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Butler and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2008-045

Members

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

Complainant

  • Mike Butler of Hastings

Dated

13th August 2008

Number

2008-045

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item on two National MPs and whether they supported the National Party’s stance on global warming – included footage of a reporter asking the MPs whether they believed in global warming – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item was not about global warming – item looked at whether the personal views of two National MPs regarding climate change were consistent with their party’s stance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccuracies – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – reporter asked legitimate questions in a professional manner – MPs treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm on Tuesday 1 April 2008, questioned two senior National Party politicians, Lockwood Smith and Maurice Williamson, about their personal views on climate change and whether their views were in line with the National Party’s climate change policy.

[2]   The item began with the presenter stating:

Well, for many it’s the biggest issue of our time – how to save the planet. But tonight the heat’s going on the National Party because of the attitude of some of its senior MPs towards global warming.

[3]   Political editor, Guyon Espiner, then gave a report focusing on Dr Smith’s and Mr Williamson’s personal views on climate change. At the beginning of his report Mr Espiner said:

Yes, we have had to chase National on this one because two of its MPs have been making comments outside the gaze of the media, which cast strong doubt on their personal commitment to the stance that their party has taken on combating global warming.
Transport spokesman, Maurice Williamson, and the Associate Finance spokesman, Lockwood Smith, both refused to say today whether they believed global warming was real at all. Now, global warming is clearly a major policy plank for any party hoping to take power in this year’s election.

[4]   Mr Espiner then made the following comments about global warming, accompanied by footage of breaking sea ice:

While the ice melts, world leaders are trying to find a solution to what many believe is the biggest problem facing the planet. But senior National Party figures appear to doubt whether climate change exists at all.

[5]   He then stated:

Several sources approached One News saying both Lockwood Smith and Maurice Williamson had told audiences in the last week they didn’t believe in global warming. So we put it to them.

[6]   Footage was then shown of Mr Espiner in the halls of Parliament repeatedly asking Dr Smith and Mr Williamson whether they believed in global warming. Both Dr Smith and Mr Williamson stated that their position was consistent with National’s policy, but they did not answer yes or no to Mr Espiner’s questions.   

[7]   The item went on to show a brief interview with the Finance Minister, Dr Michael Cullen, who stated:

It’s a bit sort of silly I think for opposition spokespeople in New Zealand to decide that they know better than the vast overwhelming consensus of international scientists.

[8]   The item then showed footage of ACT Party MP Rodney Hide stating that the issue of climate change was “overblown” and commenting on the proposed Emissions Trading Scheme.

[9]   The item concluded with Mr Espiner saying that he had spoken with National Party leader John Key about National MPs and their personal beliefs on global warming and that Mr Key had said he was “relaxed about this” and “that in any party there will be a range of views”.

Complaint

[10]   Mike Butler made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item had breached standards of balance, accuracy and fairness.

[11]   The complainant argued that Mr Espiner had “hounded” two National MPs with the question “do you believe in climate change?” and that the news item was more like a “witch hunt”. He maintained that, while footage was shown of Mr Hide questioning the cost implications of climate change policies, Mr Espiner’s “quasi-religious zeal” prevented the item from being balanced, accurate and fair.

[12]   Mr Butler contended that the issue of climate change was complex, that
“climate change conclusions have little scientific basis, and the process is politically driven”. He stated that Mr Espiner showed “apparent disregard to any such details” and unfairly “unleashed a verbal barrage on two politicians who he believes have shown signs of lacking conviction in the new doomsday orthodoxy”.

[13]   The complainant argued that Mr Espiner presented his opinions on climate change to viewers as points of fact. He believed Mr Espiner’s questioning of the MPs was used to single out climate change deniers and “subject them to abuse without entering into debate”.      

Standards

[14]   TVNZ assessed the 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

[15]   With respect to balance, TVNZ argued that the item did not examine the issue of global warming, but looked at the difference between what “some National Party MPs believed and National Party policy”. It contended that its reporter had examined this issue when he had asked the MPs for comment regarding their beliefs on global warming.

[16]   The broadcaster pointed out that neither MP directly answered the questions being put to them, but stated that they supported National’s position. TVNZ considered that the item was balanced because the MPs were given sufficient opportunity to state their position. It declined to uphold a breach of Standard 4.  

[17]   In relation to accuracy, TVNZ stated that the item was “impartial”, and that its reporter had “examined the idea that it was perceived as politically dangerous by MPs to state their personal beliefs on party policy at election time”. It declined to uphold the complaint that the item was inaccurate.

[18]   The broadcaster argued that the level of questioning by its reporter was acceptable and fair. It contended that its reporter had been polite, repeating his question several times, but neither MP answered what was asked of him. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.      

Referral to the Authority

[19]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Butler referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He reiterated the arguments contained in his formal complaint.

Authority's Determination

[20]   The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 4 (balance)

[21]   Standard 4 requires broadcasters to provide balance when discussing controversial issues of public importance. The item raised questions about whether the personal views of two senior National Party MPs were consistent with their party's official policy on climate change.  In the Authority's view, raising such questions in an election year will almost invariably constitute a controversial issue of public importance.  As noted by the reporter, climate change was "a major policy plank for any party hoping to take power", and the apparent lack of support for that policy from some senior National MPs had the potential to influence voters' perception.

[22]   Mr Butler argued that the item was unbalanced because it did not include significant points of view on the issue of climate change. The Authority considers that this was not necessary given that the item was not about global warming, as Mr Butler acknowledged in his referral.  Looking at the controversial issue under discussion, as outlined in paragraph [21], the Authority finds that significant points of view – including comments from the MPs concerned, National's leader, and the Finance Minister – were presented.

[23]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 4.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[24]   Mr Butler argued that for the item to be accurate, the reporter should have acknowledged that "the theory of human-created climate change has little scientific basis". As discussed above, this item was not about whether climate change was real or whether it was man-made. It was a political item about alleged differences between the personal beliefs of two National MPs and their official party policy. In these circumstances, the Authority considers that the item was not misleading or inaccurate in the manner suggested by Mr Butler.

[25]   The complainant also alleged the reporter had "combined his version of the facts with his beliefs to create an inaccurate report". The Authority disagrees that the reporter expressed any personal beliefs on the issue of climate change. On the contrary, the reporter’s questioning of the MPs was neutral, and focused on National’s policy regarding climate change. Further, Mr Butler did not provide any specific examples of any inaccuracies which he believed were caused by the reporter combining “his version of the facts with his beliefs”. In these circumstances, the Authority has no basis on which to uphold the complaint that the item was inaccurate. 

Standard 6 (fairness)

[26]   Standard 6 requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in an item. The complainant argued that Mr Espiner had “hounded” two National MPs and that the item was more like a “witch hunt”. The Authority disagrees. It considers that it was legitimate and appropriate for the reporter to question whether the two MPs were personally committed to their party’s policies on climate change. The Authority considers that there was nothing unfair in the reporter’s treatment of the two MPs, particularly taking into account the robust political environment. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item was unfair.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
13 August 2008

Appendix

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

1.            Mike Butler’s formal complaint – 1 April 2008
2.           TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 29 April 2008
3.           Mr Butler’s referral to the Authority – 9 May 2008
4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 23 May 2008