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O'Neill and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2000-202

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor

Complainant

  • John O'Neill of Whangarei

Dated

20th December 2000

Number

2000-202

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
One News – Olympic competitors banned for drug use – athlete Marion Jones suspected – unfair – inaccurate

Findings
Standard G1 – not applicable

Standard G4 – report on speculation not unfair – no uphold

Standard G5 – speculation not illegal – no uphold

Standards G14, G19 and G21 – not applicable

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

Under the heading "Drug Cheats", a promo for Holmes broadcast on TV One on 28 September 2000 questioned whether athlete Marion Jones and swimmer Inge de Bruijn had taken performance-enhancing drugs before the Olympic Games in Sydney.

John O’Neill complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the allegations required an explanation. He said he had not heard anything to link athlete Marion Jones to drugs, and he wondered where TVNZ had got its information, and whether the allegation was justified. He also complained that the promo did not relate to the programme which followed.

TVNZ responded that the promo reflected speculation among sports commentators about the performance of the two women. Marion Jones was implicated because her husband had tested positive to banned substances, and Inge de Bruijn was under suspicion because of the dramatic improvement in her performance. In TVNZ’s view, the promo accurately and fairly reflected the media speculation. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr O’Neill 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.

Decision

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.

Speculation about the use of performance-enhancing drugs was referred to in a promo for a Holmes programme broadcast on TV One on 28 September 2000. Photographs of some athletes who had been tested positive and sent home were superimposed with a cross, while a question mark was placed over photographs of athlete Marion Jones and swimmer Inge de Bruijn.

John O’Neill complained to TVNZ that if the speculation that Marion Jones had taken performance-enhancing drugs was not soundly based, then it owed her an apology. He said he had not previously heard any speculation that she was suspected of taking such drugs and wondered whether the story was justified. In his opinion, the story had been inaccurate and further, the promo did not reflect the content of the programme which followed.

TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standards G1, G4, G5, G14, G19 and G21 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, as requested by Mr O’Neill. Standards G1, G4, and G5 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.

G5  To respect the principles of law which sustain our society.

The other standards read:

G14  News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.

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.

G21  Significant errors of fact should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

In responding, TVNZ explained that news was not confined to what was formally established and proven, but was also about what was being said and what ideas were in circulation. It maintained that it was quite accurate for the programme to reflect that speculation had been circulating about whether the two women had taken performance-enhancing drugs. The speculation relating to Marion Jones, it noted, was based on the fact that her husband had tested positive for banned substances, whereas the concern about swimmer Inge de Bruijn arose because of the remarkable recent improvement in her performance. The questions asked, it continued, were not invented by Holmes. It referred to an article in The New Zealand Herald under the headline "If you lie down with dogs, you’ll get some fleas", which discussed the speculation relating to Ms Jones.

Applying the standards, TVNZ’s view was that the promo accurately reflected the fact that questions were being asked about possible drug use by the two women. It did not consider that either was unfairly treated. It acknowledged that it was possible the initial speculation was unfair, but argued that it was not unfair to refer to the controversy which was already in the public arena. As for the complaint that standard G5 was breached, TVNZ responded that where speculation was rife it could be included legitimately in news and current affairs without showing any disrespect for the principles of law. Under standard G14 it responded that the speculation had been accurately reflected. Standard G19, it said, had not been breached because the promo accurately reflected public discussion. It pointed to the debate which followed, in which drug cheating was referred to. As standard G1 was not infringed, TVNZ said that standard G21 was irrelevant. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

In his referral to the Authority, Mr O’Neill clarified that his complaint concerned only the reference to Marion Jones. He said that even after having watched hours of Olympic coverage and reading daily and weekly newspapers he had not seen any previous suggestion of Ms Jones’ drugtaking. He said that he knew of her husband’s drug problems, but he had heard no one assert or suggest that she was on drugs, and had seen nothing in her performance record to justify such a suggestion.

Mr O’Neill referred to his original complaint in which he had asked where the information had originated. He noted that the show which followed did not clarify the issue, and that viewers were left with "an image of an athlete and an enduring question mark".

Mr O’Neill referred to TVNZ’s acknowledgment that there was a possibility that the speculation was unfair, and suggested that this alone justified his complaint, on the grounds that TVNZ perpetuated and broadcast an unjustifiable speculation, knowing it to be just that.

Referring to the article in The New Zealand Herald quoted by TVNZ, Mr O’Neill described it as "the worst kind of gutter journalism", and he said TVNZ had compounded its lack of judgment by associating itself with the article.

In Mr O’Neill’s view, without the facts, TVNZ was obliged to refrain from speculation on the matter.

Responding to the Authority, TVNZ said it found it curious that Mr O’Neill had missed all speculation about a possible connection between Ms Jones and drug use, but had then admitted to being aware of a column which had appeared in the newspaper.

TVNZ then described in more detail the content and context of the article. It was, TVNZ noted, written by a reputable journalist who was temporarily based in Sydney and whose role was to reflect the atmosphere and background to events at the Olympics. In the article, the newspaper journalist had referred to the speculation which was rife at the time about Ms Jones which, TVNZ contended, justified its use of her picture with a question mark placed over it. TVNZ concluded:

We hold to the view that speculation about this matter was rife, and do not believe that the use of question marks in relation to both Marion Jones and Inge de Bruijn was unfair or inappropriate.

In his final comment, Mr O’Neill responded to TVNZ’s point that it was curious that he had admitted to knowing about the article in the New Zealand Herald. He observed that he had known about it simply because TVNZ had pointed it out to him.

Mr O’Neill questioned whether the Herald article and the Holmes item were

…a courageous revelation of known fact regarding an athlete’s drug cheating or…a blatant disregard of human rights in pursuit of sensation by speculation.

He concluded with the observation that he knew no more about the incident than was hinted at in the Holmes programme and subsequently provided by TVNZ in its responses to his complaint. He added:

In the continuing absence of evidence as to the guilt of Marion Jones, I maintain that the suggestion made was intolerable.

The Authority’s Findings

This complaint relates to a promo for items on Holmes concerned with New Zealand’s relatively poor performance at the Olympic Games. The first item questioned whether New Zealand athletes would perform better if there were a long term strategy and financial assistance to encourage peak performance at future Olympics. In the second item an athletics coach was asked whether it was possible for New Zealand athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs without detection. The promo, in the Authority’s view, was a teaser which had only a tenuous relationship with the subject matter of the items. It was linked only to the presenter’s opening remarks when he observed that it was the talk of the Games that some athletes had been forced to quit because they had tested positive to banned substances. The presenter did not refer again to the two athletes featured in the promo about whom there was apparently some speculation.

The Authority turns first to the complaint that the promo was inaccurate. The Authority notes that the promo showed five different athletes, and that pictures of three of them were superimposed by a large X and two by question marks. The first three were athletes who had been expelled from the Games, and the other two were Marion Jones, whose husband had been tested positive for banned drugs, and Inge de Bruijn, who had shown a remarkable improvement in her performance. The caption at the end of the promo said "Drug Cheats". There was no voiceover. Mr O’Neill questioned whether the speculation that the latter two were taking performance-enhancing drugs was justified.

TVNZ responded that it was without question that speculation was rife in respect to both women’s performance. In its view, the promo accurately reflected this fact.

The Authority is unable to test the veracity of the allegations. In the circumstances, it subsumes the standard G1 complaint under standard G4’s requirement for fairness.

As to whether the promo was fair to the two athletes who, it was implied, were under suspicion, the Authority considers that because the promo provided no explanation about the allegations, it had the potential to be unfair. First, it notes, viewers would have understood the promo to foreshadow an item to come. In the event, the subsequent item made no reference to the athletes identified in the promo. The question for the Authority is whether the implication that they were suspected of being among those who had been confirmed as drug cheats was justified. On balance, the Authority concludes that the brief reference does not constitute a breach of standard G4. In its view, if there were questions being raised in Sydney about the women’s performance, it was legitimate to refer to the speculation. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Turning to the complaint under standard G5, the Authority finds no evidence of any principles of law being breached, notwithstanding the argument that the women had not been charged with any wrongdoing. Reporting speculation about them does not transgress the standard.

Noting that the complaint has not been upheld under standards G1 and G4, the Authority finds standards G14, G19 and G21 to be inapplicable.

 

For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
December 2000

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1. John O’Neill’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 28 September 2000
  2. TVNZ’s Acknowledgment of the Complaint – 5 October 2000
  3. Mr O’Neill’s Further Letter to TVNZ – 9 October 2000
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 17 October 2000
  5. Mr O’Neill’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 19 October 2000
  6. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 7 November 2000
  7. Mr O’Neill’s Final Comment – 11 November 2000