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Eichbaum and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-100

Dated

18th September 2003

Number

2003-100

Programme

The Last Word

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
The Last Word a discussion about decriminalisation of prostitution – presenter described promoter of change as a "Pomgolian" – refused to allow him to describe changes elsewhere – unbalanced – inaccurate – unfair – offensive

Findings
Standard 1 – context – no uphold

Standard 4 – presenter put views strongly as well as acting as facilitator – range of views advanced – no uphold 

Standard 5 – no inaccuracies – no uphold

Standard 6 – on balance – interruption not unfair given experiences of interviewee

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The sponsor of the Prostitution Reform Bill, Tim Barnett MP, and women’s advocate, Sandra Coney, were interviewed on The Last Word, which was broadcast on TV One at 10.40pm on 24 June 2003. The presenter, Pam Corkery, stated that she opposed the Bill.

[2] Dr Chris Eichbaum complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the presenter’s description of Mr Barnett as a "Pomgolian", that her comment that his philosophy for the Bill would be suitable as a doorstop, and her refusal to allow Mr Barnett to explain the impact of similar law reform overseas, breached the standards.

[3] In response, TVNZ described the presenter’s style as "idiosyncratic" and "unorthodox" and argued that the item, which dealt with the issues discussed extensively in the media, did not breach the standards.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Dr Eichbaum 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 Last Word, broadcast on TV One at 10.40pm on 24 June, dealt with the Prostitution Reform Bill and involved interviews with the Bill’s sponsor, Mr Tim Barnett MP, and women’s advocate, Ms Sandra Coney. The Last Word was described by TVNZ as a programme structured around the presenter Pam Corkery, an "idiosyncratic" and outspoken personality and a former MP, which was not intended to be orthodox current affairs.

The Complaint

[7] Dr Eichbaum noted that the programme’s host articulated her opinion of the Bill but he did not regard that as inappropriate.

[8] He complained about the use of the term "Pomgolian" by the presenter to describe Mr Barnett, which, he said, displayed an inappropriate degree of prejudice and stereotyping.

[9] Contending that the presenter’s professed stance put the requirement for balance at risk, Dr Eichbaum complained that the standard was contravened when the presenter refused to allow Mr Barnett to outline policy changes in similar jurisdictions. Furthermore, the presenter’s approach involved a kind of "anti-intellectualism". Dr Eichbaum concluded:

This was and is an important issue, and one, notwithstanding the time constraints attendant upon, and the editorial ‘style’ of The Last Word, deserving of a fair, accurate and balanced illumination of the substantive arguments for and against a change of this kind.

The Standards

[10] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the standards nominated by Dr Eichbaum. Standards 1, 4, 5 and 6 of the Free to Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice provide:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

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.

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[11] TVNZ emphasised that the purpose of The Last Word was to allow the presenter to display an "opinionated, abrasive personality … with a jaundiced view of politics". It argued that once that approach was accepted, the interview had been balanced and fair and Mr Barnett had been allowed to express his views "with a minimum of interference".

[12] Noting that the presenter made her position on the issue quite clear but maintaining that such an approach did not infringe the standards, TVNZ contended that the "Pomgolian" comment was good-natured, and neither hostile nor racist. In previous BSA decisions, it noted, the BSA had not upheld complaints about the use of the word "poms". TVNZ added:

The [complaints] committee noted that, fully conscious of the nature of The Last Word, Mr Barnett voluntarily appeared on the programme and plunged willingly into the rough and tumble of a discussion with a programme host known for her blunt and forthright views.

[13] On the basis that the crux of the complaint focused on the requirement for balance, TVNZ contended that views flowed freely during the item and that a range of opinions had been expressed elsewhere in the media. It considered that Standard 4 had not been breached.

[14] TVNZ also argued that the item did not breach the good taste requirements in Standard 1 or the accuracy provision in Standard 5. It also concluded that Mr Barnett had been treated fairly, and it declined as well to uphold the Standard 6 aspect.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[15] Dr Eichbaum pointed out that he was not concerned with the presenter advancing editorial opinions. TVNZ’s point that The Last Word was premised on the presenter’s style, he added, did not obviate the requirement to meet the standards.

[16] In the interview complained about, Dr Eichbaum wrote, the presenter made disparaging remarks about the person being interviewed, and failed to allow him to advance evidence in support of the position he was advocating. Moreover, the presenter’s comment that the policy advanced was a thesis that would make a good doorstop, Dr Eichbaum said, was a serious breach.

[17] Dr Eichbaum considered The Last Word fell within the "news/current affairs" category of programme. TVNZ’s assertion that it was not an orthodox current affairs programme, he added, did not mean that it was not required to meet the standards. He concluded:

But editorialising is not a licence to depart from the Standards, and I submit that there was an egregious departure in this case.

[18] Dr Eichbaum later forwarded a television review from The Dominion Post dated 26 June. In it, the reviewer criticised the host’s style and questioned whether the item had dealt with the issue in a balanced way.

The Authority’s Determination

[19] The issues for the Authority to consider in this instance were summed up by the complainant when, in his final comment to the Authority, he wrote:

To allow that editorial opinion to be made manifest is [sic] personally disparaging references to someone being interviewed, to fail to allow that person to advance evidence in support of a view being advanced, and to deride an important proposal relating to NZ public policy as a ‘thesis that will make a good doorstop’ does, in my opinion constitute a serious breach of the Standards.

[20] In its response, TVNZ emphasised the point that The Last Word was "deliberately structured around the idiosyncratic and outspoken personality of a well-known former MP". It added:

It is not intended to be orthodox current affairs, pigeon-holed into a specific style of interviewing and content.

[21] The Authority has agreed with TVNZ in a past decision [Nos: 2003-093/093, 28 August 2003] that The Last Word is not an orthodox news and current affairs programme as it contains a mix of commentary and chat as well as fact, and is premised on the personality and views of the presenter, Pam Corkery.

[22] However, the Authority agrees with the complainant that the style of both the programme and its host does not obviate the obligation on TVNZ to comply with the standards. These requirements are of particular relevance when the programme ventures into current affairs territory, as it clearly did on this occasion, with a topic which addressed a controversial issue of public importance. The Authority notes at the start that the format of the item appeared to involve an effort to achieve balance. Two protagonists from opposing sides of the Prostitution Reform Bill, on the eve of its final vote in Parliament, were interviewed and asked to put forward their views.

[23] From the outset, the presenter made clear that she was opposed to the Bill. The Authority accepts that it is not necessarily inappropriate for a presenter to declare a bias. It examines the complaint to ascertain whether the presenter, having stated her position, prevented the interviewee from expressing a view in opposition to her own.

[24] The Authority does not consider that the balance requirement was contravened. While the discussion involved both the person opposing the Bill and the presenter putting their views, the Authority believes that Mr Barnett was able to advance aspects of his arguments in support of the Bill. Furthermore, it does not consider that the item involved the broadcast of any inaccuracies in breach of Standard 5.

[25] Turning to the requirement to treat participants fairly, the Authority notes that Mr Barnett was interrupted by the presenter who prevented him from outlining the outcome of prostitution law reform in New South Wales. Given Mr Barnett’s experience, both as a politician and as an advocate of controversial social change, the Authority is of the view that the interruption, on this occasion, did not amount to unfairness in contravention of the standards.

[26] As to the aspect of the complaint that the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard, the Authority notes that while it does not agree with TVNZ that the presenter’s approach to Mr Barnett (the Bill’s promoter) was "good-natured", it does not consider that her use of the term "Pomgolian" or the suggestion that the thesis in the Bill would make a good "doorstop" breached the standard relating to good taste. The Authority observes that Mr Barnett is an MP who works in an environment where such views are frequently expressed in a similarly robust manner.

[27] 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 reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
18 September 2003

Appendix

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

  1. Dr Chris Eichbaum’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 26 June 2003
  2. TVNZ’s Response to Dr Eichbaum – 18 July 2003
  3. Dr Eichbaum’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 July 2003
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 8 August 2003
  5. Dr Eichbaum’s Final Comment (plus attachment) – 3 September 2003