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Grant and McIntyre and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-049, 2002-050

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • B Hayward
  • J H McGregor

Complainants

  • Lisa Grant of Whangarei
  • G M McIntyre of Kaitaia

Dated

24th April 2002

Number

2002-049–50

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaints
One News – Late Edition same item – person with cholesterol level of 43 – described as walking time-bomb – healthy level said to be between 3 and 5 – controversial – unbalanced – inaccurate

Findings
Section 4(1)(d) – not controversial issue – no uphold

Standard G6 – not controversial issue – no uphold

Standard G14 – comment in passing on healthy level – no uphold

Standard G16 – comment encouraged concern but not unnecessarily alarmist – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] A man with a high level of cholesterol was interviewed on One News, broadcast between 6.00 and 7.00pm on TV One on 28 December 2001. The item described the man with a level of 43 as a "walking time-bomb", and the "healthy" level was said to be "between three and five". The item was broadcast again on Late Edition at 11.00pm.

[2] Lisa Grant complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item on One News was unbalanced and untrue. Levels below 4.2, she said, were associated with an increased risk of death, and there was no connection between high cholesterol and early death in women. She provided medical reports to substantiate her views. G M McIntyre complained that the information contained in the broadcast of the same item on Late Edition was incorrect.

[3] In response, TVNZ said that the item focused on the man interviewed and maintained that a cholesterol level of five or lower was, in general terms, a suitable level and in line with current medical thinking. It declined to uphold the complaints.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, each complainant referred their 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 complaints.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed tapes of the items complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendices. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] An item on One News broadcast at 6.00pm on 28 December 2001, and repeated on Late Edition, concerned a person found to have a cholesterol level of 43. This was said to be the highest that the Heart Foundation and Cancer Society had heard about and, when interviewed, the man said that he had been warned by doctors that he was a "walking time-bomb".

The Complaints

[7] In her complaint to TVNZ, Lisa Grant noted that the presenter had advised viewers that the "healthy" cholesterol level was "between three and five", and that a doctor from the Heart Foundation had urged everyone to have their cholesterol levels checked.

[8] However, Ms Grant complained, the reporter’s comments about the healthy cholesterol level were untrue and could lead to harm.

[9] Ms Grant maintained that medical reports had found that cholesterol levels below 4.2 were associated with increased risk of death, and were a cause of depression. She enclosed three published medical reports along with other printed material which, she said, verified her statements.

[10] G M McIntyre complained that the advice to viewers to get their cholesterol levels down to between three and five was "very bad advice" and "it could kill people".

[11] G M McIntyre argued that the medical evidence suggested among other things:

that "over-all mortality" was not reduced by cholesterol levels at that level;

that a target of about five could be useful for white men under 50 years, but not for older men or women or children;

low blood cholesterol levels were bad for Maori of all ages; and

low blood cholesterol levels were associated with an increase in depression, suicide and strokes.

[12] He sought the publication of a correction.

The Standards

[13] TVNZ assessed the complaints under Standard 4 and Standard 5, guidelines 5b and 5e, of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, and s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. Standard 4 encapsulates s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The standards read:

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

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

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


Section 4(1)(d) requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with:

d) 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 Responses to the Complainants

[14] TVNZ explained that the item was about a man with record levels of cholesterol in his bloodstream. It was not about cholesterol as such, TVNZ continued, although it was pertinent in the context to compare the man’s level with the range normally recommended by doctors and specialists. TVNZ maintained that the statement that a level of between "three and five" was "healthy" was delivered as information and not as advice.

[15] Moreover, TVNZ said, the statement was in line with current medical thinking, and it argued that both GPs and cardiologists regarded five or lower as a suitable target for cholesterol readings. It quoted a press report of an expert in the UK who described the average cholesterol level of Britons of 5.8 as "alarming".

[16] In declining to uphold the complaints, TVNZ concluded:

It was the [complaints] committee’s conclusion that there was no lack of balance in this item. A particularly high cholesterol reading was reported, and the item provided a benchmark figure so that viewers could make a comparison. Because the item was not in any form a medical study of cholesterol there was no need to go beyond the figure which, in general terms, is in line with current medical opinion.

The Referrals to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[17] When she referred her complaint to the Authority, Ms Grant continued to argue that the item was unbalanced.

[18] Describing the level of cholesterol as a controversial issue of public importance, Ms Grant enclosed a further six articles published in journals since 1976. She wrote:

These show that there are still more questions than answers and that a vigorous international debate continues. It was misleading of TVNZ to assure its viewers that we have all the answers, especially as a correct "benchmark" for asymptomatic middle-aged men with hypercholesterolemia could be not applicable and may be inappropriate for others in the population, such as women, children, and the elderly.

TVNZ’s quoting of an article from the popular press and referring to pamphlets sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry about cholesterol levels cannot outweigh the scientific evidence from independent experts published in peer-reviewed specialist journals.

[19] In the referral, G M McIntyre said that TVNZ had failed to provide any scientific evidence to validate the misleading material included in the broadcast.

[20] Material was enclosed from 15 publications, including four from "The Lancet" which, G M McIntyre wrote, justified the points advanced in the complaint.

The Broadcaster’s Responses to the Authority

[21] TVNZ considered that Ms Grant’s complaint overlooked the point that the item was about a man with a cholesterol reading of 43. TVNZ added that he was described as a walking time-bomb and the item included a benchmark figure for viewers to compare the level given for one man.

[22] TVNZ maintained:

What was stated was that the reading was nine times above that "considered healthy" by medical authorities. We believe that to be fact. The item was not misleading or inaccurate.

[23] TVNZ had nothing further to add to G M McIntyre’s complaint.

The Complainants’ Final Comments

[24] Ms Grant noted that TVNZ’s response to her complaint consisted essentially of assertions, rather than evidence. She compared that approach with the evidence that she had provided which, she said, came from "high quality scientific journals". She cited one article which found that men with cholesterol levels of above 6.2 tended to die prematurely from heart disease, while those with a level of below 4.17 tended to die prematurely from cancer, respiratory and digestive diseases, and trauma. She wrote:

TVNZ has advanced the excuse that, as the item was not about the pros and cons of cholesterol, but only about one individual’s cholesterol, then they do not need to be accurate. I am shocked! That is not legal, decent, honest and true by advertising standards, so why should TVNZ assert a lower standard for "news".

[25] The item broadcast on 28 December, G M McIntyre wrote, presented the fact that one individual had a high cholesterol level, but the conclusions TVNZ drew, he continued "were illogical and even incorrect".

The Authority’s Determination

[26] An item, screened on One News and Late Edition on 28 December 2001, discussed the situation of a man with a cholesterol level of 43. A "healthy" level, the item stated, was "between three and five" and the man featured said that he had been described as "a walking time-bomb".

[27] The Authority approved a revised Code of Broadcasting Practice for Free-to-Air Television on 13 August 2001, to be effective from 1 January 2002. TVNZ has interpreted this to mean that complaints assessed after 1 January are to be assessed under the revised Code. It is the Authority’s understanding, shared with the other free-to-air television broadcasters, that the revised Code was to apply to programmes screened after 1 January.

[28] As neither complainant nominated specific standards, TVNZ advised Ms Grant that it intended to consider her complaint under Standards 4 and 5, and Guidelines 5b and 5e of the revised Code. G M McIntyre’s complaint was assessed under s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. This section is repeated in Standard 4 of the revised Code.

[29] As noted, the Authority is firmly of the opinion that the complaint should be assessed under the provisions in the former Code. Accordingly, taking the issues raised by the complainants into account, the Authority assesses the complaints under s.4(1)(d) of the Act (reprinted in paragraph[13]) and standards G6, G14, and G16 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice which applied at the time of the broadcasts complained about. Ms Grant and TVNZ were informed of this action, and TVNZ advised that it had nothing further to add.

[30] Standard G6 requires broadcasters in the preparation and presentation of programmes:

G6  To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.

[31] Standards G14, and G16 provide:

G14  News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.

G16  News, current affairs and documentaries should not be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress.

[32] In determining the complaint, the Authority is of the opinion that the item was a human interest story which could be described as "a cautionary tale", and which reminded viewers that it was in their best interests to take care of their cholesterol level for their hearts’ sake.

[33] The Authority agrees with TVNZ’s contention that the item featured one individual with an extraordinary high cholesterol level, and it presented some information – not advice – about what was seen as an acceptable level.

[34] The Authority notes the extensive material about cholesterol submitted by each complainant. However, the Authority finds that this information is not relevant in this case as it does not consider that the "information" presented in the item was advanced as fact. Rather, the information was presented as a "rule of thumb" which summarised generally accepted medical opinion about an overall approach to cholesterol levels.

[35] In view of its conclusion that the item was a human interest story with the intention of promoting healthy living, the Authority does not accept that it involved a "controversial issue of public importance". Accordingly, s.4(1)(d) and standard G6 are not applicable.

[36] As the item referred only in passing to a "healthy" cholesterol level, rather than advancing a medical fact, the Authority does not accept that standard G14 was breached.

[37] Turning to standard G16, the Authority accepts that the item may cause some concern to any viewer with a high cholesterol level. Indeed, to these people, the item could cause some alarm, but the Authority does not accept that this would be unnecessary alarm. However, the item’s focus was to encourage people to seek medical advice if they had a level outside of a suggested "healthy range". Given that that was done in an informative way, rather than being alarmist, the Authority does not accept that standard G16 was breached.

[38] 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 complaints.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judy McGregor
Member
24 April 2002

Appendix A

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

  1. Lisa Grant’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 12 January 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 4 February 2002
  3. Ms Grant’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 9 February 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 20 February 2002
  5. Ms Grant’s Final Comment – 3 March 2002
  6. TVNZ’s Response on the Proposed Standards – 10 April 2002

Appendix B

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined G M McIntyre’s complaint:

  1. G M McIntrye’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 12 January 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 4 February 2002
  3. G M McIntyre’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 26 February 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 8 March 2002
  5. G M McIntyre’s Final Comment – 20 March 2002