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Viewers for Television Excellence Inc and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-096

Members

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

Complainant

  • Viewers for Television Excellence Inc of Christchurch

Dated

8th August 2002

Number

2002-096

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
One News – item about a sexual assault trial – unnecessarily violent and graphic material – broadcaster not mindful of the effect on children

Findings
Standard 9 and Guideline 9a – no disturbing material – no uphold

Standard 10 and Guideline 10g – no explicit details – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] A One News programme, broadcast at 6.00pm on 8 April 2002, featured coverage of the trial of six secondary school students who had been accused of a sexual assault on a male class-mate. The reporter described some of the evidence heard in Court about the assault, including that a broomstick had been inserted up the victim’s anus.

[2] Viewers for Television Excellence Inc. (VOTE) complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the news item contained unnecessarily violent and graphic material, and that the broadcaster was not mindful of the effect the broadcast may have had on children.

[3] In response, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint, stating that the news item was a reporter’s summary of the day’s Court proceedings. TVNZ also said it was a major news story which should not have been censored in the interests of any viewer, and that children watching the news would have been likely to have been guided by a parent or care-giver.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, VOTE referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.

The Broadcast

[6] One News is broadcast daily on TV One at 6.00pm. One of the lead items on 8 April 2002 concerned the trial of six secondary school students who had been accused of a sexual assault on a male class-mate. The reporter described some of the evidence heard in Court about the assault, including that a broomstick had been inserted up the victim’s anus.

The Complaint

[7] VOTE complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the news item contained unnecessarily violent and graphic detail, and that the broadcaster was not mindful of the effect the broadcast may have had on children.

[8] VOTE said the reporter used "graphic language" when describing the assault. It wrote:

We believe this kind of language is unnecessary and unpleasant to be used on television and especially at an early hour of the evening. It is irresponsible to permit such graphic descriptions before the 8.30pm watershed. It is unnecessary as the story could have been reported very adequately without the graphic reference to the broomstick usage. It was certainly a repulsive crime and the public needs to be informed.

[9] VOTE said the reporters should be more careful with their language, as children were likely to be watching television at that time. It also said such news coverage could put suggestions into children’s minds and lead to "copy-cat crimes."

The Standards

[10] The complainant referred to standards in the Code of Broadcasting Practice for Free-to-Air Television, which was superseded by a revised Code, which came into operation on 1 January 2002. TVNZ assessed the complaint under the revised Code, using the equivalent standards to those cited by VOTE. They read:

Standard 9 Children’s Interests

During children’s normally accepted viewing times (see Appendix 1), broadcasters are required, in the preparation and presentation of programmes, to consider the interests of child viewers.

Guideline

9a  Broadcasters should be mindful of the effect any programme or promo may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times – usually up to 8.30pm – and avoid screening material which would disturb or alarm them.

Standard 10 Violence

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.

Guideline

10g  News, current affairs and factual programmes will, by their nature, often contain violent, disturbing or alarming material. Broadcasters should not falsify, by omission, a world in which much violence and brutality occurs. When such scenes are necessarily included to serve the public interest, the fact that violence has painful and bloody consequences should be made clear. However, editors and producers must use judgement and discretion in deciding the degree of graphic detail to be included in news programmes when children are likely to be watching. Warnings within news programmes must be used as appropriate.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[11] TVNZ said the item consisted of a reporter speaking live from outside the Court giving a brief account of that day’s proceedings in the trial. TVNZ wrote:

…the specific nature of the crimes of which the six were accused was of relevance here. You yourself noted that "it was certainly a repulsive crime and the public needs to be informed". In this case the reporter described evidence given in the open court in an unemotional, clinical manner which simply reflected what had been said. She gave the information only once and did not revisit it.

That a broomstick was used in the sexual assault was widely reported in all the media including the newspapers… The public interest in this case rested in large part in the particularly unpleasant nature of the crime.

[12] TVNZ said in relation to Standard 9 that:

One News is not a programme which would be the first choice of most unattended children. Therefore children watching the programme are likely to be in the company of older people, most often a parent or care-giver who is able to offer help and guidance.

[13] TVNZ noted that news programmes report or show events which are unpleasant or distressing. However, it said "to sanitise news can be to mislead", and viewers expect information that is accurate and truthful. TVNZ wrote:

It is not an option, the committee believed, to withhold stories of such wide public interest until a late hour of the night. The story was a significant one and was rightly included in the line up for the day’s major news bulletin.

The committee did not believe that it was in any child’s interests, or in the interests of any adult viewer, that news of this sort should be "censored".

[14] In respect of Standard 10, TVNZ said, "the reporter showed the judgement and discretion" required by Guideline 10g. TVNZ wrote:

A warning in this case was not appropriate because of the clinical nature of the reporter’s words, and because all viewers saw was a reporter speaking to the camera.

[15] TVNZ said, "it was satisfied that the news team reported this event professionally and responsibly". Accordingly, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Authority

[16] VOTE was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision and contended that TVNZ had failed in its responsibility to maintain Standard 9. It wrote:

Whether they [children] are attended or unattended is irrelevant. The unnecessary crude content of this news item is inappropriate for either attended or unattended children.

[17] VOTE said that TVNZ had a responsibility, and it must "take care with what they show during the children’s designated time slots." VOTE argued that the broadcaster was not mindful of young people "acting in a ‘copy cat’ way." It wrote:

A crime of this type lends itself to imitation and the broadcasters, by describing it graphically, have given the opportunity for young people to copy the act.

[18] VOTE maintained a warning should have been given to "identify to any parents or viewers that such a disgusting incident was going to be described." It considered that children would have found the item disturbing and alarming.

[19] VOTE clarified that its complaint was about the "graphic detail used during the News broadcast." VOTE said it did not expect TVNZ to withhold the news item. However, it wrote:

…we do not accept the way it was handled. A much more responsible use of the words of the description by the reporter and/or cutting by the editor, would have enabled the story to be presented without giving offence to adults or giving unnecessary and nasty ideas.

[20] VOTE reiterated that TVNZ had failed to maintain the standards relating to violence and children’s interests.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[21] TVNZ noted that public debate on the defendants’ sentences would have been "uninformed if the news media had not made clear the nature of the crime."

[22] TVNZ reiterated its concerns of "sanitising news". It said citizens were entitled to be informed pursuant to the Bill of Rights Act and "it is the role of the media to relay that information." TVNZ said:

It is accepted that there must always be a balance between compliance with the Bill of Rights Act, and the need to protect children, but note that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 13) which has been ratified by New Zealand guarantees the child "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds".

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[23] VOTE said it was "appalled" by TVNZ’s lack of concern for children who were likely to be watching television at that time. It wrote:

This lack of conscience causes our organisation grave concern for TVNZ’s ability to judge satisfactorily what is acceptable viewing for our younger viewers.

[24] VOTE reiterated its comments about the graphic detail of the crime in the news item. It said providing such information would lead to an increased chance of "copy cat" crimes. VOTE argued it was TVNZ’s responsibility to ensure that this did not occur when children were likely to be watching television.

[25] VOTE said TVNZ had failed to consider children’s viewing interests, and to exercise the requisite care and discretion when it dealt with the violent material in the news item.

The Authority’s Determination

[26] The essence of this complaint is that the details of a sexual assault by a group of school students on a class-mate were inappropriate for inclusion on the early evening news. VOTE contended that the graphic detail in the news item breached standards relating to children’s interests and violence.

[27] The Authority considers that TVNZ adequately considered the interests of child viewers. While the item explained the assault, it did not explain in explicit or express terms specifically how the crime was committed. The Authority considers that the item was appropriate for the news at 6.00pm and that the broadcaster was mindful of the effect on children. Furthermore because of the general nature of the item, the Authority is of the view that it would not invite "copy-cat" behaviour as alleged by the complainant.

[28] Next, the Authority records that it does not consider that the item broadcast included material likely to disturb or alarm children, as is required to establish a breach of Standard 9. The Authority notes that the item was a factual description of some of the evidence heard in Court, that the language used was unemotive and clinical, and therefore unlikely to be understood by younger children. The item did not contain any visuals, and the Authority considers that there was nothing gratuitous in the news item. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[29] Standard 10, Guideline 10g, specifically addresses the inclusion of violent and distressing material in news programmes. In this instance, the Authority considers that TVNZ exercised the requisite care, because it reported the alleged assault only in the context of court coverage of a widely publicised crime, and did not describe any details regarding the act. The Authority considers that the item did not contain "violent, disturbing or alarming material". Accordingly, it declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
8 August 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Viewers for Television Excellence Inc.’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd –
    11 April 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 26 April 2002
  3. VOTE’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 21 May 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 28 May 2002
  5. VOTE’s Final Comment – 12 June 2002