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Clarke and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-042

Members

  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa
  • J H McGregor

Complainant

  • Chris Clarke of Wellington

Dated

22nd May 2003

Number

2003-042

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
One News drug related death of a Timaru youth – item implied that suspected overdose was a result of marijuana use – misleading – inaccurate

Findings
Standard 5 and Guidelines 5a & 5b – not inaccurate – not misleading – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] An item concerning the death of a Timaru youth who died of a suspected drug overdose was broadcast on One News at 6pm on Saturday 25 January 2003. The focus of the item was an interview with the father of the youth, who spoke of his son’s addiction to marijuana, his getting in with a "bad crowd" and his dependence on "drugs and alcohol".

[2] Chris Clarke complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item left the viewer with the impression that the youth’s death was the result of an overdose of marijuana. Such an assumption, he said, was "blatantly misleading".

[3] In response, TVNZ stated that while it did not name the drug involved in the overdose, the reference to marijuana was relevant to the youth’s story. It also maintained that the item accurately reflected what the youth’s father had to say about his son’s involvement with drugs. Accordingly, it declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Clarke referred his complaint 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 complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] An item on One News concerning the death of a Timaru youth, who died of a suspected drug overdose, was broadcast at 6pm on Saturday 25 January 2003. The focus of the item was an interview with the father of the youth, who spoke of his son’s addiction to marijuana, his getting in with a "bad crowd" and his dependence on "drugs and alcohol".

The Complaint

[7] Chris Clarke complained to TVNZ that the item implied the youth’s death was the result of an overdose of marijuana.

[8] Mr Clarke considered that such an assumption was "blatantly misleading" and that it was "extremely difficult to accept that such an inaccurate impression was made – by an award winning news team – simply by mistake".

The Standards

[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standard, and relevant Guidelines, read:

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.

Guidelines

5a  Significant errors of fact should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

5b  Broadcasters should refrain from broadcasting material which is misleading or unnecessarily alarms viewers.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] TVNZ stated that the item concerned a seventeen-year-old youth, who had died in Timaru of a suspected drug overdose. However, the focus of the item was an interview with the youth’s father, who spoke of his grief, his son’s addiction to marijuana, his getting in with a "bad crowd" and his dependence on "drugs and alcohol".

[11] TVNZ noted the references to marijuana and submitted that even those with a limited knowledge of drugs were unlikely to associate the word "overdose" with marijuana. It also considered that references to the drug were not only relevant to the youth’s story, but also to the grieving father’s views of what had led to his son’s death.

[12] TVNZ said that the actual drug suspected of being involved in the overdose had not been named for legal reasons, as the nature of the drug could become part of court proceedings as a consequence of the youth’s death.

[13] TVNZ contended that viewers would not be misled into believing marijuana was directly involved with the youth’s death and declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[14] Mr Clarke stated that TVNZ’s responsibility was to report the news as accurately as possible and, in this instance, it stated that the youth had died of an overdose. However, the only drug mentioned during the report was marijuana.

[15] In relation to TVNZ’s comment that viewers would not associate the word "overdose" with marijuana, Mr Clarke stated:

It is my contention that a substantial proportion of TVNZ viewers would have no such detailed knowledge of the effects of marijuana that they could confidently state that it is not capable of killing anyone – and that without such knowledge they would naturally accept implications to the contrary from [TVNZ] such a reputable source.

[16] Mr Clarke was of the view that while the father’s story about the death of his son formed a large part of the item, the key fact was still the death of a teenager by overdose. He stated:

The drug ‘blamed’ in the item was marijuana, and TVNZ made no attempt to even advise the audience that there was another drug involved.

[17] Mr Clarke contended that the item was manifestly misleading and when recounting stories involving contentious topics, TVNZ had a duty to be clear and unequivocal.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[18] Contrary to Mr Clarke’s view that the story was about the death by overdose of a Timaru youth, TVNZ stated that the main story was the youth’s father’s reaction to the death. TVNZ noted that the introduction to the item reflected that particular focus. The item was introduced as follows:

A teenager’s party death has tonight brought a plea from a grieving father.  Graham Robinson’s 17-year-old son Josh died of a drugs overdose in Timaru last weekend.  Now Mr Robinson’s speaking out hoping to spare other parents the grief and pain he’s suffering.

[19] In view of this focus, TVNZ maintained that Standard 5 had not been breached.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[20] While acknowledging that the bulk of the broadcast related to the grieving father’s view of his son’s death, Mr Clarke reiterated that the overriding inference from the item was unquestionably that "the drug at fault was marijuana". This, he stated, was both manifestly misleading and potentially alarming, particularly when such an error of fact remained uncorrected.

The Authority’s Determination

[21] Standard 5 requires broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of news items, to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The complainant alleged that, by implying the drug marijuana had caused the youth’s death, the broadcaster had blatantly misled the public.

[22] TVNZ argued that the focus of the item was an interview with the youth’s father. He spoke of his grief, his son’s addiction to marijuana, his getting in with a "bad crowd" and his dependence on "drugs and alcohol" – all of which, the father suggested, probably made it easier for his son to deal with "issues" in his life.

[23] The Authority finds that there was no suggestion in the news item that the youth’s marijuana use was the actual cause of his death. The item was, in the Authority’s view, a harrowing story told by a grieving father for a purpose. As the father said, if by speaking out about his son’s situation "it saves one kid" then his son’s death would not have been a waste.

[24] The Authority concludes that the item was an apposite and cautionary tale for parents and children who were watching and, as such, is satisfied that the item was sufficiently accurate, and was not misleading, so as to be in breach of Standard 5 of the Television Code.

[25] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret 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 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 complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Dr Judy McGregor
Member
22 May 2003

Appendix

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

  1. Chris Clarke’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 25 January 2003
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 25 February 2003
  3. Mr Clarke’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 13 March 2003
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 3 April 2003
  5. Mr Clarke’s Final Comment – 16 April 2003