One News – 4, 5, 10 August – NZRFU receptionist advised caller of the availability of scalped tickets – receptionist described as a "go-between" and later as "at the centre" of the scam – covert recording of telephone conversation – inaccurate and unfair
Standard G1 – not inaccurate – no uphold
Standard G4 – not unfair to use covert call given public interest – no uphold; unfair not to broadcast full summary of covert call – uphold
Standards G7, G13, G19 – subsumed
Broadcast of statement
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Following up on information received, a TVNZ journalist, without identifying himself, telephoned the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRFU) to ask about the availability of a ticket for a forthcoming test match. The call was recorded covertly. The NZRFU receptionist gave him a telephone number to ring where, she said, he could buy tickets at an inflated price. The journalist telephoned the number he had been given and eventually was able to buy two tickets with a face value of $60 each, for $600. This information was contained in items broadcast on One News on 4, 5 and 10 August 2000.
The NZRFU complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the secret taping of the telephone call, and said that the item had been misleading in portraying the receptionist as being involved in an alleged ticket scalping scam. It also complained that TVNZ had refused to supply it with a copy of the tape of the telephone conversation.
Explaining that covert telephone calls were only used when there was no other way of obtaining information in the public interest, and stating that the receptionist’s role was accurately described in the item, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, the NZRFU referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the aspect of the complaint that it was unfair and in breach of standard G4 not to broadcast a full summary of the covert call during the item on 4 August. It declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaints.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the items complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines these complaints without a formal hearing.
An item on One News broadcast on 4 August described how a TVNZ journalist spoke to a staff member of the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRFU). The staff member had given him a phone number to call and, through that person, the journalist had been put in touch with a person selling tickets – at five times their face value – for the Bledisloe Cup rugby match between Australia and New Zealand. The matter was dealt with again in news items broadcast on 5 and 10 August.
After correspondence between the parties, TVNZ advised the NZRFU that it had accepted its letter of 14 August as a formal complaint.
In its letter of 14 August, the NZRFU repeated that it had sought a copy of the tape of the conversation between TVNZ’s journalist and its receptionist, but that TVNZ had declined to make the tape available. The NZRFU contended that the tape would disclose the full context of the call and would show that the receptionist had tried to help what she had been led to believe were some "desperate fans coming from Sydney for the Bledisloe Test who were short of a ticket because someone ‘had stuffed up’". Omitting this material from the item, the Union complained, meant that the story was neither fair nor accurate.
In earlier correspondence, TVNZ had disclosed that despite the appearance in the item that the reporter was being filmed at the time of the call, that had not occurred as a camera operator had not been available. Describing the item which was screened and which apparently showed the phone call being filmed as "contrived and misleading" in suggesting to viewers that the filming and the call had coincided, the NZRFU declined to comment further on the conduct of the journalist.
The NZRFU quoted comments broadcast on 4, 5 and 10 August which initially described its receptionist as a "go-between", and later described her as "the centre of the alleged scam". The NZRFU again expressed its concern at the way the story had been acquired and presented.
The NZRFU later confirmed to TVNZ that it wanted its letters of 9 and 14 August treated as a formal complaint. It wrote:
Our complaint centres on the secret taping of our receptionist solely for the purposes of broadcasting the tape and the misleading way that the story has been reported by TVNZ which has resulted in our receptionist being portrayed as at the centre of an alleged ticket scalping scam.
The NZRFU asked that the complaint be considered under standards G1, G4, G7, G14 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
The first three standards require broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G4 To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.
G7 To avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting.
The other two standards read:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
G19 Care must 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.
In its response to the complaint, TVNZ listed a number of points made in the item which it believed were not in dispute. These included that an NZRFU receptionist had given a caller (a TVNZ journalist) a telephone number where he could buy tickets at an inflated price. The telephone number was that of a law firm which was in the same building as the NZRFU, and a person at that firm had put the journalist in contact with a person who sold the reporter two tickets with a face value of $60 each for a total price of $600. The reporter was told he could acquire another five tickets for $1900. TVNZ wrote:
Given the facts of the story, it was the opinion of the [TVNZ Complaints] Committee that One News was reporting a matter of significant public interest. That a reporter was referred to a person who can accurately be described as a "ticket scalper" by an employee of a major sports body which is on the record as being opposed to ticket scalping would seem to be a matter that comes under the heading of the "public’s right to know".
Turning to the standards, TVNZ considered that the item contained no factual inaccuracies and that standard G1 had not been breached.
As for standard G4, TVNZ maintained that in the circumstances, and given the public’s right to know, it had not been unfair for the reporter not to disclose his identity at the time of his call to the NZRFU. In addition, as the receptionist had given the reporter the phone number where he could acquire tickets at inflated prices, TVNZ did not consider it unfair to describe her as a "go-between". TVNZ continued:
In reference to [the receptionist] being "at the centre" of the allegations, the Committee noted that the public interest in this item lay in the fact that a caller to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was referred to a ticket scalper by the person who answered the telephone. Had the call been made to an organisation without any links to rugby or to sports administration there would have been nothing remarkable about it, and no story to tell. But that a caller would be given the number of a ticket scalper by the NZRFU was a matter of some significance, and as the NZRFU "voice" who provided that information, the Committee believed [the receptionist] was accurately described as being "at the centre" of the allegations.
TVNZ added that the receptionist was also portrayed as courteous and helpful, and that her initial advice was to contact the Wellington Rugby Union. Nevertheless, the broadcaster observed, her other responses disclosed "that tickets at scalper’s prices could be acquired by an initial call to the NZRFU".
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint under standard G4.
In regard to standard G7, TVNZ considered that the reasons for the reporter not identifying himself had been addressed under standard G4. The broadcaster maintained that covert telephone recording was acceptable in exceptional circumstances.
Dealing with the reconstruction of the call, TVNZ said that reconstruction of events for the camera was an accepted practice in television journalism. It was not unethical, it added, provided the wording in the original questions matched the re-recorded wording exactly.
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint under standard G7, and under standards G14 and G19. TVNZ observed;
It was noted by the [Complaints] Committee that in the end it was the actions of your employee and of the people at AJ Park which resulted in the story going ahead, and it seemed that there was an element about your complaint of blaming the messenger for the message.
In declining to uphold any aspect of the complaint, TVNZ advised that it was its policy not to release original or field tapes of material included in news items. TVNZ also said it was "a fundamental tenet" of journalism to protect sources, and that it would not release the name of the original informant.
In support of its complaint to the Authority, the NZRFU made the following points:
1) It sought the details, but not the name, of the person who allegedly spoke to the NZRFU, and then to TVNZ, as it wanted to confirm that the transaction had taken place.
2) It disputed the reference to its receptionist as being "at the centre" of the allegations, as it was clear that she did not know the name of the person selling the tickets.
3) It did not consider that it was acceptable for anyone to tape its employees without their consent or knowledge.
4) It did not accept that the item was objective or impartial as it omitted any reference to the receptionist’s efforts to help "desperate" fans.
5) It maintained that the "overwhelming" impression of the items was that the receptionist was at the centre of a deliberate scam.
6) The manner in which the tape was acquired, and the refusal to allow the NZRFU to listen to it, it said, was unprofessional.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ dealt with the six points made by the complainant as follows:
1) It repeated that it was not prepared to name its source. It added, however, that it believed the source was reliable, and outlined part of the process it had followed to check the source’s credibility.
2) Noting that the receptionist had been helpful, TVNZ maintained that she was at the centre of the story as she had given two people a telephone number where high-priced tickets could be obtained. She gave this advice, TVNZ observed, while working for an organisation which opposed ticket scalping.
3) TVNZ said approval for the covert telephone recordings had been given in accordance with its rules and at "the highest editorial level".
4) After pointing out that nearly all television interviews were edited, TVNZ said that the focus was on the information given by the receptionist, not on the reasons why the caller sought the tickets.
5) TVNZ maintained that the receptionist was portrayed accurately.
6) TVNZ said that the NZRFU was given a full summary of how the story unfolded. The NZRFU, it added, had been offered the opportunity of a second interview which it had declined because of the conditions the NZRFU wished to impose.
Finally, TVNZ outlined its formal complaint process, adding that following an independent audit in 1999, the process was found to be robust and in accordance with the requirements in the Broadcasting Act.
By way of final comment, the NZRFU focused on what it said was the implication in TVNZ’s response "that our receptionist was only too ready to volunteer to the caller details of the source from which tickets could be purchased at a high price".
The NZRFU contended that fairness and balance required the item to report that the receptionist had been reluctant to disclose the information, and had done so only when pressed because the caller said that he was phoning on behalf of a desperate fan who had come from Sydney. However, the NZRFU said, the item presented the request "as no more than a simple question".
The NZRFU concluded:
I suggest that the differences between the actual discussion and the discussion as presented on the programme are so significant that for this reason alone the programme cannot possibly be regarded as fair or balanced.
On receipt of the complainant’s final comment, TVNZ wrote to the Authority to emphasise one matter. It argued that in order to ascertain the validity of the information it had received, it had been necessary for its reporter to approach the Rugby Union in the same way that the original request had been made. It would have been inappropriate, TVNZ said, for the reporter to acknowledge that he was calling on behalf of TVNZ.
Despite all the argument in the correspondence concerning the complaint, this simple fact is clear: [The receptionist at] the New Zealand Rugby Football Union did supply a route to tickets in what appears to be an action contrary to the Union’s expressed policy. We remind the Authority that at a time when hundreds of keen and honest lifetime supporters of New Zealand Rugby were unable to get tickets because of the great demand, an employee of the NZRFU was able (and did) offer a backstairs route to those supporters willing and able to pay above the normal rate.
In it response to the Authority, the NZRFU observed that TVNZ, in an attempt to justify its employee’s actions, had not dealt with the issue as to whether the receptionist was portrayed in a balanced and fair way. Further, it noted that despite repeated requests, TVNZ had declined to give any information about the person who had initially complained to TVNZ. It added that it could not be certain that this person had in fact called the NZRFU. It concluded:
The transcript of the conversation between [TVNZ’s reporter] and our receptionist is not in dispute. In our view, the differences between the transcript and the broadcast alone provide sufficient grounds in support of our complaint.
There are a number of matters about the items which are not in dispute. The complainant and the broadcaster agree that a NZRFU receptionist gave a telephone caller a telephone number where he could buy, at an inflated price, tickets for a forthcoming rugby test. The caller telephoned the number given – a law firm which was in the same building as the NZRFU – and was put in touch with a person who sold the caller two tickets at five times their face value of $60 each.
The NZRFU complained that it was inaccurate to describe the receptionist as "at the centre" of the alleged scam, or as a "go-between". It also complained that the item was unfair as the call had been recorded covertly, and the item had not recounted the caller’s full story in his plea for tickets. The NZRFU was also concerned that TVNZ would not disclose information to confirm that its reporter’s call had been made following a tip-off from a source.
The Authority does not accept that this last issue raises a matter of broadcasting standards. In the present situation, it considers that TVNZ’s assurance that it believed the source was reliable was sufficient, and that it was not necessary for TVNZ to identify the source.
The NZRFU complained that standards G1, G4, G7, G14 and G19 had been breached by the broadcast. Having examined the issues, the Authority is of the opinion that standards G1 and G4 adequately encompass the questions of accuracy and fairness raised in the complaint. Those standards incorporate the NZRFU’s concerns about editing, impartiality and deception which are of concern to the NZRFU, and for which it also listed the other standards.
Dealing first with the requirement for accuracy in standard G1, the Authority notes that the NZRFU objected to its receptionist being referred to as "at the centre" of the allegation about ticket scalping, or as a "go-between". While these terms might have some relevance to the question of fairness, neither was in itself inaccurate. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the standard G1 aspect of the complaint.
Under standard G4, the Authority considers the aspects of the complaint concerning the covert nature of the call, the omission of the full details of the caller’s story, and the inference that the receptionist was at the centre of a deliberate scam.
Turning first to the covert nature of the telephone call, the Authority starts from the position that should journalists fail to disclose their identity when making inquiries, the practice must be justified on each occasion. That is the approach TVNZ records it took on this occasion. The Authority also notes that a covert call can be justified only if such a technique is in the public interest. It has considered the specific facts of this incident and accepts, first, that the story was one which was in the public interest, and secondly, that disclosure by the journalist of his occupation would almost certainly have resulted in his failure to obtain the tickets. Accordingly, in the circumstances, the Authority does not consider that the use of a covert call was in contravention of standard G4.
Nevertheless, because the use of a covert technique is potentially unfair, the Authority is firmly of the view that viewers or listeners must be fully appraised of the circumstances and the contents of the covert telephone call. In this instance the circumstances were explained to viewers. Concerning the contents of the call, the broadcaster acknowledged that the reporter, during the call, presented a reasonably elaborate account of hardship in order to justify his request for tickets. However, these details were not disclosed to the viewer.
While it is not possible to decide whether the request would have been successful without this fictitious account, it was the means by which TVNZ’s journalist learned how he could obtain scalped tickets. The Authority concludes that as viewers were not fully informed during the item on 4 August of the persuasion used by the journalist, this aspect was unfair to the NZRFU receptionist and the complainant. It upholds this aspect of the complaint under standard G4.
On the issue of the language used to describe the receptionist’s actions, the Authority does not accept that the item implied that either the NZRFU or the receptionist was at the centre of an "alleged scam". Accordingly, it declines to uphold this aspect of the fairness complaint.
For the above reasons, the Authority upholds the complaint that an aspect of the news item broadcast by Television New Zealand Limited on 4 August 2000 breached standard G4 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
It declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaints.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act. Accordingly, it invited the parties to make submissions on penalty.
In the circumstances in which one aspect of the complaint was upheld, TVNZ considered that publication of the decision itself was a sufficient penalty. If the Authority did not agree, TVNZ continued, any statement ordered should acknowledge the "essential accuracy and legitimacy" of the item. The NZRFU proposed the broadcast of a statement, including an apology to the receptionist, compensation for the breach of the receptionist’s privacy, and an award of costs to the NZRFU.
The Authority has taken the submissions into account and decides that the broadcast of a summary of the decision is the appropriate penalty on this occasion. It is important, the Authority believes, that the summary acknowledges that the broadcast was unfair to the receptionist, and furthermore, that it explains why the Authority arrived at that conclusion.
Pursuant to s.13(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders Television New Zealand Ltd to broadcast, within one month of the date of this decision, a statement explaining why one aspect of the complaint was upheld. The statement shall be approved by the Authority and shall be broadcast at a time and date to be approved by the Authority.
The Authority draws the broadcasters attention to the requirement in s.13(3)(b) of the Act for the broadcaster to give notice to the Authority and the complainant of the manner in which the order is complied with.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
22 February 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. New Zealand Rugby Football Union’s letter to Television New Zealand Ltd
– 9 August 2000
2. NZRFU’s Press Release – 10 August 2000
3. TVNZ’s Response to the NZRFU – 14 August 2000
4. NZRFU’s letter to TVNZ – 14 August 2000
5. TVNZ’s letter to the NZRFU – 23 August 2000
6. TVNZ’s letter to the NZRFU – 30 August 2000
7. NZRFU’s letter to TVNZ (plus attachment) – 30 August 2000
8. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 5 September 2000
9. NZRFU’s Response to TVNZ – 22 September 2000
10. TVNZ’s Response to the NZRFU – 22 September 2000
11. NZRFU’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 September 2000
12. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 17 October 2000
13. NZRFU’s Final Comment the Authority – 30 October 2000
14. TVNZ’s Response to the Final Comment – 7 November 2000
15. NZRFU’s Second Final Comment to the Authority – 4 December 2000
16. TVNZ’s Submission on Penalty – 15 January 2001
17. NZRFU’s Submission on Penalty – 19 January 2001