Skip to main content

Gunasekara and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2010-075

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Tapu Misa
  • Leigh Pearson

Complainant

  • Dr Sanji Gunasekara of Wellington

Dated

14th September 2010

Number

2010-075

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item on walkout by New Zealand delegation during the Iranian president’s speech at a United Nations nuclear conference – reporter made statements about Iran’s nuclear programme and about a previous walkout during an earlier speech given by the Iranian president – allegedly inaccurate

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – statement that “Its reason: it’s for generating electricity” was careless and misleading – upheld – comment that a previous speech by President Ahmadinejad was “racist” was not material to the item – not upheld

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm on Tuesday 4 May 2010, reported on the New Zealand delegation’s walkout during the Iranian president’s speech at a United Nations nuclear conference.

[2]   The presenters introduced the item by saying:

New Zealand joins other nations in staging a walkout during a combative speech by Iran’s president to the United Nations nuclear conference. The protest does not bode well for the month-long talks aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

[3]   The item discussed Iran’s nuclear programme saying, “Iran’s president claims its nuclear programme is purely peaceful, but many countries aren’t buying the rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad’s fiery speech to the United Nations.”

[4]   The reporter went on to say:

In September, Iran was caught testing nuclear-capable weapons. Its reason: it’s for generating electricity. But it stands accused of breaking the UN treaty against the spread of nuclear weapons.

[5]   Referring to the walkout, the report concluded by saying:

It’s not the first time either. Last year New Zealand walked out of another UN meeting when the Iranian president made racist comments. This time it’s just the start of month-long talks that may not be heading in the right direction.

Complaint

[6]   Dr Sanji Gunasekara made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was inaccurate and misleading.

[7]   The complainant noted that during the reporter’s comment, “In September, Iran was caught testing nuclear-capable weapons. Its reason: it’s for generating electricity”, footage of missiles being launched was shown. He contended that the second sentence, “Its reason: it’s for generating electricity”, was inaccurate and misleading.

[8]   Dr Gunasekara stated that “Iran has never claimed that the reason for its September weapon tests was for generating electricity”, rather Iran had always claimed its uranium enrichment programme was for peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity. He argued that the reporter’s assertion that “generating electricity was Iran’s reason for testing nuclear-capable weapons” was “blatantly wrong” and required a correction.

[9]   The complaint also noted the reporter’s remark, “Last year New Zealand walked out of another UN meeting when the Iranian president made racist comments”. He contended that, while the Iranian president’s previous speech could be considered provocative and highly critical of Israel, it was inaccurate and misleading to call it “racist”.

Standards

[10]   Standard 5 and guideline 5a of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice are relevant to the determination of this complaint. They provide:

Standard 5 Accuracy

Broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming:

• is accurate in relation to all material points of fact; and/or
• does not mislead.

Guideline 5a

The accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[11]   With respect to the reporter’s remark, “In September, Iran was caught testing nuclear-capable weapons. Its reason: it’s for generating electricity”, TVNZ argued that the “it’s” in the statement represented the Iranian nuclear programme. It contended that the Iranian leadership “has a stated goal of generating electricity from its nuclear programme”. It did not consider that the reporter’s statement was inaccurate and declined to uphold this aspect of the Standard 5 complaint.

[12]   Turning to the concluding comment in the item, the broadcaster considered that the Iranian president was renowned for his provocative speeches. It argued that the brief reference to a previous walkout by the New Zealand delegation due to Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech being racist was accurate. It considered that this point had been addressed in a previous decision by the Authority.1

Referral to the Authority

[13]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Dr Gunasekara referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He maintained that the combination of the wording and footage of missile tests contained in the segment conflated Iran’s testing of nuclear-capable weapons with its goal of generating electricity, which was “seriously misleading”.

[14]   Turning to the reporter’s reference to a previous walkout by the New Zealand delegation due to “racist comments” in the Iranian president’s speech, Dr Gunasekara maintained that the comments were not racist and that the reporter’s description was inaccurate.

[15]   Referring to the Authority’s decision mentioned by TVNZ in paragraph [12] above, the complainant stated that the Authority had found in that decision that a correspondent’s description of a previous speech by Iran’s president as “mindless hate” was opinion, whereas in this case, he argued, the reporter was not giving her opinion and hence the accuracy standard applied.

Authority's Determination

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

[17]   Standard 5 states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.

[18]   Dr Gunasekara argued that the reporter’s comment, “In September, Iran was caught testing nuclear-capable weapons. Its reason: it’s for generating electricity”, was misleading.

[19]   We note that the first sentence is not disputed; both parties agree that Iran did test nuclear-capable weapons. However, the complainant contended that Iran had never claimed that its reason for testing nuclear-capable weapons was to generate electricity.

[20]   In our view, the broadcaster was careless in the way in which it framed the second sentence. While the broadcaster has stated that the sentence was intended to convey one meaning – that the Iranian leadership had a goal of generating electricity from its nuclear programme – we consider that, unfortunately, what the broadcaster actually conveyed was that Iran had made the unbelievable claim that the purpose of its weapons testing was to generate electricity.

[21]   In this respect, we consider that the statement would have misled viewers. The sentence was, in our view, constructed in a way that made Iran look absurd for giving such an excuse.

[22]   Standard 5 states that broadcasters must make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that news programmes do not mislead. Due to the careless wording of the sentence described above, we find that TVNZ did not make reasonable efforts in this instance. It is important that broadcasters take care when reporting on international issues such as these, because such reports affect and shape viewers’ perceptions of the issues involved. This statement would have affected viewers’ impressions of Iran and its conduct and attitude towards nuclear weapons testing, and TVNZ should have taken greater care to ensure that it conveyed the correct information.

[23]   Having reached the conclusion that the broadcaster did not make reasonable efforts to ensure that the item did not mislead viewers, we must now consider whether to uphold this aspect of the complaint as a breach of Standard 5.

[24]   We acknowledge that upholding the Standard 5 complaint would place a limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. In Pryde and RNZ,2 the Authority determined that upholding a complaint under Standard 5 would be prescribed by law and a justified limitation on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression as required by section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act.

[25]   We consider that it would be a reasonable and proportionate limit on TVNZ’s freedom of expression to uphold a breach of the accuracy standard on this occasion, because the item created a misleading impression about what Iran had said about its nuclear testing, which would have affected viewers’ perceptions of that country. Upholding the complaint clearly promotes the objective of Standard 5, which is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled. We therefore uphold this aspect of the accuracy complaint.

[26]   Dr Gunasekara also argued that the reporter’s reference to a previous walkout by the New Zealand delegation due to “racist comments” in the Iranian president’s speech was inaccurate.

[27]   In our view, the comment that the previous walkout by the New Zealand delegation was due to the Iranian president’s speech being “racist” was loose shorthand. The remark was clearly an attempt to characterise the anti-Israeli sentiment contained in Mr Ahmadinejad’s previous speech within the context of a short news item. Further, the statement was purely background material to the main story and, as such, we consider that it was not material. We consider that this part of the item did not breach Standard 5.

[28]   Accordingly we decline to uphold this aspect of Dr Gunasekara’s complaint.


For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item on One News on 4 May 2010 breached Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.


[29]   Having upheld the complaint, we may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. We do not intend to do so on this occasion. We consider that this decision will serve as a reminder to broadcasters to be acutely aware of the need for accuracy when reporting on sensitive international issues, as such reports shape and affect people’s perceptions about the issues being reported on.

 

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
14 September 2010

Appendix

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

1.           Dr Sanji Gunasekara’s formal complaint – 17 May 2010

2.          TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 17 June 2010

3.          Dr Gunasekara’s referral to the Authority – 21 June 2010

4.          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 16 July 2010


1Decision No. 2009-148

2Decision No. 2008-040