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Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1995-025

Dated

12th April 1995

Number

1995-025

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


In the High Court, an appeal against this decision (in finding that standards were breached) was dismissed, but the appeal against the BSA's orders was allowed and the orders were quashed: CIV AP 89/95 PDF
977.03 KB


Summary

The level of risk to New Zealand agriculture posed by the continued importation of certain genetic material from Britain (cattle semen and embryos) was examined in an item on Frontline broadcast on Sunday 4 September 1994.  Incidents of bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (mad cow disease) have occurred in Britain and the item reported some concern that it could be introduced into New Zealand through imported genetic material.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was inaccurate on a number of points, that it was not balanced, that it had used an unreliable news source and that it had caused unnecessary alarm.  The critics of the policy had not been sufficiently balanced, it said, by experts who would have reported that New Zealand followed the accepted international guidelines.

While upholding two relatively minor points and broadcasting a clarification, TVNZ nevertheless maintained that the substance of the item was neither inaccurate nor unbalanced.  Furthermore, reliable news sources had been used and the broadcast had not caused unnecessary panic or alarm.  Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response on the many aspects of the complaint not upheld, MAF referred it to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority upheld a number of aspects of the complaint, including the complaint that the programme overall was unbalanced, and ordered TVNZ to broadcast a correction.

Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed the item complained about and have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix).  As is its practice, the Authority has determined the complaint without a formal hearing.  The correspondence included an article from the December 1994 edition of the magazine "North and South" entitled Bovine Blues.  The members found that article useful in providing background information about BSE.

When advised that MAF had provided the "North and South" article, TVNZ pointed out to the Authority that it contained information which would occupy several hours of air time if converted to a broadcast script.  It remarked:

It is not fair to compare a television item (where salient facts must be isolated and presented within a finite time frame) and a magazine article which is able to include many thousands of extra words of exposition.

Nevertheless we note that, overall, the article reflects the concerns raised on "Frontline" about the importation from BSE-infected countries of cattle semen  and embryos.  We note also that the article makes no mention of what we believe to be an important point - namely the failure of the authorities here to carry out a risk analysis, despite official assurances that such an analysis was being conducted.

Still on the subject of the magazine article we note that the references to Professor Lacey are not dissimilar to those made on "Frontline".

The specific matters referred to are discussed below.

The Authority has made use of the article (and the other written material supplied by MAF and TVNZ) both as a source of information and to clarify some matters which it considered were not covered clearly in the Frontline item.  It acknowledges TVNZ's comment and it has not compared the Frontline item with the "North and South" article.

The Programme

A two part Frontline item "Dicing with Disease" examined the level of risk to New Zealand agriculture posed by the continued importation of genetic material (cattle semen and embryos) from Britain where bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is not uncommon.  That the programme dealt with a matter of major importance was apparent from the item's introduction when the presenter described BSE as one of the "Doomsday diseases of the animal world".  She continued:

... diseases that could devastate countries like New Zealand which is so heavily dependent on agriculture.  To date we have escaped the ravages of these deadly imports but it's been a close call.  Now some New Zealanders are wondering whether our luck could run out.

The item began by referring to the scrapie scare of the 1970s which had involved the slaughter of 8,000 pedigree sheep on quarantine farms and showed graphic scenes of burning carcases.  It pointed out that the scrapie scare had taken place despite warnings to the government from veterinarians and then asked whether history was about to be repeated.  The reporter commented:

Today some farmers and veterinarians believe we haven't learnt any lessons from the 1970s scrapie scare.  In fact they believe we are exposing ourselves to a related disease that could devastate the beef and dairy industries in this country between them worth more than six billion dollars a year.  The disease is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.  Otherwise known as BSE or Mad Cow Disease.

Concerns in New Zealand about the impact of the disease and the risks involved in the importation of the genetic material were expressed by two farmers, a representative of the Meat and Wool Section of Federated Farmers, two academic veterinarians, and a representative of the bio-technology industry.  The case for maintaining the policy of controlled importation was put by the Minister of Agriculture, a spokesperson (Dr O'Hara) for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), and an importer of genetic material.  Concerns overseas about the impact of the material were put by spokespeople for the cattle industry in Australia and Canada.  The British contribution included one person on each side of the debate.  The danger inherent in the current policy was put most forcefully by Professor Richard Lacey, a microbiologist from Leeds University, when he reviewed the current knowledge about how the disease was transmitted and stated:

I will guarantee within four or five years BSE will be a major problem in New Zealand.  You don't need to import these materials from the UK, this is an unnecessary danger.  It must stop immediately.

The comments from the spokesperson for Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in Britain, the Assistant Chief Veterinary Officer, were similar to the comments from Dr O'Hara of MAF in New Zealand.  Shortly after the item carried Professor Lacey's above remark, Dr O'Hara was asked whether he was prepared to expose New Zealand farmers to the risk involved "for a few straws of semen and a few embryos".  He answered:

If we were to put a ban in place or to have maintained the ban that we had in place, is that technically and scientifically justifiable in the face of what we are required to do under the rules which now govern international trade and those rules were very clearly set out in the Uruguay Round of the GATT?  No international body expects us to take a risk that is unjustifiable but equally no international body expects us to operate a zero risk.  What you are in effect asking us to do is to consider the reimposition of a zero risk policy.  We have never had a zero risk policy.

The reporter referred to Dr O'Hara's close knowledge of the scrapie scare in the 1970s when he had defended the importation of the sheep which later had to be destroyed.  Pointing out that he had been accused of shallowness at the time, the reporter asked whether the public could have confidence in MAF on this occasion.  Dr O'Hara said it was for the public to decide, commenting:

If I had the ultimate wisdom and could foresee the future I would agree with you - but I am not that smart unfortunately.

In addition to the points noted above, the programme dealt at some length with the cause of BSE – which seemed reasonably well understood – and its transmission – a matter on which there was some fundamental disagreement.  It was the possibility of transmission through genetic material which was the principal focus of the differing perspectives advanced in the programme.  The point about the transmission of BSE is discussed further in the section below recording the Authority's findings.

The programme accepted that cattle contracted BSE after eating animal feed containing offal from scrapie infected sheep and it concluded by asking whether it was possible for humans to get a BSE-type disease from eating BSE infected meat.  The disease in question was Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, or CJD, which is a member of the same family as scrapie and BSE.  Professor Lacey believed, in view of some recent incidents, that it had been shown that humans got CJD from BSE infected cattle.  The British MAFF spokesperson (Dr Taylor) put another view when he commented:

Some people believe that it could happen and that has to be accepted as a possibility, nobody actually knows.  The attitude of the government in this country has been that there is a possible risk and therefore control measures are designed to prevent that risk.  So in essence we don't know whether it could happen, we assume that it might and all our control measures are designed to prevent it happening.

Dr Taylor's answer is included in full to indicate not only his specific comment on CJD but also the style usually adopted by the expert spokespeople who were interviewed during the programme.  When answering questions calling for a professional opinion, the spokespeople as a rule did not answer categorically "yes" or "no" but on the degree of probability based on the available scientific knowledge.

The Complaint

In its complaint to TVNZ, MAF alleged that the broadcast had breached standards G1, G6, G14, G15, G16 and G20 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

Alleged Inaccuracies

MAF argued that the programme was factually inaccurate on the following points.

(i) The first aspect involved the item's reference to the Canadian experience where the discovery of one BSE infected cow involved the slaughter of more than 300 animals.

The complaint argued that the item did not stress that the animal which was found to be infected had been imported live, that the subsequent ban imposed by Mexico on Canadian cattle and beef was only temporary, and in view of the method by which BSE is transmitted, that the extent of the slaughter was motivated by trade and political considerations rather than scientific ones.

Moreover, the reporter, in referring to the New Zealand situation at this point in the programme, stated "if and when BSE is discovered".  He thus implied that New Zealand will import or had already imported the disease.  Later, it was said by a veterinarian that the discovery of BSE in New Zealand would involve the slaughter of "thousands of animals" which in view of the way that the disease was transmitted, MAF stated, was an illogical and unfounded proposition.

(ii) The reporter when referring to the bio-technology industry had said inaccurately and without evidence that the importation of the genetic material was "making many overseas countries nervous".

(iii) It was also inaccurate to report that:

A growing body of expert opinion says we're exposing our valuable beef and dairy industry to unnecessary risk.

(iv) MAF argued that it was misleading to draw parallels between the scrapie scare of the 1970s and BSE principally because one involved the importation of live animals while the other involved the importation of semen and embryos.

Reviewing briefly the scientific evidence which had been made available to Frontline, MAF elaborated on the difference and wrote:

These differences are very important, because they mean horizontal (cow-to-cow) or vertical (cow-to-calf) transfer of the disease is extremely unlikely.

Alleged Lack of Balance

MAF then listed the following 12 examples in its complaint as to the programme's lack of balance which it maintained amounted to breaches of standards G6, G14 and G20.

It began:

The Frontline item was blatantly biased in its approach and content.  No genuine attempt was made to give balanced coverage to both points of view. Dissidents and those holding minority views were given more weight and coverage in the programme than mainstream, majority opinion, and doubt was cast on the credibility and integrity of those defending the
MAF position.

The examples on imbalance listed were:

(1)    The two clips used in the introduction were both from people opposed to the policy.

(2)    The programme referred to luck as the basis of MAF's policy.

(3)    The frequent use of the word "some" implied that expert opinion was roughly divided on the issue.

(4)    The programme suggested that the academic interviewed from Massey University spoke for all academics at Massey.

(5)    Dr O'Hara was introduced with the comment that he "says we have nothing to fear, or have we?"  Subsequently, his credibility was undermined by references to MAF's attitude to the scrapie scare.

(6)    The programme suggested that only importers of genetic material with "vested interests" supported MAF's policy.  The item did not note that 13 of the 15 members of MAF's Agriculture Security Consultative Committee (ASCC) which had considered the issue on five occasions, supported the policy.  The two dissident members were interviewed rather than the thirteen members in support.

(7)    The item suggested that the spokesperson for Federated Farmers Meat and Wool Section represented all farmers.

(8)    The two farmers who were interviewed who opposed the importation expressed opinions which were not challenged and were reported as facts.

(9)    In reporting that New Zealand's policy was out-of-step with that in Australia, the programme implied that New Zealand was out-of-step with the world.  No one from the Australian equivalent of MAF was interviewed and it was not reported that the Australian policy, rather than New Zealand's, was internationally out-of-step.

(10)  Only passing reference was made to the fact that the OIE (Office International des Epizooties), the veterinary equivalent of WHO, had accepted a practice on which New Zealand has based its policy.  MAF commented:

The programme makers were prepared to conduct interviews in England, but not to cross the channel to France to obtain comment from the OIE.

(11)  The OIE viewpoint was only put by an importer of genetic material whose credibility had been questioned as his interest in making money from the trade had been emphasised.

(12)  Whereas the "vested interests" support for MAF's policy was highlighted, the "vested interests" of those opposed to the policy were not mentioned.

Other Alleged Breaches

Under standard G15 – reliability of news sources – MAF questioned the scientific credibility of Professor Lacey, noting in part:

Professor Lacey neither expresses the mainstream view, nor does he have much credibility among experts on BSE.  He is certainly not regarded as an expert on the subject, yet the programme placed him among "... some British experts ...".

He is virtually alone among the scientific community in holding such views, and his opinions on BSE are not highly regarded.  He has a particular interest in food safety, but he is not known to have ever worked in the field of spongiform encephalopathies.

MAF questioned at length the validity of his comments about CJD.

Standard G16 – causing unnecessary panic or alarm – was the other standard raised by MAF.  Giving a number of examples, it said the language used had been emotive and irresponsible.  After the broadcast, the ASCC had been called to a special meeting and, in a session open to the media, had reaffirmed MAF's policy for the sixth occasion.

MAF concluded:

In light of the lack of balance in the items, the errors of fact and the negative reactions generated by the programme, MAF considers that Television New Zealand should offer a public correction and apology.

TVNZ's Response to the Complaint

Aspects Upheld

TVNZ upheld two aspects of the complaint.  Under point (i) of the alleged factual inaccuracy which dealt with the Canadian response, the reporter had said in relation to New Zealand, "if and when BSE was discovered".  TVNZ agreed that the words "and when" had been used without justification.

TVNZ also expressed some agreement with other parts of this aspect of the complaint but declined to uphold any specific part in addition to the one noted.  It remarked:

The [Complaints] Committee believed it would have been helpful had the programme reported that Canada is continuing with genetic imports - but did not think the omission contributed to any distortion because the story at that point was dealing with what had happened when a case of BSE had been confirmed.  Its source did not matter.

The second aspect upheld involved the introduction of MAF's Dr O'Hara when the reporter stated:

Such claims are seen as extravagant and sensational by New Zealand Agricultural officials and by Dr Peter O'Hara who says we have nothing to fear, or have we?"

While not accepting that the final three words "or have we" impinged on Dr O'Hara's credibility, TVNZ said that they suggested "a somewhat less than even-handed approach to the MAF position" and, as a result, amounted to a breach of standard G6.

Action Taken

Because of its decision on these two points, TVNZ advised MAF that it believed that some clarification of the item was necessary and it would arrange for a broadcast.  On Frontline on 27 November, the presenter stated:

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has written to us about an item we screened recently on BSE – known as mad cow disease.

Frontline looked at the importation of cattle semen and embryos into New Zealand from Britain and the possible risk of BSE being introduced here as a result of this practice.

Our programme referred to the Canadian experience where a live cow imported from Britain was found to have the disease.  The discovery led to more than 300 cattle being slaughtered.  MAF has pointed out that Canada although banning live cattle imports has continued its importation of semen and embryos – as is the case in New Zealand.

MAF also complained that two phrases in the programme narration implied that it is only a matter of time before BSE is introduced into New Zealand and that the credibility of officials who say otherwise is in doubt.

Frontline did not intend to create those impressions.  We freely acknowledge that there has been no recorded case anywhere of imported genetic material causing BSE.  As we reported, studies into whether this is possible are being done in Britain and the results are not expected for another five years.

Aspects Declined

TVNZ dealt with the complaint under the headings used by MAF and began by examining the alleged factual inaccuracies.

(i)     Apart from the aspect upheld and the aspect on which it believed further comment would have been useful, TVNZ maintained that the other remarks about the Canadian situation were factual except for the reference to "thousands and thousands".  That comment, it noted, was as a genuinely-held opinion advanced by a qualified contributor to the programme.

(ii)    The information about the threat to the pharmaceutical and bio-technology industries came from spokespeople at New Zealand Agritech Inc.  Further, information from the US Food and Drug Administration made it clear that the discovery of BSE in New Zealand would have major implications for the bio-technology industry in New Zealand.

(iii)    TVNZ listed some eminent veterinarians in support of its statement about the growing body of expert opinion who believed that New Zealand's policy involved an unnecessary risk.

(iv)    As for the parallels between the scrapie scare in the 1970s and BSE, TVNZ said the relationship had less to do with the methods of transmission, as the complaint alleged, than with the attitudes of officials.

TVNZ then considered the points raised by MAF under standards G6, G14 and G20 and in response to the allegation of "blatant" bias, it wrote:

The committee found this comment surprising, given that "Frontline" included arguments from both sides of the debate.  The inclusion of considerable comment from Dr Peter O'Hara and additional material from Everett Thorburn, combined with the reporter's acknowledgment that the Dairy Section of Federated Farmers is among groups in New Zealand that support MAF's position demonstrates how wide of the mark is your suggestion that "no genuine attempt" was made to give both points of view.

It then dealt with the specific points in MAF's complaint.

(1)    The two introductory comments, TVNZ said, stated the issues "crisply" and were balanced by the full item.

(2)    The item had not attempted to undermine MAF's policy by the mention of "luck".  That term had been used as the evidence was presented for and against whether a Quarantine Risk Analysis had been done - as claimed by MAF.  Attempts by TVNZ to resolve the conflicting material about the Quarantine Risk Analysis were unsuccessful.

(3)    While acknowledging that the word "some" was somewhat inexact, TVNZ did not accept that its use implied that those who supported or opposed MAF's policy were evenly divided.

(4)    TVNZ rejected the complaint that its task involved finding balance on the issue within such institutions as Massey University.

(5)    This point was upheld.  (The introduction to Dr O'Hara.)

(6)    TVNZ argued that the item reported that support for MAF's policy came not only from the country's main importer of genetic material but also from a number of other sources.

(7)    The spokesperson for the Meat and Wool Section of Federated Farmers was noted as such in the programme.  He was not presented as the spokesperson for Federated Farmers.  The views of the Dairy Section had been outlined in the programme.

(8)    The two farmers who participated, TVNZ commented, had serious concerns which were shared by a number of farmers but their opinions were not presented as undisputed facts.  Under this point, TVNZ added:

The [Complaints] Committee also thought it worth commenting on your assertion that BSE is not considered a contagious disease.  "Frontline" reflected your view by stating the "disease is not considered contagious".  That notwithstanding, research shows that there remains doubt in this area.  Professor Diringer of Berlin, for example, says:

It is certainly too early to conclude that the possibility of transmission of BSE in cattle either vertically or    horizontally does not exist.

(9)    TVNZ insisted that the programme in reporting the fact that New Zealand was out-of-step with Australia had not implied that it was out-of-step with the rest of the world.  It had been unsuccessful in its efforts to interview a person from the Australian Quarantine Service.

(10) and (11)

The views of the OIE, TVNZ maintained, were given fair and proper treatment.  As for the suggestion to cross the English Channel, TVNZ said that that could have meant a trip to Germany which had a very conservative stance on BSE.

(12)    TVNZ said the vested interests of the biotechnology spokesperson were noted in the item.

As for the complaint about Professor Lacey under standard G15, TVNZ accepted that he had a high media profile and had opposed aspects of the official policy in Great Britain but "has oft times been proven right".  His justified concern about salmonella and eggs was noted.

With regard to the standard G16 aspect of the complaint that the item caused unnecessary alarm or panic, TVNZ maintained that the language used was appropriate and noted the letters of commendation it had received.

In summary, TVNZ wrote:

Looking at the programme overall, TVNZ's Complaints Committee believed the issue was one which deserved to be raised and discussed in the public arena.  It believes the programme was, for the most part, fair and balanced, and accurate.  It does not believe the use of Professor Lacey was inappropriate, nor does it accept that the programme contributed to any alarm or panic in the community.

Further Correspondence

When it referred the complaint to the Authority, MAF acknowledged that two points had been upheld and that an apology had been broadcast.  However, it was dissatisfied that the remainder of the complaint had not been upheld and it repeated its complaint in a summary form.

In its report to the Authority, TVNZ pointed out that a clarification - not an apology - had been broadcast.  It also briefly summarised and confirmed its response to the complaint.

In its referral and by way of clarification on point (iii) of the alleged factual inaccuracy about the growing body of expert opinion, MAF explained that its complaint focussed on TVNZ's use of the term "growing".  In response, TVNZ said its research disclosed that opposition to the policy came from a large number of people in a variety of occupations and, in addition, it reported that it had recently been advised (on 27 November by an opponent of MAF's policy) that 27 mayors now supported the reimposition of the ban.

In its response, TVNZ observed with regard to the programme overall:

We invite the Authority to accept that this matter was one of genuine public interest, and worthy of attention in a current affairs programme.  The structure and reporting were rigorous and fair.

While we recognise the ministry's right to complain under the terms of the Broadcasting Act, we suggest that the lengthy documentation contains sweeping generalisations, but very little supporting detail.

In its final comment to the Authority, MAF remarked:

Finally, lest the authority get the impression that MAF wants to stifle debate on the issue, I attach a copy of a North and South article on the same topic, published after the Frontline item.

This article covers the same ground and airs the same objections, but manages to do so in an even-handed, balanced manner which give both sides a fair hearing and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions without editorialising.

If the objective of Frontline was to "alert viewers to the concerns of a reputable group of people about the practice of importing genetic material from Britain and the risk that [that] could pose [of] introducing BSE to New Zealand", it could have been handled much less sensationally.

The Authority's Findings

The Standards

MAF stated that the programme breached the following standards.  The first two require broadcasters:

G1    To be truthful and accurate on points of fact

G6    To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.

The other four provide:

G14    News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.

G15    The standards of integrity and reliability of news sources should be kept under constant review.

G16    News should not be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic and alarm or distress.

G20    No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial public issues. Broadcasters should aim to present all significant sides in as fair a way as possible, and this can be done only by judging every case on its merits.

Standards G14, G15 and G16 apply to news and as Frontline is a current affairs programme, they are inapplicable to this complaint.

As the requirements in standard G14 overlap with those in standards G1 and G6, the inapplicability of this standard is not a major concern.  However, the requirements in standards G15 and G16 are quite distinct.  MAF and TVNZ both addressed the aspects of the complaint raised by these standards and the decision will record the Authority's deliberations on these points.  However, because of their inapplicability, the Authority was not required to reach a decision on the aspects of the complaint which alleged a breach of these standards.

The Programme

The Authority has adopted the headings used by the parties in their correspondence.  It is of the opinion that balance is the principal issue raised by the complaint.  Balance is a matter raised under standard G6 and the Authority's conclusion on this point will take into account not only the twelve points raised specifically under standard G6 but also its assessment of the programme overall with regard to such matters of fairness and being even-handed about an issue which, without question, is (to use TVNZ's phrase) one of "genuine public interest".

There are two other matters about the programme overall on which the Authority considers it appropriate to record its deliberations before dealing with the specific aspects of the complaint.  Neither matter was raised directly by MAF as a detailed aspect of its complaint about the item's alleged factual inaccuracies or the item's lack of balance.  They are matters which the Authority has found it necessary to resolve in order to deal with the specific complaints and which, having become apprised of the information, have been relevant in its decision about the item's overall balance.

With regard to the first matter, as the programme section on pages 2–3 of this decision explained, the broadcast focussed on the possible transmission of BSE through genetic material.  However, the programme did not state clearly whether any other methods of transmission were possible.

The central issue was explained to viewers fairly early in the programme when some canisters were shown and the commentary reported:

They contain straws of cattle semen and embryos which have been imported from Britain and that is what this debate is all about.  Many people believe we run the very real risk of introducing BSE to this country by importing such bovine genetic material but agricultural officials say the risk is astronomically small.  Not only that, they say BSE can't be passed from one cow to another.  In the past 18 months they've approved the importation of more than 20,000 straws of semen and some 220 embryos from Britain.

The programme also stated a little later that cattle acquired BSE from eating meat and bone meal containing sheep offal contaminated with scrapie.

However the danger involved in the importation of embryos and semen was not explained until Professor Lacey was interviewed and he argued that the evidence now indicated that BSE was transmitted vertically from cow to calf.  He maintained that BSE was in the blood and in many organs of live animals (before the symptoms of BSE were exhibited) and, consequently:

We know from experiments from other animals with similar diseases that infection is very widely spread and therefore we have absolutely no reason to doubt that it will include embryos and semen.

The opposing viewpoint was put later by an importer of genetic material when he argued:

All the information from the International Veterinary Organisation is that there is no way that BSE can be transmitted in semen and I believe that the International Veterinary Organisation – which is the equivalent to World Health Organisation – if they say that there is no way this disease can be transmitted in semen, well who else do we believe if we don't believe the highest body that there is in the veterinary world.

At that stage the commentary again addressed the issue being considered by the programme:

About the only thing almost everyone in this story agrees upon is that there is a risk of introducing BSE to New Zealand from inseminating our cattle with British semen or implanting them with British embryos.  The point of issue is just how big that risk is.  Some farmers we have spoken to say that they have been told by MAF there is a 3 in 10,000 chance of the disease entering this country.  In other words, 3 out of every 10,000 animals donating sperm to New Zealand could have BSE.  However, MAF have told Frontline the odds are much lower.

The item reported that MAF could not give an absolute guarantee that BSE was not contained in the imported genetic material and the programme canvassed the degree of risk advanced by the experts.  The degree ranged from Professor's Lacey's near certainty of this vertical form of transmission to MAF's Dr O'Hara's two or three chances in a million given the controls set in place as to the selection of donor animals and treatment of the genetic products should the disease in fact be transmitted in this way.

However, while the divergent opinions about the vertical transmission of BSE were, after considerable discussion, finally presented in a straight-forward way, the question of horizontal transmission was never dealt with directly - ie could a cow catch BSE from another cow following some degree of contact?

The point was touched on twice in the discussion.  The first reference is the one noted above when the item explained to viewers the central issue ("... agricultural officials ... say BSE can't be passed from one cow to another") and the second occurred in the discussion about the Canadian case when the programme commented:

Well even one confirmed case could have major implications for New Zealand, if what happened in Canada is anything to go by.  Last year a Canadian cow which had been imported from Britain before Canada banned such imports developed BSE.  Even though the disease is not considered contagious, Canadian officials called for more than 300 animals to be slaughtered.  They included the diseased animal, 270 members of its herd and 64 other animals imported from Britain many years earlier.

These passing comments, in the Authority's opinion, were inadequate in dealing with the issue of horizontal transmission.

The "North and South" article dealt clearly with the matter and it reported at the outset that BSE was not contagious between cattle.  It was not transmitted through contact.  The Frontline item did not address this matter directly because, as was apparent in the report to MAF on the complaint, TVNZ believed that horizontal transmission was a possibility.  The evidence quoted by TVNZ in support of this stance referred to Professor Diringer in Berlin who stated:

It is certainly too early to conclude that the possibility of transmission of BSE in cattle either vertically or horizontally does not exist.

Besides referring to vertical transmission – which was the issue in contention – as well as horizontal transmission, the Authority considered that this quote from one person not otherwise referred to in the programme or the correspondence was insufficient evidence to justify the programme's treatment of the issue.  Indeed, the Authority concluded that the omission of any explicit comment in the broadcast that BSE was almost certainly not contagious was a major omission.

A second omission was an explicit explanation of the length of time during which embryos and semen had either been imported or their importation had been banned. After reading the transcript closely, it is apparent that the policy to allow the importation of such material had been in operation for eighteen months at the time of the broadcast.  However, because of the passing way in which it was referred to and because of the suggestion from the critics that the policy had been recently adopted, the Authority considered that the point was unjustifiably given insufficient emphasis and, moreover, was presented in a confusing manner.

The "North and South" article supplied by MAF reported that at the height of the BSE epidemic in the United Kingdom, approximately 263,000 straws of semen and 1300 embryos were imported into New Zealand.  The MAF spokesperson interviewed for the article said what he described as "a great natural experiment" had not resulted in the introduction of BSE.

The Authority sought elaboration on the point from MAF which said that the material was imported between 1980 – 1989.  It was in 1989 that the ban on the importation of bovine material was put in place.  MAF considered that about 150,000 progeny would have been produced through that material and:

The recognised incubation period for the disease is between two and eight years (with a mode of four years), and not a single case has been confirmed here.  It is unlikely, given the symptoms of BSE, that any case could have gone undetected.

The Authority considered that the omission of this information about the amount of genetic material imported before the ban was imposed in 1989 (granted the fact that no cases of BSE have been reported in New Zealand) was important in its assessment of the programme overall.

The Authority reiterates that while these two matters were not specific aspects of the complaint, their resolution was essential in determining whether the item, overall, was balanced.  They are addressed in the conclusion below.

Factual Inaccuracies – standard G1

(i)    The first complaint about factual inaccuracy involved the summary of the Canadian experience which MAF alleged did not highlight that the infected animal discovered had been imported live and, because BSE was not contagious, did not justify the academic's later reference that a similar situation in New Zealand would involve the slaughter of thousands of animals.  TVNZ upheld the aspect of the complaint when the reporter implied that BSE not just could but would be discovered in New Zealand.  In the Authority's opinion, TVNZ's statement of clarification dealt with all matters raised in the complaint except the references to the extent of the slaughter in Canada (300 animals) and that a similar situation in New Zealand would result in "thousands of animals" being slaughtered.

In determining this aspect of the complaint, the Authority accepted that the item implied that political and trade considerations - not animal health reasons - were the reasons for the number of cattle slaughtered in Canada.

However, it considered that the item was not clear when considering the consequences of an outbreak of BSE in New Zealand.  A close examination of the transcript revealed that if the slaughter was based on controlling the impact of the imported genetic material, thousands of animals would need to be slaughtered because of the inadequacy of the records in this country.  In addition the professor of veterinary science at Massey University stated clearly:

If you take the same view as Canada where they destroyed all the contact animals ... you would be talking about thousands and thousands of animals.

In deciding this aspect of the complaint and the references, first, to the slaughter of "thousands" of animals and then to "thousands and thousands", the Authority believed that any confusion felt by the viewer because of these different estimates arose because of the item's inadequate explanation that BSE was not contagious.  Following a careful reading of the transcript, the Authority accepted that the slaughter of "thousands" was based on the possibility of genetic transmission while the slaughter of "thousands and thousands" would occur for trade and political reasons and where transmission through contact was accepted as a possibility.

However, because this distinction became clear only after a close reading of the transcript, the Authority did not accept that the item's explanation of the consequences of an outbreak of BSE in New Zealand was adequate – let alone comprehensive – and, accordingly, it upheld this aspect of the complaint.

(ii)    The Authority thought that the item was unfair and possibly inaccurate, as the complaint argued, when it said in reference to the bio-technology industry that many overseas customers were nervous.  The reliance by TVNZ on the spokespeople from one company and the later reference to a letter by the US Food and Drug Administration did not, in the Authority's opinion, justify such a sweeping statement.

TVNZ advised the Authority:

The [Complaints] Committee also saw a letter from the US Food and Drug Administration which recommends that bovine products from countries where BSE is known to exist should not be used.  Clearly, if BSE was discovered here it would have major implications for the New Zealand Biotechnology Industry as the United States is that industry's largest market.

This information, in the Authority's opinion, was insufficient to justify the remark in the programme and, although not necessarily a matter of accuracy, it was a matter of balance to be taken into account when considering the item overall under standard G6.

(iii)    The Authority also upheld the next complaint about inaccuracy when the item referred to a "growing" body of "expert opinion".  While it has no doubt that the body of lay opinion might be increasing, eg among mayors as TVNZ pointed out, the item did not produce evidence that a growing number of experts opposed MAF's policy.

(iv)    The last aspect of the factual inaccuracy complaint said it was inaccurate to draw parallels between the scrapie scare of the 1970s and BSE because of the difference in the diseases.  TVNZ argued that the parallels drawn referred to official attitudes – not disease transmission - and declined to uphold that aspect of the complaint.

While inclined to agree with TVNZ, the Authority also took into account the item's lack of clear information about whether or not BSE was contagious between cattle.  Because of the inadequate way in which the item dealt with the issue of contagion, the Authority decided that although the comment was not inaccurate, the lack of clarity about the parallels between scrapie and BSE was an issue to be considered when the Authority ruled on the item overall under standard G6.

In summary, the Authority reached the following decisions on the points raised under standard G1:

    (i)    Upheld

    (ii)    Not upheld as a matter of inaccuracy

    (iii)    Upheld

    (iv)    Not upheld

Lack of Balance – Standards G6 and G20

MAF raised 12 matters (listed on pages 6-7 of this decision) when it alleged a lack of balance and TVNZ upheld one in relation to the introduction of MAF's Dr O'Hara. The Authority considered that this matter was adequately dealt with in the clarification broadcast by TVNZ.

Rather than deal fully with each of the other 11 points, the Authority will note the matters on which it has decided that MAF's complaint should be upheld and on those which it agreed with TVNZ and declined to uphold the complaint.

On the first aspect noted on page 6 – that the introduction included without balance the view points of two opponents to MAF's policy – the Authority was divided.  While a minority was inclined to the view that the introduction should include comments from both sides of the debate, the majority decided that it was unreasonable to expect an introduction to summarise all the arguments.

The Authority also decided not to uphold the aspects of the complaint that the programme suggested that MAF's policy was principally based on luck given the confusion about whether or not MAF had undertaken a quantitative risk analysis, that the item implied that the opposition to the policy was evenly divided, that it was suggested that the veterinary Faculty at Massey University was unanimous in its opposition to MAF's policy, that support for MAF's policy only came from those with a vested interest, that the programme suggested that the spokesperson for Federated Farmers Meat and Wool Section represented all farmers and that it was not acknowledged that some of the policy's opponents had vested interests in the issue.  Finally, the Authority declined to uphold the complaint that the OIE's recommendations were not reported.

The aspects upheld involved first the allegation that the opinion of one of the two farmers who opposed the policy, while possibly representing other farmers, was indeed presented as fact – eg "the beef consumption of the people in England has dropped forty per cent".  Also upheld was the complaint that the item carried the implication that New Zealand, by being out-of-step with Australia, was out-of-step internationally.  In reaching this conclusion, the Authority noted that as the item compared New Zealand to Australia only, it was reasonable to infer that Australia was following the accepted international guidelines.

Having read the material which records that the matter was considered by the OIE, the Authority is now aware that Australia is out-of-step internationally.  Because this matter only became clear after examining the material, the Authority was concerned about the way the OIE's findings were presented by the importer of genetic material who had vested interests.  Because of the focus on the spokesperson's vested interests, the Authority considered that the credibility of the only comments about the OIE that were made or reported in the item was undermined.  Accordingly, it upheld that aspect of the complaint.

In summary, of the 12 points (see pages 6–7) of the complaint which alleged a breach of standards G6 and G20 (and into which was incorporated standard G14), the Authority reached the following decisions:

    (1)    Not upheld (a majority view)

    (2)    Not upheld

    (3)    Not upheld

    (4)    Not upheld

    (5)    Upheld by TVNZ

    (6)    Not upheld

    (7)    Not upheld

    (8)    Upheld

    (9)    Upheld

    (10)    Not upheld – the OIE policy was advanced

    (11)    Upheld – the credibility of the OIE policy was undermined by the emphasis on the importer's vested interests

    (12)    Not Upheld

Reliability of News Sources – standard G15

The Authority indicated above that standard G15 was not applicable to a current affairs programme.  However, if it had been required to determine this aspect of the complaint, it would probably not have upheld it.  The programme acknowledged that Professor Lacey's claims were considered by some to be extravagant and sensational and, in the Authority's opinion, balance to many of the matters he advanced was provided during the discussion with the British MAFF official.

Causing Unnecessary Panic and Alarm – standard G16

Standard G16 was also inapplicable.  While the Authority was inclined to the view that evident lack of balance in a subject of such major public importance could well have been a cause of alarm, it would not have been prepared to advance even a tentative conclusion that the programme had had that effect unless it had received considerably more evidence from the complainant of panic or alarm than was advanced.

Concluding Comments

As will be apparent, the Authority upheld some of the specific aspects of the complaint but declined to uphold a greater number.  However, it did not believe that its decision on whether the item, overall, was balanced simply involved counting the points upheld and weighing them against the points not upheld.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a matter about which the Authority – like the vast majority of New Zealanders who are not cattle or dairy farmers – knew little before viewing the programme about which MAF complained.  The Authority was supplied with some background material which had previously been made available to Frontline and has read the "North and South" article published some two months after the broadcast.

Having studied the material and reviewed the programme, the Authority considered some matters were given inadequate emphasis in the Frontline broadcast.  Although it has upheld some specific complaints under both standards G1 and G6, the Authority was concerned in its overall determination as to whether the item, to use the language from both the complainant and the broadcaster, was rigorous, fair and even-handed in giving both sides a hearing and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.

On this point, the Authority would not go as far as MAF and insist on the absence of editorialising, provided that the material was presented in such a way as to allow the viewer to concur with or dispute the editorial stance adopted.

Applying the standard requiring fairness to the programme overall, the Authority was not convinced that the requirements in standard G6 for overall balance and impartiality, in addition to fairness, had been met.

Whereas MAF operated a policy on the basis that it considered the risk of BSE to New Zealand cattle from genetic material was negligible, the opponents argued that, because of the consequences of BSE being discovered in New Zealand, policy formulation should have been deferred until conclusive scientific evidence as to the safety of embryos and semen was available in the year 2001.

The issue explored in Frontline's "Dicing With Disease" was of public importance and it merited the use of the strong terminology employed.  However, because of the fundamental importance of the topic, the programme had to be particularly careful to comply with the standards.  Because it breached the broadcasting standards on the specific points noted – specifically because it dealt inadequately with the issues of contagion and transmission, because it failed to specify the length of time during which the present policy had been in force and the significance of the past (less stringent) policy, and because it was not clear that New Zealand, unlike Australia, complied with the Organisation Natural des Epizooties, the Authority concluded that, overall, the broadcast contravened standard G6.

 

For the reasons given above, the Authority upholds the complaint that parts of the Frontline programme on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy "Dicing with Disease" broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd on 4 September 1994, as specified in the body of the decision, breached standards G1, G6 and G20 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

The Authority also upholds the complaint that the programme overall breached standard G6 of the same Code.

Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make an order under s13(1) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.  The Authority agrees with TVNZ when it described the question addressed in the programme as one of general public interest.  As such, it was important in the Authority's opinion that the issues were addressed thoroughly, accurately and impartially.  For the reasons given above, the Authority decided that the standards were not met on this occasion and, accordingly an order is appropriate.

Order

Pursuant to s13(1) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders Television New Zealand Ltd to broadcast a brief summary of the decision which clarifies the issues listed below arising from the item "Dicing with Disease" broadcast on Frontline on 4 September 1994.  The statement shall be approved by the Authority and shall be broadcast within one month of the date of this decision at a time and during a programme to be agreed on by the Authority and the broadcaster.

The statement shall clarify the following issues:

1)   It shall report the best scientific evidence as to the methods of transmission of BSE between cattle and shall distinguish between transmission genetically and through contagion.

2)   It shall report the reasons for the different estimates of the number of animals which would need to be slaughtered should BSE be detected in New Zealand.  The statement may use the different methods of transmission in the explanation of point one.

3)   It shall report that New Zealand imported a considerable quantity of bovine genetic material from the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1989 – the height of the BSE epidemic there – and that no cases of BSE have been reported in New Zealand.


4)   It shall also report that New Zealand's policy in regard to the importation of bovine genetic material, unlike that of Australia, is in line with the policy adopted by the OIE (the veterinary equivalent of the World Health Organisation) and most of the developed world.


TVNZ's plans in regard to Frontline are not known to the Authority at present.  Should it be reinstated within one month – even in another timeslot – it is expected that the statement ordered  to be broadcast will be included in Frontline.  Should Frontline not be reinstated, the Authority will expect the statement to be included in another current affairs programme broadcast by TVNZ.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority



Iain Gallaway
Chairperson
12 April 1995

Appendix

Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries' Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 27 September 1994

The Ministry complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about a Frontline programme on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) broadcast on TV One between 6.30–7.30pm on Sunday 4 September.  By way of introduction, the Ministry stated that the programme contravened the principle of balance.  In addition:

    The programme breached the principles of both fairness and accuracy.

It also pointed out that both the Minister of Agriculture (Hon John Falloon) and the Ministry had provided comprehensive background information but the programme was inaccurate on several points of fact and had presented some matters of opinion as fact.

The Ministry provided the following examples of factual inaccuracies:

i)    The item said that more than 300 animals had been slaughtered in Canada after one cow imported from England had developed BSE and thus, if BSE was discovered in New Zealand, thousands of animals could be infected.

The Ministry said insufficient emphasis had been given to the fact that the diseased cow in Canada had been imported live and that the trade in bovine genetic material had continued unchecked.  Some of the animals had been slaughtered for political and trade reasons because it had not been technically necessary.  As for the assertion that "thousands and thousands" of animals could be infected and would have to be destroyed if a similar situation occurred in New Zealand, the Ministry opined:

            It is a totally illogical and unfounded proposition presented as though it were fact.

ii)    The Ministry was unaware of the evidence to support the reporter's assertion that:

But the importation of British cattle semen and embryos is making many overseas customers nervous and the future of the industry (pharmaceutical and bio-chemical products made from animal tissues) is on the line.

iii)    The Ministry also disputed the item's claim that:

A growing body of expert opinion says we're exposing our valuable beef and dairy industry to unnecessary risk.

The opposition to the trade in genetic material, the Ministry added, had not increased among experts.

iv)    Noting that the item made frequent comparisons between the risks of importing BSE and the scrapie scare of the 1970s, the Ministry argued that the alleged parallels were misleading.  Whereas the scrapie scare involved live animals, the BSE debate involved the importation of semen and embryos.  Further:

There has been no recorded case anywhere in the world where imports of genetic material have caused BSE.

In addition, the diseases affected different parts of the animals.  While the information had been made available to Frontline, the programme had persisted in making the misleading comparison.

The complaint then alleged blatant bias and a lack of balance and breaches of standards G6, G14 and G20.  It began:

Dissidents and those holding minority views were given more weight and coverage in the programme than mainstream, majority opinion, and doubt was cast on the credibility and integrity of those defending the MAF position.

Twelve examples were given to justify that aspect of the complaint.

1)    The two clips used to open the programme were both from opponents of the importation of genetic material.

2)    Comments such as the one from the reporter when he said, "Now some New Zealanders are wondering whether our luck could run out", implied that the Ministry based its policy on luck rather than on a careful assessment of the facts.

3)    The complaint argued:

The word 'some' was frequently used in an unquantified, unattributed fashion to imply that opinion was roughly divided on the issue.

However, the Ministry wrote, contrary to the item's impression an overwhelming majority of informed scientists and veterinarians endorsed its policy.

4)    Only one Massey spokesperson was cited although faculty opinion was evenly divided.

5)    The comments about the scrapie scare which accompanied the introduction of Ministry Deputy Director General Dr Peter O'Hara were designed to undermine his credibility.  On the other hand:

No such aspersions were cast upon the credibility of any of those who opposed the imports.

6)    The item's linkage of policy supporters with importers suggested that only those with vested interests supported the policy.  The Ministry continued:

In fact, the importer was the only New Zealand, non-MAF interviewee on the programme who supported the MAF stand.  Only passing mention was made of support from Federated Farmers' Dairy Section, subject to certain conditions.

The impression was therefore created that supporters of the MAF policy are thin on the ground.

But, the Ministry reported, the issue of importing bovine genetic material from the UK had been considered on five occasions by the Ministry's Agricultural Security Consultative Committee (ASCC).  The 13 industry and veterinary representatives on the ASCC who supported the policy were neither interviewed nor their support noted while the two dissidents – Edward Orr and William Rolleston – were interviewed.

7)    Mr Orr was not the Dairy Section's representative on the ASCC but was quoted as if he was.  Their representative, Malcolm Bailey, made written comments to Frontline after the broadcast which included the following:

The Dairy Section Executive believe that the TVNZ programme presented no evidence to make us change our policy on this issue, and believe the programme to have been totally unbalanced in its approach.  I myself had contact with Mr Rod Vaughan with regard to Dairy Section Policy ... but it seems the more moderate view we had was not in line with the pre-determined thrust of the programme.

To conclude, we felt that MAF were portrayed in an unfair light, the programme was very thin on fact and very big on emotive rhetoric, and at this point in time, in the absence of any new information we continue to support the MAF position.

8)    Two farmers who opposed the imports were shown and some of their opinions were presented as facts.  For example, there was no evidence that beef consumption had declined by 40% in Britain as claimed.  Secondly, as BSE was not considered a contagious disease, a single case would not destroy our clean, green reputation.

The Ministry summarised:

In the unlikely event of a single case of BSE being confirmed in New Zealand, the approach would be to simply kill the affected animal and quarantine the rest of the herd.

These farmers obviously feel genuine concern, but their opinions should not be presented as undisputed fact.

9)    It was correctly reported that policy differed between New Zealand and Australia but the implication that New Zealand was out of step internationally was incorrect as Australia, the Ministry maintained, was out of step with international opinion.  Further, Frontline  interviewed a representative of the farmers in Australia rather than to a veterinarian involved with the Quarantine Service.

10)    Insignificant attention was given to the fact that New Zealand's policy was based on the recommendations of the OIE (Office International des Epizooties).  It was the veterinary equivalent to WHO and comprised veterinary representatives from 130 countries.  The Authority complained:

Only brief reference was made in the programme to the endorsement of this most highly respected and totally independent and impartial organisation.  (This despite the fact the Peter O'Hara from MAF made frequent reference to it during his interview but none of this information was used.)

The programme makers were prepared to conduct interviews in England, but not to cross the channel to France to obtain comment from the OIE.

11)    The credibility of the OIE was undermined as the reference to it was presented by an importer of genetic material who could be seen as biased.

12)    However, that vested interests might influence opinion was not advanced when the comments of a representative of the New Zealand bio-technical industry (which opposed the imports) were presented.

The next section of complaint alleged a breach of standard G15 which refers to the reliability of news sources.  The Ministry stated:

The implication was made that those who oppose the imports represent a significant proportion of scientists or veterinarians, and that they have credibility within their profession.  The most glaring example is Professor Richard Lacey of Leeds University.

However:

He is virtually alone among the scientific community in holding such views, and his opinions on BSE are not highly regarded.  He has a particular interest in food safety, but his is not known to have ever worked in the field of spongiform encephalopathies.

This shows the power of irresponsible journalism.

In conclusion, the Authority sought a public correction and apology from TVNZ.  In addition to a transcript, the Ministry attached five appendices in support of its submission.

TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint – 22 November 1994

In its response to the Ministry, TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards.  It began:

The item examined the level of risk to New Zealand agriculture posed by the continued import of genetic material (cattle semen and embryos) from Britain where bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, is not uncommon.

It proceeded to respond to the issues in the way they had been put in the complaint and dealt first with the alleged inaccuracies which were said to be in breach of standard G1.

i)    The Canadian example was used to show what would happen when an active case of BSE was discovered.  The script had made clear that the Canadian case followed the import of a live cow but the issue was not how the disease got in – but the consequences should it get in.  TVNZ added:

While the [Complaints] Committee would have preferred a line in the script pointing out that Canada has continued to trade in genetic material it did not believe that the description of the consequences of a BSE case being confirmed was inaccurate.

The item had not implied that the impact on trade of one case was long-term and, further, it had reported that the slaughter of a large number of animals could have been motivated by trade and political considerations.

TVNZ continued:

On the matter of the use of the term "if and when BSE was discovered", the committee agreed with you that the words "and when" were inappropriate and should not have been used.  There was no justification
for them.  This aspect of your complaint was upheld.

With reference to the term that "thousands" of animals would have to be destroyed, the use arose in the New Zealand context directly from the comments from Professor West when he explicitly referred to the number of animals which could be in contact with an infected animal.  These animals would not necessarily be infected themselves.  TVNZ emphasised that Professor West was expressing an opinion and it could not be described as an inaccuracy.

ii)    TVNZ said that Drs Rolleston and Sharpin of New Zealand Agritech Inc were the sources of information about customer nervousness because of the import of genetic material.  Their opinion about American customers should BSE become established in New Zealand was substantiated by a report from the US Food and Drug Administration.

iii)    Citing the opinions of several experts in support, TVNZ maintained that the statement that the trade exposed the beef and dairy industry to "unnecessary risk" was not incorrect.  The contrary views of the International Veterinary Organisation, with which the Ministry agreed, were put by Mr Thorburn as an importer of genetic material.

iv)    TVNZ did not accept that it was misleading to draw parallels between BSE and the scrapie scare in the 1970s.  Pointing out that the similarities were mainly concerned with the attitude of officials, not technicalities, TVNZ maintained that it was not inaccurate to advance parallels to show that imports motivated by trade and political considerations could result in the warnings from experts being dismissed.

TVNZ then proceeded to consider the twelve points alleging a lack of balance, commenting on the overall complaint:

The committee found this comment surprising, given that "Frontline" included arguments from both sides of the debate.  The inclusion of considerable comment from Dr Peter O'Hara and additional material from Everett Thorburn, combined with the reporter's acknowledgment that the Dairy Section of Federated Farmers is among groups in New Zealand that support MAF's position demonstrates how wide of the mark is your suggestion that "no genuine attempt" was made to give both points of view.

1)    The two clips at the beginning referred to, TVNZ said, stated the issues "very crisply" and the full item provided the required balance.

2)    TVNZ maintained, from the evidence it held, that as a Quantitative Risk Assessment had not been done, the Ministry was not able to assess accurately the risk of BSE entering New Zealand.

3)    As for the Ministry's objections to the word "some", TVNZ did not accept that the item gave the impression that those who opposed bovine genetic imports from Britain amounted to a roughly equal number to those who supported it.  The item suggested, accurately, that a significant body of expert opinion voiced concern.

4)    TVNZ rejected the implication in the complaint that, in addition to ensuring balance overall, it was required to balance views within the veterinary faculty at Massey University.

5)    In full, TVNZ stated:

 

In 5) you suggest that Dr O'Hara's credibility is placed in doubt because of the line of narration which introduced him.  This said:

Such claims are seen as extravagant and sensational by New Zealand Agricultural officials and by Dr Peter O'Hara who says we have nothing to fear, or have we?

TVNZ's Complaints Committee focussed on the last three words of the above sentence and agreed with you that, while they may not directly impinge on Dr O'Hara's credibility, they do suggest a somewhat less than even-handed approach to the MAF position at that particular point in the script.

The committee resolved that the words "or have we" should not have been used and amount to a breach of the fairness requirement in G6.

This part of your complaint was upheld.

6)    The item portrayed a range of supporters for the Ministry's policy which indicated that support was not "thin on the ground" as the complaint alleged.  TVNZ also noted that opposition to the Ministry's policy had increased on the ASCC from two members to four.

7)    Arguing that Mr Orr as representative from the Meat and Wool section of Federated Farmers was as relevant as Mr Bailey from the Dairy Section, TVNZ said that Mr Bailey's views were included in the broadcast.  There was, TVNZ added, as the programme showed, conflicting views also among dairy farmers about the impact of genetic material.

8)    The opinions of the two dairy farmers screened, TVNZ said, were not presented as undisputed fact and it assumed that the Ministry was not complaining that the item included the views of a significant number of farmers.  TVNZ also pointed out that some expert opinion was not yet prepared to accept that BSE was not contagious.

9)    The programme stated, correctly, that New Zealand was out of step with Australia but had not suggested that it was out of step with the world.  Frontline had been unsuccessful in its attempt to arrange an interview with the Quarantine Service in Australia.  The Australian Service had provided a paper which said in relation to the countries' different policies:

Any differences in conclusions reached on import policies (including attitudes to importations from BSE affected countries) reflect subtleties of scientific interpretation of complex technical information and perhaps differing perceptions as to what constitutes an acceptable risk/management option for a particular country import/product scenario.

10) and 11)

 TVNZ maintained that the OIE recommendations were given fair and proper treatment.  Further, Dr O'Hara had received a fair hearing.

12)   Dr Rolleston's commercial interests were acknowledged in the programme and he spoke both as an industry representative and a member of the ASCC.

Turning to the complaint about the reliability of news sources under standard G15, TVNZ stated that, contrary to the complaint's assertions, Professor Lacey was not a maverick without qualifications.  Rather he was an academic who, as a commentator on food related matters, wrote for newspapers and appeared on television.  TVNZ added:

It is correct to say that his views are in direct conflict with the British MAFF, which has made some rather derogatory – perhaps defamatory – statements about him because he has challenged the official line on various issues.

However, it would seem from TVNZ research that Professor Lacey has oft times been proven right.

TVNZ referred to Professor Lacey's warnings about catching salmonella from contaminated eggs and added that his views put during the broadcast were balanced by the British Assistant Chief Veterinary Officer.

Dealing with the standard G16 complaint about causing panic, TVNZ noted and rejected the examples advanced by the Ministry.  The overwhelming response from viewers, it reported, was favourable.  It continued:

TVNZ also must reject your comment that the withdrawal of support for genetic imports made by the Royal Agricultural Society representative was "the power of irresponsible journalism".  Could it not alternatively suggest the legitimate public concerns raised by the programme had caused equally legitimate doubts in the minds of this representative?

In summary, TVNZ wrote:

Looking at the programme overall, TVNZ's Complaints Committee believed the issue was one which deserved to be raised and discussed in the public arena.  It believes the programme was, for the most part, fair and balanced, and accurate.  It does not believe the use of Professor Lacey was inappropriate, not does it accept that the programme contributed to any alarm or panic in the community.

As for the two aspects of the complaint upheld, TVNZ said that it would broadcast a clarification of the points on Frontline on 27 November.

The Ministry's Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 5 December 1994

Dissatisfied that the complaint was not upheld in full, the Ministry referred it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

The Ministry elaborated on some of the points raised in the original complaint.  First, with regard to the allegation of inaccuracies under standard G1, the Ministry wrote:

i)    It was not made clear that Canada has continued its programme of importing semen and embryos from Britain.

ii)   The reference to thousands and thousands of cattle deaths was not justified in view of the Canadian experience.  Further, the average viewer was unlikely to pick up the distinction between "contacts" and "infection" in Professor West's answer.

iii)  The Ministry accepted that there was "a body of expert opinion" opposing the importation of UK bovine genetic material but disagreed that it was growing.

iv)  TVNZ's interpretation of the scrapie scare in the 1970s was totally inaccurate as the infected sheep were never released from quarantine.  It added:

The fact that the people opposed to the sheep importation are also the people opposed to cattle semen and embryo importation hardly seems relevant. Notwithstanding their opposition, the Government did agree to an importation protocol which recognised the risk of importing scrapie and which managed the risk.  The risk of importing BSE is markedly less.

With regard to the lack of balance and the twelve examples supplied, the Ministry maintained that, overall, the programme was "heavily weighted" towards the anti-import group.  It listed the people quoted and noted:

Independent experts – international or local – were not represented.

The OIE has vastly more scientific and technical credibility than Professor Richard Lacey (no matter in what regard the media may hold him, he is not respected among his colleagues);  Professor Colin Wilkes has as much credibility as Professor Dave West; and the Dairy Section of Federated Farmers has as much right as the Meat and Wool Section to have its views heard in full.

None of these people appeared on camera.

The programme had not put the New Zealand policy in its international context where it was in step with most of the developed world – apart from Australia. 

The Ministry also maintained that the programme breached standard G16 by causing unnecessary panic, alarm and distress.

TVNZ's Response to the Authority – 10 January 1995

In its report to the Authority on the referral, TVNZ stated that a clarification had been run on Frontline on 27 November, first, as some of the reporter's phrases were ambiguous, and secondly, to explain further the situation in Canada.  Emphasising that the broadcast was a clarification, not an apology, TVNZ said that it stated:

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has written to us about an item we screened recently on BSE – known as mad cow disease.

Frontline looked at the importation of cattle semen and embryos into New Zealand from Britain and the possible risk of BSE being introduced here as a result of this practice.

Our programme referred to the Canadian experience where a live cow imported from Britain was found to have the disease.  The discovery led to more than 300 cattle being slaughtered.  MAF has pointed out that Canada although banning live cattle imports has continued its importation of semen and embryos – as is the case in New Zealand.

MAF also complained that two phrases in the programme narration implied that it is only a matter of time before BSE is introduced into New Zealand and that the credibility of officials who say otherwise is in doubt.

Frontline did not intend to create those impressions.  We freely acknowledge that there has been no recorded case anywhere of imported genetic material causing BSE.  As we reported, studies into whether this is possible are being done in Britain and the results are not expected for another five years.

As for the programme complained about, TVNZ advised the Authority:

We believe that the major theme of the programme is correct and that an impartial viewer would accurately have drawn from the programme the inference that a significant body of responsible farming and scientific opinion has it that the import of genetic material poses an unacceptable risk to this country's pastoral industries.

Accepting that views on the issues raised in the item were polarised, TVNZ enclosed a fax from Mr Orr of the National Meat and Wool Council.  Mr Orr maintained that the original programme was "a clear and balanced insight" about the potential impact of BSE while the clarification (which he described as an apology) was incorrect and unbalanced, adding:

I can only assume that you have succumbed to some pressure from MAF and at the same time did not take into consideration the opinions of other technical experts who would disagree with MAF.

Mr Orr argued that the original programme should have included all recent information which would have shown that an apology to the Ministry was unnecessary.

TVNZ then dealt with the specific points in the complaint.

i)    Pointing out that the clarification made clear that Canada continued to import semen and embryos from Great Britain, TVNZ repeated that the Canadian experience had been dealt with to show the impact on an agricultural community should a case of BSE be discovered.

ii)    Commenting that the Ministry's remark about "untrained viewers" was patronising, TVNZ said the programme explained why it might be necessary in New Zealand to destroy a large number of cattle.

iii)    While the Ministry might think that the opposition to the import of genetic material was not growing, TVNZ believed that its research showed that it was.  That was also the view advanced by Mr Orr in his fax when he had listed the organisations and officials who wanted the ban reimposed.

iv)    The reference to scrapie, TVNZ stated, was to point out the similarity among the official attitudes then and now.

TVNZ also disputed the Ministry's "simplistic" approach to the division of the time during the item given to those in support or against the policy.  It stated:

In this case, the point of the programme was to alert viewers to the concerns of a reputable group of people about the practice of importing genetic material from Britain and the risk that could pose introducing BSE to New Zealand.  The emphasis was on explaining their concerns.

In such a context, good journalism requires only that those who support the status quo (the importation of genetic material) should be given a fair opportunity to express their views.  Mr O'Hara, in particular, was seen to do that - and at length.  The arguments both for and against were tested by journalistic scrutiny.

TVNZ objected to the Ministry's suggestion that, by suggesting which experts should be included, it could be involved in the area of editorial judgment.  Similarly, as the OIE view had been included in the item, it had not been necessary "to roam the continent" seeking other views.  The Ministry, it argued, not TVNZ, had missed the point.  Further, TVNZ disagreed that the Ministry had produced evidence of "unnecessary panic, alarm and distress" to amount to a breach of standard G16.

TVNZ concluded:

We invite the Authority to accept that this matter was one of genuine public interest, and worthy of attention in a current affairs programme.  The structure and reporting were rigorous and fair.

While we recognise the ministry's right to complain under the terms of the Broadcasting Act, we suggest that the lengthy documentation contains sweeping generalisations, but very little supporting detail.

The Ministry's Final Comment – 16 January 1995

Noting that the substantive points had been made in its earlier letters, the Ministry confined its final comments to a response to a number of specific points made by TVNZ in its report to the Authority.

First, the Ministry accepted that the 27 November broadcast was a clarification, not an apology, but maintained that "untrained viewers" would not have picked up the distinction between "contact" and "infection" in Professor West's comment.

Secondly, it said:

We stand by our comment that the phrase "a growing body of expert opinion" is inaccurate.  There is a body of expert opinion and there may be a growing body of lay opinion, but there is no evidence that the number of people who could justifiably lay claim to the term 'expert' is growing.

As the third point, the Ministry maintained that TVNZ should have approached the OIE - not "roam the continent" - as it was the appropriate international body and it was headquartered in France.  It added:

The OIE's views were eluded to in the programme only in comments by the importer Everett Thorburn, not by the reporter.  As pointed out in our full complaint, Mr Thorburn's credibility was then questioned by the reporter.

Fourthly, the Ministry accepted that balance could not be achieved by the use of a stopwatch but said that a 2:1 ratio seemed "extremely lopsided".

Fifthly, while not disputing TVNZ's right to include Professor Lacey's views, the Ministry argued that some comment was necessary to point out that his views were not those of the mainstream.

Finally, to show the Authority that it was not trying to stifle debate, the Ministry enclosed an article from North and South.  It concluded:

This article covers the same ground and airs the same objections, but manages to do so in an even-handed, balanced manner which gives both sides a fair hearing and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions without editorialising.

If the objective of Frontline was to "alert viewers to the concerns of a reputable group of people about the practice of importing genetic material from Britain and the risk that could pose introducing BSE to New Zealand", it could have been handled much less sensationally.

Further Correspondence

TVNZ responded to the Ministry's final comment in a letter to the Authority dated 2 February 1995 and explained that the information contained in the North and South article would occupy several hours of air time if converted into a broadcast script.  It observed:

It is not fair to compare a television item (where salient facts must be isolated and presented within a finite time frame) and a magazine article which is able to include many thousands of extra words of exposition.

Nevertheless, TVNZ added, the article reflected the concerns contained in the Frontline item and suggested that the Ministry's response to be broadcast was an "all-out effort" to discredit the broadcaster while at the same time setting up a "damage limitation operation".  TVNZ questioned whether the complaint was not in fact part of that effort.

Moreover, in response to the written material supplied by the Ministry, TVNZ provided a translation of an article in a German magazine (Stern) published in July 1995 and a comment from the Weekly Telegraph in December both of which recorded the international concern about BSE.

In its response to the Authority dated 8 February, the Ministry pointed out that it had provided the North and South article as an example not of depth but of balance.  Furthermore, it maintained that the two articles supplied by TVNZ were "selective examples of material supporting one side of the issue".

The Ministry concluded:

"Frontline" presented a biased and flawed portrayal of an issue that potentially has important implications for our primary industries and trade.  The programme lacked balance and caused unnecessary distress.

Having examined the complaint, the Authority noted that one point mentioned in the North and South article was not covered in the complaint.  As it was an issue which it believed was relevant to the item's balance overall, in a letter dated 17 February the Authority wrote to the Ministry and asked it to comment on the point that, during the height of the BSE epidemic, approximately 263,000 straws of semen and 1300 embryos were imported from the United Kingdom and whether, as the article maintained, that " a great natural experiment" has not resulted in the introduction of BSE.

The Authority also asked about the number of cows which could be inseminated by each straw and the use to which the embryos were put.

In its reply dated 27 February, the Ministry wrote in response to the Authority's request about the years during which genetic material were imported:

The period in question is from 1980 to 1989, when New Zealand banned the importation of bovine genetic material from the UK.  The recognised incubation period for the disease is between two and eight years (with a mode of four years), and not a single case has been confirmed here.  It is unlikely, given the symptoms of BSE, that any case could have gone undetected.

It should also be noted that during this period, the precautionary measures now imposed on these genetic imports were not in place between 1980 and 1989, so the risk now is less that it was then.  Among other constraints, the current policy states the genetic material must come only from animals which were born after the imposition of the ban on feeding meatmeal to cattle was imposed in the UK.

Noting that only one cow could be inseminated by each straw, the Ministry said that, in general, between one and three straws were used to achieve the desired result.  The embryos were implanted in a cow's uterus and the success rate varied from 55% to 75%.

The Ministry concluded:

I assume that the Authority is trying to determine how many progeny were produced through semen and embryo importation from the United Kingdom during the time period referred to in the "North and South" article.  A reasonable estimation would be in the region of 150,000.

TVNZ was provided with a copy of the Ministry's letter.