Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
3 News – item about the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster – said that it had killed “16,000, possibly double, even treble that” – complaint that figure was inaccurate – broadcaster upheld the complaint on the basis that there was dispute about the number of deaths and the item should have reported this – broadcaster discussed the issue with newsroom staff – complainant dissatisfied with reasons for upholding decision and action taken
Standard 5 (accuracy) – CanWest’s reasons for upholding decision were incorrect – should have upheld the complaint on the basis that the figures in the report were inaccurate, not because the position was uncertain – upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 An item on 3 News broadcast on TV3 at 6pm on 25 April 2006 discussed the 20th anniversary of the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The reporter said:
Chernobyl Reactor Number Four: the killer of at least 16,000, possibly double, even treble that.
 Allan Dewar made a formal complaint about the item to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster. He stated that the item breached Standard 5 (accuracy) when it said that the Chernobyl disaster had killed “at least 16,000, possibly double, even treble that”. Mr Dewar quoted from “a comprehensive report…compiled by no fewer than eight UN specialized agencies” which had concluded that “fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster”.
 Mr Dewar also noted that the Broadcasting Standards Authority had upheld a complaint in 2005 about an item on TVNZ which had said that “thousands of people died during and after the disaster”. He asked for a correction to be broadcast.
 CanWest assessed the complaint under Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:
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.
 CanWest agreed with the complainant that, when viewed as a stand alone factual claim, the statement that many thousands had died as a result of the explosion was in conflict with the reports to which Mr Dewar and the BSA had referred to. However, it said, the statement was not in conflict with other reports CanWest had seen which claimed that the death toll was as high as reported, or even higher.
 The broadcaster stated that the position on how many people had died was unclear, and it acknowledged that this should have been reflected in the report. It said:
The [Standards] Committee upholds a breach of the standard to the extent that the report did not make it clear to viewers that there is uncertainty as to the precise number of deaths that can be said to be “due” to the Chernobyl disaster.
 CanWest did not consider that a broadcast correction was required. While it agreed that, without a reference to the uncertainty, the statement may have been incorrect, CanWest noted that it had come from a reliable and reputable source (ITV). It said that:
…the statement…in the context of the report which considered the impact of the explosion for “generations to come”, may ultimately prove to be true as the ongoing impact of the disaster continues through time.
 In the course of investigating Mr Dewar’s complaint, the broadcaster said that the issue had been discussed widely in the newsroom and brought to the attention of all current news producers and reporters. CanWest asserted its confidence that, in the future, reports that considered the Chernobyl death toll would be carefully compiled to reflect the uncertainties that surrounded the precise number of deaths involved.
 Dissatisfied with the action taken by CanWest, and also the broadcaster’s reasons for upholding the complaint, Mr Dewar referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The complainant regarded as insufficient CanWest’s action in discussing the matter with newsroom staff, noting that newsroom staff changed over time. He maintained that, in accordance with guideline 5a, the broadcaster’s error should have been corrected on air at the earliest opportunity.
 Mr Dewar observed that, by looking at reports from the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, the Authority had established (in Decision No. 2005-085) that “total deaths appear to be below 100”.
 The complainant referred to CanWest’s point that the death toll may continue to rise and therefore the statement “may ultimately prove to be true”. He asserted that this response failed to address the point that “what is at issue are deaths to date and that the UN has declared that the zone in question is no longer considered a ‘disaster’ area”.
 Mr Dewar analysed the sources referred to by CanWest which stated that the death toll as reported in the 3 News item was correct, and he contended that they were unreliable and contained inaccuracies.
 In its response, CanWest reiterated its rationale for upholding its complaint. It said that the basis for upholding the breach was not because the figures in the report were wrong, but because they were expressed as an absolute statement of fact in relation to an issue where the factual position was far from clear. It argued that neither TV3 nor Mr Dewar was able to determine how many people had died as a result of the explosion; they could only look at the published work of other people and organisations.
 The broadcaster contended that there appeared to be two aspects to Mr Dewar’s referral to the Authority – the first relating to the understanding of news reporters and production staff, and the second to the understanding of 3 News viewers.
 CanWest submitted that by discussing the issue with all current news reporting and production staff, it had ensured (as far as any broadcaster was able to do) that when the issue arose again, the correct position would be reflected in future items. A broadcast correction would not improve the understanding of news reporting and production staff, it said.
 The broadcaster did not agree that viewers would have been misled or alarmed by this one report. As the complainant had made clear, there were many reports about the Chernobyl issue. It said:
 For the purpose of assessing broadcasting standards [the Standards Committee] has determined that the correct position is that there is a dispute or debate about the correct number of deaths. While the Committee in its decision cited certain reports, they were mentioned solely for the purpose of demonstrating that a disparity of views exists; not as an endorsement or acceptance that the views expressed in the reports were necessarily correct.
 CanWest disputed that an on air statement of its decision to uphold the complaint would assist viewers’ understanding of the issue. The most important outcome for viewers, it said, was to ensure that the correct position – that there is doubt and confusion about the exact number of deaths – was explained in future reports.
 Mr Dewar contended that the broadcaster’s central claim – that there was debate about the number who had died as a result of the explosion – was irrelevant to its breach of Standard 5. He said:
This is because the point is that there is no debate about the numbers who died as a result of the explosion when reliable and accurate scientific and medical sources are used, such as the UN and the World Health Organisation.
 The complainant stated that CanWest had refused to accept that the figures in the report were wrong, and he suggested that it was unwise of the broadcaster to rely on a single source such as ITV. Mr Dewar asserted that CanWest had failed to distinguish between “reports” in the sense of authoritative peer-reviewed independent scientific and medical studies, and “reports” at a much lower level of credibility such as media reports.
 CanWest provided the Authority with information to support its view that ITV was a credible and reliable source.
 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.
 Under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, complainants may refer their complaints to the Authority if they are “dissatisfied with the decision” of the broadcaster. The Authority has previously held that “the decision” means not only the final outcome, but the broadcaster’s reasons for reaching its decision (see Decision No. 2006-037).
 In this case, Mr Dewar has referred his complaint to the Authority on two grounds. First, he was dissatisfied with CanWest’s reasons for upholding his complaint and, second, he considered that the action taken by CanWest was insufficient.
 In his complaint, Mr Dewar referred to the Authority’s Decision No. 2005-085 which also discussed the number of deaths caused by the Chernobyl disaster. Referring to sources such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Authority concluded that, from the available papers, total deaths appeared to be below 100.
 At issue in this case is the statement that Chernobyl was “the killer of at least 16,000, possibly double, even treble that”. CanWest’s basis for upholding the complaint was “not because the figures in the report were wrong, but because they were expressed as an absolute statement of fact in relation to an issue where the factual position is far from clear”.
 CanWest has argued that ITV is a credible and reliable source, and that it was entitled to rely on the information provided by that news organisation. While that may be so, the Authority still concludes that the figure of 16,000 given in the item was inaccurate. It agrees that ITV is a credible organisation, but ITV was not the actual “source” of this figure. There is no suggestion that ITV conducted its own independent study on the number of deaths caused by Chernobyl; it has simply relied on research conducted by other organisations.
 In reaching the conclusion that the total deaths from Chernobyl appear to be below 100, the Authority relied on authoritative sources such as the United Nations and the WHO. While it agrees that there is uncertainty about the precise figure, CanWest has not provided any evidence from any other reputable organisation which would lead the Authority to conclude that the number of deaths is actually in the vicinity of 16,000.
 Therefore, the Authority finds that CanWest should have upheld Mr Dewar’s complaint on the grounds that the reporter’s statement was inaccurate and a significant exaggeration of the death toll, not because the position is uncertain. The Authority upholds this aspect of Mr Dewar’s complaint.
 For the avoidance of doubt, the Authority records that it has given full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and taken into account all the circumstances of the complaint in reaching this determination. For the reasons given above, the Authority considers that its exercise of powers on this occasion is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
 For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by CanWest TVWorks Ltd of an item on 3 News on 25 April 2006 breached Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under ss.13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. On this occasion, although the reasons behind CanWest’s decision to uphold the complaint were unsatisfactory, the Authority considers that the action taken by CanWest was appropriate. The broadcaster has asked its news staff to ensure that future reports accurately reflect the fact that there is uncertainty surrounding the number of deaths due to the Chernobyl tragedy. The Authority expects that the broadcaster will also discuss the outcome of this decision with its news staff.
 While the complainant has requested an on-air correction, the Authority does not consider that a broadcast statement is appropriate on this occasion. The Chernobyl tragedy is an on-going story and the Authority expects that CanWest will accurately reflect the position surrounding this issue in future items. Accordingly, the Authority declines to impose an order on this occasion.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
19 September 2006
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: