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The New Zealand Council of Licensed Firearms Owners Inc and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2006-083

Members

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

Complainant

  • The New Zealand Council of Licensed Firearms Owners Inc (COLFO) of Wellington

Dated

27th November 2006

Number

2006-083

Channel/Station

TV2

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
20/20 – item examining the firearms licensing system and whether it was “too easy to get your licence” – showed hidden camera footage of volunteers taking firearms safety test – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – majority considers item failed to properly explain the place of the firearms safety test within the entire licensing scheme – viewers deprived of a significant perspective on whether it was too easy to obtain a firearms licence in New Zealand – majority uphold

Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccuracies – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – item did not denigrate or treat MSC instructors unfairly – licensed firearms-holders not a “section of the community” as envisaged by the guideline – not upheld

No Order 

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  An item entitled “Armed and Dangerous” was shown on 20/20, broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 20 April 2006. The programme focused on the firearms licensing system in New Zealand and asked: “But is it too easy to get your licence? Is the system as good as they say?” It showed hidden camera footage of three volunteers, who said they knew virtually nothing about firearms, taking the firearms safety test.

[2]  Instructors from the Mountain Safety Council (MSC), who administered the firearms safety test, were shown giving the volunteers another opportunity to answer questions which they had answered incorrectly. One of the instructors was shown saying:

I have a very, very strong policy when I’m doing something like this. It’s that everybody in this room will get a pass, and I don’t care how long it takes you but you’ll stay here all night but you will pass.

[3]  All three volunteers were able to pass the test, and they commented that they thought they should have failed. The reporter commented that “knowing nothing about guns” did not stop the volunteers from “owning one”. The item then showed one of the volunteers going into a gun shop and purchasing a gun which she then attempted to assemble with some difficulty.

[4]  The programme contained interviews with Police Inspector Joe Green and Mike Spray from the MSC who both stated that they were pleased with what they had seen in the hidden camera footage. Mr Spray commented that the instructors were there “primarily to pass on an educational message about firearms safety”. The item also contained a brief interview with Dr Gay Keating, the director of the Public Health Association, who commented:

Well, it’s a lot easier to get a gun licence than it is to get a driving licence, and it’s clearly a lot easier to get a gun licence than it is to pass NCEA 1.

Complaint

[5]  The New Zealand Council of Licensed Firearms Owners Inc (COLFO) made a formal complaint about the item to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster. It argued that the item was inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair. In the complainant’s view, the impression given by the item was that “the key factor in obtaining a New Zealand firearms licence is a test in which the examiners do not fail applicants”. 

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[6]  COLFO stated that the story had contained numerous inaccuracies. While they may have been comparatively insignificant on their own, it said, the combination of those inaccuracies had left a false impression about the administration of New Zealand’s firearms laws. The complainant asserted that, contrary to statements made in the programme, some firearms licence applicants did fail the test. For example, it said, there was a failure rate of 10.76% in the Taranaki region.

[7]  The complainant noted that the test had been referred to as a “firearms test” on a number of occasions throughout the item, and said that the test was a “firearms safety test”, not a “firearms licence test”. It said that the safety test was

…an educative tool based on a 1½ to 2 hour safety lecture (which in most cases involves the handling of firearms) and a video. It is a test that is not designed to fail responsible applicants – particularly those with poor reading or comprehension levels, and there are many such people in New Zealand…

[8]  COLFO asserted that the promotional material for the programme on TVNZ’s website was inaccurate when it stated that “examiners will give you a licence”. The complainant identified several other statements in the item which it alleged were inaccurate or misleading.

1. “…what [the volunteers] aren’t though, are gun enthusiasts, so if we asked them to sit their firearms test, by rights they should fail”.

[9]  COLFO asserted that many New Zealanders who were not “gun enthusiasts” held firearms licences. It noted that firearms were tools that were mainly used for pest destruction or for gathering food, and contended that it was most likely that 80-90% of licensees were not “enthusiasts”. The complainant pointed out that many people who were not “car enthusiasts” did not fail their drivers’ licence “by rights”.

2. Volunteer’s comment that he had “never seen” a firearms code.

[10]  Given the police policy of handing a copy of the code to people who booked in for the lecture and test, the complainant contended that this remark was likely to be untrue unless the volunteer’s remark had been shown out of sequence.

3. “This is the test every shooter must pass; it is there to ensure that when people get their gun they know how to use it safely”.

[11]  COLFO said that to issue a firearms licence the police had to be satisfied that a person was over 16 years of age, and was a “fit and proper person to be in possession of a firearm”. There was no statutory requirement to pass the firearms safety test to be a “shooter” or to be issued a licence, it said.

4. “This is what sets a firearms licence apart from a driving test or a school exam. They have all had their wrong answers crossed out and been given further information about the questions – it has an immediate result”.

[12]  The complainant pointed out that the featured test was a safety test which had been established for educational purposes. It said:

It is a very small portion of the overall qualifications needed to obtain a firearms licence. What actually sets the firearms licence apart from driving tests and school exams is the requirement to attain the qualification of being a “fit and proper person”. The tests for that establish firearms licence-holders as being more safe and responsible than those who can pass driving tests or school exams.

5. Instructor’s statement to volunteer “you missed [question] 18” and volunteer’s reply “okay shall I try it again?”

[13]  COLFO said it had been told that the volunteer had overlooked a question, which meant that her subsequent answers were made against the wrong questions and appeared to be incorrect. The answers had easily been corrected when the instructor realised what had happened. However, COLFO contended that the impression left by the programme was that she had answered many questions incorrectly and had then been given a pass result, as opposed to just overlooking one question.

6. Item implied that the police and MSC representatives were “very pleased” with the item as it was broadcast.

[14]  The complainant contended that the police and MSC representatives’ comments had been based on an overview of the “raw” hidden camera footage. However, it said, the footage had been edited before it was broadcast. The item had led viewers to believe that the police and MSC representatives were “very pleased” with the story as it was broadcast, which COLFO said was inaccurate.

7. “And knowing nothing about guns doesn’t stop [the volunteer] from owning one – even if she can’t assemble it”.

[15]  The complainant contended that the lengthy process which the volunteer had gone through before getting her firearms licence made it sufficient to assume that she knew enough about guns to use one safely. It wrote:

As well as having been to a range where she was given firing instructions and used a shotgun, she had been through the firearms safety lecture and test, had been interviewed by the police, her next of kin had been interviewed, and her independent referees had been interviewed.

[16]  Further, COLFO maintained that the volunteer had not purchased a shotgun. In fact, it said, the local gun dealer had rented a gun to the 20/20 team. The team had apparently told the store owner that they were “filming a positive story about gun use, firearms dealers and security” and that the gun would not be used, so they did not need any instructions.

[17]  The complainant referred to the volunteer’s statement “I can’t believe that I went for a licence – and now that I have a gun in my hand – and it’s my gun”. Because the volunteer had not actually purchased a gun, the complainant said that this was inaccurate and misleading.

[18]  COLFO stated that the alleged inaccuracies identified above also illustrated that the programme had been unbalanced and unfair.

Standard 4 (balance)

[19]  The complainant observed that the story was approximately 12½ minutes in length and would have been filmed over a number of weeks. Nevertheless, it noted, the police and MSC representatives had only been allocated about 90 seconds for their comments. Further, their comments had been made in response to viewing the “raw” hidden camera footage, but had been “applied in a different circumstance”.

[20]  COLFO maintained that the item should have been balanced in a way that demonstrated the “sober and serious manner in which firearms licences are in fact issued”. The complainant noted that, at least twice during the item, interviewees had stated that it was easier to obtain a gun licence than a driver’s licence. However, it wrote, these opinions were based on a comparison between one small portion of the firearms licensing system and the entire driver’s licensing test.

[21]  In addition, the complainant wrote, firearms were relatively uncomplicated tools and people could learn to operate them in a matter of minutes, so it followed that determining the fitness and attitude of applicants was vastly more important than teaching and testing the basic skills.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[22]  In COLFO’s view, the item was unfair to, and had denigrated, the MSC instructors shown in the item. None of the instructors had been shown doing anything illegal in the item “despite the considerable effort and deceit that the 20/20 team applied”. The complainant also argued that all responsible firearms licence-holders had been denigrated by the item.

[23]  COLFO stated that the item had been unfair in many ways, including the “Armed and Dangerous” title, and the opening clip which showed a firearm which was not available to people who held a “basic” firearms licence. It also referred to the inclusion of Gay Keating who, it said, was shown promoting the misconception that it was easier to obtain a firearms licence than it was to get a driver’s licence.

[24]  Ms Keating’s comments had implied that the use of firearms was responsible for more injuries than resulted from other mundane activities such as fishing, skiing, or crossing railway tracks. In fact, COLFO contended, the use and possession of firearms was less likely to cause injury than any of these other activities.

[25]  COLFO asserted that if the story had been approached “openly and honestly”, 20/20 could have contacted the New Zealand Police who would have almost certainly allowed them to film the full firearms licensing process. It said that 20/20 may have then discovered how effective it really was, and advised the public accordingly. COLFO wrote:

To persons experienced with the firearms licensing system it appeared that the producer started with a conclusion that firearms licences were too easy to obtain, and then set about proving it. The producer appeared to use clips and opinions to support that contention and s/he ignored, or did not seek, those that did not suit.

Standards

[26]  TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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

[27]  As an initial point, TVNZ stated that the item had not been intended as a review of the entire procedure by which firearms licences were issued in New Zealand. Rather, it said, it had examined one specific aspect of the process – the 30-question multiple choice written test. Referring to the complainant’s assertion that the test was not the “key factor” in the process, TVNZ said that it understood that applicants could not receive a licence without passing that test. In that context, it contended that

…it would seem to be a matter of public interest that the administration of the test seemed to involve a process by which candidates who do fail are able immediately to try again, and to continue trying until a pass is achieved.

[28]  TVNZ went on to address the specific points raised by the complainant. It noted that the police themselves referred to the test as the “firearms licence test”, and therefore it did not consider that it was inaccurate to describe it in this way. Calling it “the firearms test” indicated that the test was an essential part of the process of acquiring a firearms licence, it said.

[29]  TVNZ disagreed with the complainant’s view that the test was a relatively minor part of the police process. Nevertheless, it said, the item had made it clear that the test was only part of the process with the following statements:

To get a firearms licence you must prove you are a fit and proper person to own a firearm, and know how to use it. You must pass a 30-question multi-choice test. The police will also check for a criminal record, visit your home, and talk to your nominated referees. Our firearms licensing system has been called world class – so much so (that) other countries are looking to adopt it.

[30]  The broadcaster refuted COLFO’s assertion that these statements had “glossed over” the other requirements for obtaining a firearms licence. The item had clearly focused on one specific aspect of the procedure, and had acknowledged that this was one part of the larger licensing process. TVNZ said that examining the full licensing process would have produced an item well removed from that intended by the producer and reporter.

[31]  TVNZ also rejected the complainant’s assertion that one of the volunteers may have lied about never having seen a firearms code.

[32]  Referring to the reporter’s statement “this is the test every shooter must pass”, TVNZ acknowledged that a person could operate a gun without a licence, but only if they were supervised by a licence holder. It contended that 20/20 had been saying that if a person wanted to operate a firearm without supervision that person would have to pass the firearms safety test, regardless of what the Arms Act 1983 said.

[33]  The broadcaster referred to the complainant’s arguments about the reporter’s statement that “This is what sets a firearms licence apart from a driving test or a school exam. They have all had their wrong answers crossed out and been given further information about the questions – it has an immediate result”. It said that the item had not concealed the fact that the test was regarded as an educational procedure, but it had implicitly asked whether this was appropriate in a process as important as securing a gun licence. TVNZ observed that the police and MSC representatives shown in the programme had spoken favourably about the way the test was administered.

[34]  Referring to the instructor’s statement in the item that the volunteer had “missed” a question, TVNZ said that the volunteer had reported getting six answers wrong, and that the examiner had written them down on a separate piece of paper. The volunteer had then been given the opportunity to re-answer two questions, and had suddenly been given a 100 percent pass mark which, TVNZ said, “seemed curious”.

[35]  TVNZ did not believe that the item had been edited to suggest that the police and MSC representatives were pleased about the story overall. They had been introduced with the words “they agreed to come and have a look at our results”, and it was clear that the men were very pleased with the way the test was being administered.

[36]  The broadcaster acknowledged that all of their comments were not included in the item, but it noted that this was always the case in news or current affairs interviews where editorial judgments had to be made about what was relevant. In this case, TVNZ contended that the selected remarks indicated that both the police and the MSC were satisfied with the actions of the examiners revealed in the hidden camera footage. That, it said, was relevant in an item which raised questions about whether the administration of the test was as rigorous and robust as it could be.

[37]  With respect to the reporter’s statement that “knowing nothing about guns” did not prevent the volunteer from “owning one – even if she can’t assemble it”, TVNZ found that COLFO’s comments amounted to a “personal and subjective opinion” about whether the volunteer knew anything about guns. The broadcaster contended that it was clear from the volunteer’s subsequent remarks and actions while attempting to piece together the gun that she knew little or nothing about guns.

[38]  TVNZ argued that it was implicit in the item that all three volunteers had met the “fit and proper person” requirement, had their backgrounds checked for criminal convictions, had their homes visited, and their referees interviewed. If that had not happened, it maintained, they would not have received their licences. The focus of the item was the test, it said, and the other checks were not proof of acquaintance with and knowledge of firearms.

[39]  Noting COLFO’s arguments in relation to the volunteer who had “purchased” a gun after obtaining her licence, TVNZ maintained that she had purchased a gun and then returned it the next day. It wrote that the point being made was that:

…after only being able to pass the test through having been helped by the examiners, [the volunteer] had been able to go to a firearms dealer, pass the card that allowed her to buy a gun across the counter, and despite being a novice in respect of guns and firearms ownership, was able to leave the premises with a potentially lethal firearm in her possession (even if it was only for 24 hours). To all intents and purposes the gun was hers, because her details were on the purchase receipt.

[40]  Turning to the issue of balance, TVNZ observed that it was well-established, and had been accepted by the Authority, that balance was “not achieved by the stopwatch”. In this case, it asserted that the police and MSC representatives had provided relevant comment about the conduct of the test and the reasons why they were unperturbed by the actions of the examiners.

[41]  Referring to the complainant’s comment that the police and MSC representatives’ responses had been “applied in a different circumstance”, the broadcaster denied that the editing of their responses had been manipulated. Further, it said that no complaints had been received from anyone directly associated with the item, and the police had been fully informed in advance about what it would contain.

[42]  With respect to Standard 6 (fairness), TVNZ did not find any suggestion in the item that the MSC instructors were doing anything illegal. Something did not have to be illegal to be questionable or to require explanation, it said. The “Armed and Dangerous” title reflected the notion that applicants for gun licences were able to pass a test, even if they failed to provide correct answers. It said that it was self-evident that if applicants were weak in basic areas of firearms safety, it must follow that once they acquired their guns they represented a level of danger.

[43]  TVNZ believed that all parties involved in the item had been fairly treated. It added:

There was no manipulation of the images covertly acquired, both the police and Mountain Safety Council were given adequate opportunities to comment on what the covert images revealed, and – most importantly – the novices who volunteered to go through the licence process were given a fair and just opportunity to express their views and describe their experiences.

[44]  The broadcaster found that no breaches of the standards had occurred and it declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[45]  Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, COLFO referred its complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It maintained that the broadcaster had presented a small portion of the firearms licensing system “as though it were the crux of the entire system”. The complainant reiterated that the test shown in the item was part of a 1½ to 2 hour interactive lecture and assessment where instructors ensure that applicants had properly understood the questions being asked.

[46]  COLFO expressed concern that the three volunteers had been encouraged to make false declarations when answering the question “why do you want a firearms licence”. It noted that the volunteers had also “ignored police instructions to study the Arms Code prior to attending the interactive safety lecture and test”.

[47]  The complainant said that it had sought information from both the police and the MSC because it felt that TVNZ had not adequately investigated its complaint. It had also written to the proprietor of the gun shop featured in the item and asked about the impression given by the production team, the ownership of the shotgun and its assembly.

[48]  The complainant also enclosed a detailed letter it had sent to TVNZ in response to its decision.

[49]  COLFO maintained that the test featured in the item was not a “requirement for candidates seeking a firearms licence” as TVNZ had said. It pointed out that in the past 12 months approximately one half of the applicants who had received licences were not required to sit the 30 question safety test. Rather, they had completed a 10 question test. Other applicants had received their licences by passing a course on safety run at the Open Polytechnic, it said. This information could easily have been provided by the Firearms Section of the Police.

[50]  Referring to TVNZ’s comment that the programme had set out to investigate one specific aspect of the licensing process, COLFO pointed out the item’s introduction which said:

But is it too easy to get your licence? Is the system as good as they say? To find out we rigged our team with hidden cameras and sent them off to their local Police Station for the exam. All three had no knowledge of firearms and hadn’t studied their firearms code; their chances of passing were slim.

[51]  COLFO contended that the programme had not clearly stated that it was only dealing with one aspect of the process. Further, the item had allocated only two or three seconds to mention that “first they are lectured then shown a safety video”. This did not adequately convey that the test was administered at the conclusion of a 1½ to 2 hour interactive training session. COLFO considered that the impact of the item would have been considerably lessened if the programme had correctly referred to the test as the “firearms safety test”, rather than implying that it was the “firearms licence test”.

[52]  The complainant did not accept TVNZ’s assertion that the statement in the item that “police will also check for a criminal record, visit your home, and talk to your nominated referees” was sufficient to balance the programme and make the process clear. It said that the item had not given viewers any insight into the real standards that applied to applicants, adding:

“Check for a criminal record” means nothing in relation to the applicant unless it is expanded into, what type of criminal record? How long ago? Is there a possibility of a repeat? Do the applicant’s friends have criminal records? Etc.

“Visit your home” – does that mean come in for a cup of tea? Or, does it mean that years of police experience and training are looking out for signs of discord, security risks, neighbourhood problems, what plants are in the garden, why the car has its number plates covered up, etc? This visit is a key part of the firearms licensing system – your programme gave it three words and COLFO believes that this is insufficient, unfair and thereby unbalanced.

[53]  With respect to the volunteer who the item said had purchased a gun while “knowing nothing about guns”, COLFO maintained that the volunteer did know enough about guns at that point to operate one safely. It did not accept TVNZ’s contention that the footage confirmed that the volunteer still knew little about guns, adding:

Given the probability that [the volunteer] was prepared to give misleading information in her firearms licence application, and given the fact that she was prepared to take part in a deception to create or enhance a story, we are not inclined to accept the comment that she knew “little or nothing” about guns at face value.

[54]  COLFO added that the gun shop owner had stated that he had offered to demonstrate how to assemble the gun, and that the 20/20 crew had specifically said that this was not necessary. Further, the owner had told COLFO that the gun was not purchased by the volunteer, but an arrangement was made whereby the gun was made available for a few hours.

[55]  The complainant referred to TVNZ’s argument that the volunteer had been able to acquire a firearm “after only being able to pass the test through having been helped by the examiners”. It reiterated that the test that allowed the volunteer to take possession of a firearm was actually the test of being “a fit and proper person”, and the firearms safety test was only a small part of the entire process.

[56]  COLFO noted that there was no footage showing the instructors giving the applicants the correct answers. It had only shown a method of teaching where the applicants had been asked to re-examine their answers in the context of the questions. The complainant contended that TVNZ seemed reluctant to accept that the safety test was an educational tool rather than a limiting tool.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[57]  Referring to COLFO’s assertions regarding the police and MSC representatives, TVNZ said that it had received two emails from Police Inspector Joe Green after the broadcast, and he had not expressed any dissatisfaction with the programme.

[58]  The broadcaster maintained that throughout its investigations, no mention had been made of another way to obtain a firearms licence other than going through the 30-question test. Nor had the police and MSC representatives mentioned another alternative, it wrote. Further, the broadcaster said that Inspector Green had specifically been asked about whether any applicants failed the test, and he had replied that there was no record of pass/fail rates.

[59]  TVNZ contended that the programme had not overlooked the fact that there was a lecture before the test was administered. It had said “First they are lectured, then shown a safety video”, and TVNZ noted that the item had shown pictures and short quotes from the lecture.

[60]  While the firearms safety test was not in the legislation, TVNZ wrote, it was treated as law. 20/20 had not found anybody who had heard of people being given a licence without going through the test process.

[61]  Noting COLFO’s concerns that “the actors…may have felt they were contributing to the programme by not properly considering the answers”, TVNZ made two points in response. It wrote:

1. The people were not actors. In [TVNZ’s] original response to this complaint it referred to them as “volunteers”. They were not paid to cooperate with 20/20. They gave their own time willingly as they were curious about gun standards in this country. They wondered if they really could get a licence while knowing nothing about firearms.

2. COLFO seems to be coming very close here to accusing 20/20 of setting up the participants to answer questions incorrectly. If this is its allegation, it is a serious one and we suggest COLFO be asked to produce evidence or withdraw the accusation.

[62]  The broadcaster maintained that the volunteer had not lied about never having seen a firearms code. He had been interviewed directly after the test, it said. TVNZ also said that the volunteer who had been shown purchasing a gun had been asked what she knew about it, and she had replied that “she knew very little”. Further, it was the volunteer’s name on the register at the shop, even though TVNZ had covered the cost of the gun’s purchase for the brief period.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[63]  In its final comment, COLFO maintained that the item was not a reasonable overview of the firearms licensing process. It reiterated the points made in its earlier correspondence. COLFO suggested that the Authority could telephone Inspector Green and the MSC representative to ascertain whether they were happy with the broadcast.

[64]  COLFO maintained that the hidden camera footage had not uncovered any evidence that the MSC instructors “gave” anyone the answers.

Authority's Determination

[65]  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.

[66]  As a preliminary point, the Authority notes the complainant’s argument that promotional material for the programme on TVNZ’s website was inaccurate (see paragraph [8]).  The Authority has not addressed this aspect of the complaint as that material does not fall within its jurisdiction under the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Standard 4 (balance)

[67]  Standard 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed. In the Authority’s view, this item purported to investigate whether it was too easy to obtain a firearms licence in New Zealand. It posed the questions “But is it too easy to get your licence? Is the system as good as they say?” The Authority considers that this is an issue to which Standard 4 applies.

[68]  COLFO complained that the item presented the firearms safety test as being the primary component of the firearms licence test, when in fact, it said, the most important element was the “fit and proper person” test carried out by the police. TVNZ argued that the other requirements for obtaining a licence were presented in the following statement:

To get a firearms licence you must prove you are a fit and proper person to own a firearm, and know how to use it. You must pass a 30-question multi-choice test. The police will also check for a criminal record, visit your home, and talk to your nominated referees.

[69]  A majority of the Authority finds that, although the programme referred to the other requirements for obtaining a licence once at the beginning of the item, this did not adequately convey the place of the firearms safety test in the overall licensing process. The majority finds that this single reference was overshadowed by the rest of the item, which left the impression that passing the firearms safety test was the  primary requirement for obtaining a firearms licence. The majority observes that the safety test was referred to throughout the item as “the firearms test” and “the exam”. For example, the reporter said:

But is it too easy to get your licence? Is the system as good as they say? To find out, we rigged our team with hidden cameras and sent them off to their local police station for the exam.

[70]  In the majority’s view, although the programme began by questioning whether it was too easy to get a firearms licence, the programme then focused solely on the firearms safety test. The majority finds that viewers were not given sufficient information with which to evaluate the relative importance of the safety test in the context of the entire process. Accordingly, the majority considers that viewers were deprived of a significant perspective on the question of whether it was too easy to obtain a firearms licence in New Zealand. In the absence of that context, the firearms safety test appeared to be far more critical and important in the process of getting a firearms licence than it actually was, especially because the sole focus of the programme was on the safety test. The fact that the volunteers were not shown being put through the other more rigorous requirements of having to prove they were "fit and proper" persons and being visited at home by the police added to the imbalance.

[71]  Accordingly, a majority of the Authority concludes that Standard 4 (balance) was breached in this respect.

[72]  The majority also notes COLFO’s concern that the programme made several comparisons between the firearms safety test, drivers’ licensing and school exams. The majority observes that the MSC and police representatives did convey the message that the test was an educational tool, rather than a pass or fail test. However, because the programme did not explain the place of the firearms safety test within the licensing regime, the majority considers that viewers would have been unable to put their comments into context. Because viewers were not given sufficient information about the other requirements for obtaining a licence, the majority finds that viewers would not have understood why the safety test was primarily an educational tool, and how this worked within the rest of the system. 

[73]  A minority of the Authority (Paul France) disagrees that the item failed to put the safety test into context. The minority notes that the programme stated clearly at the beginning that the safety test was only one of the requirements for obtaining a firearms licence, and while the programme might have been improved in a critical sense by this being repeated and reinforced, this did not amount to a breach of the standard.  The minority felt the programme reasonably and fairly reported that three volunteers achieved passes in the safety test (an absolute requirement for a licence) and afterwards felt that they did not have enough understanding of safety procedures involving firearms and should not have passed the test. 

[74]  COLFO also complained that the police and MSC representatives were only allocated about 90 seconds to give their responses in the item, which was about 12½ minutes long. In Decision No. 2004-138, the Authority said:

The Authority notes that balance cannot be measured solely by the amount of time accorded the various parties. This is just one measure by which balance can be assessed. Other appropriate measures are the quality, emphasis, and placement of contributions in the programme.

[75]  On this occasion, the Authority finds that the length of time accorded to the MSC and police representatives is irrelevant to its consideration of whether the item was balanced.   Even if they had been allocated more time, this would not have corrected the programme’s fundamental flaw identified by the majority – that it failed to explain adequately that the safety test was just one component of the overall licensing regime.   (As the minority has concluded that the programme was sufficiently balanced in this respect, he does not need to address this point.)  Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold this part of the complaint.

[76]  In addition, the Authority disagrees with COLFO’s complaint that the police and MSC representatives should have been given an opportunity to comment on the finished item, as opposed to just the raw hidden camera footage. The Authority considers that the interviewees were given an adequate opportunity to put forward their views about the way in which the safety test was being administered, and the broadcaster was not required to show them the finished item in order for them to comment on this matter.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[77]  COLFO alleged that a number of aspects of the programme were misleading or inaccurate. The Authority deals with each allegation separately.

The item referred to the MSC-administered test as a “firearms test” instead of a “firearms safety test”.

[78]  The Authority has taken this matter into account in its consideration of the balance standard (see paragraph [69]), and a majority of the Authority found that the references to the “firearms test” contributed to the impression that the firearms safety test was the primary component of the licensing system. Accordingly, the Authority subsumes this part of the complaint into its consideration of Standard 4 (balance).

Reporter’s statement “…what [the volunteers] aren’t though, are gun enthusiasts, so if we asked them to sit their firearms test, by rights they should fail”.

[79]  COLFO argued that this was inaccurate because many people who are not “gun enthusiasts” have firearms licences. It pointed out that many people who are not “car enthusiasts” would not fail their drivers’ licences “by rights”.

[80]  In the Authority’s view, the reporter’s reference to “gun enthusiasts” was not a “point of fact” to which the accuracy standard applies. Rather, it was clearly an exaggerated comment used to express the fact that the volunteers knew little or nothing about firearms. The Authority does not uphold this part of the complaint.

Volunteer’s comment that he had “never seen” a firearms code.

[81]  COLFO stated that all applicants were given a copy of the firearms code when they booked for the firearms safety test, and therefore it was unlikely that the volunteer had not seen one. The Authority notes that the following exchange took place in the programme:

Reporter:      Have you seen a Firearms Code?

Volunteer:    No, I hadn’t looked over it ever.

Reporter:      Do you know what it looks like?

Volunteer:    Never seen one.

[82]  In the Authority’s view, the volunteer’s answer was not presented as a statement of fact to which the accuracy standard applies, but was clearly distinguishable as his comment in response to the reporter’s question. Therefore the accuracy standard does not apply, and the Authority declines to uphold this part of the complaint.

Reporter’s statement that “This is the test every shooter must pass; it is there to ensure that when people get their gun they know how to use it safely”.

[83]  COLFO argued that there was no statutory requirement to pass the firearms safety test to be a “shooter”, and a "shooter" could be a person under supervision. It also noted that tourists and people renewing their licences could sit a different test. However, in the Authority’s view, the programme was clearly focusing on the requirements of obtaining a licence for a first-time applicant, not a tourist or someone who was renewing their licence. Further, it notes the following statement from the New Zealand Police website:1

The Arms Code forms the basis of the Firearms Safety Test which must be sat by all firearms licence applicants.

[84]  Based on the information provided, the Authority concludes that a first-time applicant who wishes to shoot a gun unsupervised would need to pass the firearms safety test referred to in the programme. Accordingly, it finds the reporter’s statement that “this is the test every shooter must pass” was not inaccurate, and it does not uphold this part of the complaint.

Reporter’s statement “This is what sets a firearms licence apart from a driving test or a school exam. They have all had their wrong answers crossed out and been given further information about the questions – it has an immediate result”.

[85]  COLFO said the safety test had been established as an educational tool and was a very small portion of the overall qualifications needed to obtain a firearms licence. It stated that what set the firearms licence apart was the requirement of being a “fit and proper person”.

[86]  The Authority notes that the police and MSC representatives made it clear that the test was an educational tool. However, the majority of the Authority reiterates its view (see paragraph [72]) that these comments were not clearly put into context due to the programme’s failure to explain the place of the safety test in the entire licensing scheme. The Authority considers that this matter has already been appropriately dealt with in its consideration of the balance standard, and, accordingly, it subsumes this part of the complaint into its consideration of Standard 4.

MSC instructor’s statement to volunteer “you missed [question] 18” and volunteer’s reply “okay shall I try it again?” and volunteer’s statement that she had answered “Six wrong, which is a fail, and then 100%, which is a pass”.

[87]  Because the programme only showed the volunteer attempting two questions again, when she said that she had answered six questions incorrectly, COLFO said it left the impression that the volunteer had received a 100% pass mark without answering all of the questions correctly. The following exchanges were shown between the volunteer and the instructor during the item:

Instructor (hidden camera):    Ok, you missed 18.

Volunteer (hidden camera):    Shall I try again?

Instructor (hidden camera):    Just have a look at 18.

Instructor (hidden camera):    And 30, which is the last one you did.

Volunteer (hidden camera):    Which is d.

Instructor (hidden camera):    Yep. Good girl.

Volunteer (to camera):           I got six wrong but then I got 100% so yeah. Six wrong, which is a fail,
                                            and then 100%, which is a pass.

[88]  The Authority considers that the above exchange was simply used to illustrate the point that the applicants were given a second opportunity to attempt questions that they had answered incorrectly. In the Authority’s view, it would have been obvious to viewers that the hidden camera footage only showed limited excerpts from the volunteer’s test. It finds nothing in the footage or the commentary which implied that the volunteer had received a 100% pass mark without answering all of the questions correctly, and therefore the Authority concludes that the item was not misleading in this respect. It does not uphold this part of the complaint.

Item implied that the police and MSC representatives were “very pleased” with the item as it was broadcast.

[89]  COLFO argued that the item implied that Mr Spray and Inspector Green were “very pleased” with the item as it was broadcast, when they had only been shown the “raw” hidden camera footage. The Authority disagrees. It notes that the men were introduced with the words “they agreed to come and have a look at our results”.  The programme then showed them viewing the hidden camera footage, and they indicated that they were pleased with the actions of the MSC instructors.

[90]  In the Authority’s view, it was clear that the men had only been shown the hidden camera footage, and it did not leave the impression that they had been shown the finished item. Accordingly, the Authority is of the view that the programme was not misleading or inaccurate in this respect.

Reporter’s statement “And knowing nothing about guns doesn’t stop [the volunteer] from owning one – even if she can’t assemble it”.

[91]  The complainant contended that the lengthy process which the volunteer had gone through before getting her firearms licence made it safe to assume that she knew enough about guns to use one safely.

[92]  The Authority notes the volunteer’s statement in the item that she “didn’t know which way to point a gun. You don’t want people who don’t even know which way to point a gun to have a licence”. In the Authority’s view, stating that the volunteer knew “nothing about guns” was an acceptable description of her feeling that she did not know enough about guns to use one safely. Therefore it finds that the statement was not inaccurate.

Reporter’s statement “And knowing nothing about guns doesn’t stop [the volunteer] from owning one… even if she can’t assemble it”.

[93]  COLFO complained that the volunteer had not actually purchased a gun, despite the sequence in the programme which purported to show her buying one. TVNZ acknowledged that the volunteer had not bought the gun, but that 20/20 had paid for her to rent a gun for 24 hours.

[94]  The Authority agrees that the programme left the impression that the volunteer had actually purchased a gun, and it notes the volunteer’s statement that “I have a gun in my hand, and it’s my gun”. However, while this was technically misleading, the Authority observes that the sequence made the valid point that the volunteer was now able to purchase a gun, even if she was not confident about using one safely. In this respect, the Authority finds that whether or not the volunteer actually purchased a firearm was immaterial to viewers’ understanding of the matter under investigation. Therefore it declines to uphold this matter as a breach of Standard 5.

[95]  Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

MSC instructors

[96]  COLFO complained that the item was unfair to the MSC instructors shown in the item. However, the complainant has not specified how it considers the instructors were treated unfairly. Because the Authority has not been presented with any evidence to suggest that the MSC instructors were dealt with in an unfair manner, it declines to uphold this part of the complaint.

[97]  COLFO also complained that the MSC instructors were denigrated by the broadcast. The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as meaning blackening the reputation of a class of people (see for example decisions 1994-062 and 2004-129). The Authority notes that the programme did not make any pejorative statements about MSC instructors as an occupational group. Further, it was clear that the MSC instructors were administering the firearms safety test in accordance with directions, because the police and MSC representatives stated that they were pleased with their conduct.

[98]  Accordingly, the Authority finds nothing in the programme which could have blackened the reputation of MSC instructors, and it does not uphold this part of the complaint.

Firearms licence-holders

[99]  COLFO argued that all responsible firearms licence-holders had been denigrated by the item. Guideline 6g is intended to protect sections of the community from denigration on account of their gender, race, age, disability, occupational status or sexual orientation, or as a consequence of their religious, cultural or political beliefs. In the Authority’s view, firearms licence-holders are not an identifiable “section of the community” to which the denigration guideline applies. Accordingly, the Authority finds that Standard 6 was not breached in this respect.

Other allegations of unfairness

[100]  COLFO also argued that “the item had been unfair in many ways, including the “Armed and Dangerous” title, and the opening clip which showed a firearm which was not available to people who held a ‘basic’ firearms licence”. However, Standard 6 requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with “any person or organisation taking part or referred to” in a broadcast. As COLFO has not specified any person or organisation that it alleges was treated unfairly by these aspects of the programme, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

 

For the above reasons a majority of the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item on 20/20 on 20 April 2006 breached Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. It declines to uphold the other aspects of the complaint.

[101]  Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. Having considered all the circumstances of the complaint, and taking into account that the decision to uphold the complaint was not unanimous, the Authority concludes that an order is not appropriate. It considers that the publication of its decision is sufficient on this occasion.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
27 November 2006

Appendix

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

1      COLFO’s formal complaint – 5 May 2006

2     TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 25 May 2006

3     COLFO’s letter in response to TVNZ – 7 June 2006

4     COLFO’s referral to the Authority – 20 June 2006

5     TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 1 September 2006

6     COLFO’s final comment – 25 September 2006

7     Final response from TVNZ – 11 October 2006