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New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-131

Members

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

Complainant

  • New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders of Petone

Dated

15th February 2010

Number

2009-131

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Q + A, Breakfast, Close Up and One News – items discussed proposed mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid and whether there were health risks involved – allegedly in breach of controversial issues, accuracy, fairness and responsible programming standards

Findings
Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints) – programmes discussed a controversial issue of public importance – broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view across programmes within the period of current interest – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – statements of fact were qualified – concerns adequately dealt with under Standard 4 – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – complainant did not nominate a person in original complaint who was treated unfairly – Minister was treated fairly – not upheld

Standard 8 (responsible programming) – programmes presented range of views on a topical issue – would not have alarmed viewers – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   During an episode of Q + A, broadcast on TV One at 9am on Sunday 12 July 2009, the programme’s host Paul Holmes interviewed Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson and Green MP Sue Kedgley about the issue of mandatory folic acid fortification in New Zealand bread, due to come into force in September 2009. The discussion was framed by an introduction from a reporter, who stated:

It is recommended women take folic acid four weeks before and 12 weeks after falling pregnant. The problem is many women don’t know they’re about to be pregnant so don’t take supplements during the recommended period. Including folic acid in bread is estimated to result in up to 14 fewer birth defects each year. However, critics say women would need to eat 11 slices of bread each day to reach recommended levels and want the government to delay. Some studies have also shown high levels of folic acid increase the risk of prostate cancer.

[2]   Mr Holmes asked the Minister whether she could assure the country that folic acid in bread was completely safe. She responded, “The amount of folic acid in bread is deemed to be at safe levels. What is unclear – and the science is a bit light – is the risks.” The Minister stated that she agreed with Ireland’s approach which was to postpone the introduction of folic acid, but that she could not take that action because of a political agreement with Australia. Ms Kedgley offered the view that this was “stupidity”, because the Minister accepted there were health risks involved. Mr Holmes asked Ms Kedgley, “Aren’t you just scaremongering?” noting that many countries around the world had folic acid in their bread, and that there were some advantages to folic acid.

[3]   The interview was followed by a panel discussion featuring political analyst Jon Johansson, and media commentators Michael Laws and Matt McCarten. Mr Laws accepted that the Minister was “between a rock and a hard place” and acknowledged that the intention of the proposal was to prevent spina bifida in newborns. He also offered the view that public education about the need for pregnant women to take folic acid was a preferable solution to “mass medicating everybody”. Mr Holmes repeated the claim that a woman would need to eat 11 slices of bread a day. The panellists discussed the need to balance the proposed benefit of protecting a small group, against the possibility of increased cancer risks.  Mr McCarten considered that the media coverage would result in a massive reduction in bread sales, while Mr Laws believed that the issue was one that warranted the involvement of the Prime Minister. The panellists considered that the issue could be resolved quickly, despite the Minister’s belief that she was constrained by the relevant legislation.

[4]   The following morning, during Breakfast, broadcast on TV One between 6.30am and 9am on Monday 13 July 2009, one of the programme’s presenters, Paul Henry, interviewed Prime Minister John Key. When asked about the issue of folic acid being added to bread, Mr Key said, “I share the concern New Zealanders have” and that fortification was “probably not going to work”. He went on to discuss the political options open to the Government which included a ministerial review or breaching its agreement with Australia. At the conclusion of the interview, Mr Henry said that he would stop buying bread, joking that people would have “prostates the size of campervans”.

[5]   Close Up was broadcast on TV One at 7pm the same day, and featured Lyall Thurston, whose son had spina bifida and who had spent 20 years campaigning for folate fortification. Close Up also interviewed a baker who opposed it, Minister Wilkinson who insisted that folic acid in bread was safe, and Katherine Rich who represented the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (FGC) and offered the view that scientific research did not support the introduction of folic acid.

[6]   On Breakfast the following morning, Tuesday 14 July 2009, one of the programme’s presenters Alison Mau interviewed Dr Murray Skeaff, a professor of human nutrition from the University of Otago, and Laurie Powell, the President of the New Zealand Association of Bakers. Dr Skeaff was asked about recent research into the effects of folic acid on the incidence of cancer, and he explained that Oxford University researchers analysing a number of randomised clinical trials involving about “about 35,000, 40,000 individuals” had found “no evidence that folic acid changed the risk of cancer”. When asked by Ms Mau whether the research covered the prospect of genetic defects, Dr Skeaff stated that “the best evidence we have about folic acid is that is prevents genetic defects. It prevents neural tube defects which is the most commonly inherited congenital birth defect”. Mr Powell pointed out that the research Dr Skeaff referred to had not been published or peer-reviewed. He said:

...until it is actually resolved by the scientists then we believe that the jury is still open. It would be great if that does prove to be the case, but the Minister last night said that on the basis of this yet unproven study that she was prepared to guarantee in fact there were no cancer risks. Furthermore I gather last night that she said that while she acknowledged that there were potential problems with younger children having problems and there could be effects on the gene pool, that that might not happen for another generation and she appeared to dismiss that concern which is rather frightening from a Minister who is responsible for food safety.

[7]   Mr Powell also said that the baking industry did not believe fortification would work, so it was a “pointless exercise”, although he acknowledged that the cost to bakers would be “quite minimal”. He considered that the legislation was flawed, and that the Minister could reverse the decision to introduce mandatory fortification regardless of whether new scientific evidence had emerged. Mr Powell offered the view that the review of mandatory fortification would also be a “pointless exercise” because New Zealand would have only one vote when a majority vote was required to amend the agreement with Australia.

[8]   One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm the same day, 14 July 2009, reported that the Prime Minister John Key had sought legal advice to avoid the trans-Tasman deal which made it compulsory for folate fortification to be introduced in New Zealand in September 2009. The reporter noted the waning of health concerns about folic acid, but said “there are fears at least that there are health risks associated with excess folic acid”. The item included the Prime Minister saying the government was not of the view “that it’s really a great idea to be doing this”, Katherine Rich of the FGC commenting approvingly of Mr Key’s decision to intervene, and a brief excerpt from that morning’s Breakfast show interview of Dr Murray Skeaff, in which he said that Oxford University researchers “reported the results of putting all these trials together and they found no evidence that folic acid changed the risk of cancers”.

Complaint

[9]   The New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders (NZORD) made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programmes breached standards relating to controversial issues, accuracy, fairness and responsible programming.

[10]   The complainant noted that the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (FGC) had been actively campaigning against the legislation changes regarding folic acid, using claims such as possible links to certain cancers, possible long term effects on the gene pool, and that 80% of the population were opposed to the changes. NZORD argued that these claims demonstrated a selective interpretation of data, “if not a blatant misrepresentation of the facts”, and that TVNZ had failed to properly research these claims before repeating them in the programmes complained about. The complainant considered that the claims had gone unchallenged, and that no opportunity had been provided for the position to be presented in favour of fortification with folic acid. It noted that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSA) had not been contacted by TVNZ for comment even though it had issued detailed assessment reports covering the technical and scientific issues involved.

[11]   NZORD was of the view that the programmes might have caused panic, alarm or distress to the public in breach of Standard 8 (responsible programming).

[12]   Looking first at the Q + A segment from 12 July, the complainant maintained that the programme “showed bias and inaccuracy” in claiming that a person would need to eat 11 slices of bread a day to obtain the necessary level of folic acid, and in broadcasting statements about threats to public health and “emotional claims” about the risk of the host’s prostate cancer returning. NZORD argued that the programme failed to present alternative viewpoints, and that “the subsequent panel commentary provided by non-experts did nothing to address the fears the topic would have raised for many”. It provided TVNZ with a copy of submissions which it had made to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority which, among other things, explained that the folic acid fortification of bread was never intended to provide women with their entire recommended daily intake of folic acid. Rather, it was intended to provide around one-third of the recommended intake and, as such, would be a limited but beneficial addition to folate levels obtained from other diet and supplements.

[13]   With regard to Breakfast on 13 July, NZORD considered that the programme lacked impartiality. It was of the view that the host had “uncritically repeated” the claims made by the FGC and that no effort was made to present balancing viewpoints. NZORD argued that the host’s presentation and comments about “prostates the size of campervans” would have increased anxiety among the public and caused alarm and distress.

[14]   The complainant considered that the Close Up item on 13 July had also repeated claims made by the FGC without challenge, critical analysis or expert opinion. It argued that no opportunity was provided for detailed rebuttal of the claims made about long-term genetic effects or the triggering of prostate or colon cancer.

[15]   NZORD accepted that Breakfast on 14 July came closer to providing balance with comments from an expert. However, it considered that TVNZ’s research was poor which led to a lack of a challenge to Laurie Powell’s claim about “long term risks to the gene pool”.

[16]   Finally, the complainant noted that the exchange between the news reader and TVNZ’s political editor on One News “did note the waning of health concerns but still uncritically repeated the 11 slices claim and also presented the statement ‘there are fears at least that there are health risks associated with excess folic acid’”.

[17]   NZORD noted that the programmes on bread fortification did not mention a separate food standard requiring fortification of bread with iodised salt being introduced at the same time as the standard relating to folic acid. It considered that this demonstrated a lack of research and expert commentary as to why one was apparently acceptable while the other was not.

Standards

[18]   TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5, 6 and 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Standard 4 Controversial Issues – Viewpoints

When discussing controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

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.
Standard 6 Fairness

Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Standard 8 Responsible Programming

Broadcasters should ensure programmes:

  • are appropriately classified;
  • display programme classification information;
  • adhere to timebands in accordance with Appendix 1;
  • are not presented in such a way as to cause panic, or unwarranted alarm or undue distress; and
  • do not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints)

[19]   Looking first at Standard 4, TVNZ noted that the issue of whether or not to introduce a mandatory requirement that folic acid be included as an ingredient in New Zealand’s bread, and in particular whether it could potentially impact on the health of the general population, had been a topic of much public debate. It therefore accepted that the programmes discussed a controversial issue of public importance to which Standard 4 applied. TVNZ noted that the standard allowed for significant viewpoints to be presented either within a programme or across programmes within the period of current interest. It also noted that there was no “stopwatch” method for determining whether balance was achieved.

Q + A 12 July 2009

[20]   TVNZ considered that Q + A had examined the decision to add folic acid to New Zealand bread as a political event, where a Labour Government which had a reputation for being a “nanny state” had made the decision, which was now being overseen by a National Government which favoured personal choice. It noted that the National Government had stated publicly that it was uneasy about the decision, and that the original decision had not been debated in Parliament or by Cabinet.

[21]   TVNZ argued that the discussion was framed by an introduction by a reporter which was designed to introduce the public to the topic. It maintained that this introduction did not show bias but “quite rightly points out what critics say about folic acid in bread and what some studies have found”. The supposed benefits of adding folic acid to bread were also discussed, it said, and the veracity of those points was discussed by Green MP Sue Kedgley and the Minister of Food Safety, Kate Wilkinson.

[22]   The broadcaster considered that the Minister was “absolutely the right person to discuss the issue of folic acid in our bread”. It argued that the Q + A segment was part of the “rigorous scrutiny from New Zealand consumers” that was expected. TVNZ noted that Paul Holmes, the Q + A host, had asked the Minister whether folic acid was 100 percent safe, to which she replied, “The amount of folic acid in bread is deemed to be at safe levels. What is unclear, and the science is a bit light, is the risks”. The Minister later accepted in the discussion that there were “health risks” involved. She also offered the view that the right approach was to postpone the introduction of folic acid but that New Zealand could not because of a political agreement with Australia.

[23]   TVNZ maintained that significant viewpoints were presented and alleged that balance was achieved through the following:

  • When Sue Kedgley referred to research that suggested a link between folic acid and child leukaemia, Mr Holmes interrupted, stressing that it only “increased the pace of the growth” of the cancer, but did not cause the cancer;
  • The Minister was given plenty of opportunity throughout the interview to present her views;
  • Mr Holmes asked Sue Kedgley, “aren’t you just scaremongering? I mean, many places around the world have folic acid in the bread. There are some advantages to folic acid”;
  • Mr Holmes tried on a number of occasions to silence Sue Kedgley so that the Minister could speak;
  • The Minister repeatedly made the point that the science linking high levels of folic acid to cancer was “light”, and also that she agreed with Ireland’s decision to delay the introduction of folic acid on scientific grounds.

[24]   TVNZ also noted that the discussion continued on Q + A the following week on 19 July when political editor Guyon Espiner interviewed Prime Minister John Key.

Breakfast 13 July 2009

[25]   TVNZ considered that the complaint did not take into the account the whole interview between presenter Paul Henry and John Key. It noted that Mr Key appeared on Breakfast every week and was often asked follow-up questions arising from issues discussed on Q + A. TVNZ argued that the Breakfast format was more informal than One News or Close Up and that Mr Key was aware of this.

[26]   The broadcaster noted that Mr Key had offered some history of food standards across New Zealand and Australia, and that he had stated he shared New Zealanders’ concerns about folic acid. Mr Key then explained the political options the Government had, including a ministerial review or contravening the law.

[27]   TVNZ argued that Mr Henry’s style was well-known to viewers, and that rather than alarming viewers on this occasion he would more likely have made people laugh; for example his comment about “prostates the size of campervans” was clearly a joke, TVNZ said.

Close Up 13 July 2009

[28]   TVNZ maintained that the Close Up story presented the two sides of the debate – on one side Lyall Thurston who had been campaigning for the introduction of folic acid for 20 years, and on the other a baker who opposed it. It considered that Mr Thurston’s views were clearly spelt out, for example the argument that with unplanned pregnancies it was too late for women to get any benefit from folic acid supplements.

[29]   The broadcaster considered that balance was also achieved in the interview with the Minister and FGC representative Katherine Rich. It disagreed that the item would have caused panic, alarm or distress for viewers, particularly given that the Minister had stated that the introduction of folic acid into bread was safe and that she had scientific evidence. While the Minister did acknowledge there were outstanding questions about possible long term effects they were of no immediate concern, TVNZ said.

Breakfast 14 July 2009

[30]   TVNZ noted that Breakfast presenter Alison Mau had asked Dr Skeaff, “was there anything in the research that covered the prospect of genetic defects? That’s another concern,” to which Dr Skeaff replied, “the best evidence we have about folic acid is that it prevents genetic defects. It prevents neural tube defects which is the most commonly inherited congenital birth defect”. Laurie Powell noted that the research Dr Skeaff was referring to had not yet been published or peer reviewed. Mr Powell went on to discuss his opinion based on his understanding of what had been said by the Minister on Close Up.

One News 14 July 2009

[31]   TVNZ noted that both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Food Safety agreed that 11 slices of bread would be required to be eaten by pregnant women to protect their unborn baby from neural tube defects. It said it was clear from the programmes that there was considerable concern among many groups that the addition of folic acid could cause health problems for some people, but considered that the other perspective on this issue was represented in the debate.

[32]   The broadcaster accepted that some of the Government’s views could have caused anxiety, but it argued that TVNZ had a duty to report those views.

[33]   TVNZ concluded that a range of significant viewpoints was sought and presented on the issue across the programmes complained about. It noted that one panellist on Q + A acknowledged that the Minister was “between a rock and a hard place”, while another pointed out that folic acid was being introduced to prevent babies being born with spina bifida. Further, various perspectives were presented including Mr Thurston of the Folate Fortification Campaign, Mr Powell of the New Zealand Association of Bakers, Katherine Rich from the Food and Grocery Council, the Minister, and a professor of human nutrition, Dr Murray Skeaff.

[34]   The broadcaster maintained that balance was achieved within the period of current interest across TVNZ programmes. It declined to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

Possible links to different cancers

[35]   TVNZ argued that the references to possible health risks from excess folic acid in Q + A and One News were drawn from the British and Irish health authorities that had delayed the mandatory requirement for folic acid until further testing had been concluded. It maintained that it had presented the facts for the public to weigh against the Minister’s assertions that the science was “light”. TVNZ noted that the Minister had accepted that there were “health risks” involved.

Allegation that there would be mass medication of the population

[36]   TVNZ said, “the proposal was to add folic acid to a food that is eaten by everyone to prevent birth defects in unborn babies”.

Allegation that a person would have to consume 11 slices of bread a day

[37]   The broadcaster stated that both the Prime Minister and the Food Safety Minister agreed that 11 slices of bread would have to be consumed each day to prevent birth defects.

Allegation of possible long term effects on the gene pool

[38]   TVNZ noted that this comment was made by Laurie Powell on Breakfast, who said:

...I gather last night that [the Minister] said that while she acknowledged that there was potential problems with younger children having problems and there could be effects on the gene pool that that might not happen for another generation and she appeared to dismiss that concern...

[39]   TVNZ considered that the comment was clearly Mr Powell’s opinion based on his understanding of what was said the previous night and that it was acceptable in the overall debate in which significant viewpoints were discussed.

[40]   The broadcaster concluded that the broadcasts did not contain any errors of fact and maintained that fact and opinion were clearly distinguishable, and that the programmes would not have misled viewers. TVNZ did not “uncritically accept industry claims,” it said, but reported them as was its duty. For example, the introduction for the Close Up item stated:

There’s a huge fuss going on about something very, very small. It’s a tiny amount of additive, folic acid, that from September bakers will be forced to add to our bread. Now the reason is folic acid can prevent birth defects but critics say, hold on, this additive could cause problems in itself.

[41]   TVNZ also noted a later remark by the reporter that “bakers fear there may be long term effects if children consume the dose and that it may trigger prostate or colon cancer”. It considered that this was presented as the view of the bakers rather than as fact. The broadcaster rejected any suggestion of bias.

[42]   TVNZ declined to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[43]   TVNZ reiterated that the programmes featured a wide range of opinions, including that some studies had suggested a link between high doses of folic acid and some cancers, as well as the potential positive medical outcomes of folic acid being added to bread. The programmes also examined the politics of the situation.

[44]   The broadcaster considered that the formats of the programmes were well known to audiences and concluded that no individual or organisation was treated unfairly. It did not uphold the fairness complaint.

Standard 8 (responsible programming)

[45]   TVNZ stated that Standard 8 related to broadcasters ensuring that programmes were correctly classified and that classifications were displayed. It noted that the programmes complained about were all news and current affairs and therefore unclassified.

[46]   TVNZ maintained that the programmes would not have caused panic, alarm or distress to viewers. It considered it was clear that the programmes were reporting on a controversial issue and presenting various perspectives.

[47]   The broadcaster declined to uphold the Standard 8 complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[48]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, NZORD referred its complaints about Q + A (12 July 2009), Breakfast (13 July), Close Up (13 July) and One News (14 July) to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It did not refer the complaint about the Breakfast item broadcast on 14 July.

Broadcaster’s Response to Authority

[49]   With regard to Standard 4, TVNZ emphasised the importance of free speech. It maintained that it was more than reasonable to question potential health risks associated with folic acid in light of Irish studies which suggested “a relationship between high folic acid intakes and cancer risk” and which resulted in the decision to delay mandatory fortification in Ireland. It reiterated its view that the Food Safety Minister and the Prime Minister were the appropriate people to comment on this issue. TVNZ was satisfied that Q + A was balanced by other TVNZ broadcasts and interviews with the Minister.

[50]   Looking at accuracy, TVNZ argued that the claims referred to by the complainant were not made by the baking industry but arose from legitimate concerns raised in the Irish study. The Minister was given the opportunity to address these concerns, it said.

[51]   The broadcaster considered that it was not unfair to expect the Minister to answer questions about the safety of a Government-led initiative to add a supplement to a common food item. It noted that she had stated in December 2008 that the New Zealand Food Safety Authority’s “science-based approach to food safety must withstand rigorous scrutiny from New Zealand consumers and our overseas trading partners”.

[52]   Finally, with regard to Standard 8, TVNZ maintained that it was more than reasonable in light of the Irish study in relation to the addition of folic acid to food to ask questions about the safety of New Zealanders.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[53]   NZORD accepted that freedom of expression was important, and that TVNZ was entitled to broadcast programmes discussing folic acid in bread. However, it maintained that the programmes caused unnecessary public alarm and breached broadcasting standards.

[54]   The complainant considered that the Irish study had been “cherry-picked” to support TVNZ’s position. It noted that the proposed levels of folic acid to be added to New Zealand bread were well below the intake level considered in the Irish report. NZORD emphasised that the proposal was not about “mass medication” but rather about taking steps to correct a national vitamin deficiency. The Science Media Centre and the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman, had rated the media coverage of the issue as poor, NZORD said, and the damage done by the broadcasts resulted in a last minute reversal of the proposed law change.

[55]   NZORD maintained that TVNZ needed to acknowledge that the public reacted strongly to claims of health risks and therefore that it should strictly adhere to the requirements of balance and accuracy.

Additional Broadcast

[56]   The Authority advised the parties that, when looking at the Standard 4 complaint, it intended to take into account an additional item which was broadcast on One News on Sunday 19 July 2009. This item contained the following statements, including comments from Dr Peter Gluckman who was referred to in the complainant’s final comment:

  • “The government back-down has angered disability groups that have been campaigning for folic acid to be introduced for 20 years, and One News has learnt they have some high level backing from a key advisor to the Prime Minister” (presenter)
  • “…like all commercial bakers these days the flour they’re using now is actually missing some of the folate because of the milling process. Now, they’re really happy here that they’re not going to be required to put folic acid back into all of their bread.” (reporter)
  • “It’s fair to say though that some are furious at today’s decision [to defer mandatory fortification]” (reporter)
  • “For the folate campaigners this has never been about bread. It’s been about babies.” (reporter)
  • “What we’re going to effectively do over the next three years is to commit the equivalent of a classroom of New Zealand children to be aborted when it can be prevented.” (Lyall Thurston)
  • “Lyall Thurston’s son was born with a neural tube defect, something science suggests probably wouldn’t have happened if bread had been fortified.” (reporter)
  • “You would see about a two-thirds reduction in the incidence of neural tube defects. At the same time you’re not significantly elevating folate levels beyond the norm in anybody.” (Dr Peter Gluckman)
  • “There’s no real evidence of harm at the doses we’re talking about. There is some laboratory evidence... that doses, chronic use in doses 20 to 50 times what we’re talking about might do harm.” (Dr Gluckman)
  • “Dr Gluckman’s read the dissenting reports. He’s hoping deferring the decision on folic acid or vitamin B9 will stop the scaremongering by various interest groups and the media.” (reporter)
  • “I don’t think we’ve done a good job. Frankly, I don’t think you guys [the media] have done a good job.” (Dr Gluckman)
  • “The public campaign has been an absolute disgrace and those who perpetrated it should be absolutely ashamed with themselves – the Grocery Council and the millers and bakers.” (Lyall Thurston)
  • “[Laurie Powell] denies any scaremongering. He does hope the campaign’s raised awareness about the need for women to get plenty of folate before they have a bun in the oven.” (reporter)
  • “The bakers’ president told me today he thinks the industry can have those high vitamin breads targeted at women in stores within six months. It’s a promise you have to say though that these advocates have heard before, so they will be watching closely to see whether or not this one’s delivered. From the sound of it, so too will the Prime Minister.” (reporter)

Complainant’s Comments on Additional Broadcast

[57]   NZORD maintained that the 19 July broadcast was outside the period of current interest for the issue discussed in the other items. It said:

We note this broadcast occurred less than 24 hours before Cabinet met to confirm its decision to go through a process to defer the planned fortification, and several days after Ministerial and industry statements clearly indicated that a decision had been made that folate fortification of bread would not proceed as planned. While this seems to be the one and only broadcast in which a reasonable degree of balance did occur, we comment:  

  • It was too late to undo the damage that had been done
  • This “after the event” piece does not allay the anxiety and panic.

[58]   NZORD considered that the period of current interest under Standard 4 should be viewed by the Authority as aligning with the window for political change.  It said that the 19 July item was aired following the decision to implement the law change, and thus too late to achieve balance.  

Broadcaster’s Comments on Additional Broadcast

[59]   TVNZ noted that the19 July item screened within a week of the programmes NZORD complained about, and on the same day as a Q + A programme referred to in the original response to the complainant. The broadcaster maintained that the item was within the period of current interest.

Authority's Determination

[60]   The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcasts complained about, those which TVNZ believed provided balance, and the One News item described in paragraph [57]. The Authority has read the correspondence listed in the Appendix and it determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints)

[61]   Standard 4 states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs or factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[62]   The Authority agrees with TVNZ that the programmes complained about discussed the issue of whether New Zealand should introduce the mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid, and whether this could potentially harm the health of the general population. The discussion also touched on whether mandatory fortification would actually achieve its goal of reducing the number of babies born with neural tube defects. In the Authority’s view, this was a controversial issue of public importance to which Standard 4 applied.

[63]   The Authority notes that Standard 4 allows for significant viewpoints to be presented across programmes “within the period of current interest”. Accordingly, rather than reaching a conclusion as to whether each individual programme nominated by the complainant achieved the requirement for balance, the Authority has considered whether TVNZ presented significant viewpoints across all of the programmes during that period.

[64]   NZORD was concerned that the programmes presented “uncritically” and “unchallenged”, claims that excess folic acid was linked to certain cancers, and did not present the view that folate fortification was desirable.

[65]   The Authority notes that the programmes broadcast during the week of the items complained about included numerous comments in favour of folate fortification, including the following:

  • “Including folic acid in bread is estimated to result in up to 14 fewer birth defects each year.” (reporter, Q + A 12 July)
  • “The amount of folic acid in bread is deemed to be at safe levels.” (Minister, Q + A 12 July)
  • “One child with a disability in New Zealand is too many. It is preventable by up to 70 percent.” (Lyall Thurston, Close Up 13 July)
  • “Lyall Thurston has spent 20 years fighting to have folic acid added to the country’s bread. He’s driven by first-hand experience. His 26-year-old son Simon has spina bifida, a condition that can be avoided if mothers-to-be take the supplement prior to and during early pregnancy.” (reporter, Close Up 13 July)
  • “Over 50 percent of pregnancies in New Zealand and Australia are unplanned. If and when you are pregnant, it quite clearly is a waste of time taking folic acid at that point in time to prevent a neural tube defect because it is too late.” (Lyall Thurston, Close Up 13 July)
  • “...researchers from Oxford university reported the results of putting all these trials together and they found no evidence that folic acid changed the risk of cancer.” (Dr Skeaff, Breakfast 14 July)
  • “...typical doses in these trials range from about 800 micrograms a day through to about 2,500 and just to put that in context the average amount of folic acid that women are likely to receive through this mandatory fortification of bread is about 140. So that’s ten times less than most trials have used and shown no effect on cancer risk.” (Dr Skeaff, Breakfast 14 July)
  • “They looked specifically at specific kinds of cancer so they looked at was there some evidence of increased prostate cancer risk, or colon, colorectal cancer risk and there was none.” (Dr Skeaff, Breakfast 14 July)
  • “...the best evidence that we have about folic acid is that it prevents genetic defects. It prevents neural tube defects which is the most commonly inherited congenital birth defect.” (Dr Skeaff, Breakfast 14 July)

[66]   Turning to the item broadcast on 19 July (see paragraph [57] above), the Authority notes NZORD’s comment that the 19 July broadcast appeared to be “the one and only broadcast in which a reasonable degree of balance did occur”. However, the complainant disputed that it had been broadcast during the period of current interest.

[67]   The Authority acknowledges that it would have been preferable for the information in the 19 July item to have been broadcast earlier in the week, so that viewers were given a more complete picture of the debate earlier in the controversy. However, it notes that the proposal to put out a discussion paper including the option of deferring mandatory fortification was only considered by Cabinet on 20 July 2009. Furthermore, the Government did not formally announce the deferral of mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid until 27 August 2009, and this followed a public consultation process. Therefore the Authority considers that the 19 July item was within the period of current interest as outlined above in paragraph [63].

[68]   In these circumstances, the Authority is satisfied that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts, and gave reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view on the issue across programmes within the period of current interest. While some aspects of the debate may not have received an in-depth examination, the Authority considers that views were clearly presented both for and against the introduction of mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid, as well as competing views on the merits of the science behind it. Indeed, the Authority notes that the most authoritative voices on the science of fortification (Dr Gluckman and Dr Skeaff) advanced the view that it was both safe and effective. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[69]   Standard 5 requires broadcasters to 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. In the Authority’s view, the majority of the complainant’s concerns under accuracy related to the presentation of opposing viewpoints and have been adequately dealt with under Standard 4. There were two specific inaccuracies alleged by NZORD which are considered below.

Claim that 11 slices of bread would have to be consumed per day to obtain the required level of folic acid

[70]   This part of the original complaint specifically related to comments made by reporters during Q + A on 12 July, and One News on 14 July. Those comments were:

  • “Critics say women would need to eat 11 slices of bread each day to reach recommended levels [of folic acid]” (reporter, Q + A)
  • “The baking industry says you’d need to eat about 11 slices of bread each day for that to have any real impact.” (reporter, One News)

[71]   At the outset, the Authority notes that the complainant has not refuted that 11 slices of fortified bread would need to be consumed per day to reach the recommended level of folic acid. NZORD’s argument was that the scheme was never intended to provide women with their entire recommended daily intake of folic acid. Rather, it was intended to provide around one-third of the recommended intake and, as such, would be a limited but beneficial addition to folate levels obtained from other diet and supplements.

[72]   However, because the statements above were prefaced by “critics say” and “the baking industry says”, the Authority considers that reasonable viewers would have understood that the reporters were simply relaying the views of those parties. The broadcaster did not itself adopt the position or state as a fact that a person would have to eat 11 slices of bread a day to reach the recommended level of folic acid.

[73]   Accordingly, the Authority finds that the statements were not inaccurate, and it does not uphold this part of the accuracy complaint.

Claim that there were possible links between excess folic acid and some cancers

[74]   The complainant argued that Q + A “showed bias and inaccuracy” in relation to the reporter’s comments about an elevated risk of cancer from folic acid. The Authority notes that the reporter stated, “some studies have also shown high levels of folic acid increase the risk of prostate cancer”. It considers that the comment was qualified by the phrase “some studies”, and that the programme did not present as fact that folic acid elevates the risk of cancer. 

[75]   NZORD also complained about Mr Holmes’ statement relating to growing international health concern. Mr Holmes said, “there is real scientific concern growing about folic acid”. The Authority finds that this was not inaccurate or misleading given that viewers were informed about the Irish and British positions. Any other comments by Mr Holmes about the risk of his own prostate cancer returning were clearly distinguishable as his personal opinion and not statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applied.

[76]   The complainant’s concerns about Breakfast on 13 July related primarily to the alleged absence of opposing viewpoints, which has been dealt with under Standard 4 above. It also raised Mr Henry’s comment about “prostates the size of campervans”. The Authority considers that this was a hyperbolic and humorous take on the possible health risks. It was clearly not a statement of fact to which the accuracy standard applied.

[77]   Similarly, the complainant alleged that Close Up was inaccurate but was mainly concerned with its failure to present alternative viewpoints, and did not identify any statements of fact which it considered were inaccurate.

[78]   NZORD complained about the reporter’s statement in One News that “there are fears at least that there are health risks associated with excess folic acid”. In the Authority’s view, it was not inaccurate, in light of the Irish report and the emergence of new scientific evidence, to report that there were “fears at least” in relation to possible health risks.

[79]   Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the complaint that these aspects of the broadcasts breached Standard 5.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[80]   Standard 6 requires broadcasters to deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in an item. NZORD did not identify in its original complaint who it thought had been treated unfairly. The Authority therefore concludes that there is no basis upon which to uphold the fairness complaint.

[81]   For the sake of completeness, the Authority notes that the complainant argued in its referral that Kate Wilkinson had been treated unfairly. It agrees with TVNZ that it was not unfair to expect Ms Wilkinson as the Minister for Food Safety to respond to public concerns and questions about the safety of folic acid.

[82]   Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Standard 8 (responsible programming)

[83]   NZORD argued that the programmes would have caused panic, alarm and distress to viewers by broadcasting claims about the health risks involved with folate fortification.

[84]   The Authority considers that it would have been clear to viewers that the programmes were presenting a variety of perspectives on a controversial issue. As outlined under Standard 4, the programmes presented views both for and against folic acid fortification so that viewers were able to form their own opinions. The Authority is therefore satisfied that the programmes were not presented in a way that would likely have caused unnecessary alarm or distress. It declines to uphold the Standard 8 complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
15 February 2010

Appendix

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

1.           New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders’ formal complaint – 7 August 2009
2.          TVNZ’s acknowledgement of the complaint – 21 August 2009
3.          Correspondence between NZORD and TVNZ – 24 August 2009 and 2 September 2009
4.          TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 16 September 2009
5.          NZORD’s referral to the Authority – 12 October 2009
6.          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 2 December 2009
7.          NZORD’s final comment – 20 December 2009
8.          NZORD’s comments on additional broadcast – 1 February 2010
9.          TVNZ’s comments on additional broadcast – 5 February 2010