Skip to main content

James and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-229

Members

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

Complainant

  • R F James of Whangarei

Dated

17th December 2001

Number

2001-229

Programme

Late Edition

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Late Edition item on plethora of cancer scares – insufficient attention given to the need to avoid the avoidable – unbalanced

Findings
Section 4(1)(d) – focus on cancer scares – balancing comment – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The seemingly endless number of cancer scares, and the wide range of products and behaviours linked to cancer, were considered in a relatively brief news item broadcast on Late Edition on TV One at 10.35pm on 14 August 2001.

[2] R F James complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced as it gave no recognition to the basic medical precept that if a risk is avoidable, it should be avoided. When TVNZ did not respond to the complaint, Mr James referred it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[3] When it later responded to the complaint, TVNZ said that the item’s approach was comparatively light-hearted. It noted that, during the item, a Cancer Society representative had agreed that while the large number of cancer scares were "a pain in the neck", it was important to concentrate on the "big three – sunlight, smoking and the need to exercise".

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

Decision

[4] 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

[5] A relatively brief item on the news programme Late Edition, broadcast on TV One at 10.35pm on 14 August 2001, questioned whether any product or behaviour was acceptable given the range of products and behaviours which had been linked to cancer.

The Complaint

[[6] R F James complained to TVNZ about the item, the gist of which he said "was that cancer can be caused by many things, so why worry". He described that approach as "disgraceful", citing the precautionary principle that:

        If a risk is avoidable, then it should be avoided.

[7] To suggest otherwise, Mr James wrote, "showed a lack of balance, fairness and common sense".

The Referral to the Authority

[8] As TVNZ did not respond within 20 working days to his complaint, Mr James referred it to the Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[9] Mr James noted that the Ministry of Health, when ordering the removal of soy sauce from the shelves of shops recently, had referred to the precautionary principle. Moreover, he added, TVNZ had not reported two subsequent press releases about the dangers with soy infant foods.

The Standard

[10] TVNZ assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 which require broadcasters, in programmes and the presentation, to maintain standards consistent with:

(d) The principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view, either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest;

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[11] TVNZ acknowledged, and apologised, that it had not responded to Mr James’ complaint as it appeared that his letter had been overlooked. Nevertheless, in view of his familiarity with the complaints process, TVNZ expressed surprise that Mr James had not addressed his initial complaint to TVNZ’s Programme Standards Manager.

[12] As for the complaint, TVNZ stated:

It is our feeling that Mr James has misunderstood the nature of the item he was watching. This was a comparatively light-hearted piece reflecting the frustration that most of us feel from time to time at hearing that yet another product or mode of behaviour has been linked to cancer. As the presenter said in the introduction, "you could be excused for thinking everything’s bad for you".

The theme of the item was set out in the first sentence when the reporter said, "This is an age of anxiety, where it seems there’s something new to worry about every day".

[13] Furthermore, TVNZ wrote, a representative of the Cancer Society was interviewed and while agreeing that "cancer scares" were "a pain in the neck", he had explained the need to concentrate on the "big three, - sunlight, smoking and the need to exercise".

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[14] Mr James disputed TVNZ’s claim that the item was "light-hearted". If it had been intended as a joke, he added, it should have been broadcast during a comedy programme. Second, he disputed the claim in the item about the "big three". Diet, he wrote, was more hazardous than one of the three listed and he noted that the Ministry of Health had recently ordered the immediate withdrawal of some soy sauces.

[15] In summary, Mr James wrote that the item:

(1)  Was inappropriate for "Cancer Awareness" Week
(2)  Was not funny
(3)  Was incorrect as to fact
(4)  Ignored the "Precautionary Principle", which was being preached by the Director-General of Health
(5)  Was inappropriate as to its placement in "news"
(6)  Omitted important information.

The Broadcaster’s Response

[16] TVNZ pointed out first that it had described the item as "comparatively light-heated" which was different from being humorous or a joke. Second, the reference to the "big three" cancer causes was made by a Cancer Society representative.

The Complainant’s Response

[17] Mr James reiterated that the item had not dealt with a "light-hearted" matter. It was, he wrote, a matter of life and death. He questioned why the item had not dealt "with the demonstrated levels of carcinogens in soy products" which he maintained did not comply with the food regulations.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] Dealing first with TVNZ’s failure to respond to Mr James’ complaint, the Authority agrees with TVNZ that as Mr James is familiar with the complaints process, he is aware of the specific person in TVNZ to whom complaints should be sent. By following this practice, Mr James could ensure that any complaint was dealt with appropriately.

[19] Turning to the specific item complained about, the Authority notes that both parties have commented on TVNZ’s use of the phrase "comparatively light-hearted".

[20] TVNZ wrote:

It is our feeling that Mr James has misunderstood the nature of the item he was watching. This was a comparatively light-hearted piece reflecting the frustration that most of us feel from time to time at hearing that yet another product or mode of behaviour has been linked to cancer. As the presenter said in the introduction, "you could be excused for thinking everything’s bad for you."

The theme of the item was set out in the first sentence when the reporter said, "This is an age of anxiety, where it seems there’s something new to worry about every day."

[21] Mr James responded;

"Light-hearted". This was in the 6pm News, during Cancer Awareness Week", and introducing an expert" gave no indication of a joke. Either it was not a joke, or TVNZ has no idea what a "joke" is.

If they wanted "joke", they could have used Mikey Havoc, Mike King, or Tom Scott.

Even if the topic is a matter for humour, then they stuffed it up.

[22] The Authority accepts without question Mr James’ concern about what he sees as the excessive levels of carcinogens in soy products. Nevertheless, in the Authority’s opinion, that does not mean that those with an interest in cancer cannot make light of some aspects of the subject. By doing so, given the appropriate context, the issue of cancer is not downplayed.

[23] Indeed, in the item on Late Edition about which Mr James complained, Dr Peter Dady of the Cancer Society accepted that what he called "cancer scares" were "a pain in the neck". Accordingly, the Authority does not accept that the admittedly light-hearted approach taken in the item in any way detracted from the seriousness of cancer.

[24] The item was a brief discussion about a range of behaviours which had been linked to cancer. It was not and was not intended to be, the Authority notes, a full discussion about the causes of cancer.

[25] Taking into account the express focus of the item, and the participation and comments from Dr Dady, the Authority does not accept that it breached the requirement for balance is s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[26] Finally, the Authority also observes that to find a breach of the section 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 NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. It prefers to adopt an interpretation of the s.4(1)(d) which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
17 December 2001

Appendix

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

1. R F James’ Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd (plus attachments) – 15 August 2001
2. Mr James' Response to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 22 September 2001
3. TVNZ 's Response to the Authority – 23 October 2001
4. Mr James' Final Comment – 30 October 2001
5. TVNZ’s Response to Mr James’ Final Comment – 7 November 2001
6. Mr James’ Response – 18 November 2001