"A Tale of Tofu" – National Geographic documentary – unbalanced coverage of controversial topic – inaccurate
Section 4(1)(d) – item dealt with tofu’s cheapness, versatility and availability, not health issues – not controversial topic – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
"A Tale of Tofu" was broadcast by Sky Network Television Ltd on the National Geographic channel on 8 October 2000 at midday. It provided a cultural and historical overview of the role of tofu in Chinese life.
Mr R F James complained to Sky Network Television that the broadcast was unbalanced because it presented tofu in a positive light, and failed to acknowledge that there was a significant body of evidence which showed that it was not healthy, and that it posed irreversible dangers to consumers. As he did not receive a response within the statutory time frame, Mr James referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
When it responded to the complaint, Sky explained that the documentary focused on the role of tofu as a cheap and versatile food source for the Chinese. It noted that it did not go into any detail regarding the perceived health or therapeutic benefits of tofu, or traverse current research regarding health issues. In Sky’s view, there was no breach of the balance requirement under the Broadcasting Act. It declined to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
A historical and cultural overview of the role of tofu in Chinese life was provided in a documentary on the National Geographic channel, broadcast by Sky on 8 October 2000. The documentary, entitled "A Tale of Tofu", focused on the role of tofu as a cheap and versatile food source for Chinese people.
Mr R F James complained to Sky that the documentary was inaccurate and unbalanced because it presented soy in a positive light, and omitted to acknowledge evidence which showed that it posed irreversible dangers to consumers. As Sky did not respond to his complaint within the statutory time period, Mr James referred it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He said that at the least he would hope for a directive that Sky comply with New Zealand law, and give equal time to the other side of the story.
The Authority sought a response from Sky on the complaint. Sky responded directly to Mr James.
Sky assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(d) 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 –
(d) 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
Sky wrote that the documentary looked at the historical and cultural role of tofu in Chinese life. It showed how it was made by Chinese villagers, and focused on its role as a cheap and versatile food source. It noted that it did not examine the perceived health or therapeutic benefits of tofu, or traverse current research regarding health issues and tofu.
Sky acknowledged that the documentary showed tofu in a positive light, but suggested this was not because of its perceived health benefits, but primarily because of its cheapness, versatility and availability in China. It did not consider this was a case where the programme makers had extolled the therapeutic benefits of tofu without presenting the other side of the story. In that context, it did not consider that s.4(1)(d) had been breached.
Further, Sky noted that the documentary had been provided to it by way of a satellite feed, and that it had had no input into its content. Nevertheless, it said, it found Mr James’s letter and enclosures interesting and asked his permission to forward a copy to the National Geographic channel. Sky said that it had no doubt the channel would be open to screening other documentaries about tofu and suggested that if Mr James were aware of any which may be suitable, Sky would be happy to forward that information.
Mr James responded to Sky’s letter by repeating that, in his view, Sky should give equal treatment to the downside of soy consumption. He said there was a lot of disinformation being circulated about "Chinese" culture and soy consumption. Mr James also made the point that a lot of modern tofu, and much of that in New Zealand was not made out of two-year fermented soy paste as in China. It was being made out of ground soy flour or soy protein isolate. He wrote:
That bears about as much relationship to historic tofu as vinegar does to cognac. Yet the feedstock is the same.
He said the two women who had asked him to complain had seen the programme and were in no doubt that it was unbalanced.
In its response to the Authority, Sky first expressed its disappointment that Mr James had not actually seen the programme himself. It noted that the two viewers on whose behalf he had complained had not made complaints themselves.
Sky noted the difficulty it had in responding to a generalised complaint, particularly when Mr James gave no specific examples of claims or comments said to be objectionable.
The broadcasters also said the documentary had been focused entirely on traditional Chinese tofu and not on the product which is available in New Zealand and said by Mr James to be inferior. It wrote:
Given the nature of the documentary we think it would be unrealistic to expect the programme makers to have pointed out that an inferior tofu is marketed in some overseas countries and that there may be some health problems associated with that product, although that issue appears to be hotly debated in the academic literature.
Finally, Sky wrote, it would impose an extremely onerous burden on broadcasters if they were expected to keep abreast of the latest literature on the health benefits (or otherwise) of food products and alter or withdraw programmes in order to reflect accurately the range of viewpoints. It added:
For example, evidence suggests that obesity is one of the leading causes of death in New Zealand. It could be argued that a documentary on French pastry making should point out the dangers of over indulgence in such food. Similarly, over the years, the health risks associated with eating numerous foods, including everything from carrots to burnt toast, have proved to be "controversial". It is simply not practical to expect broadcasters, except in very clear cut cases, to avoid screening programmes which refer to such foods unless the full spectrum of opinion about their pros and cons is traversed.
In his final comment, Mr James maintained that the Broadcasting Act required broadcasters "to give equal treatment to controversial matters". Further, he wrote, tofu was injurious to health. He had made the complaint, he added, on behalf of two women who were aware of what he described as the health dangers of tofu.
Section 4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act requires, in effect, a balanced item when controversial issues of public importance are being discussed. The first issue for the Authority is to decide whether a documentary which examined the historical and cultural role of tofu in Chinese life amounted to a programme to which s.4(1)(d) applied.
The Authority acknowledges that Mr James has a great deal of information from a variety of sources about tofu. It notes he has provided the Authority with a photocopy of an article from the Whangarei Leader of 3 October 2000 which he maintains confirms that the Authority, in an earlier decision, cautioned broadcasters to treat "soy as controversial".
Mr James considers that this was the Authority’s conclusion in a complaint he made about the approach taken to soy in a Dateline programme broadcast by TV3 (Decision No: 2000-125, 14.9.00). The item complained about on that occasion advanced research which, briefly, found that a group of women taking soy supplements were said to have menopausal symptons reduced. The complaint was not upheld but because of the range of opinions propounded about the efficacy of soy products, the Authority said that when health issues referring to soy were discussed:
…it would behove broadcasters to acknowledge that the subject is controversial and ensure that balancing views are provided where appropriate.
Bearing that observation in mind, the Authority considered carefully the focus of the programme complained about on this occasion. It was not, it considered, about the health benefits or otherwise, of tofu. Rather, as Sky explained, the programme examined some aspects of the historical and cultural use of tofu in China in view of its cheapness, versatility and availability. Accordingly, the Authority ruled, it had not crossed the "controversial" threshold, and thus s.4(1)(d) was not applicable.
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 by the Authority when it determined this complaint: