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Brown and The Radio Network Ltd - 2008-130

Members

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

Complainant

  • Andrew Brown of Wellington

Dated

17th February 2009

Number

2008-130

Programme

Newstalk ZB news

Channel/Station

Newstalk ZB

Broadcaster

The Radio Network Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Newstalk ZB – news item reported on a court trial in which several people were accused of being involved in the death of a toddler – included details of the abuse suffered by the child – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – details of the abuse were not gratuitous – no warning required – contextual factors – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] A news item, broadcast on Newstalk ZB at 5pm on Tuesday 21 October 2008, reported on the High Court trial of several people in relation to the death of a toddler. The presenter began the report by stating:

The Crown has today outlined the horrific abuse Rotorua pre-schooler Nia Glassie went through for months before her death. Brothers Wiremu and Michael Curtis have been charged with the three-year-old’s murder. The mother Lisa Kuka is one of three people charged with manslaughter. James Williams wraps up day two.

[2] The reporter went on to say:

Crown prosecutor, Fletcher Pilditch, summarised the ill treatment Nia allegedly suffered which included having wrestling moves done to her, being flung from a clothesline, being put into a dryer which was then turned on, as well as cold baths. The information at one point became too much for one juror, who let out a loud sob. Lawyers for Wiremu Curtis and Lisa Kuka also spoke and both said their clients aren’t guilty of the crimes.

Complaint

[3] Andrew Brown made a complaint to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN), the broadcaster, alleging the details provided in the broadcast about the abuse suffered by the toddler breached broadcasting standards. He said "to my mind, the details provided were far in excess of those which were appropriate at that time of day and as a news item".

[4] The complainant accepted that the details of the abuse given were factual, but contended there was "no journalistic reason why it was considered necessary or appropriate to provide the horrific details", and that the item "bordered on sensationalism".

[5] Mr Brown noted that the item had not been preceded by a warning and argued that there would have been young people listening "who would be less well equipped to handle hearing the explicit history of what that poor girl endured".

Standards

[6] TRN assessed the complaint under Standard 1 and guideline 1a of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:

Standard 1

Broadcasters should observe standards of good taste and decency.

Guideline 1a

Broadcasters will take into account current norms of good taste and decency, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs and the wider context of the broadcast e.g. time of day, target audience.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[7] TRN stated that it too was concerned at the descriptions of abuse revealed in the trial. As a result of feedback from Mr Brown and that of a small number of other concerned listeners, the broadcaster instituted, where it felt it was necessary, a warning system that content contained disturbing material. TRN stated the "warning system" continued throughout subsequent coverage of the trial.

[8] The broadcaster said that "Newstalk ZB has to make decisions for this sort of material based on the audience’s right to know facts delivered in open court". It pointed out that Newstalk ZB had an adult target audience, "primarily 35 years plus", and argued that it was unlikely that children would have been listening at 5pm. It declined to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 1.

Referral to the Authority

[9] Dissatisfied with TRN’s response, Mr Brown referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The complainant stated that, while he was pleased the broadcaster had instituted a warning system, the item still breached broadcasting standards and TRN was wrong in declining to uphold his complaint.

[10] The complainant repeated his contention that the news item contained unnecessary and inappropriate detail of the abuse suffered by the child and the story should have been handled in a more discreet manner considering the time of day the item was broadcast.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[11] TRN reiterated that Newstalk ZB had a primary audience of people aged 35 years and over, and argued "there was a legitimate right to broadcast the material".

[12] The broadcaster noted that "all other prominent media outlets covering print, television and radio" had broadcast the same material. It provided the Authority with recordings of the news bulletin complained about as well as copies of later stories with the warnings attached.

Authority's Determination

[13] The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and the additional items supplied by TRN and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[14] When the Authority considers an alleged breach of good taste and decency, it is required to take into account the context of the broadcast. On this occasion, the relevant contextual factors include:

  • the news programme was broadcast at 5pm
  • Newstalk ZB has an adult target audience
  • the item was not preceded by a warning
  • the item’s introduction highlighted the substance of the report.

[15] The Authority notes that the item reported on a high-profile criminal trial in which there was considerable public interest. Many of the details revealed in court and included in the item had already been widely reported in other media. The Authority acknowledges that broadcasters should use discretion when reporting particularly upsetting or disturbing subject matter.

[16] In this instance, the trial involved the death of a small child after horrific and sustained abuse. It is difficult to see how the case could be reported without the inclusion of upsetting details. In the Authority's view, the details reported in the item were necessary and appropriate to the story; they were outlined in a matter-of-fact way, and were neither gratuitous nor sufficiently graphic for the item to require a warning. Further, the news reader clearly signposted to listeners what was being reported on early in the piece and the more specific details came later in the report, giving the audience an opportunity to decide whether to continue listening.

[17] Taking the above contextual factors into account, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 1 (good taste and decency).

[18] As an aside, the Authority commends TRN’s use of warnings in subsequent news reports that covered the trial in more graphic detail.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
17 February 2009

Appendix

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

1.  Andrew Brown’s formal complaint – 28 October 2008
2. TRN’s response to the formal complaint – 4 November 2008
3. Mr Brown’s referral to the Authority – 24 November 2008
4. TRN’s response to the Authority – 1 December 2008