Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Back Benches – Mt Albert by-election special – programme featured candidates from Labour, National, Green, ACT and United Future – candidates campaigned for votes and addressed various issues facing the electorate – allegedly in breach of balance and fairness standards
Standard 4 (balance) – programme discussed controversial issues of public importance – criteria used by broadcaster to select participants was justifiable – a variety of significant viewpoints was presented – not upheld
Standard 6 (fairness) – ALCP did not take part and was not referred to – standard not applicable – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 An episode of Back Benches was broadcast on TVNZ 7 at 9pm on Friday 10 June 2009. The episode was a “Mt Albert by-election special” and featured a total of five candidates campaigning for votes and addressing various issues facing the electorate. The candidates who took part were David Shearer from Labour, Melissa Lee from National, Russel Norman from the Green party, John Boscawen from ACT, and Judy Turner from United Future. The host introduced the programme by saying:
Well, tonight it is the Mt Albert by-election special. We’ve got the five candidates in there and we’re going to be talking about the issues that affect the Mt Albert residents.
 The discussions took place in a public bar in the Mt Albert area, and the candidates responded to various questions both from the presenter and members of the public. At the beginning, the candidates were each given 30 seconds to introduce themselves and state why people should vote for them. The remainder of the programme revolved around the candidates stating their positions on issues such as the proposed Mt Albert tunnel, liquor licensing, the Auckland super city, community boards and local council responsibilities.
 Julian Crawford made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programme had been unbalanced and unfair.
 With respect to balance, the complainant argued that the host had introduced the programme by saying that “all Mt Albert candidates were to appear on the show”, but ended up allowing only five candidates to appear.
 Mr Crawford contended that the five candidates who took part in the programme were all sitting MPs from major political parties and considered that they already enjoyed a large amount of media coverage. He contended that none of the candidates from the minor political parties, such as Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party (ALCP), was able to present their opinion on the issues covered in the programme.
 The complainant stated that the ALCP was particularly concerned that its candidate was denied access to television coverage because TVNZ did not support the views of the ALCP or its candidate. He argued that TVNZ had been biased against ALCP when deciding not to include its candidate in the television special and that the programme was unbalanced and unfair to its candidate as a result.
 Mr Crawford nominated Standards 4 and 6 and guidelines 4a, 4b and 6d of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:
Standard 4 Balance
In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.
4a Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.
4b 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, it being acknowledged that this can be done only by judging each case on its merits.
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.
Broadcasters should acknowledge the right of individuals to express their own opinions.
 TVNZ stated that, prior to the programme, it had conducted an informal online survey which revealed the candidates’ rankings in the lead up to the election. The figures it obtained were as follows:
Labour – David Shearer 40%
National – Melissa Lee 31%
Green – Russel Norman 18%
ACT – John Boscawen 5%
United Future – Judy Turner 2%
 The broadcaster noted that the actual Mt Albert by-election result showed that, of the 21,000 votes cast, 85 were for the ALCP.
 With respect to balance, TVNZ considered it had presented all the significant candidates in the discussion. It pointed out that there was a limited amount of time and space available for the candidates and said that the editorial decision was made to include the political parties with members in Parliament. It said that there were “ten other political parties that didn’t fit this criterion – the ALCP was amongst this ten”.
 The broadcaster argued that, given the limited platform available, it was appropriate to include the five most significant candidates in the by-election campaign. It considered that a wide spectrum of New Zealand’s political arena had been represented and that balance had been achieved in the broadcast.
 Turning to fairness, TVNZ stated that the decision not to include ALCP in the programme’s discussion did not stem from any political beliefs held by it. It reiterated that ten minor parties including ALCP had not been included in the debate and argued that it had the editorial discretion to only include candidates from political parties with members in Parliament. It declined to uphold the fairness complaint.
 Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Crawford referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 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.
 Standard 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes. The Authority considers that the issues discussed in the Mt Albert by-election special were controversial issues of public importance to which the balance standard applied.
 The Authority has stated on previous occasions that the balance standard does not require a broadcaster to allow every candidate in an election to take part in such discussions (See Hooker and TVNZ1). It has also found that broadcasters have the right to select the participants in election debate programmes provided the selection is done in a way that can be justified in terms of balance and fairness (see Christian Heritage Party and TVNZ2).
 On this occasion, TVNZ argued that, given the limited amount of time, the editorial decision was made to include only candidates from political parties that had members in Parliament.
 In the Authority’s view, the criterion TVNZ used to select participants for the debate was justifiable and reasonable. It notes that candidates from ten political parties including the ALCP were not invited to participate, so ALCP was not singled out in this respect. Further, it finds that the programme presented a broad range of significant viewpoints on the controversial issues subject to discussion.
 Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the programme was unbalanced.
 The fairness standard requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with individuals or organisations taking part or referred to in programmes. On this occasion, neither ALCP nor its candidate for the Mt Albert electorate took part or were referred to in the broadcast.
 In these circumstances, the Authority considers that the fairness standard does not apply and it declines to uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 6.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 October 2009
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Julian Crawford’s formal complaint – 12 June 2009
2. TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 13 July 2009
3. Mr Crawford’s referral to the Authority – 29 July 2009
4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 4 September 2009
1Decision No. 2005-037
2Decision No. 2002-173