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Fortune and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-209

Members

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

Complainant

  • David Fortune of Christchurch

Dated

29th November 2001

Number

2001-209

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
The Private Lives of Giants documentary – imperial measurements used – breach of taste – breach of law – inaccurate

Findings
Standard G1 – no inaccuracies – no uphold

Standard G2 – no community standards issues – no uphold

Standard G5 – complaint referred to specific statute not legal principles – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The Private Lives of Giants was the title of the programme broadcast in the "Documentary New Zealand" slot at 8.30pm on TV One on 23 July 2001. Non-metric measures were used throughout the programme.

[2] Mr Fortune complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the use of imperial measures. He considered that the metric system of weights and measures, which had been introduced by law in 1969, was being deliberately flouted.

[3] In response, TVNZ said that the people interviewed generally described themselves in imperial terms. It said that the documentary which dealt with tall people, did not show disrespect for the law. Further, it was neither inaccurate nor in bad taste, and TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Fortune referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

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

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Documentary New Zealand: The Private Lives of Giants, broadcast on TV One on 23 July 2001, looked at the experiences of tall New Zealanders.

The Complaint

[7] David Fortune complained that, from the outset, the programme had mainly used the non-metric system of weights and measures. The metric system, he wrote, had been introduced by law in 1969. He referred to the Weights and Measures Act 1987 which makes it an offence not to use the metric system in many situations.

[8] Pointing to the continued use of the non-metric system during the programme, rather than its occasional use, Mr Fortune considered that the programme failed to maintain the law, failed to be fair and accurate, and failed to observe standards of taste and decency.

The Standards

[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards G1, G2 and G5 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They require broadcasters in the preparation and presentation of programmes:

G1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

G2  To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.

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

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] With regard to the use of non-metric measurements, TVNZ said that the tall people interviewed generally described themselves in imperial terms and it argued that it was the role of the makers of documentaries to report how people described themselves. TVNZ acknowledged that the law had changed in 1969 but, it said, thinking patterns took time to change, observing:

It seemed to the [complaints] committee that the height of individuals is one particular area where change has come very slowly and it found it interesting that even the youngest of the tall people interviewed described himself in imperial terms.

[11] TVNZ stated that broadcasters had an obligation to present information in a way which was comprehensible to viewers. While metric measures were used in some areas, TVNZ said it reflected society in referring to height in feet and inches. The programme, it concluded, was not inaccurate.

[12] In regard to standard G5, TVNZ said that the programme reflected usage in society and by doing so, did not fail to respect the law. It was unable to assess how standard G2 had been transgressed. It declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[13] Mr Fortune made a number of specific points when he referred his complaint to the Authority. First, he argued that the programme, by using non metric measures to describe the tallest 3% of New Zealand males as being over "6 foot 5 inches tall", had set an agenda which people interviewed were required to comply with.

[14] Second, he considered that TVNZ, by continuing to use non-metric measures, was deliberately distorting the legal requirements.

[15] Third, he questioned the basis of TVNZ’s observation that New Zealanders visualised descriptions of height in feet and inches rather than in centimetres.

[16] While standards G1 and G2 might not have been unquestionably breached, Mr Fortune argued that the intent of the Weights and Measures Act 1987 had been clearly breached. Most other measurements used on television, he observed, used metric measures.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] TVNZ did not agree that the programme demonstrated an agenda to use imperial measurements. On the basis that the script was the last element in the preparation of a documentary, TVNZ said that the script reflected the terms used by the people interviewed.

[18] TVNZ also acknowledged that metric measures were commonly used in other aspects of life, and on television, and that they were now accepted. However, that did not mean that, for height, an imperial measure was still commonplace. Legislation by itself, TVNZ observed, did not automatically result in changed attitudes or behaviour.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[19] In his final comment, Mr Fortune emphasised that although some of the participants had used metric measures, and despite TVNZ’s claim, they were not used by the presenter. TVNZ’s prompt switch to the metric use of temperature measurements, he observed, was an acceptance of a legislative change and not a reaction to public pressure.

[20] At no stage in the programme complained about, he concluded, did the presenter make any effort to use metric measurements.

The Authority’s Determination

[21] Mr Fortune complained that height was given in feet and inches, rather than in centimetres, during the New Zealand produced documentary The Private Lives of Giants. He drew attention to the Weights and Measures Act 1987 which, he said, made it an offence not to use the metric system of measurement in relation to a wide range of activities. He considered that the broadcast breached the standards relating to accuracy, good taste and respecting the principles of law.

[22] Dealing with the aspect of the complaint alleging inaccuracy, the Authority notes that some of the participants in the broadcast gave their height in both metric and imperial measures. However, regardless of the system used, the Authority notes that there was no complaint that any of measurements were inaccurate. Accordingly it declines to uphold this aspect.

[23] As for the aspect which considered that the use of imperial measurements breached community standards of good taste and decency, the Authority does not accept that metric or imperial measurements involve questions of community taste. Thus, it declines to uphold this aspect as well.

[24] The final aspect of the complaint referred to standard G5 which requires that programmes respect the principles of law which sustain our society. The Authority points out first that the standard refers to "principles of law", not to specific statutory requirements. It also is not satisfied that ss. 8 and 9 of the Weights and Measures Act 1987, as cited by Mr Fortune, are relevant to documentaries broadcast on television, as the statute focuses on commercial dealings. On those bases, it concludes that the broadcast did not breach standard G5.

[25] The Authority observes that to find a breach of standards would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster’s statutory freedom of expression in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. It prefers to adopt an interpretation of the standard which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.

[26] As a final comment, while the documentary in measuring height in feet and inches might reflect current community practices, the Authority acknowledges that metric measurements are increasingly used in a range of activities. In view of the increased use of metrics, the Authority accepts that, where practicable and without hindering a full understanding of the topic under discussion, the spirit of the legislation dealing with metric conversion should be encouraged.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
29 November 2001

Appendix

 

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

  1. David Fortune’s Complaint to TVNZ Ltd – 25 July 2001
  2. TVNZ’s Formal Response to the Complainant – 10 August 2001
  3. Mr Fortune’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 September 2001
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 24 September 2001
  5. Mr Fortune’s Final Comment – 12 October 2001