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Leonard and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-089

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa

Complainant

  • Bill Leonard of Lower Hutt

Dated

21st August 2003

Number

2003-089

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
One News – war in Iraq – weapons of mass destruction described as cause of the war – inaccurate

Findings
Standard 5 – expression of opinion – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Weapons of mass destruction were described as the "whole cause" of the war in Iraq in a news item reporting on the day’s events in Basra, broadcast on One News at 6.00pm on 8 April 2003.

[2] Bill Leonard complained to Television New Zealand Limited, the broadcaster, that the statement was inaccurate and should have been introduced with the words, "The US claims that …".

[3] In response, TVNZ contended that the true causes of any war required an historical perspective. It also argued that the reporter advanced the claim with some scepticism. On the basis that the item was accurate and impartial in context, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Leonard referred the 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] The war in Iraq was dealt with in an item broadcast on One News at 6.00pm on 8 April 2003. It was reported that an easing of the fighting in the city of Basra gave the troops an opportunity to search for weapons. The item stated:

Among the things the troops will be looking for here – traces of Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, the whole cause of the war. No sign of them so far.

The Complaint

[7] Bill Leonard complained to TVNZ that the item was inaccurate. He argued that it was propaganda for the US to describe weapons of mass destruction as the cause of war. The item should have been introduced, he said, with the statement, "The US claims that …".

The Standards

[8] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of the Broadcasting Practice. It 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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complaint

[9] TVNZ explained that the news item included comments from a BBC newsman. It continued:

The [complaints] committee acknowledged that the true cause of major events may, with the benefit of historical perspective, prove to be different from the causes put forward at the time those events occurred. Historians still pore over documents and assess consequences centuries after events, as they interpret and re-interpret history. However, it did not seem unreasonable for the reporter on this occasion to record accurately what both the United States and Britain had stated on a number of occasions was the cause of the war. That some caution could be attached to the claim was implied by the reporter’s use of the word "alleged" when mentioning the weapons of mass destruction, and by his observation at the end that there was "no sign of them so far".

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[10] When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Leonard emphasised his concern with the statement in the item which described weapons of mass destruction as "the whole cause of war". That observation, he wrote, overlooked the references to oil deposits which had been raised elsewhere as a cause of war.

[11] In a second letter, he enclosed a copy of an article from "The Dominion Post", dated 2 June 2003, which reported that a group of four US intelligence officials had written to President Bush claiming that the American public was misled before the war about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[12] TVNZ advised that the last 10 seconds of the news item complained about displayed the same sort of scepticism as exhibited by the complainant. It acknowledged that the scepticism was muted, but noted that the item was broadcast at a time when the focus was on the chaotic situation in regard to the war.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[13] In response, Mr Leonard disagreed with TVNZ that the item displayed a level of scepticism. The item had reported, he wrote, that weapons of mass destruction were the "whole cause" of the war.

[14] Mr Leonard advised that he had sent "The Dominion Post" article not to suggest that the reporter should have foreseen the situation, but to emphasise what he regarded as TVNZ’s "serious mistake".

The Authority’s Determination

[15] While reporting on the war in Iraq in early April, a BBC reporter stated that some troops in Basra were looking for "Saddam’s alleged weapons" of mass destruction, which he described as "the whole cause of the war". In determining the complaint about the alleged inaccuracy of that remark, the Authority has considered events as understood at the time of the broadcast.

[16] The Authority is of the view that the reporter’s comment, made at the time of the invasion in March 2003, was not unreasonable. A concern about weapons of mass destruction was advanced by the participants in the Coalition of the Willing as one of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq.

[17] The Authority notes that the reporter made the statement while giving an eye-witness account of events in a war zone. It agrees with TVNZ that the reporter’s use of the word "alleged" when mentioning weapons of mass destruction, and his observation that there was "no sign of them so far", implied a scepticism of the Coalition’s purported reason for war. As the comment was advanced as an opinion or observation, and not as a fact, the Authority concludes the requirement in Standard 5 for factual accuracy did not apply. It declines to uphold the complaint.

[18] 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 complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
21 August 2003

Appendix

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

  1. Bill Leonard’s complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd –12 April 2003
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 19 May 2003
  3. Mr Leonard’s letter to TVNZ – 22 May 2003
  4. Mr Leonard’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 9 June 2003
  5. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority –19 June 2003
  6. Mr Leonard’s Final Comment – 25 June 2003