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Trimble and Shierlaw and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2004-175

Members

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

Complainants

  • Rachel Trimble of Auckland
  • Max Shierlaw of Lower Hutt

Dated

21st December 2004

Number

2004-175

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

CanWest TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
60 Minutes – item reporting on the reaction to the proposed Civil Union Bill before Parliament – allegedly unbalanced

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcasts

[1] An item on 60 Minutes entitled “Union Trouble” was broadcast on TV3 on 23 August 2004 at 7.30pm. The focus of this segment was the reaction of various groups to the proposed Civil Union Bill.

[2] The broadcast included interviews with the Pastor of the Destiny Church, a gay couple, a lesbian Presbyterian Minister and the managing director of the Maxim Institute.

Complaints

[3] Rachel Trimble complained to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the 60 Minutes programme was neither balanced nor impartial. She argued that those who opposed the Civil Union Bill were:

…portrayed as hateful and intolerant...yet anyone who was for the Civil Unions Bill was portrayed as loving, tolerant and understanding.

[4] Max Shierlaw also complained to the broadcaster that the programme breached Standard 4 and Guideline 4a of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. He stated that the broadcast had “failed to show balance and impartiality”.

[5] It was of concern to Mr Shierlaw that the programme had “confined” debate on the Civil Union Bill to the Destiny Church when, he argued, it was opposed by “a significant proportion of the Christian community”. The programme had not given the wider Christian community a chance to present their views, he said, and:

Instead it sought only the views of a lesbian Presbyterian Minister who claimed to represent the views of “mainstream churches”. She does not. A balanced viewpoint would have included contributions from, for example, the Catholic Church, which is strongly opposed to the Civil Union Bill, and is a “mainstream church”.

[6] By giving people the opportunity to depict Destiny Church members as “fanatics”, Mr Shierlaw maintained that the programme portrayed all those who oppose the Civil Union Bill as “fanatics and unrepresentative of Christians”. This, he said, was neither a balanced argument nor was it factual.

Standards

[7] CanWest TVWorks Ltd assessed the complaints under Standard 4 and Guideline 4a 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.

Guideline 4a

Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[8] CanWest TVWorks Ltd responded in the same manner to both Ms Trimble and Mr Shierlaw. It said the programme had examined the reactions and views of “some of those involved in the debate about the legislation”, given that the proposal had generated “strong reaction” from members of the community.

[9] The broadcaster agreed that the issue at hand was a “controversial issue of public importance” and therefore the broadcast was obliged to adhere to the requirements of the standard. It did not, however, agree that the item characterised those opposed to the bill as “fanatics, unrepresentative of Christians”.

[10] Although there had not been a spokesperson for the Catholic Church, the broadcaster argued that there was no requirement to portray the views of every organisation which held an opinion on the issue. Instead, it stated:

What is required is the presentation of all significant points of view – the [Standards] Committee is satisfied that the item presented a range of viewpoints by a range of groups and individuals involved in the debate in an objective and impartial manner so that viewers were well able to appreciate the range of views held on the issue.

[11] In view of this, the broadcaster maintained that the requirements of Standard 4 (balance) were met. Furthermore it felt that to uphold these complaints would “unreasonably and unjustifiably restrict the public’s right to receive information and opinions of any kind in any form”.

Referral to the Authority

[12] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, both complainants referred their complaints to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[13] In her referral to the Authority, Ms Trimble expressed concern that the item portrayed the Maxim Institute and the Destiny Church as “fanatical organisations, basically because they are opposed to the Civil Unions legislation”.

[14] Ms Trimble said that while she viewed both these organisations as having done positive work, the broadcast had shown them to be “money hungry” while portraying those in favour of the bill as “loving and placid”. She claimed that those against the bill had been “scrutinized” while no background had been given for those who supported the bill.

[15] In his referral, Mr Shierlaw reiterated his contention that the programme lacked balance. He said the broadcaster should have “thoroughly” checked the accuracy of the Presbyterian Minister’s statement that the Destiny Church’s view did not represent “mainstream churches”. In Mr Shierlaw’s opinion, her comments were not accurate.

[16] Mr Shierlaw thought the broadcaster should have “canvassed a wider opinion of the Christian community”. If it had, he contended, the broadcaster would have found “widespread support” within other Churches for the position held by the Destiny Church.

[17] Although he conceded that it was not possible to canvass the views of every organisation, Mr Shierlaw asserted that in order to present a balanced programme the broadcaster was required to go further than the views of one Minister. Mr Shierlaw maintained that the programme had presented Destiny Church members “both as fanatics and the only type of people opposed to the Civil Union Bill”.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[18] CanWest TVWorks Ltd added nothing further to its original replies to Ms Trimble and Mr Shierlaw.

Authority's Determination

[19] 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 complaints without a formal hearing.

[20] Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice requires that balance be provided when “controversial issues of public importance” are discussed. In this case, the programme considered the implications of the Civil Union Bill which proposed to give legal recognition to same-sex couples. The Authority finds that this was a “controversial issue of public importance” to which the standard applies.

[21] The Authority is satisfied that this item presented a range of viewpoints held by groups and individuals from both sides of the debate over the Civil Union Bill. It believes that viewers would have appreciated that there were a number of other groups both for and against the Bill. The Authority considers that it was not necessary for the broadcaster to speak to every party with a strong opinion to encapsulate an overview of the debate.

[22] The item began by showing footage from the march to Parliament, covering participants from both the Destiny Church and the pro-Bill counter-rally. The reporter then interviewed the Pastor of the Destiny Church, whose views were contrasted with those advanced by a gay couple who supported the proposed legislation. A discussion with the managing director of the Maxim Institute, who was critical of the legislation, was then followed by comments from an author researching New Zealand lobby groups who analysed Maxim’s views and noted their similarity to the Destiny Church’s position. The item ended with comments from both the Pastor of the Destiny Church and a lesbian Presbyterian Minister.

[23] By portraying parties with strongly-held views from each side of the debate throughout the item, the Authority finds that the broadcaster made a considerable effort to present the views of both sides in such a way as to achieve balance. The item’s approach resulted in the viewer having a clear appreciation that there was firm opposition to the bill, countered by equally passionate support in favour of the legislation.

[24] The complainants were concerned that the programme portrayed Destiny Church members as “the only type of people” opposed to the Civil Union Bill. Mr Shierlaw felt that the Catholic Church should have been approached for its comments. In the Authority’s view, the programme did not purport to cover all parties opposed to the Bill, and instead focussed on a number of high profile and vocal opinions that had been advanced. This point was specifically acknowledged in the item, when the reporter asked the Pastor of the Destiny Church if it was fair to say that the Destiny Church “represents a Christian viewpoint, but not the only Christian viewpoint – there are others”.

[25] It also finds no support for the complainants’ view that Destiny Church members were portrayed as “fanatics”. While the item acknowledged the intensity with which the Destiny Church advanced its views, there was no evidence to suggest that the footage of the march or the interview with the Pastor of the Destiny Church were distorted to create a false impression of any kind.

[26] Mr Shierlaw expressed particular concern about the comments of the Presbyterian Minister, as he felt that her views did not represent “mainstream” Christian churches. On this point the Authority notes that Christian churches are divided on the Civil Union Bill. It considers that the Minister’s comments advanced one Christian perspective that provided some balance to the views expressed by the Pastor of the Destiny Church. The Authority observes that while the Presbyterian Minister stated that the Destiny Church does not represent “mainstream” Christianity, she did not expressly purport to represent that position either.

[27] The Authority stresses that a broadcaster is not required to interview all parties with a position on any particular issue in order to achieve balance. In this case, the Authority finds the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view from both sides of the debate over the Civil Union Bill. In this respect, the Authority considers that the broadcaster met the requirement for balance under Standard 4.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

Joanne Morris
Chair
21 December 2004

Appendix

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

  1. Rachel Trimble’s formal complaint – 1 September 2004
  2. CanWest TVWorks Ltd’s decision on the formal complaint – 4 October 2004
  3. Ms Trimble’s referral to the Authority – 20 October 2004
  4. CanWest TVWorks Ltd’s response to the Authority – 12 November 2004

 

  1. Max Shierlaw’s formal complaint – 27 September 2004
  2. CanWest TVWorks Ltd’s decision on the formal complaint – 29 September 2004
  3. Mr Shierlaw’s referral to the Authority – 5 October 2004
  4. CanWest TVWorks Ltd’s response to the Authority – 12 November 2004