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Baxter and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-221

Members

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

Complainant

  • Mark Baxter of Dunedin

Dated

18th February 2005

Number

2004-221

Programme

Tonight

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Tonight – item about the delay in election results from the Wellington local body elections – reporter described the Single Transferable Voting (STV) system as “discredited” – allegedly unbalanced and inaccurate

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – focus of item not on STV system – no balance required on STV issue – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – in light of focus of item, word “discredited” referred to administration of STV system, not system itself – sufficient basis for reporter to use word accurately in this context – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An item on Tonight on TV One at around 10.35pm on 20 October 2004 reported that, twelve days after the local body election, the final vote for the Wellington City Council had been announced. The reporter said:

After almost a fortnight of waiting [the Deputy Mayor] was unable to give the discredited STV system his wholehearted support.

Complaint

[2] Mark Baxter complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item had breached broadcasting standards relating to balance, accuracy and fairness.

[3] The complainant was concerned that the Single Transferable Voting (STV) system had been described by the reporter as “disgraced”. He observed that the item did not directly attribute the delay in counting election results to the STV system, although there were “many references to STV and the implication that the delay problem has only manifested itself since the introduction of STV”.  Although the article implied STV was to blame, he said, it did not mention how the system had “disgraced itself”.

[4] Mr Baxter alleged that the STV system was not the cause of the delays; instead he said the companies that had been contracted to count the votes in some areas were at fault.  He also noted that the item had not reported that many STV electorates had been successful in getting results on election night, and this demonstrated a lack of balance. He found this to be “simply unacceptable”.

[5] Mr Baxter contended that the item was contrary to Guideline 4a, which states that programmes “which deal with political matters…must show balance and impartiality”. The description of the STV system as “disgraced”, he said, could hardly be described as impartial. In addition, the broadcast may have failed to comply with Guideline 4b by not seeking the opinion of STV advocates, he said.

[6] Similarly, the complainant alleged that Standard 5 (accuracy) had also been breached. He found the description of the STV system to be inaccurate, and that it “could hardly be described as impartial and objective”.

Standards

[7] TVNZ considered the complaint under Standards 4 and 5, and Guidelines 4a and 4b 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.

Guidelines

4a  Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.

4b  No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial public issues. Broadcasters should aim to present all significant sides in as fair a way as possible, it being acknowledged that this can be done only by judging each case on its merits.

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

[8] In its response to the complainant, TVNZ first noted that the description of the STV system had been as “discredited”, not “disgraced” as alleged in his complaint. Discredited, it said, had the dictionary meaning of “has harmed the reputation of…” or has “caused (an idea or piece of evidence) to seem false or unreliable”.

[9] TVNZ contended that it would be “a brave person” who would argue that the recent local election had not harmed the reputation of an electoral system built on STV. The Deputy Mayor’s refusal to fully endorse STV, it said, was consistent with a voting system having had its good reputation harmed – or “discredited”.

[10] The broadcaster acknowledged the complainant’s argument that it was not STV itself that was at fault, but rather the people who operated it. However, it said, the people who operated the system were part of the STV system in this case, and as a result STV had its reputation “dented”.

[11] To justify the use of the word “discredited”, TVNZ argued, it needed only to show that as a result of the election, the reputation of STV had been harmed. The broadcaster stated:

The [complaints] committee believed that this item, especially if it is seen in conjunction with items about other local body contests where STV results were greatly delayed, indicated that harm had been done to the reputation of STV and that the use of the word “discredited” was accurate and truthful (Standard 5).

[12] Turning to consider Standard 4 (balance), TVNZ argued that this standard was not strictly relevant on this occasion. The item was a factual report about a specific election result in Wellington, it said, not a review of national elections or a discussion about the merits of voting systems such as STV. The broadcaster maintained that it was newsworthy to report the Deputy Mayor’s “genuinely held misgivings about the system” which contributed to the delay in election results.

Referral to the Authority

[13] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Baxter referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He maintained that the item had “stated as a fact that the STV system is discredited”, and that this was inaccurate and unbalanced. He said:

Certainly there were problems with the processing of some STV elections, indeed that was largely what the article was about. However, this was in no way a problem with STV, but a problem of incompetent voting companies.

[14] Mr Baxter referred to TVNZ’s definition of “discredited” as having “harmed the reputation of…”, and argued that its description of the STV system as “discredited” had itself harmed the reputation of STV, but wrongly so.

[15] The complainant referred to TVNZ’s argument that those who operated the STV system, and who may have caused the delays, were part of the system. He did not accept this assertion, stating that STV was distinct from its operators. In addition, Mr Baxter argued that the failure to report that STV “was a success in the country’s biggest electorate” gave rise to a serious lack of balance.

[16] Noting that TVNZ did not feel Standard 4 was strictly relevant, Mr Baxter said that he hoped TVNZ would “find balance and impartiality always important in the news, and especially important when reporting on a democratic process”.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] In its response to the Authority, TVNZ held to the view that the delays surrounding the local body elections in Wellington “harmed the reputation of the voting system being used”. It went on to say:

[18] Voters, candidates and the wider public do not separate the system from its operation, and we therefore submit that it was accurate, balanced and fair to say that STV was discredited by this experience.

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 complaint without a formal hearing.

[20] In relation to the balance issue, the Authority observes that the item did not focus on the wider issue of the credibility of the STV system.  The item was about the length of time it had taken to count the votes in the Wellington local body election.  The issue of the credibility or otherwise of the STV system arose only fleetingly and as a peripheral issue, and was therefore not a “controversial issue of public importance” in the context of this item.  Accordingly, Standard 4 is not applicable.

[21] In relation to the accuracy issue, the Authority observes that in an item which focussed on the length of time taken to count the votes cast, the use of the word “discredited” was intended to refer to the administration of the STV system, rather than the system itself.  In that context, in light of the problems encountered, there was sufficient basis to use the word “discredited”.

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
18 February 2005

Appendix

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

  1. Mark Baxter’s formal complaint – not dated
  2. TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 14 December 2004
  3. Mr Baxter’s referral to the Authority – 23 December 2004
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 10 January 2005