Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
3 News, Nightline and Campbell Live – items looked at issues surrounding David Benson-Pope’s seeking re-election for the constituency of Dunedin South – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, balance, accuracy and fairness
Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccuracies – not upheld
Standard 6 (fairness) – not unfair to complainant – not upheld
Standard 4 (balance) – subsumed into consideration of Standard 6
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – vox-pop was acceptable in the context of an unclassified news programme – not upheld
(This headnote does not form part of the decision.)
 A report on 3 News by its political editor Duncan Garner entitled “Seeking Re-Election”, was broadcast on TV3 at 6pm on 23 October 2007. It discussed the fact that Labour MP The Hon David Benson-Pope was seeking re-election for the constituency of Dunedin South. The item included footage of Mr Garner asking Mr Benson-Pope questions in the corridors of Parliament, comments from Prime Minister Helen Clark and vox-pops with five residents from Dunedin South. One of the vox-pops included a man saying that Mr Benson-Pope should be castrated and decapitated. During the item, the reporter stated:
But he’s confirmed he will stand again for Labour in Dunedin South just months after he was sacked as a Cabinet Minister for not telling the truth.
 Towards the end of the item, the reporter said:
But it’s Benson-Pope’s defiance today that stands out. He’s widely unpopular within his Party and he’s unlikely to get within cooee of Cabinet again. But at 57, the bonus of $130,000 a year as a backbencher is just too tempting.
 A report on 3 News by reporter Scott Campbell entitled “The Goodbye Plot”, broadcast on TV3 at 6pm on 25 October 2007, looked at Labour MP David Benson-Pope’s political future. The reporter alleged that there were plans to have a woman named Clare Curran challenge Mr Benson-Pope for the Labour nomination in his constituency of Dunedin South. The reporter stated that “senior Party figures are working to get rid of him...” and it included footage of the reporter asking questions of Mr Benson-Pope. The reporter went on to say that “high level Labour sources told 3 News they want...party official Clare Curran, instead of Benson-Pope, as the candidate in Dunedin South”. The item repeated three of the five vox-pops giving the opinions of Dunedin South residents that had been broadcast on 3 News on 23 October 2007. The item also included footage of Prime Minister Helen Clark providing brief answers to questions about Mr Benson-Pope. The item concluded with the reporter stating that a meeting had been planned (by the Labour Party) to discuss Mr Benson-Pope’s future that weekend and that “Either way, this isn’t good for Benson-Pope. He wanted to prolong his ailing career, but it appears his Party has other ideas”.
 An item on Nightline entitled “Party Pooper”, broadcast on TV3 at 10.30pm on 25 October 2007, included a cut-down segment of the item shown on 3 News earlier that evening. It discussed Mr Benson-Pope seeking re-election for the Dunedin South seat and included the comment that “3 News understands that top-level Labour leaders are lobbying for a replacement...” and reported that the comments from Dunedin South residents (contained in the vox-pops) had the “party worried”.
 During the item, footage was shown of the reporter asking the Prime Minister about the mood of the locals in Dunedin South, to which she replied “I haven’t the slightest idea”. The item also contained three of the vox-pops that were first shown during 3 News on 23 October 2007.
 An item on Campbell Live, broadcast on TV3 at 7pm on 26 October 2007, discussed whether Prime Minister Helen Clark would have to adjust her Cabinet members. During the discussion the reporter talking to Mr Campbell stated “...and remember, she’s losing some of these left-wing Cabinet Ministers. She’s lost David Benson-Pope, that fine man”.
 An item on 3 News entitled “Pryde and a Fall”, broadcast on TV3 at 6pm on 30 October 2007, reported that long time Labour Party faithful Don Pryde was going to run against David Benson-Pope for the electorate seat of Dunedin South. It included an interview with Mr Pryde and the Secretary of the Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers’ Union, Andrew Little. During the item, the reporter made the comment “it’s likely to signal the end of Benson-Pope’s political career” and “it looks likely Benson-Pope is going to be on the losing end of a battle against his own”.
 David Benson-Pope made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that all five broadcasts dated between 23 and 30 October 2007 breached standards of good taste and decency, balance, accuracy and fairness.
 The complainant argued that the reports included the unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate claims that Prime Minister Helen Clark did not support his candidacy and that he was standing in defiance of her. He considered the accompanying footage of the Prime Minister in the broadcasts of 23 and 25 October 2007 “did not support such a claim”.
 Mr Benson-Pope believed that the reporter’s statement that he was seeking to be re-elected because of the $130,000 a year salary was an “offensive remark” and “clearly designed to malign his character”.
 The complainant argued that the reporter’s statement that he was “sacked for not telling the truth” was inaccurate. He said that an inquiry conducted by the State Services Commission (SSC) had cleared him of any wrong-doing and that he had resigned due to adverse media publicity that was damaging the Labour Party.1
 Mr Benson-Pope considered that the reporting in the item broadcast on 23 October 2007 contained “pejorative commentary” because he had declined a “door-stop” interview with reporter Duncan Garner. He stated that TVWorks’ reporters had been free to make an appointment to discuss his role as MP for Dunedin South, but they had never done so.
 The complainant believed that the item had created a false inference that it was a surprise that he was standing again for Dunedin South. He noted that he had never made any statements relating to ending his political career.
 Mr Benson-Pope argued that the vox-pop interviews with Dunedin South residents were “absurd” and that it was misleading to present them as being representative of local opinion. He considered that the broadcaster had acted in a self-serving, unfair and unbalanced manner by editing out the positive vox-pop from the 25 October broadcast.
 The complainant noted that one of the vox-pops included the opinion of a man who stated that he should be castrated and then decapitated. He considered that this vox-pop should not have been broadcast and that TV3 had breached standards of good taste and decency by allowing it to be included in the item.
 With respect to the item broadcast on 25 October, the complainant stated the reporter’s claim that Labour leaders were worried by the comments made by the Dunedin South residents was “extremely unlikely”. He maintained that the reporter’s claim was unfair, inaccurate and unbalanced. He noted that Helen Clark had responded by saying “I haven’t the slightest idea” when asked about local opinion in Dunedin South.
 Mr Benson-Pope contended that the reporter’s statement that the nomination of another candidate was likely to end his political career was untrue and stated that the item had presented no evidence to support this claim.
 The complainant also considered that the reporter’s comment in the 25 October item that the Party would be meeting in the weekend to discuss his seeking re-election was misleading. He maintained that the meeting was a regular one at which all potentially contested seats were to be discussed.
 In Mr Benson-Pope’s view, the items included “gratuitous and unfairly negative comments” about him, and he argued that the reporting was not objective, balanced or impartial.
 TVWorks assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:
Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency
In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
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.
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.
 Dealing with each of the complainant’s concerns in turn, the broadcaster provided responses from its political editor, Duncan Garner.
Mr Garner’s comments
 With respect to the claims that Helen Clark did not support Mr Benson-Pope’s candidacy, Mr Garner said that “publicly Helen Clark took no obvious position – saying there was still plenty of time for other candidates to come forward”. He maintained that, in politics, this was a message that she lacked confidence in Mr Benson-Pope. Mr Garner stated that “well placed sources (which I will not reveal) were privately telling journalists that the PM wanted Benson-Pope out and that Labour’s head office would make sure it happened”. He said that his source had cited comments run on 3 News from voters in Dunedin South, to show why voters and the party had lost confidence in Mr Benson-Pope and that these views had been reported by a number of media outlets.
 Mr Garner noted that Mr Benson-Pope had complained about the accuracy of the statement that he was standing in defiance of the Prime Minister. He stated that “the Prime Minister had made it clear when she sacked him – she wasn’t sure if he had a future in the party...I had many private conversations with my reliable sources making it clear that the Prime Minister did not support his nomination for Dunedin South”.
 Mr Garner said it was a fact that many MPs’ find it hard to get jobs outside Parliament and that was why he had stated that the salary of $130,000 was too tempting.
 In response to Mr Benson-Pope’s complaint that it was inaccurate to state he was “sacked for not telling the truth”, Mr Garner argued the SSC report had not looked at whether Mr Benson-Pope told the truth. He maintained that the complainant was “sacked” by Helen Clark for not telling the truth about the “Setchell hiring and firing and the processes around it”.
 Mr Garner argued that door-stepping was a common practice used by Parliamentary reporters and that he had requested interviews with Mr Benson-Pope on numerous occasions, but the requests had been refused.
 Responding to Mr Benson-Pope’s contention that the item implied it was a surprise that he was seeking re-election, Mr Garner maintained that his sources had told him that it “came as a surprise to even the Prime Minister” that the complainant was going to run.
 Discussing the five vox-pop interviews broadcast on 23 October, Mr Garner stated that “as we do on so many stories, we sent a camera man to the main street in Dunedin South, and virtually every person we interviewed had something negative to say about Benson-Pope. There was no pre-conceived set-up”. He considered that the vox-pop of the man stating that Mr Benson-Pope should be castrated and decapitated gave “one man’s view on the street”.
 Mr Garner believed that “there was no selective editing” of the vox-pops broadcast on 25 October and that 3 News had run a representative selection of them due to time constraints.
 With respect to the item’s claim that Labour Party heads were worried about the vox-pop footage, Mr Garner said that a reliable source had informed him that the Labour Party’s central office was going to use the sentiment as a key reason to vote against Mr Benson-Pope.
 Mr Garner argued that the statement that the nomination of another candidate was likely to end the complainant’s political career was informed and fair political comment. He also said that a reliable source had said to him that the Labour Party would use its head office votes to “make sure Benson-Pope wasn’t returned”.
 In response to Mr Benson-Pope’s complaint about the “weekend meeting” to discuss his candidacy, Mr Garner said the party’s ruling council met that weekend to discuss a number of potential candidates, including Mr Benson-Pope.
 TVWorks stated that the Authority placed a high value on the right to free speech. It maintained that the Authority had endorsed the widespread understanding that politicians and those in public life must be ready for criticism – sometimes unreasonable – from those who disagree with their decisions or conduct.
 The broadcaster argued that news and current affairs programmes, such as those complained about, were not subject to censorship or the strictures of the classification system. It noted that the items complained about had an adult target audience and that the average reasonable viewer would not be surprised by robust references to politicians, especially about those politicians whose careers were not “unblemished”. However, TVWorks stated that this did not provide a licence for obviously untrue hyperbole and disparaging comments about the character of the person who is the subject of the criticism. The context and language used were key considerations, it said. The broadcaster considered that, on balance, none of the items contained comments about Mr Benson-Pope of “sufficient gravity” to breach broadcasting standards.
 TVWorks maintained that the vox-pops were obtained in a bona fide manner – free of any pre-determined agenda opposed to the complainant’s interests – and that they were not edited to remove positive comment.
 With respect to Mr Garner’s reference to Mr Benson-Pope as “that fine man” during Campbell Live,the broadcaster argued that it was reporter’s opinion, made in a tone of subdued sarcasm and that it was neither unfair nor gratuitous.
 TVWorks considered that the reporting in the items complained about was objective and noted that news items regularly included content that was factual along with opinion, analysis and comment. It considered that the facts were sufficiently distinguished from analysis and comment and that viewers would not have been misled.
 Turning to the standards, TVWorks pointed out that 3 News, Campbell Live and Nightline were news and current affairs programmes with adult target audiences and that, because of their distinct nature, they were unclassified. The broadcaster considered that the items complained about would not have been perceived by viewers as offensive or as otherwise failing to observe the requirements of good taste and decency. It declined to uphold the complaint that the items breached Standard 1.
 Discussing the balance standard, TVWorks stated that, excluding the Campbell Live item, the items primarily explored the controversial issue and public sentiment around the complainant’s decision to seek re-election in Dunedin South. It noted that Standard 4 provides that balance can be provided on controversial issues “within the period of current interest”. It believed that, irrespective of whether the items broadcast on 23 and 25 October 2007 were balanced in themselves, reasonable efforts were made, and reasonable opportunities were given, to present significant points of view on the controversial issue within the period of current interest. TVWorks considered that nothing in the items complained about failed to meet the requirements of the balance standard.
 In response to Mr Benson-Pope’s allegations of inaccurate reporting, TVWorks maintained that the reporter’s sources had provided accurate and reliable information. The broadcaster maintained that the facts relating to the complainant seeking re-election were clearly distinguished from the opinions, comments and analysis provided by its reporters. It declined to uphold the complaint that the items had breached Standard 5 (accuracy).
 With respect to the complainant’s contention that the items were unfair to him, the broadcaster stated that it had mostly addressed Mr Benson-Pope’s key assertions in its responses above, including the reporters’ statements. It found that each item had treated the complainant justly and fairly. The broadcaster declined to uphold the fairness complaint.
 Dissatisfied with TVWorks’ response, Mr Benson-Pope referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He argued that the broadcaster’s dependence on secret sources meant that a journalist could say anything and avoid scrutiny of any kind.
 The complainant maintained that TV3 had not given him an adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations and that it had not investigated the matter properly.
 Mr Benson-Pope considered that TV3’s reporters should have made an effort to interview people from the Labour Party who supported his candidacy, rather than stick with “one-sided, negative and unattributed sources”.
 The complainant believed that TV3 had shown a willingness to “work in collaboration with opposing political interests and individuals to further those interests”. He argued that because the broadcaster would not divulge its sources, the New Zealand public had no way of knowing whether the broadcaster was acting in a balanced manner or “in fact doing the bidding of certain interests”.
 The complainant stated that he resented the broadcaster’s continued assertion that he had lied over the “Setchell matter”. Mr Benson-Pope stated that Mr Garner had admitted on “a recent episode of Mediawatch that he has a preconceived view that all politicians have a default position to lie” and that Mr Garner’s views were prejudiced as a result.
 Mr Benson-Pope supplied the Authority with several documents including the SSC report, transcripts from the Mediawatch radio programme, various letters of support and an article from the Otago Daily Times to advance his arguments.
 The members of the Authority have viewed recordings of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 The fairness standard requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in a programme.
Comment that “at 57, the bonus of $130,000 a year as a back-bencher is just too tempting”
 Mr Benson-Pope complained about the reporter’s comment during the 23 October item that “at 57, the bonus of $130,000 a year as a back-bencher is just too tempting”. The Authority considers that this part of the complaint is appropriately dealt with under Standard 6.
 The Authority notes that the statement was said in the following context:
Meanwhile Clark now faces a major Cabinet re-shuffle next week following Minister Steve Maharey’s decision to quit, and she’s hinting more MPs may follow. So many appear nervous about their futures. So 3 News believes David Cunliffe, Climate Change Minister David Parker and Clayton Cosgrove are all likely to be promoted within the Cabinet. And new Cabinet Ministers are likely to be Shane Jones and former Party President, Maryan Street. But it’s Benson-Pope’s defiance today that stands out. He’s widely unpopular within his party and he is unlikely to get within cooee of Cabinet again. But at 57, the bonus of $130,000 a year as a back-bencher is just too tempting. Especially knowing his boss is powerless to stop him.
 Although the statement was included in a news report, rather than an opinion piece, a majority of the Authority (Joanne Morris, Diane Musgrave and Paul France) considers that the reasonable viewer would not have believed the statement to be an assertion of fact. It finds that viewers would have clearly understood the reporter’s statement to be speculation from a political editor who is frequently called upon to give his opinion about political events. While the statement may have been perceived by some people as a cheap shot, it did not amount to a breach of broadcasting standards.
 Further, the majority notes that Mr Benson-Pope was specifically asked by the reporter why he was seeking re-election, and he declined to comment. In these circumstances, the majority declines to uphold the complaint that the reporter’s statement was unfair to the complainant.
 A minority of the Authority (Tapu Misa) disagrees. The minority believes that the statement breached the requirement of news programmes dealing with political matters to be impartial and objective. In the minority’s opinion, the statement displayed a clear bias, and seemed intended to portray Mr Benson-Pope in as negative a light as possible. The minority accepts that analysis, comment and speculation may sometimes be acceptable in a news item, but considers that it should be fair and reasonable. In this case, the minority considers that the reporter had no reasonable basis for the statement, other than his apparent poor opinion of Mr Benson-Pope. The minority would uphold the fairness complaint.
Items created an unfair impression that it was a surprise that Mr Benson-Pope was seeking re-election
 Mr Benson-Pope alleged that the items created an unfair impression that it was a surprise that he was seeking re-election. The Authority notes that several incidents involving Mr Benson-Pope, including his forced resignation from Cabinet, had been widely reported on by the media. In light of this, the Authority considers that it would have come as a surprise to many viewers that he was seeking re-election. The Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the items were unfair to the complainant in this respect.
 The complainant contended that the items were unfair because 3 News reporters had only questioned him through door-stepping, and that they should have made an appointment with him to have a proper discussion. However, the Authority notes that, in the political arena, door-stepping is a legitimate and well established interviewing technique. It finds that Mr Benson-Pope was given an adequate opportunity to present his view and to invite reporters to discuss the matter in a different setting.
Selective editing of Vox-Pops
 Mr Benson-Pope argued that the broadcaster acted in an unfair and unbalanced manner by editing out the positive vox-pop from the 25 October broadcast. The Authority considers that this part of the complaint is appropriately dealt with under Standard 6 (fairness).
 In the Authority’s view, it was not unfair to omit the one positive vox-pop from the 25 October broadcast. It accepts TVWorks’ assertion that the sample of vox-pops was representative of local opinion – in other words, they were predominantly negative. The 3 News and Nightline items on 25 October focused on the idea that “senior Party figures are working to get rid of [Mr Benson-Pope]...” and that party officials were worried about the negative comments from Dunedin South residents. In this context, the Authority considers that it was not unfair to only include negative vox-pops in the item.
 Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the items breached Standard 6 (fairness).
Claim that the Prime Minister did not support Mr Benson-Pope’s candidacy
 Mr Benson-Pope argued that the items contained inaccurate claims that the Prime Minister did not support his candidacy and that he “was standing in defiance of the PM”. The complainant believed the footage of Helen Clark contained in the broadcasts of 23 and 25 October did not support those claims. The Authority notes that the item did not state that Mr Benson-Pope was standing in defiance of the Prime Minister. The reporter said “But it’s Benson-Pope’s defiance today that stands out. He’s widely unpopular within his party and is unlikely to get within cooee of Cabinet again.”
 Further, the footage showed Helen Clark responding to questions about Mr Benson-Pope seeking re-election by saying “I’m not going to comment on the decision a colleague makes in the nomination process...” and “I’m certainly not going to comment on a candidate’s selection”. Her comments did not suggest that Mr Benson-Pope was “standing in defiance” of her, but neither did they support the complainant’s contention that she supported him. In these circumstances, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the accuracy complaint.
Statement that Mr Benson-Pope was “sacked for not telling the truth”
 The complainant maintained that the reporter’s statement that he was “sacked for not telling the truth” was inaccurate. In relation to whether Mr Benson-Pope was “sacked”, the Authority understands that he was asked to resign from Cabinet. It considers that the term “sacked” is an acceptable shorthand explanation of what had happened, bearing in mind the robust political atmosphere.
 With respect to the reporter’s comment that he was sacked for “not telling the truth”, the Authority notes that the Prime Minister made the following statements in relation to Mr Benson Pope’s resignation in a 3 News report broadcast on 27 July 2007:
I am disappointed because I expect more. I expect people to put the full facts out there...I haven’t spoken to him today, I have had my Chief of Staff and another Senior Minister speak with him last night and make it clear what expectations were...We went beyond a situation where answers didn’t give the full story, to answers on Monday actually having been very misleading.
 The Authority concludes from the Prime Minister’s statements that she felt that the complainant had misled the public. It considers that the reporter’s comment was a summary of a complex story which would have been familiar to viewers, and that it was a plain language description of what actually occurred. The Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the statement was inaccurate.
Reporter’s statement that the nomination of another candidate was likely to end Mr Benson-Pope’s political career
 Looking at the reporter’s statement that the nomination of another candidate was likely to end Mr Benson-Pope’s political career, the Authority finds that this was clearly a statement of the reporter’s opinion, as opposed to one of fact. As the accuracy standard only applies to statements of fact, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the accuracy complaint.
 The complainant argued that the vox-pops were misleading and not representative of local opinion. However, Mr Benson-Pope has not provided any evidence in support of his claim that the vox-pops were selectively chosen to leave a negative impression of him, and the Authority accepts the broadcaster’s evidence that the vox-pops in the item were a representative sample of local opinion. Accordingly, the Authority finds that the accuracy standard was not breached in this respect.
 Mr Benson-Pope believed the reporter’s statement that Labour leaders were worried about the comments made by the Dunedin South residents in the vox-pops was “extremely unlikely” and inaccurate. The Authority accepts the broadcaster’s statement that sources had contacted its reporter to say that the sentiments contained in them would be used as a reason to vote against the complainant. It also notes that Mr Benson-Pope did not provide any evidence to challenge TVWorks’ assertion, other than stating that it was “extremely unlikely”. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the accuracy complaint.
Statement that the Labour Party would be meeting on the weekend to discuss Mr Benson-Pope’s candidacy
 The complainant also considered that the reporter’s comment in the 25 October item that the Party would be meeting in the weekend to discuss his seeking re-election was misleading. He maintained that the meeting was a regular one at which all potentially contested seats were to be discussed.
 In the Authority’s view, this statement was not misleading or inaccurate. The reporter did not state that the meeting was solely to discuss Mr Benson-Pope’s candidacy, and the complainant accepts that his candidacy was discussed. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold this part of the complaint.
 Standard 4 requires broadcasters to provide balance when discussing controversial issues of public importance. The Authority considers that, because of its political implications, the issue of Mr Benson-Pope running for re-election was a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies. However, it considers that the complainant’s concerns have been adequately dealt with in its consideration of the fairness standard above. Accordingly, the Authority subsumes its consideration of the balance standard into its consideration of Standard 6 (fairness)
 Mr Benson-Pope complained that the vox-pop of a man stating that the complainant should be castrated and decapitated was in breach of good taste and decency. In the Authority’s view, the statement was deliberately outrageous and it was clearly not meant to be taken literally. The Authority considers that the comment was acceptable in the context of an unclassified news programme, and it would not have offended the majority of viewers. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that broadcasting the vox-pop breached Standard 1.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
26 May 2008
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. David Benson-Pope’s formal complaint – 20 November 2007
2. TVWorks’ response to the formal complaint – 8 January 2008
3. Mr Benson-Pope’s referral to the Authority – 7 February 2008
4. Mr Benson-Pope’s further submissions – 28 February 2008
1In 2007, the State Services Commission launched an inquiry investigating the recruitment, employment and subsequent firing of Madeleine Setchell at the Ministry for the Environment. Mr Benson-Pope was the Minister for the Environment at the time and his actions in relation to Ms Setchell’s firing were reviewed and the findings published in the final report.