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Bell and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-052

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Paul France
  • Tapu Misa

Complainant

  • William Bell of Auckland

Dated

19th August 2009

Number

2009-052

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Beyond The Darklands – programme was a case study of convicted murderer William Bell based on the recollections of friends, teachers and others as well as analysis by psychologist – programme disclosed the name of the street Mr Bell used to live on with his mother – included claims Mr Bell was abused by his family as a child and worked as a prostitute – allegedly in breach of privacy, accuracy and fairness standards

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – programme was a case study – viewers would have realised that the interviewees and psychologist were not making statements of fact, but providing individual perceptions and analysis – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – programme not required to obtain comment from complainant – nature of programme – range of views and analysis provided were a fair reflection of the complainant – not upheld

Standard 3 (privacy) – no private facts revealed about Mr Bell's mother – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  An episode of Beyond the Darklands, a series in which a clinical psychologist, Nigel Latta, profiled notorious New Zealand criminals, was broadcast on TV One at 9.30pm on 30 January 2009. The episode examined the life of William Dwane Bell, who was convicted in 2003 of the murder of three people and the attempted murder of a fourth during a robbery at the premises of the Auckland’s Mt Wellington-Panmure Returned Services Association in 2001.

[2]  The programme contained interviews with social workers, teachers and other people who knew Mr Bell from childhood to adulthood and who spoke about their experiences with him prior to the RSA killings.

[3]  The episode began with an outline of Mr Bell's childhood, with interviewees saying that he had been raised in a violent household by parents with gang connections and that his father had been physically violent towards him throughout his childhood.

[4]  During a description of Mr Bell's early years, the psychologist stated, "Bell was still only 14, but he was now mixing his thieving with prostitution" and later went on to say that earning money this way had started when he was a very young boy. Two of the interviewees, a former friend of Mr Bell and a former youth case worker of his, also made statements that he had been prostituting himself and said the following:

Friend:    
Yeah, I heard that, just that he was prostituting in Onehunga to make money.

Case worker:    
Yeah, he spoke of his sexual activities, and he would go into K Road and things like that and make money. And there were men that wanted to take him into their care for that purpose. When I advised them that I was going to put the police onto them, these men just disappeared... He actually spoke of being used and abused by his grandfather's friends or the other old people. Mind you, I suppose he didn't see it as abuse, he thought it was choice.

[5]  The clinical psychologist then stated:

This is probably difficult for people to understand, but I think that Bell wouldn't have seen it as abuse. He came from a world of dysfunction and neglect. So for him, being treated badly by adults was the norm. If you don’t feel disgust, sadness or fear, then money for sex is just an income stream.

[6]  The programme also gave details of the location of Mr Bell’s childhood home, with the narrator saying that, in 1992, when William Bell was 14, he had returned to live with his mother in a Mangere street which was identified by name.

Complaint

[7]  William Bell made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item had breached standards of privacy, accuracy and fairness.

[8]  Mr Bell noted that the programme had disclosed the name of the street he lived on as a child. He considered that this disclosure compromised his mother's "privacy and wellbeing".

[9]  With respect to accuracy, the complainant argued that the claims made in the programme that he had been a prostitute were untrue and that he had never been "a prostitute" or "homosexual". He also contended that the claims made in the programme that he had been abused by members of his family were incorrect and "fabricated".

[10]  Mr Bell noted that he had not been approached by the programme makers for comment and argued that this was unfair, as he did not get the chance to provide his side of the story.

Standards

[11]  Standards 3, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice are relevant to the determination of this complaint. These provide:

Standard 3 Privacy

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the privacy of the individual.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[12]  With respect to Standard 3 (privacy), TVNZ noted that, while the programme mentioned the Mangere street where Mr Bell had lived with his mother, it did not provide a house number. It argued that, "at the time the documentary was filmed" Mr Bell's mother no longer lived at the address and, in any event, his mother had a different surname "so would not necessarily be identifiable as being related" to Mr Bell. It declined to uphold the privacy complaint.

[13]  Turning to accuracy, the broadcaster pointed out that, "At no time during the programme was it stated that [Mr Bell] had been a homosexual".

[14]  TVNZ argued that there were a number of individuals including Mr Bell's case worker who confirmed that he had suffered physical and emotional abuse from members of his family.

[15]  With respect to the prostitution claims, the broadcaster argued that both Mr Bell's former case worker and one of his friends had confirmed the claims and that these were the people most well-informed about his activities during that part of his life. It noted that "this fact was also published in an article in the New Zealand Herald newspaper the day following [Mr Bell's] conviction for murder and was not challenged".

[16]  TVNZ stated that it was satisfied with the veracity of the material contained in the programme and declined to uphold the complaint that the programme was inaccurate.

[17]  In response to the fairness complaint, the broadcaster said that it considered Beyond the Darklands to be an authorial documentary series. TVNZ contended that the programme focused on the clinical psychologist and his professional opinions on what led William Bell to commit murder. It noted that various other contributors provided information about Mr Bell and gave their genuinely held opinions about him. The broadcaster argued that, in the context of an authorial documentary, Mr Bell had been treated fairly and it declined to uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 6.

Referral to the Authority

[18]  Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, Mr Bell referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He reiterated his arguments that the programme had breached standards of privacy, accuracy and fairness.

[19]  The complainant maintained that TVNZ had not made any effort to ensure the programme was a true reflection of him.

[20]  Mr Bell argued that the programme had misled the public by portraying him as a homosexual and by airing claims that he had been molested by a relative. He also contended that the programme had discriminated against him by including the "false claim" that he was a homosexual.

[21]  Referring to Standard 4 (balance), the complainant also requested that the Authority investigate any lack of balance in the story.

Authority's Determination

[22]  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.

[23]  The Authority notes that, in his referral to the Authority, Mr Bell raised Standard 4 (balance). Due to the fact that the complainant did not raise the balance standard in his original complaint to TVNZ, the Authority does not have jurisdiction to consider this part of the complaint. However, even if Mr Bell had raised Standard 4 in his original complaint, because Beyond the Darklands did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance, the Authority notes that the standard would not have applied in this instance.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[24]  Standard 5 requires news, current affairs and other factual programmes to be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and impartial and objective at all times.

[25]  The Authority considers that Beyond the Darklands was a factual programme which took the form of a case study based around a psychologist's analysis of William Bell. Drawing on extensive interviews with people who had come into contact with Mr Bell throughout his life, including childhood friends, neighbours, teachers, social workers and victims, the psychologist attempted to explain how Mr Bell had developed into a violent killer who murdered three people. Because of the way the programme was framed, viewers would have realised that most of the information was a mixture of analysis, hypothesis, opinion, observation and perceptions, as opposed to being undisputed statements of fact.

[26]  With that in mind, the Authority now turns to consider the specific points raised by the complainant under Standard 5.

[27]  With respect to the claims that Mr Bell had prostituted himself and had been abused by his family as a child, the Authority finds that the comments were not presented as statements of fact. Rather, they formed part of the interviewees' individual recollections and anecdotal stories describing their personal understanding and experience of what happened to Mr Bell during his childhood. These accounts were then analysed by the psychologist, who described the effects these negative experiences may have had on Mr Bell and their contribution towards shaping his life.

[28]  Accordingly, the Authority finds that the comments were not statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applied and it declines to uphold these aspects of the Standard 5 complaint.

[29]  Turning to the complainant's allegation that the programme had claimed he was or had been a homosexual, the Authority notes that the programme did not contain any such commentary or statement. It finds that, while some interviewees recalled their understanding that Mr Bell had prostituted himself to older men when he was younger, these comments did not equate to alleging the complainant was or had been a homosexual.

[30]  On the contrary, the Authority considers that the psychologist's statement, "If you don't feel disgust, sadness or fear, then money for sex is just an income stream" reinforced to viewers that Mr Bell’s alleged prostitution was nothing more than a commercial transaction and had nothing to do with his sexuality.

[31]  Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that Beyond the Darklands breached Standard 5 (accuracy).

Standard 6 (fairness)

[32]  The fairness standard requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in a programme. Mr Bell argued that he had been treated unfairly, because the programme’s producers had not approached him for comment so that he could provide his side of the story.

[33]  The Authority considers that, due to the nature of his crimes, there was a high level of public interest in examining Mr Bell’s life through the eyes of the people who knew him, those who were affected by his actions and the psychologist.

[34]  While the Authority disagrees with TVNZ’s assertion that the programme was an "authorial documentary", it agrees that the analysis provided in the programme did not require comment from Mr Bell. The Authority notes that the programme’s introduction stated:

Clinical psychologist Nigel Latta has worked with our most serious offenders for 17 years.

Tonight he takes us beyond the darklands and into the mind of William Bell, to ask how he could brutally murder three people and leave a fourth for dead at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA in December 2001.

[35]  The programme clearly sought to portray how other people viewed Mr Bell – including describing him in positive terms such as a "lovable rogue" - rather than seeking an explanation from him as to why he had committed his crimes.

[36]  Mr Bell was particularly concerned about the claims that he was abused as a child and had worked as a prostitute. However, the Authority finds that these allegations did not portray Mr Bell in a negative light. Rather, they helped to explain his behaviour to viewers by revealing the struggles he had faced in life.

[37]  The Authority considers that, due to the context and case study nature of the programme, the broadcaster was not required to give Mr Bell an opportunity to comment. As a result, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 6.

Standard 3 (privacy)

[38]  Mr Bell considered that by disclosing the name of the street he lived on as a child with his mother the programme had compromised his mother's "privacy and wellbeing".

[39]  The Authority considers that it is appropriate to address this part of the complaint under privacy principle 1, which states:

It is inconsistent with an individual’s privacy to allow the public disclosure of private facts, where the disclosure is highly offensive to an objective reasonable person.

[40]  The Authority notes that the programme did not disclose Mr Bell's mother's name, contain a visual image of her or provide the street number of Mr Bell's childhood home. Further, it is unclear from the correspondence whether Mr Bell’s mother still resides on that Mangere street.

[41]  In these circumstances, the Authority concludes that the programme did not disclose any private facts about Mr Bell’s mother, and it declines to uphold the complaint that Beyond the Darklands breached Standard 3.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
19 August 2009

Appendix

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

1.         William Bell's formal complaint – 27 March 2009
2.        TVNZ's response to the formal complaint – 1 May 2009
3.        Mr Bell's referral to the Authority – 10 May 2009
4.        TVNZ's response to the Authority – 6 June 2009