Holmes – air accident – advice for travellers to dress as for a bonfire – offensive – sensational – distasteful
Standard G14 – not applicable
Standard G16 – perhaps flippant comments but would not cause alarm
Standard G20 – not relevant
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An item on Holmes, broadcast on TV One on 3 November 2000 beginning at 7.00pm, gave advice to travellers about how to improve their chances of surviving an aircraft disaster. The item followed an aircraft accident in Taipei.
R P Worthington complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the subject matter had been handled in a distasteful manner, and was inflammatory and biased. In the complainant’s view, the way in which the item had been written was particularly offensive.
TVNZ responded first that the item had not been specifically about the air crash which had been reported at the time, but was a more general item which answered questions which it considered viewers could well have been asking themselves about the safety of air travel. It rejected the complaint that it was biased, unbalanced or caused unnecessary alarm.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Worthington 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.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
An item outlining safety precautions for air travellers was broadcast on Holmes on 3 November 2000 beginning at 7.00pm. It followed the crash of a 747 jet in Taipei which over half of the passengers survived. The item first looked at whether any particular section of the aircraft was safer than another, and ended with some travel tips for air travellers. These included recommendations on the type of clothing to wear and the suggestion that passengers should "dress for a bonfire".
R P Worthington complained to TVNZ that the item was sensationalist and alarming. He argued that there was no evidence that the victims of the accident had not taken the precautions outlined, or that the survivors had done so. In his view, the manner in which the subject had been handled was "distasteful, inflammatory, biased and written apparently for sensationalism". Mr Worthington suggested that the item was biased against air travel. He said the item had caused unnecessary alarm, because it had not alerted viewers to the small statistical probability of being involved in an air crash.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G14, G16 and G20 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, as nominated by the complainant. Those standards read:
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.
G20 No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial public issues. Broadcasters should aim to present all significant sides in as fair a way as possible, and this can only be done by judging every case on its merits.
First, TVNZ noted, the item was not specifically about the crash which was currently in the news. It looked at air crashes generically and at the questions which anxious passengers would be asking themselves upon hearing of such an accident, such as what was the chance of surviving a crash and what could be done to improve their chance of surviving. TVNZ noted that it was not alone in taking this approach and referred to Time International which had published a similar item.
Turning to standard G14, TVNZ said it did not accept the item showed any bias against air travel. It emphasised that the overall message was that surviving a major air accident was largely a matter of chance. The item, it noted, stressed the safety of air travel when compared to other forms of transport. It did not consider it was biased when it reported that accidents occurred occasionally, and that some people survived seemingly unsurvivable crashes.
In considering standard G16, TVNZ noted that the item twice emphasised the relative safety of air travel compared to driving on the roads. The "travel tips" about wearing natural fibres and sensible shoes was "common sense advice", TVNZ added.
TVNZ said it did not believe the item caused "unnecessary panic, alarm or distress". In its view, the advice offered reassurance, both in reminding viewers of the statistical improbability of being involved in such an event, and in offering small safety tips.
Turning to standard G20, TVNZ noted that a range of opinions about the relative safety of air travel and the measures people could take to reassure themselves about their own safety complied with the requirement to present significant points of view. It declined to uphold the complaint.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Worthington emphasised that his principal concern was that in the wake of an air crash it was distasteful to advise passengers to "dress for a bonfire", and to tell them what sort of clothing they should be wearing. In his view, there was no justification to suggest that the 60,000 people flying at any one time should be dressed for a bonfire. This, he said, was a breach of standard G16.
Finally, Mr Worthington complained that TVNZ had not assisted when it had responded to his initial complaint and identified standards G1 and G6 as being relevant. He suggested that it had attempted to circumvent the complaint.
TVNZ responded first that the presenter’s remark about "dressing for a bonfire" was clearly a reminder to viewers that air crashes more often than not involved fire. It referred to the article in Time International which had made the point that in the event of a crash, it was important for passengers to limit their exposure to fire and heat.
Secondly, TVNZ described as "disappointing" the complainant’s contention that it had attempted to circumvent the complaint by identifying the wrong standards. It explained that its policy when a complainant did not cite any standards was to suggest one or more that might be appropriate, but that it always offered the complainant the opportunity to change them. It emphasised that it did not attempt to circumvent complaints and that its complaints procedure had been subject to independent audit and had been declared robust and in compliance with the Broadcasting Act.
In his final comment, Mr Worthington stressed that his complaint related primarily to the remarks about "dressing for a bonfire". He asked what was meant by the comment, noting:
If you were attending a bonfire, would you go dressed to be burned? This is at the heart of our complaint.
Mr Worthington suggested that even if passengers were wearing state of the art space suits, burns from aviation fuel were not survivable and that the wearing of natural fibres did not increase their chance of survival. In his view:
…for TVNZ to promote that kind of nonsense and then call it travel tips, has in our view progressed from the "sensational" to the ridiculous.
With respect to the complaint under standard G16, Mr Worthington reiterated that the item had alarmed him, particularly when it was suggested that air travellers should "dress for a bonfire".
He described the reference quoted by TVNZ from the Time International article as "accurate, objective and impartial", and contrasted it with TVNZ’s "sensational, alarming and over the top" remark about dressing for a bonfire.
Finally, Mr Worthington wrote:
It’s a pity that TVNZ did not have the capacity to send me a copy of the subject item or invite me to sit down with them and re view it and then continue with the complaint or not. This would have certainly made the process quicker and probably had a more conciliatory outcome.
When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Worthington questioned whether TVNZ had attempted to circumvent his complaint when it nominated standards G1 and G6 as the appropriate ones under which to assess the complaint. The Authority reassures Mr Worthington that TVNZ’s practice in selecting standards when none are nominated by the complainant is based on long experience about which standards encapsulate the concerns raised. This observation is based on a close association with TVNZ’s complaint process for many years and the Authority agrees with TVNZ that it did not attempt to circumvent this complaint.
Mr Worthington complained about an item on Holmes outlining safety precautions for air travellers. Holmes is a magazine programme containing some current affairs items. It is not part of TV One’s News Hour. Accordingly, as standard G14 refers to news, it is not relevant to the complaint. Mr Worthington also cited standard G20. This standard applies to "controversial public issues". In the Authority’s opinion, an item on safety precaution for our travellers cannot be described as dealing with a "controversial public issue". It concludes that standard G20 is not relevant.
Turning to standard G16, the Authority notes that Mr Worthington expressed particular concern when the presenter asked in reference to air crashes "what would you wear to a bonfire?" That remark, he wrote, was sensational, out of order, and likely to cause alarm, especially when it was presented as a travel tip.
The Authority accepts that the comment could have seemed flippant given the context. Nevertheless, it reinforced the fact that fire was a major hazard with air crashes. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that standard G16 was not breached.
Overall, the Authority does not consider that the remark itself or the full item was biased against air travel as, in several occasions, the safety of air travel when compared with other modes, was advanced.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
22 February 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined this complaint: