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Frawley and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-101

Members

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

Complainant

  • Mike Frawley of Auckland

Dated

2nd September 2004

Number

2004-101

Programme

Breakfast

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Breakfast – item about Government surplus – phrase “slush fund” used in reference to Government surplus – allegedly inaccurate and inappropriate as it suggested corruption on part of the Government

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – in context phrase is accepted colloquial expression to describe discretionary funds – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An item broadcast on Breakfast on TV One 26 May 2004 dealt with the issue of the Government surplus and the 2004 budget process. The reporter referred to the surplus as a “slush fund.”

Complaint

[2] Mike Frawley complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, regarding the use of the term “slush fund.” Mr Frawley, citing the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, said that the term “slush fund” raised perceptions of “bribery or illicit political activities.” Mr Frawley contended that the term “reflected poorly” on New Zealand, and that “there is no reason why a supposedly neutral reporter should refer to such a surplus in such a way.”

Standards

[3] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which reads:

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

[4] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. Noting that the reporter was an “experienced business reporter, with a specialist knowledge of finance”, it said that the use of the term “slush fund” was not inappropriate. TVNZ submitted that reporters, in their role as “public watchdogs”, are expected to be cynical and questioning when reporting upon controversial matters.

[5] TVNZ noted that while other news media used different terms to describe the budget, all the media commentators appeared to agree that the Government approached the budget with a “healthy surplus”, which it then spent “in a manner it hoped would appeal to voters in the run-up to the next election.” TVNZ maintained that there seemed to be a consensus among journalists and opposition politicians that the budget involved “bribery”, not in a sinister sense but as an “inducement” to vote for the Government. While acknowledging that other commentators may have used a different term, TVNZ contended that “slush fund” was not an incorrect or misleading description.

Referral to the Authority

[6] Mr Frawley explained that “slush fund” was a “negative term” which described a “form of bribery and in many parts of the world it is a common practice used by politicians and businesses for unsavoury purposes.” Mr Frawley argued that the item was a “general” news piece, and not an opinion or investigative item by the reporter. He considered the use of the term in a general item to be “unsatisfactory and biased”, as it suggested that the Government was engaged in “unsavoury” practices.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[7] TVNZ reiterated its view that the Government used the budget to spend some of its surplus in a manner which it hoped would appeal to voters. It concluded that the use of the term “slush fund” was not inappropriate.

Authority's Determination

[8] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[9] Standard 5 requires broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The complainant alleged that the reference to the Government surplus as a “slush fund” breached this standard.

[10] The Authority accepts that the reference has negative connotations, and can be interpreted as relating to financial corruption. For this reason, the Authority considers that in the context of a news item about the Government surplus, it was unwise to describe it as a “slush fund”.

[11] However, the Authority finds that the phrase is an acceptable colloquial term to describe discretionary funds and that in its colloquial use the phrase carries minimal negative connotations. In light of this, the Authority considers that the public’s general understanding of the term is such that its use on this occasion, while possibly inappropriate, was not inaccurate.

[12] On this basis, the Authority concludes that the use of the term “slush fund” in the context did not breach Standard 5.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
2 September 2004

Appendix

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

  1. Mike Frawley’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 26 May 2004
  2. TVNZ’s Response to Mr Frawley’s Formal Complaint – 23 June 2004
  3. Mr Frawley’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – received 30 June 2004
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 2 July 2004