Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Election 2005 and Close Up – debates between Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and Labour and National parties’ finance spokespersons, prior to the 2005 General Election – allegedly unbalanced
Standard 4 (balance) – complaint a matter of viewer preferences – no issue of broadcasting standards arose – decline to determine
This headnote does not form part of the decision
 TVNZ broadcast two political programmes on TV One prior to the 2005 general election. The first was Election 2005, a live studio debate featuring the Prime Minister Rt Hon Helen Clark and National Party leader Dr Don Brash, screened on 22 August 2005.
 The second was Close Up, which involved a studio discussion without an audience between Labour’s finance spokesperson, the Hon Dr Michael Cullen, and National’s finance spokesperson John Key, broadcast on 23 August 2005.
 Dr Michael Cooper complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that permitting audience heckling in the first broadcast, and allowing the participants to interject in the second item, created unbalanced coverage.
 In his view, heckling and interjections created a bias in favour of the incumbent party, whose policies were likely to be better known than those of the Opposition. The complainant considered that, for voters to make an informed choice on election day, important issues needed to be calmly and comprehensively discussed. He considered that this was not possible with the “strategy of disruption” being employed.
 TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4 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 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.
 In its response to the complaint, TVNZ did not accept that heckling by the audience or interjections by participants favoured the incumbent party. In respect of the Close Up programme, TVNZ considered that neither Dr Cullen nor Mr Key was hindered in communicating their messages to the public, in what was a “good natured and articulate argument”.
 TVNZ concluded that neither Standard 4 nor Standard 6 was breached in either programme. In respect of Standard 4, it maintained that both the Labour and National spokespersons provided balancing arguments.
 Turning to Standard 6, it considered that at no stage in either of the programmes were the participants hampered in getting their messages across.
 TVNZ acknowledged that while Dr Cooper might have preferred another format for the political debates, viewer preferences were not a basis for upholding a breach of the standards. Accordingly, it did not uphold the complaint.
 Dissatisfied with the response from the broadcaster, Dr Cooper referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 Noting that the complainant had not indicated why he was dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response to the formal complaint, TVNZ added nothing further. It reserved the right to comment in the event that the complainant explained his dissatisfaction at a later point.
 In his final comment, Dr Cooper explained why he was dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response to his formal complaint.
 Noting that the National Party strongly disagreed with the government position on taxation, Dr Cooper asserted that this was a highly controversial issue of public importance. Accordingly, he considered that TVNZ was required by the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice to “provide reasonable opportunities to present significant points of view”.
 Dr Cooper considered that meeting the requirement of “reasonableness” required sufficient time, and the absence of interruption. Explaining how changes to the taxation system might impact on the health or education system could not be done in a few minutes while coping with audience interruptions, he wrote.
 The members of the Authority have viewed copies of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 The Authority is of the view that no concerns in relation to balance arise in respect of these programmes. The Authority considers that, in essence, the complainant did not like the format of the programmes, and would have preferred a different style of programme. The Authority notes that s.5(c) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 provides for the general principle that complaints based solely on complainants’ preferences are not capable of being resolved by a complaint procedure.
 The format and presentation of news and current affairs programmes are matters of editorial discretion. In the view of the Authority, the complaint is outside the ambit of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice and does not raise any issue of broadcasting standards. Accordingly, under s.11(b) of the Act, the Authority declines to determine the complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to determine the complaint under s.11(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
22 December 2005
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: