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Ministry of Social Development and TVWorks Ltd - 2008-038

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Paul France
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave

Complainant

  • Ministry of Social Development of Wellington

Dated

18th September 2008

Number

2008-038

Programme

3 News

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
3 News – item about Work and Income using taxpayers’ money to pay, on behalf of beneficiaries, the penalty fees incurred in retrieving their impounded cars – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccurate statements – opinion of interviewees that WINZ was helping beneficiaries to commit crimes was not adopted by the reporter as a statement of fact – not upheld

Standard 4 (balance) – conflicting accounts about events on the day of the broadcast – Authority cannot determine whether the reporter made reasonable efforts, or reasonable opportunities were given, to present significant points of view about whether WINZ was assisting illegal activity – decline to determine under section 11(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989

Standard 6 (fairness) – direct conflict in recollection of events – Authority cannot determine whether MSD was informed about the angle of the story or given a fair opportunity to comment – decline to determine under section 11(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on 3 News, broadcast on TV3 at 6pm on 19 February 2008, reported that “beneficiaries who get their cars towed are getting the penalty fees paid by Work and Income” New Zealand (WINZ).

[2]   During the item, the reporter made the following statements:

If you’re a beneficiary who’s been caught out and your car impounded, then the taxpayer’s been coming to the rescue.

Cars like this one have been impounded because the driver was drunk, driving while disqualified without a licence or driving an unlicensed or unwarranted vehicle.

Some tows, and the subsequent impounding and storage costs between $400 and $700 and WINZ direct credits the money if the owner, a beneficiary, can’t.

National says it’s ridiculous.

3 News rang 20 companies in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Ten said WINZ regularly pay them for beneficiaries’ cars that have been towed.

The Government says it doesn’t have a problem with the practice.

But National doesn’t believe it and wants to know exactly how much Work and Income is forking out, and how much is being repaid.

[3]   3 News interviewed Bev Ritchie, who managed a towing company. It was reported that:

She is speaking out to 3 News because she can’t believe the taxpayer is paying for this. Work and Income direct credits her company each time a beneficiary can’t pay up.

[4]   Bev Ritchie made the following comments:

We just felt it was morally wrong... their vehicles were impounded as a punishment, WINZ are paying whatever it takes to get them out.

If they’re disqualified and don’t have a licence, they’re giving those people the means to get their vehicle back and commit a crime basically.

[5]   3 News also showed an extract from an interview with National MP Judith Collins. She said:

The Work and Income people should not be paying axpayer money to allow people to continue with an illegal activity, in this case driving without licences, driving while they’re drunk, driving cars that are unsafe.

[6]   Social Development Minister Ruth Dyson commented:

If a person has a debt, and they don’t have any money, then they are able to get an advance on their benefit which they repay.

[7]   No direct comment from WINZ was presented in the item, but the reporter stated:

Work and Income says the loans are given in exceptional circumstances only when the car is essential and the client has exhausted all other options, and the loan is expected to be repaid.

Complaint

[8]   Bronwyn Saunders, chief media advisor for the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd on behalf of MSD alleging that the item was unfair, inaccurate and unbalanced.

[9]   Ms Saunders alleged that TV3 had contacted WINZ on the day the item was broadcast, asking for a response to the following questions:

  • What is Work and Income’s policy on helping beneficiaries pay to get their impounded cars back?
  • How do beneficiaries pay this money back to Work and Income?
  • Does Work and Income have yearly statistics on how much we paid out or got back?
  • What are the latest figures on beneficiary debt?

[10]   Ms Saunders maintained that the TV3 reporter was told that yearly statistics would be difficult to obtain as towage fees are not a specific payment category for assistance. Furthermore, a request under the Official Information Act 1982 would have to be submitted for figures on beneficiary debt, she said.

[11]   The complainant asserted that the following statement was provided in response to the reporter’s first two questions

“Work and Income confirmed today that in exceptional circumstances it would give repayable loans to clients for car towage fees.

This would only be considered if the car was essential due to illness, disability or employment and if the client had exhausted all other options.

In all cases the loan would have to be repaid.

If anyone has information that someone received money they weren’t entitled to we would urge them to contact Work and Income so we can investigate.”

[12]   Ms Saunders argued that although the reporter had this statement in good time before the broadcast, the reporter chose to ignore the crucial words “due to illness, disability or employment”, which gave important context to the reasons behind the exceptional circumstances under which repayable loans would be considered. She contended that “by omitting these words the viewer was robbed of a vital piece of information which would have given balance and fairness to the report”.

[13]   The complainant maintained that in the introduction to the item, and throughout the majority of the report, the information that in all cases the loans have to be repaid was withheld. She said that when this information was finally mentioned at the end of the report, it was immediately followed by the reporter’s words “but National doesn’t believe it”. In other words, “an important component of the story, which was vital for balance, was placed right at the end [of the report] and consequently rubbished”.

[14]   Ms Saunders alluded to Bev Ritchie’s comment that “If they’re disqualified and don’t have a licence, they’re giving those people the means to get their vehicle back and commit a crime basically”. Ms Saunders argued that not only was this statement not supported by facts, but in its dealings with the reporter, this subject was not mentioned and so MSD was not given a chance to respond. She said that in the interests of fairness, the journalist should have put this issue to MSD because it was a major component of the item.

[15]   The complainant stated that Bev Ritchie’s comment was followed by shots of a car and a voiceover which stated that it had been impounded because the driver was drunk, driving while disqualified, or unlicensed. She said “the suggestion was that it was cars such as these, belonging to Work and Income clients, which we were paying to have released”. She argued that there was no evidence to show that this was the case, and that the voiceover was immediately followed by a comment from Judith Collins that “Work and Income shouldn’t be paying taxpayer money to allow people to continue with an illegal activity”. Ms Saunders said that at no stage were any facts produced to back up these claims, but that had not prevented 3 News from broadcasting a response from the National Party. She said, “So in a very short time we jumped from the tow-truck company saying “If they’re disqualified...” to it being a fact with a politician commenting on it”.

[16]   Ms Saunders argued that although towards the end of the item viewers were given “some idea of the other side of the story”, 3 News gave the impression that “the Minister ‘didn’t have a problem’ with the unproven accusations that were being made, rather than responding to the very particular cases which can lead to Work and Income’s involvement”.

[17]   Ms Saunders concluded her complaint by arguing that 3 News “showed complete disregard for the facts” by selectively presenting parts of the statement that was provided by Work and Income. She said MSD was not informed of the thrust of the story, “which was that Work and Income was paying for car owners who had broken the law”, and therefore had no opportunity to check the facts surrounding the issue and respond.

Standards

[18]   TVWorks assessed MSD’s complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 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.

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

Standard 4 (balance)

[19]  TVWorks accepted that Standard 4 applied because the item reported on a controversial issue of public importance. It argued that the news item adequately presented the viewpoints of both the Government and WINZ by including the following:

  • Commentary advising that “the Government says it doesn’t have a problem with the practice”
  • Extracts of comments made on camera by the Minister of Social Development, Ruth Dyson, saying that “if a person has a debt and they don’t have any money then they are able to get an advance on their benefit which they repay”
  • Commentary advising that “WINZ says the loans are given only in exceptional circumstances, only when the car is essential, and the client has exhausted all other options, and the loan is expected to be repaid”.

[20]   The broadcaster contended that the essence of WINZ’s point of view was “fairly represented and succinctly communicated to 3 News viewers, even without inclusion of the words ‘due to illness, disability or employment’”. It considered that the phrases “when the car is essential” and “only in exceptional circumstances” covered those specific situations. TVWorks argued that those phrases clearly conveyed to viewers that WINZ only advances money to beneficiaries in very particular circumstances and “not indiscriminately or irresponsibly”. Further, those phrases “tend to strongly negate, or at least raise serious doubt” with regard to the comments made by Bev Ritchie and Judith Collins that the practice was “morally wrong” and “paying taxpayer money to allow people to continue with an illegal activity”.

[21]   TVWorks maintained that the item should not be censured because it presented WINZ’s perspective at the end of the item followed by the phrase “but National doesn’t believe it”. It said:

To the contrary, [TVWorks] believes it may be more likely that viewers were left with a strong closing impression that WINZ has, indeed, been acting responsibly and with “heart” while, not surprisingly, cynical Opposition politicians have been engaging in characteristic political gamesmanship and point-scoring through criticising the WINZ initiative.

[22]   The broadcaster disagreed with MSD that the item “showed complete disregard for the facts”. It said that cars were impounded as a result of an infringement of some sort; they were not “impounded due to no wrongdoing on the part of the driver”. It said:

Therefore, inherent in the story from its inception was the underlying theme that WINZ was assisting people who had infringed – but, it transpired and was conveyed clearly to viewers that WINZ only intervened when there was very good cause to do so.

[23]   For those reasons, TVWorks declined to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[24]   TVWorks contended that the item could not “reasonably, or properly, be construed as being either misleading or factually incorrect”. It noted that the item included:

  • Extracts of an interview with Bev Ritchie, who was “speaking out to 3 News because she can’t believe the taxpayer is paying for this”
  • A reference to comments from National that the practice was “ridiculous” and that “the National Party’s outraged”
  • Extracts of an interview with National MP Judith Collins, who opposed WINZ “paying taxpayer money to allow people to continue with illegal activity”
  • Statements made by the reporter which encapsulated the viewpoints of the Government and WINZ saying, “the Government doesn’t have a problem with the practice”, and “WINZ says the loans are given only in exceptional circumstances, only when the car is essential, and the client has exhausted all other options, and the loan is expected to be repaid”.

[25]   The broadcaster maintained that, on the information available to it, it was satisfied that the reporter carried out adequate inquiries and included sufficient content to present an item that was truthful and accurate on points of fact and impartial and objective when viewed in its entirety. It argued that it was unreasonable to expect that, in the context of a short news item, all material obtained in support of the statements made in it should be included. It considered that the item was researched with due diligence and care and that “significant points of view were adequately investigated and reported without embellishment or partiality”. TVWorks declined to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 5.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[26]   TVWorks contended that, for the reasons set out under Standards 4 and 5 above, as well as the reasons below, it did not deal unjustly or unfairly with WINZ or any other person or organisation that took part or was referred to in the item. In particular, it disagreed with MSD that WINZ’s perspective was “rubbished”. It argued that significant points of view were fairly represented in sufficient detail to allow viewers to reach an informed opinion on the WINZ practice explored in the item. The broadcaster maintained that:

...the thrust of the reporter’s story was apparent from the outset and would inevitably generate public interest because it involved the use of taxpayer money in relieving the predicaments of certain beneficiaries ostensibly liable for the infringements that had led to their vehicles being impounded. Without sufficient explanation, this situation could, quite conceivably, be widely regarded as dubious and improper. The reporter set out to clarify the actual position and the committee considers that she succeeded in achieving this.

[27]   The broadcaster argued that, as the nature of the item was revealed from the outset:

WINZ was provided with an adequate opportunity to respond to TV3’s questions of 19 February in a suitably comprehensive manner sufficient to allay likely public concerns regarding this use of taxpayer money.

[28]   In those circumstances, TVWorks did not consider that the item breached Standard 6.

Referral to the Authority

[29]   Dissatisfied with TVWorks’ response, Peter Hughes, on behalf of MSD, referred its complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[30]   Mr Hughes first laid out “the facts” with regard to WINZ’s practice of making advance payments to beneficiaries. These included the following:

  • WINZ does occasionally make advance payments to beneficiaries to meet their “immediate needs”. This could include advancing a payment in order to retrieve an impounded car, if WINZ was convinced that a beneficiary had an “immediate need to recover the car”, for example to get to work.
  • Under section 82(6) of the Social Security Act, WINZ can make an advance payment only if it considers that it would “best meet the immediate needs” of the beneficiary.
  • This power is further constrained by a direction from the Minister, legally binding MSD, that states that the beneficiary must be able to identify “an immediate need for an essential item or service”.
  • Case managers are required to consider whether the beneficiary could meet the need with their own resources or other sources of assistance, before making an advance payment, as well as whether the beneficiary could reasonably have been expected to have made provision for the particular immediate need.
  • Case managers must also consider the beneficiary’s ability to repay the advance.
  • Under the Social Security Act, beneficiaries are liable to repay the advances.
  • The direction from the Minister expressly provides that every advance is to be recovered from the beneficiary by MSD.

[31]   Mr Hughes contended that there was no room for argument as to whether MSD was constrained in this way or that the advances were repayable. He said “the law is clear, and the Ministry’s practice reflects it”.

[32]   Mr Hughes then outlined MSD’s version of the events of 19 February, when TV3 contacted MSD several times to discuss the proposed story. He said a staff member of MSD rang the reporter twice to clarify exactly what she was asking, so that MSD could provide adequate background information for the item. He contended that at no point did the reporter tell MSD that the thrust of her article was to be “that public funds were being used to pay for cars to be released to owners who had broken the law, in order for them to continue to break the law”. He said, “Nor did she indicate that the report would raise a doubt as to whether any money advanced by the Ministry was repayable by the beneficiary”.

[33]   The complainant then set out the email response to TV3, mentioned by Ms Saunders in the original complaint. It said:

“Work and Income confirmed today that in exceptional circumstances it would give repayable loans to clients for car towage fees.

This would only be considered if the car was essential due to illness, disability or employment and if the client had exhausted all other options.
           
In all cases the loan would have to be repaid. If anyone has information that someone received money they weren’t entitled to we would urge them to contact Work and Income so we can investigate.”

[34]   Mr Hughes commented that:

For simplicity, the email used the word “loan” to describe the recoverable advances. As the law is clear that advance payments of benefits must be repaid, the word “loan” is an accurate way to describe them.

[35]   Mr Hughes then turned to MSD’s grounds for referral.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[36]   Mr Hughes stated that MSD believed the item was inaccurate in the following five ways.

Misleading impression that payments are not recoverable

[37]   Mr Hughes contended that the item gave the inaccurate impression that WINZ “pay[s] penalty fees outright, rather than by way of a recoverable advance (or loan, as described in the Ministry’s statement to TV3”. He argued that the following parts of the item created and reinforced this impression:

  • The presenter’s introduction which began by saying “beneficiaries who get their cars towed are getting penalty fees paid by Work and Income”.
  • The presenter’s next words which were that “the National Party’s outraged and says taxpayers shouldn’t be paying the bill for car owners who break the law”.
  • Bev Ritchie was quoted as saying “WINZ are paying whatever it takes to get them out” and “WINZ direct credits the money if the owner, a beneficiary, can’t”.

[38]   The complainant argued that the natural interpretation of these statements was that “Work and Income pays penalty fees outright”. He said there was “no indication that the money is merely an advance, and fully repayable by the beneficiary”.

[39]   Mr Hughes acknowledged that, at the end of the item, Ruth Dyson said people were able to “get an advance” and WINZ was quoted as saying that “loans are given”, and both stated that these were repayable. However, he argued that the statement that “National doesn’t believe it”, immediately following these quotes, “[cast] doubt on the truth of the quotations”. Furthermore, he said that even if viewers believed the statements of Ruth Dyson and WINZ, the structure of the item would have left them with the inaccurate overall impression that “Work and Income simply paid penalty fees in many cases (even though it paid loans or advances in others), and that these payments were not recoverable”. He maintained that TV3 was well aware that the advances were repayable, because the Ministry’s statement indicated that “in all cases the loan would have to be repaid”.

Misleading impression that there is room for legitimate doubt about whether payments are recoverable

[40]   Mr Hughes contended that the item was inaccurate because it gave the impression that there was room for legitimate doubt as to whether the payments were recoverable. He said the law on the matter was clear, as was the Ministry’s statement to TV3. Despite this, he said, the bulk of the item reflected the view that payments were made outright and not recoverable, as demonstrated by the quotes at paragraph [36] above. He acknowledged that the words “advance” and “loan” were used by Ruth Dyson and WINZ in the item, but reiterated that these were discredited by the following statement that “National doesn’t believe it”.

[41]   The result, Mr Hughes argued, was that:

...even if the viewer did not reach the conclusion that payments were generally made outright, they would reach the conclusion that there is legitimate room for doubt about whether payments are made outright or by way of an advance.

Inaccurate impression that Work and Income pay penalties in all cases

[42]   Mr Hughes argued that the following statements in the item created the false impression that WINZ met the cost of penalty fees incurred by beneficiaries in every case:

  • “WINZ are paying whatever it takes to get them out.”
  • “Work and Income direct-credits her company each time a beneficiary can’t pay up.”
  • “WINZ direct-credits the money if the owner, a beneficiary, can’t.”

[43]   The complainant acknowledged the statement that “the loans are given in exceptional circumstances, only when the car is essential, and the client has exhausted all other options”, but again maintained that this was discredited by the reporter saying immediately after that “National doesn’t believe it”.

[44]   Mr Hughes concluded that the overall impression created by the item was that WINZ met the costs in every case, which the Ministry had made clear was not the case in its statement to TV3.

Inaccurate statement that Work and Income are assisting beneficiaries in carrying out illegal activity

[45]   Mr Hughes contended that the item was inaccurate in stating that the actions of WINZ assist beneficiaries in committing crimes; Judith Collins commented that WINZ should not be paying people to continue with an illegal activity.

[46]   The complainant acknowledged that for a vehicle to be impounded an infringement must have been committed, but said that “this is neither evidence that a crime has actually been committed, nor of course an indication that any crime will be committed when the car is recovered”. Mr Hughes stated that the Ministry was not aware of any factual basis for the statement that WINZ in advancing benefits had ever assisted a beneficiary to carry out illegal activity. He noted that TV3 did not provide any examples in the item or in its dealings with the Ministry.

[47]   Mr Hughes concluded by saying that the onus was on TV3 to prove that the statement was true, and that if it could not, the Ministry believed that the item must be considered inaccurate in that respect.

Omission of significant information that advances would only be considered if the car was essential due to illness, disability or employment

[48]   Mr Hughes submitted that the item was inaccurate because it omitted a significant piece of information, namely that advances would only be considered if the car was essential due to illness, disability or employment.

[49]   The main issue in the item, he said, was whether public money was being spent in inappropriate circumstances. Therefore the circumstances in which money was paid were central to the item. The complainant acknowledged that the reporter stated that WINZ would only advance money “in exceptional circumstances”, but said “that in itself gave the viewer no information about the types of circumstance which would be considered exceptional”. He said that TV3 chose to omit the part of the Ministry’s statement that would have provided viewers with the information that an advance would be considered only “if the car was essential due to illness, disability or employment”.

[50]   Mr Hughes concluded by saying “this information was so relevant to the main issue in the item that its omission made the thrust of the item misleading”.

Standard 4 (balance)

[51]   Mr Hughes contended that MSD’s arguments in relation to accuracy also indicated that the item breached the requirement for balance under Standard 4; viewers were not given a balanced presentation of competing viewpoints, because the underlying factual basis was inaccurate.

[52]   Furthermore, the item failed to give a viewpoint to balance the comments made by Bev Ritchie and Judith Collins that WINZ had assisted beneficiaries in carrying out illegal activity, he said. He asserted that the TV3 reporter did not indicate to the Ministry that that view would be presented in the item, so the Ministry had no opportunity to respond and did not address it in its statement.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[53]   Mr Hughes argued that TV3 had not dealt fairly with the Ministry because its reporter failed to disclose to the Ministry essential aspects of the story it was proposing to broadcast, in particular the allegations that WINZ assisted beneficiaries in carrying out illegal activity. He said the Ministry was therefore “unfairly denied the opportunity to rebut that allegation, or challenge its factual basis”.

[54]   The complainant also contended that TV3 had breached guideline 6b, which requires that contributors in any programme should, except as required in the public interest, be informed of the reason for their proposed contribution.

Further Information Requested from the Broadcaster

[55]   The Authority requested some further information from TVWorks in order to determine the complaint. It asked for a response to the following question:

Does TVWorks have examples or evidence of situations where WINZ has advanced benefit money for towage fees in circumstances where that has enabled the person to continue committing an offence of the sort Bev the tow-truck woman and Judith Collins described in the item?

[56]   TVWorks forwarded to the Authority two forms which confirmed payments made by WINZ to beneficiaries, as well as comments from the reporter who ran the item, responding to the Ministry’s letter of complaint.

[57]   TVWorks turned to address the Ministry’s argument that Bev Ritchie’s comment (that WINZ were “giving those people the means to get their vehicle back and commit a crime, basically”) was not backed up by facts, and was not mentioned in its dealings with the reporter. It said the reporter had stated that Bev Ritchie had documents which showed what the driver had been charged with i.e. the reason the vehicle had been impounded, the details of the vehicle and the owner as well as records of the payments made by WINZ. She said that those documents, “which prove they are being paid sums of money by WINZ to release vehicles impounded by police for illegal activity”, were filmed and shown as part of the item. She argued she had spoken to ten other tow truck companies that supported the Ritchies’ story.

[58]   The reporter maintained, in response to the Ministry’s argument about the voiceover in the item which accompanied shots of an impounded car, that the car, which belonged to a beneficiary, had in fact been impounded because the driver was driving without a licence, and that Bev Ritchie had documents to prove this.

[59]   Further, the reporter maintained she had made it perfectly clear to the Ministry’s media advisor what the angle of the story was, namely that she had spoken to tow truck drivers who claimed they had been regularly paid by WINZ to release vehicles to beneficiaries whose vehicles had been impounded by police for reasons such as driving without a licence. She had asked for the WINZ policy on this practice and for financial details about what was given and received in loan payments as well as the total beneficiary debt.

[60]   The media advisor had asked which specific incident she was referring to, and she replied that “the point was there wasn’t ONE specific incident; it is a regular occurrence that appears to be happening around the country with various towing companies and has been happening for several years”. The reporter said to the media advisor that she would like a Ministry spokesperson to respond on this issue. She was told efforts would be made to find someone but everyone was “very busy”. The reporter emphasised that the Minister had been asked what she thought of WINZ paying for the return of vehicles impounded by police for reasons like being drunk or disqualified; her response was shown in the item. The issue, the reporter said, was “not that the loans are given at all, but that they’re given to allow people to retrieve a vehicle impounded because they were acting illegally”.

Other comments

[61]   Looking at the rest of the complaint, the reporter maintained that she was told by the Ministry that towage fees were not a specific payment category. She was eventually advised during her last conversation with the media advisor that day that the information she had requested could only be obtained through an Official Information Act (OIA) request because they would not be able to find it quickly, if records were kept at all. However, during every other conversation of the day she was told by the Ministry’s media advisor that the information was being collated but he was waiting for sign-off.

[62]   The reporter disagreed with the Ministry that they had provided a statement to her “in good time”; she said the statement arrived at 4.40pm, when she was also told that the other facts requested would have to be obtained under the OIA and that the Ministry would not be putting forward a spokesperson to respond to the story, despite having been given the opportunity to do so.

[63]   The reporter also disagreed that she had ignored the crucial words “due to illness, disability or employment”. She thought it was reasonable to simply state “exceptional circumstances”, she said, rather than list all those circumstances. “Exceptional does not mean any ordinary, unsubstantiated reason and viewers would fully comprehend that”, she said.

[64]   With regard to the complainant’s argument that the item failed to mention that the loans had to be repaid, the reporter said:

A loan suggests that it is not a gift and therefore there is an implicit expectation that it would be repaid; I did not feel it necessary to spell out the meaning of the word ‘loan’ to our viewers.

 

[65]   The reporter considered that the final comment “But National doesn’t believe it” simply reflected National’s position, and placing it at the end served to present the two opposing views side by side.

Further Comment from the Complainant

[66]   The complainant noted the following passages from the reporter’s comments:

Ritchie has documents which show exactly what the driver has been charged with – the reason for the vehicle being impounded, the vehicle’s details and the owner’s details and they have records of the payments made by WINZ for said vehicles – we filmed these documents and showed them as part of the story.

I explained... that in some instances the same vehicles were returning and being paid for more than once by WINZ to be released.
We presented the experience of an Auckland tow yard, in their own words and showed documents which prove they are being paid sums of money by WINZ to release vehicles impounded by police for illegal activity. We also spoke to 10 other randomly chosen tow truck companies that backed up the story told by the Ritchies.

[67]   The complainant argued that this response did not provide any example or evidence of situations where Work and Income had advanced benefit money for towage fees in circumstances where that enabled the beneficiary to continue committing an offence.

[68]   Secondly, Mr Hughes referred to the two forms of Notice of Credit from Work and Income to Bev Ritchie’s towing company which were provided by the broadcaster. One, he said, provided for the towing company to receive $568 in respect of “car towing and storage”, and the other to receive $388 in respect of “car impoundment fees”. The complainant maintained these forms also did not provide any evidence that Work and Income had advanced benefit money for towage fees in circumstances where that had enabled a client to continue committing an offence.

[69]   Mr Hughes went on to say:

The inability of TV3 to provide any evidence reinforces the Ministry’s view that there is no factual basis for TV3’s statement that the actions of Work and Income in advancing benefits have assisted beneficiaries to carry out illegal activities. The onus remains on TV3 to prove that the statement was true, in at least one case. As TV3 are unable to do this, it appears to the Ministry that the item must be considered inaccurate in this respect.

[70]   The complainant said that now that the broadcaster had provided details of individual cases, MSD had taken the opportunity to check them. He considered that they supported MSD’s complaint by providing “evidence of the types of exceptional circumstances in which Work and Income advance benefits”. They also illustrated the steps that MSD took to ensure that its actions did not result in criminal activity, and that the advances were repaid.

[71]   Having investigated one of the credit notes provided by the broadcaster, Mr Hughes noted that the file contained the following note from the case manager, dated 23 March 2008:

Client’s car was towed, client said he was not drunk but it was being driven by a friend who was. Client said he was starting work next week, confirmed this on phone with [A], a subcontractor, who said client was starting FT work on 29/05/08 with [S] Ltd, working $[X] per hour [nature of work]... With approval from SCT, assisted client with $X for car towing and storage. Gave client auto debt repayment form so he can arrange repayment with his bank at $10 weekly from 23/06/08.

[72]   This, Mr Hughes said, illustrated the type of exceptional circumstance in which the Ministry would advance benefits, namely where transport was necessary to enable a client to come off the benefit and take up employment. It also illustrated how Work and Income took steps to ensure the advance was repaid, immediately after the advance was made.

[73]   The file for the other credit note provided by the broadcaster contained the following series of notes from the case manager:

Client came into office today... to enquire whether we could assist with car impoundment fees of $X by 11/06/08. [Case Manager] asked client why car was impounded, client replied that she thought it was because her rego was over 6 months expired. CM asked client “didn’t the Police tell you why they were impounding the car?” Client said no. CM then asked if she had asked if she had a drivers licence, client replied no. She had sat it twice and failed. Talked to [Service Centre Manager] about advance for car impoundment as client stated that her son usually drove her and she needed the car for hospital appointments. Advance declined as no drivers licence and car in client’s name. (30 May 2008)

Client came in for interview re advance for car impoundment. Phoned [Bev Ritchie’s towing company] to get total amount payable as client had managed to pay $200 off her debt, phoned [Assistant Service Centre Manager] for approval to pay this. [Assistant Service Centre Manager] advised that if we get a statement off client stating that she will not drive the vehicle as she does not have a licence, and that her son will drive the vehicle only, we will pay this as client does have hospital appointments for breast cancer. Client had letter from son advising Work and Income that he will be driving the car only, client also signed PD to this effect. Paid total of $X to [Bev Ritchie’s towing company] today. Advised [the towing company] that this will be paid and client can collect car today. (18 June 2008)

[74]   Mr Hughes stated that Work and Income records showed that this second client was also given the necessary forms to begin repaying the advance.

[75]   Mr Hughes noted this comment from the reporter:

This [the allegation that TV3 failed to indicate to the Ministry that it would allege that the actions of Work and Income have assisted beneficiaries in carrying out activities that were illegal] is simply not true. When I first spoke to [MSD’s media advisor] I explained I was doing a story because I had spoken to tow truck drivers who claimed they were routinely and regularly being paid by WINZ to release vehicles to beneficiaries whose vehicles had been impounded by police for reasons such as – DIC, driving without a licence and driving an unlicensed or unwarranted vehicle and that in some instances the same vehicles were returning and being paid for more than once by WINZ to be released. I could not have been clearer.

[76]   The complainant considered that this supported the Ministry’s argument that it had not been informed that the story would allege WINZ was assisting illegal activity, because “even the reporter does not contend that she stated that the item would allege that the Ministry was assisting beneficiaries to have their cars released to carry out activities that are illegal”.

[77]   Further, Mr Hughes argued that the forms provided by the broadcaster indicated that it had evidence of two specific cases, on which it could have invited the Ministry to comment. Had it done so, he said, the Ministry would have been able to provide the details from the files set out above in paragraphs [71] to [73], which illustrated the steps the Ministry actively took to ensure that its actions did not result in illegal activity by beneficiaries.

[78]   Mr Hughes reiterated the argument that the failure to indicate to the Ministry the thrust of the story, and the failure to invite the Ministry to comment on specific cases, resulted in the item being unbalanced and unfair. As further evidence, he provided the following account from MSD’s media advisor of the conversation the reporter alleged she had with him:

The real story was never explained at any time.

... “Impounded” was the only word used by the reporter. Drunk in charge, driving while disqualified etc., was never, ever mentioned at any point in any conversation.

She could not have been more elusive as regards the nature of her story. I had to phone the reporter back twice to try and find out why she was asking for our policy on impounded cars.

The reporter eventually told me she had an example of a tow-truck driver complaining – but refused to give me names so we could check our side of the story out so as to give a proper response.

I did try and find someone to front, but no one was available and given we were being asked to front on something where we were being kept in the dark I thought it inappropriate.

The reporter’s voiceover said the car had been impounded because the driver was drunk, disqualified or unlicensed when she had documents showing it was due to driving without a licence? Why didn’t she say that from the outset?

“Illegal activity” was a phrase never used in our conversations. Ten other companies backed up the stories yet absolutely no evidence from them was shown – so the reporter was happy to repeat unsubstantiated claims but could find no time for the Work and Income statement in full, which was a vital part of a balanced story.

Again the word “illegal” was never used.

In response to the email I sent to the reporter, the message followed an afternoon of aggression and failure to disclose the true nature of her story. I kept the reporter informed throughout the afternoon, telling her we would at least give her a statement while trying to find out more details from her so we could give answers to specific cases. This was not forthcoming from her.

Further Information Requested from the Broadcaster

[79]   The Authority asked the broadcaster to provide further documentation and examples which supported the statement that WINZ was assisting beneficiaries in committing illegal activity, and in particular the comment from the reporter that:

...the point was there wasn’t ONE specific incident; it is a regular occurrence that appears to be happening around the country with various towing companies and has been happening for several years.

[80]   TVWorks responded that it did not have the resources to “re-investigate and obtain new information” concerning this complaint. It said that the reporter had explained that she sought comment fairly from MSD, and that she was “not required to lay out her entire story in order to be fair”. Government departments should be open to question and scrutiny. TVWorks maintained that:

MSD knows what it pays for – it has all the information within its files. It lends its ‘clients’ money to get cars out of ‘hock’ irrespective of whether the cars have been impounded due to illegal activity – that is a proper subject for a news report.

[81]   TVWorks concluded by arguing that the complaint and the way it had been handled by MSD bordered on vexatious.

Authority's Determination

[82]   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 5 (accuracy)

[83]   MSD argued that the item was misleading and/or inaccurate in a number of ways. The Authority considers each allegation below.

Omission of information that advances would only be considered if the car was essential “due to illness, disability or employment”

[84]   The Authority agrees with TVWorks that the reporter’s statement that loans were “given in exceptional circumstances only when the car is essential and the client has exhausted all other options” was sufficient to convey that WINZ was advancing money to beneficiaries only in very particular circumstances, and after careful consideration. The fact that the reporter did not specifically refer to “illness, disability or employment” did not result in the item being misleading or inaccurate.

[85]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold this part of the complaint.

Impression that Work and Income paid penalties in all cases

[86]   MSD has argued that the item left the impression that WINZ would pay for impounded cars in all cases. The Authority acknowledges that statements made by the reporter and the interviewees in the item did not specify the circumstances in which WINZ would pay for beneficiaries' impounded cars to be returned. However, the Authority cannot consider these statements in isolation. It finds that any impression that WINZ paid the fees in all cases was clarified at the end of the item by the reporter's summing up of MSD's statement – that loans were "given in exceptional circumstances only when the car is essential and the client has exhausted all other options". Considering the item as a whole, the Authority concludes that it was not misleading or inaccurate in this respect.

Misleading impression that payments were not recoverable and/or that there was room for legitimate doubt about whether payments were recoverable

[87]   The Authority considers that the item did not create the impression that the advance payments were not recoverable. Rather, the item left viewers with a clear impression that the money advanced to beneficiaries to retrieve their impounded cars was only a loan and had to be repaid. This was reinforced by statements made in the item, by both the reporter, who said “the loan is expected to be repaid”, and the Minister of Social Development, who said, “If a person has a debt, and they don’t have any money, then they are able to get an advance on their benefit which they repay”.

[88]   For the same reason, the Authority considers that the item did not create the impression that it was questionable whether the loans were actually required by WINZ to be repaid. Viewers would have appreciated that any comments made by Judith Collins or the National Party questioning this were politically fuelled opinions. The Authority therefore declines to uphold the complaint that the item was misleading in this respect.

Inaccurate statement that Work and Income was assisting beneficiaries in carrying out illegal activity

[89]   The following comments were made in the item about this issue:

Bev Ritchie: If they’re disqualified and don’t have a licence, they’re giving those people the means to get their vehicle back and commit a crime basically.

Judith Collins: The work and income people should not be paying taxpayer money to allow people to continue with an illegal activity...

[90]   The accuracy standard requires news programmes to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. In the Authority’s view, the statements above were clearly distinguishable as the opinions of Bev Ritchie and Judith Collins. They were not statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applies. Similarly, the introduction given by the 3 News presenter, which stated that “the National Party’s outraged and says taxpayers shouldn’t be paying the bill for car owners who break the law”, was reporting National’s viewpoint rather than making a statement of fact. Therefore, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the accuracy complaint.

Standard 4 (balance)

[91]   Standard 4 requires broadcasters to provide balance when discussing controversial issues of public importance. The item subject to complaint discussed the issue of whether Work and Income should be advancing money to beneficiaries whose cars had been impounded for illegal activity, and whether it was creating the potential for beneficiaries to “continue with an illegal activity”. The Authority agrees with the parties that this constituted a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies.

[92]   The balance standard states that, if a controversial issue of public importance is discussed in a news programme, broadcasters are responsible for ensuring that “reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view” on that issue. The complainant’s main concern was that the item failed to give a viewpoint to balance the comments made by Bev Ritchie and Judith Collins that WINZ was allowing beneficiaries to continue with illegal activity by paying their towage fees. MSD asserted that the TV3 reporter did not indicate to the Ministry that that view would be presented in the item, so that the Ministry had no opportunity to respond and did not address it in its statement.

[93]    The Authority considers that the statements made by Bev Ritchie and Judith Collins, which involved allegations that WINZ was assisting illegal activity, needed to be balanced in the item and presented alongside a relevant response from MSD. The question for the Authority is whether, in accordance with the balance standard, reasonable efforts were made by the broadcaster, or reasonable opportunities were given to MSD, to provide MSD’s response to the comments made by the interviewees. The conversations that took place between the reporter and MSD’s media advisor on the day of the broadcast are relevant to this question.

[94]   MSD recalled that the reporter had asked its media advisor the following four questions:

  • What is Work and Income’s policy on helping beneficiaries pay to get their impounded cars back?
  • How do beneficiaries pay this money back to Work and Income?
  • Does Work and Income have yearly statistics on how much we paid out or got back?
  • What are the latest figures on beneficiary debt?

[95]   The following statement was provided by MSD to the reporter:

“Work and Income confirmed today that in exceptional circumstances it would give repayable loans to clients for car towage fees.

This would only be considered if the car was essential due to illness, disability or employment and if the client had exhausted all other options.

In all cases the loan would have to be repaid.

If anyone has information that someone received money they weren’t entitled to we would urge them to contact Work and Income so we can investigate.”

[96]   In the Authority’s view, the lack of mention of “illegal activity” in both the questions recorded by MSD, and in MSD’s response, suggests that MSD did not know that the item would discuss the possibility that WINZ was assisting beneficiaries to “continue with illegal activity”.

[97]   However, the Authority cannot determine whether this was because there was miscommunication between MSD and the reporter, or whether 3 News actually did not inform MSD that this issue would be raised in the item. MSD’s media advisor is adamant that the reporter referred only to “impoundment” and never mentioned any driving offences or “illegal activity”. The 3 News reporter is equally adamant that she fully explained to MSD’s media advisor the angle of the story; namely that she had spoken to tow truck drivers who claimed they had been regularly paid by WINZ to release vehicles to beneficiaries whose vehicles had been impounded by police for “reasons such as DIC, driving without a licence and driving an unlicensed or unwarranted vehicle and that in some instances the same vehicles were returning and being paid for more than once by WINZ to be released”.

[98]   Accordingly, there is a direct conflict in the parties’ accounts of the conversations between MSD and the reporter on the day of the broadcast. Having read the two accounts, the Authority can only conclude that each party genuinely believes their own version of events; MSD believes it was not told about this angle of the story, and TVWorks’ reporter maintains she explained it clearly. In these circumstances, the Authority is left in the highly unsatisfactory position of being unable to determine whether or not MSD was given reasonable opportunities to present its viewpoint on the allegation that WINZ was assisting beneficiaries to “continue with illegal activity”.

[99]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to determine this aspect of the complaint under section 11(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[100]   MSD’s primary concern under fairness was that TV3 had not dealt fairly with the Ministry because its reporter failed to disclose to the Ministry essential aspects of the story it was proposing to broadcast, in particular the allegations that WINZ assisted beneficiaries in carrying out illegal activity. He said the Ministry was therefore “unfairly denied the opportunity to rebut that allegation, or challenge its factual basis”.

[101]   The issue, again, is whether 3 News fully informed MSD of the angle of the story and therefore whether MSD was given a fair opportunity to comment. For the same reasons as above, the Authority is unable to determine whether MSD was treated fairly because it cannot reach a conclusion about the exact nature of the conversations between MSD and the reporter. Accordingly, it declines to determine the Standard 6 complaint under section 11(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
18 September 2008

Appendix

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

1.            MSD’s formal complaint – 21 February 2008
2.           TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 20 March 2008
3.           MSD’s referral to the Authority – 24 April 2008
4.           TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 9 May 2008
5.           Further information from the broadcaster – 30 June 2008
6.           Further comment from the complainant – 15 July 2008
7.           Further comment from the broadcaster – 25 July 2008