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Anderson, the Auckland Jewish Council and Leverton and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-028, 2003-029, 2003-030

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa
  • J H McGregor

Complainants

  • George and Eileen Anderson of Whangarei
  • The Auckland Jewish Council of Auckland
  • Tony Leverton of Wellington

Dated

15th April 2003

Number

2003-028–030

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
DNZ World Extra: Palestine Is Still The Issue – documentary – Middle East conflict – Palestinian perspective – unbalanced – inaccurate – unfair

Findings
Standard 4 – range of significant points of view presented – no uphold

Standard 5 – no inaccuracies – no uphold

Standard 6 – high threshold not reached – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision


Summary

[1] DNZ World Extra: Palestine Is Still The Issue was a special report by John Pilger that examined the Middle East conflict, from a Palestinian perspective. The programme questioned Israeli Government policy and its impact on the Palestinian people. The programme complained about was broadcast on TV One at 8.40pm on 21 October 2002.

[2] George and Eileen Anderson complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair towards Israelis. They contended that the programme presented a false and distorted account of the Middle East conflict.

[3] The Auckland Jewish Council also complained that the programme was unbalanced and inaccurate. In its view, the failure to include significant facts in the programme, including not providing a balancing view, resulted in misrepresentation of a complex situation.

[4] Finally, Tony Leverton complained that the programme was unbalanced and inaccurate. In addition, he maintained that the documentary was unfair to the entire New Zealand Jewish community.

[5] In response, TVNZ disagreed that the programme breached broadcasting standards. It argued that the item’s perspective about the ordinary Palestinian added to the overall mix of information New Zealand viewers see about the Middle East conflict. TVNZ considered that the alleged factual inaccuracies raised by the complainants related to matters of interpretation of the controversial nature of the Middle East situation portrayed.

[6] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, the complainants referred their complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.

Decision

[7] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape and read a transcript of the programme complained about, and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendices. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[8] DNZ World Extra: Palestine Is Still The Issue was a documentary broadcast on TV One at 8.40pm on 21 October 2002. Described in the introduction to the programme as his "personal point of view", John Pilger’s documentary examined the effects that the Middle East conflict has had on the Palestinian people.

The Complaints

[9] Mr and Mrs Anderson stated that the programme was biased, presented "unsubstantiated accusations, significant historical inaccuracies and omissions", which gave a "distorted picture" that would only lead to confusion and "hinder the resolution of an already complex and tragic situation."

[10] The Auckland Jewish Council also complained that the programme was partial, inaccurate, and "riddled with errors of fact, historical distortions and vital omissions". It also considered that the programme’s overall purpose was to portray Israel’s responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians. Despite being an authorial documentary, it argued that TVNZ was not permitted to ignore completely its responsibility to maintain standards consistent with balance.

[11] Mr Leverton also described the programme as a "distorted, dishonest and one-sided broadcast". He contended that it was "blatantly biased" and contained unsubstantiated allegations, which rendered it an "outrageous example of TV journalism at its worst".

[12] The complainants made a number of specific allegations regarding the programme. The following aspects were alleged to be unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair:

The introduction by Documentary New Zealand’s presenter suggested that TVNZ had "misgivings about the integrity of the programme", but this did not release TVNZ from its responsibility to maintain broadcasting standards. The complainants questioned the use of the word "authorial" and what it was intended to convey.

The use of the words "nation" and "national" in reference to the Palestinians was inaccurate, as they were never a "nation". They advised that prior to 1917, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the term "Palestinians" was used "equally to designate local Jews, Christians, Druze and Arabs". The Arabs, they said, did not refer to themselves as Palestinians until 1967.

It was a "gross avoidance of the truth" when referring to the formation of the State of Israel, to say that the Arabs were forced to leave their homes and flee in terror. Rather, Israeli citizenship was promised to those Arabs living within the borders of Israel. However, some Arab nations had declared war on Israel and local Arabs who had fled became refugees when the Arab nations lost the war.

It was incorrect to refer to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as "occupied territories" and "illegally occupied", when the status of that land was disputed and a matter of negotiation.

The term "occupied Palestine" was used without an explanation that it was a debatable issue and meant different things to different people, and its use therefore was misleading. "Palestine" might refer to the West Bank and Gaza, or might include the entire area of land, including Israel, it was suggested.

The references to land and property as "ours" by the Palestinians, was misleading as "the majority of Arabs who fled from Israel in 1948 were tenants" and the Israelis acquired most of the land and buildings, including many of the "settlements", by purchasing it from "absentee Arab landlords". Further the programme failed to ask the Palestinians whether the land they claimed to have lost was owned or rented.

The reference to "apartheid" in describing the Palestinians’ circumstances was "hypocritical, emotive journalese, totally lacking in fairness", because the checkpoints and fences were security measures, and did not bear any similarity to apartheid. Palestinians, it was pointed out, had access to voting rights, buses, schools, shops and other public facilities.

The inclusion of the vandalism scene in the Cultural Ministry, showing rooms destroyed by human excrement, may have been "set up for the cameras". It was not substantiated that the destruction was the responsibility of Israeli soldiers and might have been the "work of Palestinian propaganda". The complainants criticised the failure to substantiate a claim about an "old lady with a cane" being shot by Israeli soldiers, and scepticism was expressed in relation to a video clip which purportedly showed a Palestinian being tortured by Israeli soldiers.

The inclusion of a "segment designed to demonstrate that a succession of Israeli prime minsters were terrorists" was misleading, as was the failure to refer to evidence of a warning given by Begin or his associates in relation to the King David Hotel bombing.

The documentary’s comment that Israel’s acceptance of Arafat was an example of a "classic colonial fix" was irresponsible and unfair, as he (Mr Arafat) was the "only secular leader capable of speaking on behalf of most Palestinians".

The omission of information, regarding the circumstances of why a pregnant woman who was interviewed on the programme was delayed at a checkpoint, was unbalanced.

The failure of the programme to deal with the importation of arms and their use by Palestinians for terrorist purposes, encouraging violence and incitement, breached the standards.

The description of the "Six Day War" as simply an "Israeli fantasy about Arabs wanting to destroy it", rather than a war of self-defence, was contrary to historical accounts.

The discussion of "Operation Defensive Shield" failed to mention the preceding suicide bombings.

The suggestion that Palestinians were murdered by Israelis and that 90% of those killed were civilians was inaccurate, when a study had concluded that "39% of Palestinian deaths are ‘non-combatant’, compared to 79% of Israeli deaths".

The claim that checkpoints had destroyed the Palestinian economy was unbalanced, as there was no mention of the corruption of Palestinian Authority officials.

Although there was a reference to American aid to Israel, it did not refer to the American aid to Arab countries. Further, the Palestinian Authority has received aid from both the United States and the European Union.

It was unbalanced not to refer to the land that was offered to the Palestinian Authority at the Camp David negotiations.

The programme failed to convey that the measures taken by the Israelis were only instituted once the "Palestinian Authority initiated terrorism as an official policy".

The interview with Ilan Pappe, an Israeli academic, did not provide "balance", as he supported Pilger’s view.

There were numerous aspects of the Middle East situation, including the broader historical background, that were not covered by the programme, which resulted in an unbalanced and inaccurate documentary.

[13] At a general level, the complainants argued that the item failed to mention that it was the actions of the surrounding Arab nations, not Israel, that had resulted in the plight and suffering of the Palestinians. It was the complainants’ contention that the documentary portrayed a perspective that went beyond "fair comment" in view of the "false and distorted" nature of the presentation. While the complainants acknowledged the complexity of the Middle East conflict and the widely differing viewpoints, they argued that there was a distinction between presenting a sample of those divergent views, and the broadcasting of this "one- sided" documentary.

The Standards

[14] In view of the matters raised by the Andersons and Mr Leverton, TVNZ assessed their complaints under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Jewish Council’s complaint was considered under Standards 4 and 5 of the Television Code. The Standards and relevant Guidelines read:

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.

4c  Factual programmes, and programmes shown which approach a topic from a particular or personal perspective (for example, authorial documentaries and those shown on access television), may not be required to observe to the letter the requirements of standard 4.

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.

Guideline

6g  Broadcasters should avoid portraying persons in programmes in a manner that encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, sections of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, or occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i) factual, or

ii) the expression of genuinely held opinion in news, current affairs or other factual programmes, or

iii) in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainants

[15] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaints. First it considered the broadcasting standards environment and the concept of "perspective" when dealing with controversial issues. Referring to the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice which cited the statutory right to freedom of expression in section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, TVNZ submitted that the broadcasting standards reflected the intent of the Bill of Rights and recognised "that there is a place for authorial programmes (Guideline 4c)". The Code also acknowledged the freedom of expression in Guideline 6d.

[16] TVNZ cited a dictionary definition, from the Concise Oxford Dictionary (10th edition), of the term "perspectives" and argued that:

In a media environment in which freedom of expression is made explicit through the Bill of Rights there is room in what are known as documentary or factual programmes for events and matters of controversy to be examined and described from a particular perspective. Such perspectives provide the opportunity for viewers and readers to consider these events and matters from a variety of viewpoints. As historians know, events of all sorts are subject to a variety of interpretations depending on the perspective applied to them.

[17] TVNZ contended that an "objective and impartial broadcaster" should enable viewers to make their own considered judgements on issues by providing them with a range of opinions and perspectives. It argued that it was not necessary to provide that full range within every programme, but that viewers should receive a variety of perspectives over a period of time.

[18] As to the programme complained about, TVNZ stated that viewers were advised at the outset that the item represented a particular perspective on the Middle East conflict. TVNZ transcribed the introduction which said:

Good evening and welcome to our special DNZ World Extra. We hear of the terror attacks and the situation in Israel and Palestine frequently in the news and New Zealand has peacekeeping forces there at the moment.

Tonight's documentary about the conflict is made by award winning journalist and filmmaker John Pilger. He is unashamedly authorial in his writing and this documentary represents his personal point of view. He uncovers stories that the rest of the media has forgotten and will argue a case in his telling of the story.

In 1977 John Pilger made a documentary about Palestine. In "Palestine Is Still the Issue", John Pilger has returned to the West Bank of the Jordan, Gaza and to Israel. He asks why the Palestinians – whose right to return was affirmed by the United Nations more than half a century ago – are still caught in a terrible limbo.

In interviews with both Palestinians and Israelis, Pilger weaves together the "issue" of Palestine.

[19] TVNZ highlighted the following points, which it said "stressed the nature of the programme":

He [John Pilger] is unashamedly authorial in his writing and this documentary represents his personal point of view. He uncovers stories that the rest of the media has forgotten and will argue a case in his telling of the story.

[20] Turning to Standard 4, TVNZ considered that there were two issues. First, it submitted that balance may be achieved "within the period of current interest". It contended that the programme complained about was one of a number of wide ranging sources concerning the Middle East conflict. In its opinion, viewers were familiar with suicide bombers, peace negotiations and other issues regarding the Middle East conflict. In TVNZ’s view:

[T]he particular perspective of the Palestinians in this programme, reliant as it was on ‘ordinary’ people – both Palestinians and Israelis – provided an ingredient for the total mix which perhaps had not previously been presented for consideration.

[21] Second, TVNZ referred to Guideline 4c and it stated that the programme fell within the genre contemplated by Guideline 4c. It referred to the introduction, noted above, which TVNZ said, clearly explained that the programme was a "personal perspective" and which the guideline states "may not be required to observe to the letter the requirements of standard 4".

[22] TVNZ maintained that the programme was not unbalanced because, it said, a range of views was canvassed during the programme, not just Palestinians. TVNZ concluded that in the context of an authorial documentary, Standard 4 had not been contravened.

[23] In regard to the accuracy requirement in Standard 5, TVNZ contended that the issues raised by the complainants related to the "interpretation of factual material, rather than in provable inaccuracies". The broadcaster stated that how events were portrayed was subject to an interpretation of the facts, particularly concerning issues of controversy.

[24] TVNZ then considered each of the allegations made by the complainants:

It disputed the allegation that the introduction reflected that it had "misgivings" about the integrity of the programme. It stated that introductions were routine for programmes in the Documentary New Zealand series.

Referring to the dictionary definitions of "nation" and "Palestine", TVNZ concluded that the reference to a "Palestinian nation" was accurate, because numerous historical sources refer to an Arab population residing in the "geographical area of Palestine for over a thousand years". In its view there was a ‘Palestinian nation’, "culturally and by descent".

Noting that the programme was not intended to be a detailed historical account of the Middle East conflict, but an historical context to facilitate an overview of how the conflict arose, TVNZ said that the statement regarding the Arab response to the formation of the Israeli State was not inaccurate. In support, it referred to a description by Menachem Begin.

The use of the term "occupied" by Mr Pilger was consistent with TVNZ’s editorial policy and in accordance with United Nations Security Resolution 242, in describing the land acquired by the Israelis during the Six Day War, TVNZ stated. It understood that Security Council Resolution 242 defined the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied" territories. It advised that the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council also consider that land as being "illegally occupied", and that there are "outstanding Security Council resolutions calling for Israel’s withdrawal from all of the occupied territories".

TVNZ suggested that the common usage to identify Palestine was the geographical area "lying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean as far north as the Lebanese border".

The references to land as "ours" by the Palestinians in the programme, TVNZ contended, "was a generic usage", which reflected the "centuries in which Arab Muslims (now known as the Palestinians) had occupied the geographical entity of Palestine". TVNZ cited in support the comments made by Dr Mona Al Farra during the programme, who referred to a property which had been in her family for 900 years, and David Reisch, an Israeli settler who, in explaining the religious connection Israelis have for the land, said it is "not something we can give back".

An analogy between the plight of the Palestinians and apartheid was used to highlight that "all Palestinians are treated harshly whether they are terrorists or not", argued TVNZ. In its view, "Mr Pilger was referring to the fundamental notion of Palestinians being a downtrodden race – the feeling of degradation and humiliation, lack of pride and what seems to be an imposed sense of inferiority". The documentary, TVNZ continued, was not referring to the Palestinians’ entitlement to any practical or material benefits.

TVNZ rejected the suggestion that the vandalism in the Cultural Ministry had been set up and, indeed, expressed astonishment at the suggestion, given Mr Pilger’s reputation and status as a journalist. "While Mr Pilger may be controversial he is a journalist of long experience who does not take things at face value", wrote TVNZ. It considered that Mr Pilger’s reaction was a genuine response to the scene of destruction. TVNZ noted that if it were required to question whether this was Palestinian propaganda then it would also be required to similarly ask if damaged Israeli property was the work of Israeli propagandists. Further, it advised that it was not aware of any official denial that the Ministry had been vandalised by Israeli soldiers. In regard to the "lady with the cane" incident, TVNZ said that it had been witnessed by journalists and had been previously reported. It noted that Mr Pilger did not cut out the footage of Mr Dori Gold, Senior Adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, denying that the incident had occurred. TVNZ advised that pictures of Israeli soldiers torturing Palestinians was broadcast in news programmes around the world, including in New Zealand. If these events were untrue, TVNZ contended, the Israeli Government would have "loudly denied them".

The description that three Israeli Prime Ministers were former "terrorists" was not inaccurate, TVNZ contended. It noted that it was an "unchallenged fact" that Menachem Begin led the terrorist group which bombed the King David Hotel. TVNZ added that it understood that Mr Begin had once described the bombing as a "splendid act of conquest". It advised in relation to Yitzak Shamir that he was also indisputably a leader of the "Stern Group" which engaged in terrorist acts involving "targeted assassinations and civilian casualties". Turning to the present Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, TVNZ stated that as Defence Minister, he was found in 1983 to be "indirectly, but personally responsible" for the massacre of 800 civilians. TVNZ submitted, that by definition, "terrorism implies the killing of civilians".

The programme’s description of Mr Arafat as an example of the "classic colonial fix", was indicative of the authorial nature of the documentary, TVNZ said. It reiterated that the documentary was presented as a "personal perspective" on the Middle East conflict.

TVNZ did not understand the significance of stating that the pregnant woman delayed at the checkpoint was going to an Israeli hospital. TVNZ maintained that the relevance was that "she felt humiliated for having to endure that delay".

The documentary’s perspective was clearly from "ordinary" Palestinians, and TVNZ argued that the programme consistently condemned acts of terrorism. It cited a number of references in the programme in support. In the condemnation, it noted, also came an examination of the environment from which such atrocities might arise, which TVNZ contended was not inappropriate.

TVNZ disagreed that a description of an act of self-defence implied that the Six Day War was simply an Israeli fantasy. It suggested rather that the notion of self-defence was portrayed as Israel’s opportunity to occupy territory outside its borders.

In TVNZ’s view, suicide bombings in Israel were widely covered by the media and their effects would have been seen by New Zealand viewers, so the failure to mention them in relation to "Operation Defensive Shield" was not misleading.

TVNZ accepted that casualty figures were disputable, but in its view Palestinian casualties outnumbered Israeli. In support, TVNZ referred to a BBC report.

TVNZ reiterated the explanation as to the documentary’s perspective, and noted that it was not concerned with Palestinian politics or an examination of the Palestinian economy. TVNZ argued that the reference to the damage to the Palestinian economy was "presented as an incidental fact arising from the existence of checkpoints". The checkpoints were symbolic of the Palestinian plight, and frequently restricted their movements even within their territory, TVNZ said.

The reference to American aid to Israel largely concerned the military hardware provided, TVNZ stated, which it understood the Palestinian Authority did not receive.

TVNZ did not understand the relevance of the failure to mention the Camp David negotiations, as the issue of "settlements" was not addressed. The documentary considered these to be a "contributory factor" to Palestinian grievances.

TVNZ disagreed that Israeli measures only resulted from the Palestinian Authority’s initiated "terrorist policy". It contended that the context of the documentary was another perspective to the complex conflict situation which was widely covered by the media.

In its view, Professor Pappe was not there to provide "balance", but an intellectual viewpoint.

Given the programme’s perspective, TVNZ maintained that the failure to include those aspects detailed by the complainants did not render the programme unbalanced and inaccurate, as it was necessary only to include that material which was relevant to the issues raised.

[25] "In the context of an authorial documentary approaching an issue from a particular perspective", TVNZ found that Standard 5 had not been breached.

[26] TVNZ also concluded that the Jewish people whether resident in New Zealand or in Israel had not been denigrated in the programme, because the programme did not suggest that the Jewish people were inferior, or should be discriminated against. It submitted that it was not denigratory to question any government’s behaviour or policies. In a free and democratic society, it argued, it was the news media’s role to "constantly raise questions, to challenge established positions". In declining to uphold the Standard 6 aspect of the complaint, TVNZ noted that the standard specifically allowed for "the expression of genuinely held opinion in news, current affairs and other factual programmes".

The Referrals to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[27] In their referrals, each complainant referred to specific areas of TVNZ’s decision with which they were dissatisfied.

[28] The Andersons stated that TVNZ had failed to convince them that broadcasting standards had been complied with. Noting TVNZ’s submission in relation to the Bill of Rights Act, the Andersons argued that despite the implication that "anything goes", the existence of the Television Code and the Authority verified that there were "certain constraints on what should be delivered to the viewer". They wrote:

Therefore we continue to be concerned about the screening of a programme which left viewers appalled and saddened at what they perceived as inexcusable ill-treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.

[29] In relation to the term "authorial", the Andersons contended that, in view of its specialist and technical meaning, viewers were unlikely to have understood its meaning. Therefore, they argued, the documentary’s introduction "suffered from a perceived ambiguity".

[30] The Andersons considered that TVNZ had misunderstood the dictionary definition of "nation", and they cited a definition from Webster’s unabridged dictionary. The Palestinians, were prior to 1917, "simply some members of a great number of Arab tribes, many of whom were nomadic", ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the complainants stated. Further, they added, the Arab people in the areas of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip "never had self rule and never had their own currency". The Andersons maintained that the references to "nation" and "national" in describing Palestinians were "indefensible" and "misleading".

[31] In relation to the balance aspect, the Andersons accepted TVNZ’s point that there was plenty of media coverage of the Middle East conflict, but maintained that the coverage was not balanced, and failed to present an accurate and comprehensive picture of the Middle East conflict. They disagreed that there had been extensive coverage of the Israeli perspective. In their view, the Israelis have been portrayed to the public as being responsible for the plight of the refugees and the "desperation that manifests itself in suicide attacks".

[32] The Andersons also maintained that TVNZ had uncritically accepted the programme’s representations, and had failed to verify certain aspects and to ensure the accuracy of the information in the documentary. Consequently, TVNZ had breached its responsibilities under Standard 5. They disagreed with TVNZ’s interpretation of the documentary’s comments concerning "apartheid", and said that the analogy was "gratuitous" and unfair and went beyond the bounds of personal opinion. They reiterated their concerns about the veracity of the Cultural Ministry scene, and were disgruntled that TVNZ had not attempted to verify the genuineness of the incident.

[33] The Andersons argued that because material had already been screened, its subsequent broadcast did not necessarily authenticate that incident and attached a photograph of an "injured student" incident. They also argued that TVNZ’s view regarding "illegal occupation" showed a failure to "understand the diplomatic language of Resolution 242".

[34] The Andersons concluded:

It is our opinion that Pilger’s documentary trivialised the Palestinian problem by its superficial, emotive and inaccurate treatment of a subject which demands exploration in depth. Calling it "authorial" does not automatically justify it being screened. The narrow focus of the programme (which is not balanced by informed coverage elsewhere) means that the viewer is left with the impression that all Palestinian suffering is at the hands of the Israelis.

[35] The Jewish Council submitted that Guideline 4c did not "abrogate" TVNZ’s responsibility to provide balance. It maintained that the programme was unbalanced, disputing any claim that balance was effected simply by interviewing Israelis. It also disputed TVNZ’s submission that facts were subject to interpretation and therefore not necessarily inaccurate. It argued that the failure to present certain crucial facts had led to inaccuracies in the programme.

[36] The Jewish Council acknowledged that there were differing views on the Middle East conflict and that it did not seek to curtail the expression of those views. However, it considered that TVNZ’s responsibility extended to providing a wide range of perspectives to assist viewers to make an informed choice, which TVNZ had failed to do. In noting the requirements of Standard 4, the Jewish Council contended that TVNZ had not shown any documentaries or current affairs programmes dealing with the Israeli viewpoint "for years, if ever." It argued that news items on suicide bombings did not provide a significant Israeli point of view to counter the Pilger documentary.

[37] The Jewish Council noted TVNZ’s claims that the documentary was concerned with the plight of ordinary Palestinians. However, it maintained that the failure to include and refer to other issues affecting the Palestinians, not just those "purportedly of Israel’s doing", rendered the documentary distorted in its overall presentation of the Middle East situation. In response to TVNZ’s comments regarding Pilger’s reputation, the Jewish Council submitted an article questioning Pilger’s reputation.

[38] The Jewish Council also argued that TVNZ had "adopted a common misconception" in regard to Resolution 242. It rejected TVNZ’s interpretation, and maintained that TVNZ’s use of the term "occupied" was "politically loaded".

[39] Mr Leverton expanded his complaint with further specific aspects of the programme that he maintained breached broadcasting standards. In support of his submission, he attached considerable reference information. He argued that Palestinian feelings of "degradation and humiliation" were as much to do with "corrupt and undemocratic leaders who reject peace talks in favour of crippling social and economic militancy" as with Israeli military action.

[40] Mr Leverton also disputed that there was a Security Council Resolution declaring the Israeli occupation illegal. This statement by TVNZ was inaccurate, he said. He also argued that TVNZ’s reference to a description by Menachem Begin in relation to the formation of the State of Israel was selective and inaccurate.

The Broadcaster’s Responses to the Authority

[41] In response to the Andersons, TVNZ noted that they had referred to material cited from the website "HonestReporting" which, TVNZ stated, presented its material from a particular viewpoint. The website stated that:

HonestReporting was founded to scrutinize the media for examples of anti-Israel bias and then mobilise subscribers to complain directly to the news agency concerned.

[42] TVNZ’s response to the Jewish Council’s referral disputed the argument that balance could be achieved only by broadcasting a documentary from an Israeli viewpoint. TVNZ submitted that balance was provided by news items and all the other programmes which had informed viewers of the events in the Middle East. It added that these items had reflected the Israeli perspective on suicide bombings, for example. In its view, the documentary presented a perspective which had not "strongly featured in the news coverage, yet deserved to be heard and considered".

[43] On the issue of interpretation of Resolution 242, TVNZ cited the wording at issue – "withdrawal of Israel’s armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict". It noted that the General Assembly had passed similar resolutions in 1971, 1972 and 1974.

[44] In responding to Mr Leverton’s referral, TVNZ made two points. First, the supporting material Mr Leverton provided, it submitted, was largely presented from a particular perspective. It argued that it was quite legitimate for a wide range of viewpoints to be published and broadcast on complex matters such as the Middle East conflict. Accordingly, TVNZ contended that the documentary complained about had a "legitimate place in the overall flow of information", just as Mr Leverton’s information had.

[45] Second, TVNZ noted Mr Leverton’s reference to the Chairman of Carlton TV (Mr Michael Green)’s criticism of the documentary, and it referred to a statement from Carlton Television supporting the documentary.

The Complainants’ Final Comment

[46] The Andersons advised that they had obtained the information concerning the "injured student" item from a New Zealand source, which they attached. They said that they were not previously aware of the "Honest Reporting" site. Now subsequently aware of the website, they obtained information from it about John Pilger’s documentary and the "injured student" item, which they also attached to their submission.

[47] The Andersons concluded:

We have no hesitation in agreeing that Pilger has the right to his opinion that the plight of Palestinians is the fault of the Israelis. This, however, does not absolve TVNZ from culpability in their failure to verify the accuracy of statements made to support that opinion.

[48] The Jewish Council reiterated that news coverage of suicide bombers did not fulfil the requirements of Standard 4 so as to be considered as representing the Israeli "point of view". Furthermore, in its view these news items were biased, and created a "moral equivalence" between the "terrorist acts" and the Israeli military actions in response. It questioned TVNZ’s contention that it had broadcast material that reflected the Israeli perspective or examined the impact of the conflict on Israeli society, let alone any presentation that may be considered comparable with the documentary in question.

[49] The Jewish Council attached the text of the UN Security Resolution 242. It maintained that while it accepted that this Resolution required Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, this "half-truth" summary was misleading, because the Resolution also required that the withdrawal be part of a "negotiated settlement in which Israel’s borders are to be recognised and secure".

[50] Mr Leverton argued that TVNZ was irresponsible, as it was aware of the biased and controversial nature of the documentary, and yet it had failed to broadcast a contrary view to the documentary that would have balanced the issues surrounding the complex Middle East situation. In his opinion, the introduction to the documentary failed to "prepare viewers for a one-sided presentation".

[51] Mr Leverton maintained that "TVNZ held gravely erroneous views about the background and current status of the Middle East conflict" which in his opinion coloured TVNZ’s judgement.

Mr Leverton’s Further Submission

[52] TVNZ sent the Authority a copy of an article from "Guardian Unlimited", which reported the Independent Television Commission’s decision regarding the Pilger documentary. Mr Leverton, in response to this article, stated that there were a "number of crucial differences" between the screening in New Zealand of the Pilger documentary compared with that in England. He outlined these factors, and referred to the issues he had raised in his previous correspondence. In Mr Leverton’s view, the article did not vindicate TVNZ, and he maintained that it had breached broadcasting standards. He concluded:

TVNZ’s Complaints Committee displayed ignorance and insensitivity in its response to me, adopting a partial and, at times, wholly inaccurate understanding of the facts of the conflict.

The Authority’s Determination

[53] The complainants contend that the documentary broadcast by TVNZ about the Middle East conflict breached broadcasting standards which required it to show balance, accuracy and fairness. The complainants maintained that the programme presented a false and distorted account of the Middle East conflict.

Balance

[54] Standard 4 requires broadcasters to maintain 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.

[55] The Authority finds that the Middle East conflict is a "controversial issue of public importance" as contemplated by the standard. It is clear that it is a complex and emotionally charged issue that generates partisan ideologies.

[56] The Authority accepts that the programme advanced a strong pro-Palestinian point of view. Nevertheless, the Authority also considers reasonable efforts were made to present alternative significant points of view during the programme. While many of the interviewees were Palestinians who condemned Israel’s official policy, opportunities were given to Israeli spokespeople to put a pro-Israeli government perspective. The Authority notes that alternative pro-Israeli points of view were aired during the programme by official Israeli spokesman Dori Gold (senior advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister), and with the interviewees Moshe Dann and David Reisch also expressing pro-Israeli viewpoints. Other Israelis were also interviewed and expressed viewpoints critical of the Israeli’s Government position. In the Authority’s view, reasonable efforts were made to canvass a range of views during the programme.

[57] The standard also states that balance can be achieved, either in the same programme or, in other programmes within the "period of current interest". The Authority considers that the "period of current interest" in regard to the Middle East conflict is ongoing – it has been running for some time, and is likely to continue well into the future. The Pilger documentary was one programme in an ongoing mix of news and current affairs about the controversial and complex Middle East situation.

[58] The Authority acknowledges that the pro-Israeli perspective was not afforded the same opportunity as the Palestinians to present its side. Nonetheless, it considers that reasonable opportunities were given to present views on the perspective advanced and to express a pro-Israeli Government perspective. Looking at the programme itself it needs to be noted that no mathematical formula can be advanced in the interest of balance. The Authority also notes that the programme was not uncritical of the Palestinians. While it questioned what motivated the Palestinian suicide bomber, Pilger acknowledged that the acts of terrorism could not be justified. Pilger also criticised "Arafat and his elite who got the trappings and privileges of power".

[59] On the basis that the item did adequately present a range of significant points of view, the Authority considers that the requirements of Standard 4 were satisfied.

[60] Turning to the complainants’ submission that the programme was distorted and had omitted vital information about the Middle East situation, the Authority considers the focus of the programme is important. In its view, the broadcast of the programme was undoubtedly going to generate controversy, given the strongly held divergent viewpoints on the Middle East conflict. In the Authority’s opinion the inclusion of material, or the failure to include the numerous aspects alleged by the complainants to have been omitted, would not have altered the programme’s perspective. The Authority finds that the commissions and omissions detailed by the complainants were not necessary to effect balance in the context of this programme.

[61] The introduction to the documentary given by the presenter stated explicitly that the programme was "unashamedly authorial" and represented John Pilger’s "personal point of view". Mr Pilger made the documentary. The introduction implicitly referred to Guideline 4c of the Television Code, which provides:

Factual programmes, and programmes shown which approach a topic from a particular or personal perspective (for example, authorial documentaries and those shown on access television,) may not be required to observe to the letter the requirements of standard 4.

[62] The Jewish Council submitted that despite being an authorial documentary, TVNZ was not permitted to simply ignore its "overriding obligation to ensure that the contents of the programme are fair and balanced." The Authority wishes to deal with this aspect of the submission even though it has concluded that the programme was balanced.

[63] The Authority notes that the obligation on a broadcaster to provide balance is not derogated from by Guideline 4c, but rather allows a departure from strict compliance with the requirements of Standard 4. The guidelines to the standards aid the interpretation of broadcasting standards. They are tools to assist the viewer and the broadcaster in applying the standards to specific complaints, and assist the Authority when assessing a programme against the relevant broadcasting standard.

[64] While the Authority acknowledges that there is an overriding obligation to ensure balance, absolute neutrality on every issue is not achievable, as such a canon is not consistent with fundamental democratic principles, nor can it be achieved in any simple mathematical sense. It is the practical reality of broadcasting that programmes cannot be perfectly balanced. Guideline 4c offers broadcasters a facility to broadcast authorial documentaries in the public interest. Without such a facility, every current affairs programme would have to be mathematically balanced, and every perspective covered. However, to the extent that it does allow the broadcast of a particular perspective, the requirements of Standard 4 apply when opposing viewpoints are represented.

[65] As noted above, the Authority recognised that the programme was not "mathematically" balanced, but it is satisfied that adequate opportunity was given to the presentation of significant viewpoints. The Authority accepts that the purpose of the programme’s introduction was to make clear Pilger’s advocacy style of journalism and to convey to viewers that it was a personal perspective involving the Pilger style of "call to action" which usually evokes strong support or criticism. The introduction clearly explained that the programme was a "personal perspective" which Guideline 4c states "may not be required to observe to the letter the requirement of standard 4". In that respect Guideline 4c allows the Authority a degree of discretion when determining alleged breaches of Standard 4. For the reasons it has already stated above, the Authority concludes that the programme did not contravene Standard 4.

Accuracy

[66] 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 complainants alleged numerous factual inaccuracies and "historical distortions " in breach of Standard 5. These are detailed in paragraph [12].

[67] TVNZ argued that many of these matters related to the "interpretation of factual material, rather than in provable inaccuracies". It maintained that how events were portrayed was subject to an interpretation of the facts, particularly concerning issues of controversy. Nevertheless, TVNZ went on to consider each of the points raised by the complainants, as is recorded in paragraph [24].

[68] The Authority notes that it is by reference to this aspect that the complexity and emotionally charged nature of the Middle East situation is particularly apparent. Different interpretations of the facts have been advanced by the complainants and the broadcaster. The Authority considers that many of the alleged inaccuracies in the programme concern matters that are less than absolute and thus not readily verifiable, as they involve very complex issues and rely heavily on interpretation. In its view, they are matters in respect of which there is not necessarily a right or a wrong position, and the preferred interpretation often depends on one’s view of the situation. The Authority concludes that it is not in a position to resolve many of the alleged inaccuracies, which are likely to be issues that will continue to be debated by opposing parties indefinitely.

[69] However, to the extent that there are some matters of fact that are verifiable, the Authority notes that TVNZ, in considering the alleged inaccuracies, has referred to reference material and historical texts. The Authority considers that the evidence advanced by TVNZ on each of the alleged inaccuracies was reasonable in the circumstances and is sufficient to substantiate the interpretations advanced. Accordingly, the Authority is satisfied that the programme was accurate so as not to be in breach of Standard 5 of the Television Code.

Fairness

[70] Standard 6 requires the broadcaster to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.

[71] The complainants contended that the programme was unfair to Jewish people as they were portrayed as being responsible for the plight of the Palestinians. The Authority has noted previously that a high threshold applies before a broadcast contravenes Guideline 6g – the portrayal has to be such that it encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, in this case, Jewish people. In the Authority’s view, the broadcast fell short of such encouragement and, therefore, the threshold was not reached.

[72] In making this finding, the Authority notes that the programme’s focus was to question Israeli government policy and its impact on the Palestinians. As has been noted, the programme was not entirely uncritical of Palestinians. Furthermore, while it acknowledges that the programme was critical of Israel and the historical actions of the Israelis, the Authority considers that the programme did not encourage denigration of, or discrimination against, Jewish people. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that Standard 6 was not contravened.

[73] Finally, the Authority notes Mr Leverton’s point that TVNZ was in "breach of its Charter obligations". The Authority’s statutory function with respect to the determination of complaints is limited to a consideration of whether the broadcast complained about breached broadcasting standards. The standards are contained in the Broadcasting Act and in the codes of broadcasting practice developed by broadcasters and approved by the Authority under the Act. While the Authority has a role in encouraging the development and observance by broadcasters of codes of broadcasting practice, it has no jurisdiction in so far as TVNZ’s Charter obligations is concerned, which, in any case, was not in effect at the time of the programme’s broadcast.

Bill of Rights

[74] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards and applies them in a manner which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
15 April 2003

Appendix I

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

  1. George and Eileen Anderson’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 27 October 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 5 November 2002
  3. Mr and Mrs Anderson’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (plus attachments)
    – 25 November 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 2 December 2002
  5. Mr and Mrs Anderson’s Final Comment (plus attachments) – 9 December 2002

Appendix II

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

  1. The Auckland Jewish Council’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 4 November 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 November 2002
  3. The Jewish Council’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (plus attachments)
    – 16 December 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 8 January 2003
  5. The Jewish Council’s Final Comment (plus attachments) – 24 January 2003