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Damaske and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-137

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave

Complainant

  • Peter Damaske of Kaikohe

Dated

15th December 2003

Number

2003-137

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
One News – in view of low water levels, news item about the exposure of ships sunk in River Danube in Second World War – estimated up to 2000 bodies in the river – reference to Nazi navy – unbalanced – inaccurate – unfair

Findings
Standard 2 – not relevant – no uphold

Standard 4 – not unbalanced – no uphold

Standard 5 – unable to establish facts – decline to determine

Standard 6 not unfair – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The extremely low levels of the River Danube in Serbia had resulted in the exposure of a number of German Navy ships from the Second World War which had been scuttled as the Nazis withdrew. It was reported that up to 2000 people on the ships had been drowned when the ships were scuttled. This information was contained in an item broadcast on One News on 21 September 2003, beginning at 6.00pm.

[2] Peter Damaske complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was incorrect when it reported “propaganda” which suggested that ships, including a hospital ship, had been sunk and approximately 2000 people in total had drowned when the ships were scuttled.

[3] In response, TVNZ stated the low water levels had revealed the existence of the ships and the discovery had confirmed earlier eye witness accounts which were previously unproven. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision Mr Damaske 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 determine the accuracy aspect and declines to uphold the other aspects of the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the item 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 extremely low levels of the River Danube in Serbia had resulted in the exposure of a number of German navy ships from the Second World War which had been scuttled as the Nazis withdrew. It was reported that up to 2000 people on the ships had been drowned. This information was contained in an item broadcast on One News on 21 September 2003, beginning at 6.00pm

The Complaint

[7] Peter Damaske complained to TVNZ that the item included “propagandistic comments” which suggested that the sinking of the ships had been ordered by Nazi officers, including a hospital ship with people on board, and that there were approximately 2000 corpses in the river.

[8] Mr Damaske contended:

  • that he was unaware of German armed forces being sacrificed in the manner suggested;
  • that the comments from the Serbs were unreliable in view of tense relationships between the Serbs and the Germans; and
  • that the facts had not been confirmed.

[9] Mr Damaske also objected to the continuing use of the word “Nazi” to describe Germans during the Second World War. Such a term, he wrote, amounted to propaganda which created hatred and conflict.

The Standard

[10] TVNZ assessed the complaint against the Standards nominated by Mr Damaske. The Standards and relevant Guidelines in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice provide:

Standard 2 Law and Order

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.

Guidelines

2a  Broadcasters must respect the principles of law which sustain our society.

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.

Guidelines

5e  Broadcasters must take all reasonable steps to ensure at all times that the information sources for news, current affairs and documentaries are reliable.

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.

Guidelines

6a  Care should be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the extracts used are a true reflection, and not a distortion, of the original event or the overall views expressed.

6b  Contributors and participants in any programme should be dealt with fairly and should, except as required in the public interest, be informed of the reason for their proposed contribution and participation and the role that is expected of them.

6e  Broadcasters should take particular care when dealing with distressing situations, and with grief and bereavement. Discretion and sensitivity are expected.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[11] Disagreeing with the complainant’s description of the item as propaganda, TVNZ stated that it was a “straightforward” story as to how low river levels following a drought revealed shipwrecks which confirmed previously unproven eyewitness accounts that German naval ships had been scuttled. German armed forces had also been sacrificed, TVNZ wrote, when the Graf Spee was scuppered near Montevideo.

[12] While unsure of some of the matters raised by the complainant, TVNZ pointed out that Nazi Germany had occupied Serbia and had set up a “puppet” government. TVNZ argued that the Second World War was a historical fact and reference to it did not amount to an attack on the German people.

[13] Turning to the standards raised, TVNZ considered that Standard 2 was not relevant, and that the item was balanced as required by Standard 4. TVNZ also declined to uphold the Standard 5 aspect, arguing that the figure of 2000 bodies was an estimate based on the number of sunken ships and their crew. As it was not clear from the complaint who had been treated unfairly, TVNZ declined to uphold the Standard 6 aspect.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[14] Mr Damaske focused on what he considered were the item’s inaccuracies. He stated that there was no proof that the German officers had scuttled the ships along with their crews and hospitalised people. The old man who had recalled the events, he noted, had said that the ships were there one evening and gone in the morning. From that evidence, Mr Damaske wrote, the reporter had concluded that the ships had been scuttled along with the crews.

[15] The item had been unbalanced, he added, when it reported without evidence that the German officers had “murdered” their own people, and as an item which was no more than “guessing”, he contended that it breached the fairness requirement in Standard 6.

[16] Maintaining that propaganda included dealing with historical events inaccurately and unfairly, Mr Damaske argued that the item amounted to propaganda against the Germans. Moreover, such items were not helpful to create harmony towards the people of German heritage in New Zealand. German forces, he added, now served alongside New Zealand forces, but World War II events were usually reported in a way which was discriminatory against Germans and the Japanese. Accordingly, the item also breached Standard 2 as such items divided rather than sustained our society.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] TVNZ repeated the point that the discovery of the wrecks because of the low level of the Danube River was “proof” that German ships had been scuttled in the river. The item from the BBC, it continued, had linked the discovery to the persistent reports that the ships had been scuttled towards the end of the war.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[18] Expressing surprise that TVNZ had missed the central point of his complaint, Mr Damaske said his concern focused on the reporter’s comment that the ships had been scuttled with their crew on board. That supposition amounted to criminal action by the German naval officers and was not supported by the eye witness who reported only that he had seen people on board the ships the night before they were scuttled.

The Authority’s Determination

[19] The Authority does not accept the complainant’s contention that the item was propaganda in the sense that it was intended, for example, by the use of the word “Nazi”, to advance a set of political values or a point of view which discriminated against Germans. Rather, it regards the item as being about the scuttling of the naval ships – an event which occurred during World War II - as a matter of history which had become newsworthy now because the low levels in the River Danube had exposed wreckage of the German fleet.

[20] Mr Damaske objected to the use of the word “Nazi” and maintained that the information was not conclusive that up to 2000 people on the ships had been drowned. While the Authority accepts the use of the word “Nazi” given the historical context, it agrees that there is a question regarding the number of deaths. The Authority considers that the number was supposition and that should have been made clear in the item. Nevertheless, the Authority is not able to state, without the possibility of contradiction, that the number was incorrect. It therefore declines to determine the complaint that the item was inaccurate.

[21] In view of its opinion about the historical nature of the information disclosed, the Authority does not accept that the requirements for balance and fairness were contravened. It declines to uphold these aspects. The requirements relating to the maintenance of law and order in Standard 2 are not applicable to the concerns raised by Mr Damaske as the item did not focus on the maintenance of law and order. Accordingly, the Authority also declines to uphold that aspect.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
15 December 2003

Appendix

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

1. Peter Damaske’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 21 September 2003

2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 10 October 2003

4. Mr Damaske’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 19 October 2003

4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 24 October 2003

5. Mr Damaske’s Final Comment – 2 November 2003