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Hudig and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2007-050

Members

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

Complainant

  • Dirk Hudig of Auckland

Dated

14th August 2007

Number

2007-050

Programme

Sunday

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Sunday – item examined the case of a South African man living in New Zealand who had been sentenced to manslaughter for the death of his daughter – suggested treatment by Immigration New Zealand contributed to his state of mind at the time of his accident – allegedly unbalanced

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item focused on an individual story and did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance – balance standard did not apply – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on Sunday, broadcast on TV One at 7.30pm on 1 April 2007, examined the case of Garth Abbott, a South African man living in New Zealand, who had driven his car off Mount Wellington with his two young daughters inside. The item said that Mr Abbott had been sentenced to manslaughter in February 2007 as his nine-year-old daughter had died as a result of the accident.

[2]   The programme suggested that a number of factors had contributed to Mr Abbott’s state of mind at the time of the accident. In the week of the crash, Mr Abbott had been told that his nine-year-old daughter was too old to receive a cochlear implant, and he had been having marital difficulties.

[3]   The programme stated that Mr Abbott and his family had come to New Zealand as tourists, but had applied for work permits hoping that their two daughters – both profoundly deaf due to Usher Syndrome – would be able to receive cochlear implants to restore their hearing. The family had applied for residency in mid-2005. Immigration New Zealand investigated the family and, Garth Abbott said:

It was actually said to us that my wife and myself can have residency, but our kids may have to leave the country.

[4]   The item said that Immigration New Zealand had told the Abbotts that their daughters would be “a burden on New Zealand”. The reporter interviewed Mary Anne Thompson, the Head of Immigration, who stated that her department had assessed the burden as being quite high but that the department needed more advice from the consultant physician. The department had been in the process of getting this advice, she said, when Mr Abbott had crashed his car. The reporter suggested to Ms Thompson that the word “burden” was “pretty heartless”, and Ms Thompson agreed.

[5]   The reporter said that Greg Fortuin, a former Race Relations Conciliator and honorary consul to South Africa, was offended by the word burden, and had offered support to the Abbott family. Mr Fortuin was interviewed in the item and the following exchange was broadcast:

Fortuin:      I don’t think it’s fair as a society that we want to discriminate on their kids. It’s as if
                 they’re saying to me, “you’re okay, but your kids aren’t”. I mean, I think that is an
                 extremely offensive message.                           

Reporter:    Some people might say they are going to be a financial burden because of their
                  disability.                            

Fortuin:      Yeah but say if I come and I bring my skills and I’m a good citizen, and I pay my
                  taxes, then it’s the whole package deal. I mean, are we saying – which is the
                  extrapolation of this case – mum and dad you’re okay, and you can bring your skills
                  and you can use and apply that to benefit this nation, but we’ll send your kids 
                  back to wherever and we don’t care what happens to them. I mean, surely that’s not
                  the image we wish to portray.

Complaint

[6]   Dirk Hudig made a formal complaint about the programme to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that it was unbalanced. He stated that Mr Fortuin had given the impression that New Zealand discriminated against children because the Abbotts had been offered residency, but not their children. Mr Hudig contended that Ms Thompson from Immigration New Zealand had not been able to discuss the specific details of the Abbott’s case due to privacy reasons.

[7]   Mr Hudig said he considered the programme was unbalanced for three reasons.

[8]   First, the complainant stated that there was no evidence that the Abbotts had been offered residency but not their children, as alleged by Mr Fortuin. He noted that Mr Fortuin’s allegations of discrimination had not been put to an Immigration New Zealand representative or other expert for comment.

[9]   Second, Mr Hudig contended that the programme had not made it clear that the budget for cochlear implants and other treatments for the Abbotts’ daughters was capped. It should have told viewers that if the Abbotts received treatment then New Zealand residents would miss out, he said.

[10]   Third, the complainant was of the view that the item should have explained that New Zealand health and social systems could not cope unless there was some form of selection applied to immigration applications.

Standards

[11]   Mr Hudig nominated Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice in his complaint. It provides:

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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[12]   TVNZ responded to Mr Hudig’s concern that Ms Thompson had been unable to comment on the Abbotts’ case “for privacy reasons”. It noted that, in fact, Ms Thompson had spoken about the Abbotts’ case, confirming that her department was faced with assessing their case and the burden they might place on the New Zealand health system. She had said that, at the time of the crash, the department was still considering whether to grant a waiver for the girls that might have cleared the way for their permanent residency.

[13]   In TVNZ’s view, Ms Thompson was the most appropriate person to comment on the Abbotts’ case. It could not understand Mr Hudig’s view that “another expert” should have been invited to comment.

[14]   Referring to Mr Fortuin’s comments, TVNZ noted that he had presented his statements as his genuinely held opinion. He was angry about the word “burden” and voiced his opinion that the Abbotts’ position, coupled with a “don’t care” attitude from officials, was not the image New Zealand wanted to portray. As a former Race Relations Conciliator, TVNZ considered that Mr Fortuin provided a valuable extra perspective on the story. However, it maintained that his perspective did not require a response from Immigration New Zealand.

[15]   In the broadcaster’s view, the programme had made it clear what the cost to the New Zealand taxpayer would be if the operation on the Abbotts’ daughter had taken place – $60,000. It was also made clear that Mr Abbott had an expectation that the New Zealand health system would meet that cost. TVNZ contended that the item clearly implied that high costs were involved, and that the two girls would have been competing for funds within the New Zealand system. The issue of capped budgets was a “red herring”, it said, because many public health medical treatments were capped, and that had always been the case.

[16]   The third point made by Mr Hudig was, in TVNZ’s opinion, a personal viewpoint which the complainant was entitled to hold. However, it wrote, the view was not relevant to the issue of whether the item was balanced.

[17]   Looking at Standard 4 (balance), the broadcaster concluded that the comments from Mr Fortuin and Ms Thompson provided a balanced assessment of the issues and background to Mr Abbott’s situation at the time he crashed his vehicle.

[18]   While the interview with Mr Abbott had made up the main part of the item, TVNZ said, having heard from all the interviewees the objective viewer would have been in a position to make an informed assessment about the role, if any, the process of seeking New Zealand citizenship played in the eventual tragedy. TVNZ found that Standard 4 was not breached.

Referral to the Authority

[19]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Hudig referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He was concerned that the programme had left the impression that New Zealand immigration policies discriminated against children, on the basis of the Abbott family application which was still being processed.

[20]   Mr Hudig maintained that the programme should have pointed out that, under the funding system, New Zealanders would miss out on receiving cochlear implants if the Abbott children were to receive them. He accepted that his third point of complaint was “somewhat subjective”, but stated that it was self evident that if there was no form of immigrant selection then the health system could be swamped.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[21]   TVNZ stated that Mr Hudig was suggesting that Mr Fortuin should not have been used as an interview subject, despite his reputation and expertise.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[22]   In response to TVNZ’s letter, Mr Hudig maintained that he did not assert that Mr Fortuin should not have been interviewed. Rather, he had contended that Mr Fortuin’s allegations about discrimination in the immigration system should have been balanced. Further, he had complained that the allegation that the Abbotts, but not their children, had been offered residency should have been put to Ms Thompson or another expert.

Authority's Determination

[23]   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.

[24]   Standard 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed. On this occasion, the item discussed the story of Garth Abbott and the factors that may have contributed to his car accident which resulted in the death of his daughter. One of those factors was said to be his treatment by Immigration New Zealand.

[25]   In the Authority’s view, this item did not deal with a controversial issue of public importance to which the standard applies. It focused solely on the Abbott’s personal story, including their dealings with Immigration New Zealand. The programme did not discuss in any meaningful way the wider issue of immigration applications for people who might be a “burden” on the health system.

[26]   Accordingly, the Authority finds that the requirement for balance in Standard 4 did not apply to this item, and it declines to uphold the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
14 August 2007

Appendix

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

1             Dirk Hudig’s formal complaint – 15 April 2007
2            TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 8 May 2007
3            Mr Hudig’s referral to the Authority – 21 May 2007
4            TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 5 June 2007
5            Mr Hudig’s final comment – 18 June 2007