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Armstrong and Schaab and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-160, 2003-161

Members

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

Complainants

  • D A Armstrong of Timaru
  • P Schaab of Timaru

Dated

15th December 2003

Number

2003-160–161

Programme

Holmes

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Holmes – item about Death with Dignity Bill – man featured with motor neuron disease – wanted choice about his time of death – unbalanced

Findings
Standard 4 – human interest story – referred to issue of euthanasia – euthanasia canvassed in other programmes – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Shortly before the Death with Dignity Bill was to have its first reading in Parliament, an item on Holmes featured a person dying from motor neuron disease who hoped the Bill would be passed. If the Bill was passed, the person said that he would have the right to choose the time of his death. The item was broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on 29 July 2003.

[2] D A Armstrong and P Schaab both complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced. It had focused, they wrote, on the desirability of law change to enable voluntary euthanasia.

[3] In response, TVNZ contended that the item provided a compassionate profile of a person who stood to benefit from a change in law. The item, it added, did not deal with the euthanasia debate and had not supported change. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decisions, 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

[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 Appendices. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] A Dutch immigrant was featured in an item on Holmes broadcast on 29 July 2003. It was reported that he was dying from motor neuron disease and he hoped that the Death with Dignity Bill would be passed which would give him the right to choose the time of his death.

The Complaints

[7] D A Armstrong contended that the item was unbalanced and contravened the standard which required that all significant points of view be included in broadcasts on controversial issues of public importance during the period of current interest. Recent items which had dealt with euthanasia, he added, had principally involved interviews with people who supported euthanasia.

[8] P Schaab also considered the programme was unbalanced. He referred to Decision No: 2003-062/065 dated 24 July 2003 when the Authority declined to uphold complaints that items about euthanasia broadcast on Sunday (on 9 March 2003) and Holmes (on 26 March 2003) were unbalanced. P Schaab pointed out that the Authority, in those decisions, had recognised the need for the issue to be approached in a balanced way. However, the item on 29 July, he wrote, appeared to be an “overt” attempt to influence the debate on the euthanasia bill the following day.

The Standard

[9] TVNZ assessed both complaints under Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. It reads:

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainants

[10] To both complainants, TVNZ maintained that the item was not “a philosophical debate about the pros and cons of euthanasia”. Rather, it told a relevant human story about a man who would be affected by the Death with Dignity Bill, adding that it included a touch of irony as the man featured:

… would, in his native country of Holland, have been eligible to seek a doctor’s assistance in ending his life at a time of his choosing.

[11] Maintaining that the item illustrated the public interest in the Bill and was not designed to influence the debate, TVNZ stated its approach to euthanasia in recent months had been “even-handed”. A full range of views had been reflected during the years when euthanasia had been a prominent public issue. Moreover, a news item broadcast after the Bill had been defeated reported the views of those who opposed a change to the law. TVNZ concluded:

In reference to standard 4, it was the conclusion of the [Complaints] Committee that the item as broadcast was a fair and legitimate one. Alex Schuiten [the person featured] was entitled to have his story heard, and the story was presented in a straightforward, unemotional manner. In an issue such as euthanasia balance is achieved over a period of time, and it is the view of TVNZ’s Complaints Committee that the average viewer of normal sensibilities will be aware, thanks to what has been broadcast and published over the years, of the two polarised positions in the euthanasia debate.

[12] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaints.

The Referrals to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[13] TVNZ’s failure to appreciate the impact of the item was the main point of concern raised by D A Armstrong. With reference to Decision No: 2003-062/065, D A Armstrong contended that TVNZ had neglected to deal with a controversial public issue in a balanced way.

[14] In response to TVNZ’s comment that the item was not about euthanasia, D A Armstrong asked:

How can they possibly maintain that when the item was about why Mr Schuiten wanted New Zealand to legalise euthanasia?

[15] Explaining that there was no objection to the story being told, D A Armstrong contended:

… the whole thrust of the item was a plea for legal euthanasia – in New Zealand when Parliament was considering a Bill that might have allowed it.

[16] Listing recent items broadcast by TVNZ which “overwhelmingly publicised opinions in favour of euthanasia”, D A Armstrong argued that TVNZ had abrogated its responsibilities to present the euthanasia debate in a balanced way.

[17] P Schaab expressed his dissatisfaction with TVNZ’s defence of “yet another screening” of an item about euthanasia which lacked balance. P Schaab did not accept TVNZ’s contention that the period of current interest meant that programmes which have been broadcast “over the years” had to be taken into account.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] In response to the complainants’ allegations that an item on Holmes was unbalanced in that it advanced the case for a law to allow euthanasia, the Authority notes that TVNZ made the following points:

  • balance was not required in a human interest story;
  • to the extent that the item discussed a controversial issue of public importance, it did not take sides; and
  • to the extent that it did take sides, the other sides have had their perspective addressed over the period of current interest.

[19] The Authority’s view on the first point is as follows. As a human interest story, the Authority acknowledges that balance may not be necessary. At the same time, the Authority acknowledges that the mere fact that an item is a human interest story does not in itself obviate the need for balance. In this instance, the man featured expressed his preference in regard to his personal situation and, as the item focused solely on that man’s wishes, the Authority does not consider that there was a need to advance an alternative view.

[20] That conclusion leads to the Authority’s decision not to uphold the complaint.

[21] The Authority notes further, however, that it cannot agree with P Schaab that the item would have significantly swayed politicians when they came to vote on the Death with Dignity Bill. Further, in respect of the wider context of the ongoing debate about euthanasia, the Authority notes that as a result of the complainants’ earlier complaints about items broadcast by TVNZ (on Sunday on 9 March, and on Holmes on 26 March 2003), the Authority found that both sides of the debate had been advanced in the Sunday item (Decision Nos: 2003-062/065, dated 24 July 2003).


[22] The Authority also notes TVNZ’s point in regard to the current complaint that a news item after the Bill was defeated included the views of Mr Bill English MP and Dr Tricia Briscoe of the Medical Association who opposed the legislation.

 

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 D A Armstrong’s complaint:


1. D A Armstrong’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 29 July 2003

2. TVNZ’s Response to the formal complaint – 4 September 2003

3. Mr Armstrong’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 September 2003

4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 29 October 2003

Appendix II

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined P Schaab’s complaint:


1. P Schaab’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 8 August 2003

2. TVNZ’s Response to the formal complaint – 4 September 2003

3. P Schaab’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 26 September 2003

4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 30 October 2003