Shortland Street – episodes about a child of drug dealer in coma having taken a capsule of cannabis oil – drug dealer said she gave child small amounts of cannabis oil to calm him as he was ADHD – offensive – encouraged illegal behaviour – inaccurate – unbalanced
Standard 1 and Guideline 1a and Standard 2 – use of cannabis oil to treat ADHD child shown as unacceptable and irresponsible – no uphold
Standards 4 and 5 – do not apply to fictional programmes – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 The treatment of a child "Max", who had taken a capsule of cannabis oil was a story line in an episode of Shortland Street broadcast on TV2 at 7.00pm on 17 July 2002. "Carly", the mother of "Max" and a drug dealer, later advised doctors that she had given "Max" small amounts of cannabis oil in a milkshake to alleviate his suffering from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
 Simon Buckingham complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that not only was the treatment inaccurate and not presented in a balanced way, the item was offensive and encouraged illegal behaviour.
 In response, TVNZ contended that the standards relating to accuracy and balance did not apply to a fictional programme. The episode had dealt with a topical issue, it said, but it was not offensive and "Carla" was not presented as a role model for good parenting. It declined to uphold the complaint.
 Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Buckingham 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 uphold the complaint.
 The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the episodes complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 A storyline about a child "Max" who had taken a capsule of cannabis oil was included in an episode of Shortland Street broadcast on TV2 at 7.00pm on 17 July 2002. Shortland Street is screened daily on week nights at 7.00pm. During the episode broadcast on 16 July "Max", the young son of drug dealer "Carly Lincoln", was brought to Shortland Street hospital in a coma. In the episode broadcast on the 17th, "Carly" admitted to a doctor that she sometimes gave "Max" a small amount of cannabis oil in a milkshake because he suffered from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and she believed the cannabis oil calmed him down.
 Simon Buckingham complained to TVNZ that the actions portrayed were "grossly irresponsible" and inaccurate. He noted that the mother refused to use the prescribed medication as she considered that it was "speed". However, Mr Buckingham wrote, cannabis was likely to make the child more agitated rather than calm him down.
 Referring to broadcasting standards, Mr Buckingham complained:
1. Portraying the idea of feeding a six year old (approximately) cannabis as a home remedy despite medical advice is neither in good taste nor decent.
2. The feeding of cannabis to anyone without medical authority is illegal, and therefore, this is encouraging parents to break the law to try to resolve a perceived or real issue with their children. This is not the maintenance of law and order. How many parents will, out of desperation, now try this?
3. No opportunity has been given to accurately portray a common disorder in New Zealand. The ADHD Support Group, as the main ADHD information source in Auckland, if not New Zealand, have apparently had no request for information, and it is obvious that the medical advisor on the programme has, like many of his or her colleagues, no real experience of this disorder. To suggest that Dexamphetamine and/or Ritalin is "Speed", thus encouraging parents to withdraw these drugs when they have been professionally prescribed, and doing this without the facts is not giving accurate information. Therefore, despite being controversial, a balanced perspective has not been allowed.
 In addition, Mr Buckingham said the programme breached the standard relating to the protection of children as its portrayal of ADHD was inaccurate.
 Mr Buckingham said that he expected TVNZ to broadcast immediately an "unequivocal disclaimer" and to correct the misconceptions contained in the item. He also asked for an informative programme about ADHD and publication of the details of the ADHD support group. He also sought a full apology "for this unprofessional behaviour".
 In view of the matters raised in the complaint, TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 2, 4 and 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standards (and relevant Guidelines) read:
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.
1a Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and the programme’s classification (see Appendix 1). The examples are not exhaustive.
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.
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.
4a Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.
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.
 TVNZ suggested to Mr Buckingham that he had perhaps overlooked the point that Shortland Street was fiction, and referred to a recent decision from the Authority on some complaints about Shortland Street (2002-074/075). In that decision, TVNZ noted, the Authority ruled that the standards relating to factual accuracy, balance, fairness and impartiality were not relevant to a fictional programme. TVNZ continued:
The [complaints] committee accepted that it may have been irresponsible if the ‘advice’ to give cannabis to a child suffering from ADD had come unchallenged from an authority figure in the programme. Instead it came from a drug dealer, portrayed in the plot as a criminal who acted against the advice of her doctors. They repeatedly told her she had done the wrong thing.
 It added:
The committee heard that the inspiration for this particular story came from a real event, and before depicting the child’s condition, the production team (through its resident medical advisor) consulted the Poisons Centre to work out what type of effect might arise from a six-year-old ingesting a cannabis oil capsule. As a result, the consequences of ‘Max’ swallowing the capsule were shown to be very serious indeed – hardly an endorsement of cannabis as a treatment for ADD!
 Repeating the point that Shortland Street was fiction and that it was light entertainment, TVNZ maintained that the story line was intended "to debunk any idea that giving cannabis oil to a sufferer from ADD is a good thing to do." Further, it wrote, "Carly" was not presented as a suitable role model in terms of child care. TVNZ observed:
It is true that in this case, the fictional doctors of Shortland Street were depicted as not referring the matter to the police. But considering this was fiction, is it wrong to present characters who have taken a wrong turn being put right? Should it be that criminal or unpleasant events not take place on Shortland Street in case they encourage ‘copy cat’ action? Such restrictions would make it very difficult to produce drama, because drama always and necessarily exists through conflict.
 TVNZ contended that the episode complained about told a topical story about a woman who took medical decision-making into her own hands which produced disastrous results.
 Turning to the standards, TVNZ did not accept that the story-line breached current norms of good taste and decency. Moreover, it said, it was not inconsistent with the maintenance of law and order. Citing the Authority’s decision already noted, TVNZ did not accept that Standards 4 and 5 were applicable to a fictional programme.
 Mr Buckingham referred his complaint to the Authority as he was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s reply.
 Explaining why he was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response to his complaint, Mr Buckingham maintained that the episode "did not once state that you should not give ADHD children cannabis milkshakes". He accepted that staff at the Poisons Centre knew about poisons but, he asked, there was no evidence that an ADHD medical specialist had been spoken to.
 Noting that the scene had been based on a real incident, Mr Buckingham considered that the rumour about the effect of cannabis on ADHD children could well have been propagated rather than dispelled. The suggestion that cannabis calmed down ADHD children, he wrote, was "erroneous, and quite dangerous".
 Mr Buckingham accepted that the episode contained the message that drug dealers put their children at risk but, in relation to ADHD:
[The message] was clearly ignore the professionals, as they are feeding your children speed, and give them cannabis instead. However, please do not over-feed them cannabis, as they will fall ill.
 Mr Buckingham maintained that the broadcast, in dealing with the issue in a "slapdash and half-hearted way", breached Standards 1 and 2.
 Mr Buckingham complained that a storyline in Shortland Street, where a woman who was a drug dealer gave her child who suffered from ADHD a milkshake which contained cannabis oil in order to calm him, did not explicitly disapprove of that behaviour. He expressed concern that parents with an ADHD child would imitate the behaviour, adding that the suggestion that cannabis calmed down ADHD children was "erroneous, and quite dangerous". Mr Buckingham focused on Standards 1 and 2 of the Television Code.
 The Authority would share Mr Buckingham’s concern if it considered that the use of cannabis to calm down an ADHD child had been portrayed positively as a treatment.
 However, it does not believe that the use of cannabis oil was portrayed in that way. Rather, it is of the view that the story-line involving the use of cannabis oil by the mother for the treatment of the child was presented as both inappropriate and unacceptable, and was shown to be an irresponsible form of parental behaviour.
 Given that the series is fictional, the Authority considers that the requirements for balance in Standard 4 and for accuracy in Standard 5 are inapplicable. In view of the disapproving approach taken to the use of cannabis oil for the treatment of an ADHD child, the Authority concludes that the good taste requirement in Standard 1 and the provision dealing with the maintenance of law and order in Standard 2 were not contravened.
 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 complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
21 November 2002
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: