60 Minutes – correlation between a particular milk protein and childhood diabetes and heart disease – unbalanced coverage of controversial topic – inaccurate
Section4(1)(d) – soy milk not an aspect of item – omission of reference to soy milk did not result in lack of balance – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A rare protein found in cow’s milk was implicated as being a factor in heart disease and childhood diabetes according to an item on 60 Minutes broadcast on 12 November on TV One beginning at 7.30pm.
Mr R F James complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced because it omitted to discuss the causal relationship between soy protein and the development of childhood diabetes.
In its response to the complaint, TVNZ argued that the item was not about soy, nor was it about childhood diabetes. It was, it contended, about the existence of a particular protein in milk which had a statistical correlation with heart disease and diabetes. It did not consider it was necessary or desirable to refer to soy in an item about two types of cow’s milk.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr James 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.
A report relating to the high rate of diabetes in a type of cow’s milk consumed in New Zealand was broadcast on 60 Minutes on 12 November 2000 beginning at 7.30pm. It was reported that some scientists believed that a rare protein in a type of milk known as A1 may contribute to heart disease and childhood diabetes. The scientists urged the use of A2 milk, which did not contain the harmful protein. A representative from the Dairy Board argued that there was not enough scientific evidence to make the claims.
Mr James complained that the report was unbalanced in omitting to identify soy proteins as being significantly more likely to be implicated in causing childhood diabetes and heart disease than cow’s milk. In his view, it was also relevant that the scientist who was interviewed had received funding to promote soy milk as a preventative against diabetes mellitus.
Mr James said that the causal relationship between childhood diabetes and soy consumption was greater than that of the alleged single rogue protein in cow’s milk. In his view, this was a genuine alternative fact which TVNZ should have revealed as being of public importance.
TVNZ considered the complaint in the context of s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, which provides:
4 (1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with
(a) 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.
TVNZ said it believed that Mr James had overlooked the fact that this item was neither about soy nor was it really about childhood diabetes. It wrote:
It was an inquiry into whether there could be possible health benefits in switching from A1 milk to A2 milk because the latter does not contain a protein which scientists such as Professor Elliott have identified as having a statistical correlation with heart disease and diabetes. It was pointed out for instance that in a country like Tibet where milk intake is almost entirely of the A2 type, heart disease is very uncommon compared with countries like Finland and New Zealand where the majority of milk consumed is of the A1 variety.
TVNZ emphasised that the item was not to do with childhood diabetes, nor had it suggested that A1 milk was the only or the principal cause of the disease. The broadcaster said that that the item demonstrated that scientists had identified a correlation between high rates of diabetes among children, and heart disease, in countries where A1 milk was the principal milk consumed. It added that given the high rate of milk consumption in New Zealand it was in the public interest that the story be investigated.
With respect to the complaint that the programme failed to refer to Professor Elliott as having been funded to promote soy milk, TVNZ responded that the fact would only have been relevant had he been promoting soy products in the item. It noted that Professor Elliott had simply suggested that A2 milk should be preferred over A1 milk because it did not contain a particular protein suspected of posing health risks.
In reference to the complaint under s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act, TVNZ argued that the item had presented points of view which were significant to a New Zealand viewing audience. It said it did not accept that a reference to soy was necessary or desirable in an item which was about two types of cow’s milk. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr James explained his impression had been that the major emphasis of the programme had been on childhood diabetes, and not milk proteins as TVNZ contended. He suggested that the Authority should view not only the item, but also the promos for it. He noted that TVNZ had related childhood diabetes to a "very long-shot connection with cow’s milk". In that context, he argued, it should have given programme time to the much higher causative connection of the disease with soy baby foods. By not doing so, he maintained that TVNZ had breached s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ advised that it had nothing further to add, except to note that Mr James had not, in his original complaint, complained about the promos for the item. The broadcaster submitted that because it had not had an opportunity to investigate the content of the promos, that aspect of the matter should not be considered by the Authority. It said it was its understanding that the referral procedure was an opportunity for a complainant to have a decision reviewed, but was not an occasion for the introduction of fresh material.
Mr James responded that the promos for the item were as much part of the biased nature of the programme as the story itself itself. The promos, he said, were integral and should be judged in the context of the programme.
In Mr James’s opinion, TVNZ’s response indicated that it had no intention to present a balanced programme. He noted that TVNZ had shown a continuous pattern since 1994 of being hostile to any revelations about health risks from soy products. He attached a copy of a recently-published article entitled "The Dark Side of Soy".
The Authority has viewed the item complained about and concludes that it was about childhood diabetes and heart disease, and their possible relationship with milk. Mr James argues that the item was unbalanced as it did not refer to the relationship between soy milk and diabetes. The item was not about soy and the Authority does not accept that the programme was unbalanced because this aspect was not included. Given the nature of the matters canvassed in the item – the possible health benefits in switching from A1 milk to A2 milk to avoid a protein scientists identify as having a statistical correlation with heart disease and diabetes – it does not agree with the complainant that it was necessary for the programme to refer to soy milk.
As the item dealt with the matters it raised in a balanced way, the Authority concludes that s.4(1)(d) of the Act was not breached.
The Authority's task is to review the broadcaster’s decision on the programme complained about. Mr James focused on the 60 Minutes item broadcast on 12 November, and the Authority has reviewed TVNZ’s decision on that matter.
While a complainant may expand on earlier arguments when referring a complaint to the Authority, the legislation does not provide for the introduction of a complaint about an item not initially considered by the broadcaster. Accordingly, the Authority agrees with TVNZ that, on this occasion, it does not have jurisdiction to deal at this later stage with a complaint about the promos for the 60 Minutes item.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
TVNZ forwarded to the Authority a letter dated 22 December 2000 which it received from the complainant. It named TVNZ’s Programme Standards Manager and described a letter which he had sent to the BSA in the following terms:
It displays a snottiness which confirms my continual impression that you graduated from the Hitler school of public service – same school where the Gestapo originated.
TVNZ’s Programme Standards Manager considered the letter "grossly offensive". The Authority agrees. It points out to Mr James that while the complaints process has an adversarial aspect, arguments ad hominen are totally inappropriate. It also points out that it has a range of options it can follow should such language be used again.
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: