Maori values had to be acknowledged and protected in any consideration of genetic engineering.
Mr Hutchins complained to TVNZ that the statement was "astoundingly untrue, as it clearly states that human beings are descended from plants and the various insect, reptile, bird and rat species of New Zealand." In his view, this was a "gross untruth" which was unacceptable in a literate and scientifically-based culture. He wrote:
It is highly offensive to have such a puerile level of journalism presented on your main news programme, and it suggests that you set abysmal standards for your reporters if one can broadcast the above statement.
TVNZ responded that it had considered the complaint in the context of standard G1 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
In TVNZ’s opinion, Mr Hutchins had taken the remark out of context, overlooking both what was said immediately before the comment was broadcast and what followed. TVNZ noted that the item began by reporting that for Maori the question raised by genetic engineering was how it would impact on spiritual and cultural traditions. It argued that the cultural context was further emphasised by comments from a Maori lawyer who was acting for Maori in a claim which sought to protect Maori rights over flora and fauna under the Treaty of Waitangi. TVNZ explained:
…that the statement about Maori having direct genealogical links to flora and fauna was not inaccurate or untruthful in this particular cultural context.
It emphasised that it was not making a special case for Maori, noting that similar statements, which accurately reflected cultural and religious traditions, were found throughout the world. It gave as examples references to fundamental tenets of Christian faith, including the resurrection and the virgin birth, which it said had been regarded as logically impossible by many scientists and philosophers. TVNZ also quoted Nietzche who had posited that there were two sorts of truth – truth associated with faith, and objective truth. It concluded that, within the cultural dimension implicit in the item’s content, there was no breach of standard G1.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Hutchins reiterated that it was a gross untruth to state that Maori were descended from flora and fauna, especially in a news item. He then responded that the Maori perspective was not the sole content of the item. Next he argued that since the subject of genetic engineering was a scientific one, it was all the more necessary to respect "the factuality" of the statement complained of. In response to TVNZ’s argument that the comments made by the Maori lawyer had further emphasised the cultural context, Mr Hutchins pointed out that those comments were sourced to the lawyer, but that the statement about which he had complained was not sourced, and had not been qualified as being a belief. It had been stated as fact.
Mr Hutchins concluded:
Though some Maori may have the belief to "have direct genealogical links to flora and fauna", it is not factually true that they do objectively have actual genetic, generational descent from plants and animal species in New Zealand.
In Mr Hutchins’ view, TVNZ’s attempt to justify its "sloppy" reporting was "disappointing casuistry".
In assessing this complaint, the Authority considers the words complained about in their context. The item was concerned with how the scientific process of genetic engineering would impact on spiritual and cultural traditions of Maori. The reporter said that Maori had a direct genealogical link to flora and fauna and that this explained why the concept of mixing genes was spiritually abhorrent to them. Further explanation was provided by a Maori lawyer.
The complainant has interpreted the reporter’s comments literally. The Authority does not agree that this is the only possible interpretation. In its view, the context makes it clear that the item is concerned with the spiritual and ethical implications of gene technology for Maori, and that Maori concerns are predicated on their values and beliefs. In that context, the Authority does not consider that the reporter’s reference to the Maori belief that they are descended from flora and fauna was inaccurate. It therefore declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 December 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: