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Seymour and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2007-101

Members

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

Complainant

  • Gareth Seymour of Christchurch

Dated

24th January 2008

Number

2007-101

Programme

Breakfast

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989

The Complaint
A viewer complained that the host of Breakfast had been "complicit in facilitating and allowing disparaging and racist remarks" to be made about Māori during an interview with child advocate Christine Rankin about the high rate of child abuse in New Zealand. The complainant said the host's "grossly offensive" questions had created the impression that only Māori abuse and kill their children, breaching standards of good taste and decency, balance and accuracy.

The Broadcaster's Response
TVNZ said Ms Rankin’s comments were not intended to disparage Māori but to call "for action on child abuse among Māori who are significantly over-represented in child abuse statistics".  She had clearly stated that it was not just Māori who were abusing their children.

The broadcaster said the host's questions had forced Ms Rankin to balance her comments. Balance on the subject of Māori and child abuse was also provided when Children's Commissioner Dr Cindy Kiro and Māori Party co-leader Dr Pita Sharples were interviewed in other Breakfast programmes in the same week. 

The Authority’s Decision
The Authority agreed that the host’s deliberately provocative questions were intended to draw out Ms Rankin’s views rather than to disparage Māori. As a result, Ms Rankin had qualified her comments about the over-representation of Māori in child abuse statistics by saying that it was not fair to say that only Māori abused their children.

The Authority said Ms Rankin’s comments were made in the context of an interview to discuss her call for an independent inquiry into child abuse in New Zealand. The discussion had touched on the incidence of child abuse among Māori but had not explored the issue in any depth.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – not upheld

Standard 4 (balance) – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  An item on Breakfast, broadcast on TV One at 7am on 30 July 2007, included an interview with former Work and Income New Zealand Chief Executive and “child advocate” Christine Rankin, who was calling for an independent inquiry into child abuse. During the interview the host Paul Henry and Ms Rankin discussed the high rate of child abuse in New Zealand compared to other countries, high profile local cases of child abuse, who Ms Rankin thought was responsible for committing most of the abuse, the justice system, and possible solutions to the problem of child abuse.

[2]   During the course of the interview Ms Rankin made various statements about Māori being responsible for a large proportion of child abuse in New Zealand, that Māori were over-represented in child abuse statistics and her belief that there was a serious problem with Māori abusing children.   

Complaint

[3]   Gareth Seymour made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the interview had breached standards of good taste and decency, balance and accuracy. Mr Seymour stated that his complaint mainly focused on the interviewer, because “he was complicit in facilitating and allowing disparaging and racist remarks to be made about Māori”.

[4]   In respect of good taste and decency, the complainant argued that it was unacceptable to racially disparage and discriminate against tangata whenua. Mr Seymour believed the following questions put by the host to Ms Rankin were directed at all Māori, were “grossly offensive” and “inconsistent with current norms in our society”:

  • Is it reasonable to point the finger at Māori and say ‘you are child abusers’?
  • What’s wrong with Māori?
  • Do we have to neuter these people…don’t we have to stop these people from having and caring for children? 

[5]   The complainant considered that this type of questioning had created the perception that only Māori abused and killed their children. He argued that the broadcaster had consistently over-reported the deaths of Māori children, while reports of Pakeha abusing their children had not received consistent media coverage.

[6]   Mr Seymour argued that the interview was not impartial or balanced, but rather it had “inflamed the korero about Māori, but not with Māori”. He maintained that the interviewer made no attempt to counter the inflammatory remarks made against Māori by Ms Rankin, including the following statement:

We have got a problem with Māori. We are an embarrassment across the world with our statistics.

[7]   The complainant also highlighted the question put to Ms Rankin “who’s doing it?” and her response “Māori”. Mr Seymour maintained that the statement effectively meant that “Māori were embarrassing the country in front of the world” and that the interviewer had supported her contention with leading questions, such as those mentioned above.

[8]   With respect to accuracy, the complainant believed that the child abuse statistics provided by Ms Rankin during the interview indicating Māori had the highest level of child abuse were inaccurate and untrue. He argued that between 2002 and 2006, 48 child deaths were defined as Pakeha, 28 Māori and 12 Pacific and others. Mr Seymour maintained that the interviewer had not challenged the statements made by Ms Rankin and that he had supported her contention with his form of questioning.

[9]   Mr Seymour argued that the interviewer had shown a lack of impartiality and objectivity, and that the integrity of the current affairs segment of the Breakfast programme had been compromised by the tone of the interview.

Standards

[10]   TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 4 and 5 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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[11]   TVNZ argued that for an item to breach Standard 1, the broadcast must be unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it was shown. It maintained that while the interview covered a “sad and chilling” topic, Ms Rankin was saying that one particular group in New Zealand was statistically over-represented in terms of killing their children through abuse, while trying to provide some balance to her statements.  

[12]   The broadcaster considered that the quotations from the programme referred to by the complainant did not fairly represent what Ms Rankin had said. TVNZ pointed out that after reviewing the transcript of the interview the actual questions and answers were:

Host:       Who is doing it?

Rankin:    Māori, I’m afraid to say – well 60% of the statistics, 15% of the population, they’re
               not the only ones and it’s not fair to say they are the only ones... but they feature
               strongly.  

Host:       So it is reasonable therefore to point the finger at Māori and say you are child
               abusers?

Rankin:    Well not all Māori are but... there’s a story there isn’t there, it’s very very clear.

Host:       What is wrong with Māori?

Rankin:    Look I don’t know what the reasons are and you know I don’t care any more. I
               care about those children that are being battered and beaten and abused day
               after day in this country, and those kids you see are the tip of the iceberg...

[13]   TVNZ maintained that when the host stated “do we need to neuter these people?” he was referring to child abusers in general, not just abusers who are Māori.

[14]   The broadcaster argued that it was clear that Ms Rankin was not intending to disparage Māori, but that she was “calling for action on child abuse among Māori who are significantly over-represented in child abuse statistics”. TVNZ believed that Ms Rankin clearly stated that it was not just Māori who were abusing their children and it declined to uphold the good taste and decency complaint.

[15]   TVNZ argued that balance had been provided in later episodes of the programme during the week when Children’s Commissioner Dr Cindy Kiro and Māori Party co-leader Dr Pita Sharples were interviewed about child abuse and Māori. It maintained that this met the requirement to present other significant points of view within the period of current interest.

[16]   The broadcaster reiterated that the complainant’s quotations from the programme were fragments that were taken out of context. In terms of Mr Seymour’s contention that Ms Rankin said “we have got a problem with Māori. We’re an embarrassment across the world with our statistics”, TVNZ maintained that the statement was actually two comments that were not directly linked. With reference to the statement “we have a problem with Māori”, it pointed out Ms Rankin actually said:

...and we’ve got to face some issues in this country. We have got a problem with Māori, Paul, we don’t talk about it. We’re politically correct. It seems absolutely unacceptable to raise it. Last night I heard a headline that said ‘we’ve got to stop the blame’. It’s not about blame, it’s about reality.

[17]   TVNZ maintained with reference to the quote “We’re an embarrassment across the world with our statistics”, that Ms Rankin actually stated:

...we’ve got to do something and there’s got to be a change. Look, we’re an embarrassment across the world with our statistics and I think most countries would be saying this is appalling. We’ve got to do something about it but we don’t, we get upset with each situation that happens and then we go back to our lives...

[18]   In respect of accuracy, TVNZ stated that it was not clear where Ms Rankin obtained her statistics on child abuse or the time period they referred to, or the ages of the children. However, the research information supplied to it by Mike Doolan from Canterbury University made it clear that she was correct in saying Māori were significantly over-represented in child abuse statistics. The broadcaster noted that the figures put forward by the complainant “did not seem to tally” with Mr Doolan’s research. TVNZ argued that Ms Rankin’s comments “appeared to be true”, that her perspective was “statistically correct (within the margins of a personal informed perspective)” and was “backed up by Māori leaders in newspapers around the time”.

[19]   With respect to Mr Henry’s interviewing style, the broadcaster argued that his questions caused Ms Rankin to provide balance to her statements, and that this in turn meant that the item was far more balanced and accurate than it may have been. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint that the item was inaccurate.

Referral to the Authority

[20]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Seymour referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[21]   The complainant maintained that the interview was racist towards Māori because the presenter asked questions and made statements that targeted all Māori, such as, “when you say not all Māori are (child abusers), then it sounds like you are being politically correct”.

[22]   The complainant also maintained that viewers would have taken the host’s comment “do we need to neuter these people?” to mean Māori child abusers. He believed that this was confirmed in the follow up interview the next day where a discussion was held with two Māori about Māori child abuse.

 [23]   Mr Seymour argued that the main issue in his complaint was not statistics, but the way in which “the interviewer colluded and abetted the interviewee, while also using language and questioning that was offensive to Māori”. He considered TVNZ failed to take into account the specific details of his complaint.

[24]   The complainant reiterated his arguments about accuracy and balance contained in his original complaint.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[25]   TVNZ maintained that Ms Rankin did not intend to be racist towards Māori, but to show her strong concern at the deaths of children caused by abuse. It believed that “she would have made the comments she made about any ethnic group with the same statistics of child death caused by abuse”.

[26]   The broadcaster pointed out that Breakfast was broadcast live and that the questions asked of Ms Rankin were unscripted. It maintained that the host played the role of devil’s advocate and that this caused Ms Rankin to qualify her comments.

[27]   TVNZ reiterated that Ms Rankin’s statistics were accurate, that it was clear she was speaking from a particular perspective and that the piece was “opinion, analysis and comment”. It also considered that Māori had not been excluded from the discussion as Pita Sharples and Cindy Kiro had taken part in subsequent interviews on the topic of child abuse.    

Authority's Determination

[28]   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)

[29]   Standard 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed. On this occasion, the item was introduced as being an interview with child advocate Christine Rankin, who was calling for an independent inquiry into child abuse. In the Authority’s view, the topic of Ms Rankin calling for an independent inquiry into the issue of child abuse in New Zealand is not a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies. Nor is the issue of child abuse in general a “controversial” issue, as any reasonable person would agree that child abuse is abhorrent.

[30]   The complainant’s concern about balance relates to Ms Rankin’s statements about Māori and child abuse. In the Authority’s view, the over-representation of Māori in child abuse statistics is established and is therefore not controversial. However, a programme discussing the extent of the over-representation, or the reasons behind those statistics, could constitute a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies.

[31]   In this case, the item did not purport to be an in-depth examination of the issue of Māori and child abuse. While Ms Rankin touched on the controversial issue of the extent to which Māori are over-represented in child abuse statistics, her comments were only a small part of the discussion about child abuse in general, and her call for an independent inquiry. Accordingly, the topic was not examined sufficiently to constitute a discussion about the over-representation of Māori in child abuse statistics.

[32]  For the reasons outlined above, the Authority finds that the balance standard did not apply to the comments complained about. It declines to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[33]   The complainant argued that the type of questions being asked of Ms Rankin by the host did not meet the required standards of good taste and decency “in a bi-cultural society”. However, the Authority considers that the style of questioning used by the host was aimed at drawing out Ms Rankin’s views on child abuse. It finds that the host was not being racist towards or disparaging of Māori, but was being deliberately provocative. In these circumstances, the Authority declines to uphold the good taste and decency complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[34]   The Authority notes that in his complaint Mr Seymour referred to statistics relating to child deaths from abuse. In the item, however, Ms Rankin referred to statistics relating to rates of child abuse, not deaths. Because the complainant has not provided material that rebuts or contradicts the statistics given by Ms Rankin during the interview, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 5 (accuracy).  

     

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint under section 11(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
24 January 2008

Appendix

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

1.            Gareth Seymour’s formal complaint – 17 August 2007
2.           TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 13 September 2007
3.           Mr Seymour’s referral to the Authority – 3 October 2007
4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 30 October 2007