"The Parent Trap" – Assignment – documentary about divorce – New Zealand family law – men who feel disenfranchised – failed to address issue of domestic violence – failed to interview non-custodial mothers – biased – unbalanced
G6 – programme not about domestic violence – programme achieved its purpose – section 14 Bill of Rights Act right to freedom of expression – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
"The Parent Trap", an Assignment programme broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on 16 November 2000, looked at the emotional and financial consequences for parents and children caught up in divorce. It examined calls to change New Zealand’s family law and asked why a "growing number of men [felt] disenfranchised under the present system."
Suzanne George complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was biased towards men and lacked balance. She said more women should have been interviewed to "balance the public perception in the debate about shared parenting." She complained that the programme had not addressed high levels of domestic violence in New Zealand.
TVNZ responded that the issue of domestic violence had been "widely publicised" in the past. It its view, the issue did not need to be specifically restated in a programme which looked at divorce and its consequences from a different angle, "that of a proposed law change and the men who feel disenfranchised under present legislation."
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Ms George referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 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 listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
"The Parent Trap" was the title given to an Assignment programme, broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on 16 November 2000. The item looked at family law in New Zealand and the emotional and financial consequences for parents and children caught up in divorce.
The scope of the item was set out in the introduction which said:
In "The Parent Trap" Kerryanne Evans examines calls to change our family law and asks why a growing number of men feel disenfranchised under the present system.
The item included interviews with: a family court lawyer; a volunteer at a Dunedin men’s group working to help fathers become involved in their children’s lives; a non-custodial mother whose ex-husband won sole custody of their child in a court case in California; a non-custodial father seeking "equal rights" for fathers; a representative from Mana Men’s Rights Group; Dr Liz Gordon, Alliance MP; Hon Margaret Wilson, Associate Minister of Justice; Judge Patrick Mahony, Principal Family Court Judge; Professor Mark Hennigan from Otago University; a divorced couple who share custody of their children; Muriel Newman, ACT MP; a Californian judge; and, a Californian family attorney.
Suzanne George complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was biased towards men and lacked balance. She objected to only one non-custodial mother being interviewed, saying, "she was an American forced to give up custody of her child to a New Zealand male."
Why were no New Zealand separated and/or divorced mothers interviewed to give a balanced viewpoint in the programme? Are non-custodial mothers too afraid to speak out because of the backlash from males?
Referring to the comments of one of the men interviewed, who suggested that it would not be too long before a man killed a family court judge, she said:
I believe any man who threatens to kill a judge simply because he cannot get his own way in custody matters, is a totally unfit role model and a totally unfit father. It seems men have to learn healthier ways of dealing with, expressing and taking full responsibility for their anger and rage, and stop projecting it onto others.
In reference to another male interviewee’s comment that it was time for men to "get their own way", Ms George suggested that marriages often fell apart for the "very reason" that men wanted to have their own way.
Ms George took particular exception to the suggestion of one interviewee that men may need to enter four or five marriages or relationships during their lifetimes. She said:
We women and children want honest, stable, long lasting relationships with one mature, caring male ally, not secretly promiscuous males who have multiple relationships with many women.
In her letter of complaint, Ms George quoted various passages from the works of Andrea Dworkin and Phyllis Chesler in relation to issues of violence against women, motherhood, and women’s experiences of family law.
Pointing to a recent case given news coverage, Ms George said it seemed that women’s views were being ignored in custody matters.
Ms George then described how she had participated in a public debate in her local newspaper to express her strong opposition to ACT MP Dr Muriel Newman’s Shared Parenting Bill. It was her belief that the Bill "unnecessarily expose[d] women and children to unchecked male violence, both psychological and/or physical," she said. According to the complainant, she had received an unsolicited phone call from a member of a Dunedin fathers’ rights group who opposed the views she had expressed in her letters to the editor.
Ms George said it seemed that "women [were] not supposed to express their views, especially in a public forum." She described a public debate she had attempted to instigate, via the letters to the editor column of her local newspaper, about professional sexual abuse. She said the editor had allowed what she perceived to be a personal attack on her from a local men’s rights activist activist to be published, before closing correspondence on the issue.
I believe the subtle message being sent … through the media was that all women should keep quiet and if we don’t we will be aggressively threatened and intimidated into silence about male sexual behaviour.
Following the newspaper debate, Ms George said she had received sexually offensive material in the mail and had been obliged to go to the Police. She had also been in contact with the newspaper’s Editor who had told her he would not stop publishing the views of the father’s rights member.
Ms George claimed the local newspaper regularly published "sob stories about non-custodial fathers" but she had "not once" seen an explanation from either custodial or non-custodial mothers.
Ms George said:
I believe women should be interviewed to balance the public perception in the debate about shared parenting.
She went on to describe her own experience of loosing custody of her children more than 20 years ago. She said she was now estranged from her eldest son who she said was psychologically and physically violent due to the role modelling he had received from his father.
Finally, Ms George said:
It seems only those "blessed" with penis privileges are able to gain access to the media. When are women going to be heard in this separation/divorce child custody debate by the Assignment programme?
Ms George wrote a further letter to TVNZ to clarify why she was dissatisfied with the programme. She said:
The level of domestic violence in our community, both physical and psychological, seems to have been ignored in the programme, and yet fathers were portrayed as loudly demanding their rights, at the expense of the rights of mothers and children, which I believe only proves that they are unfit fathers.
In conclusion, she said:
The sympathy for non-custodial fathers in your programme was evident, but let’s have a reality check. I believe the fathers’ rights movement is a powerful propaganda exercise dealing with misinformation against women. Many women and children are better off without these men in their lives. That’s the reality, so how about doing a programme showing the other side.
TVNZ considered the complaint under standard G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which reads:
G6 Broadcasters are required to show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
TVNZ said standard G6 needed to be considered in light of section 4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, which reads:
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.
In the opinion of TVNZ’s Complaints Committee, the extent of Ms George’s dissatisfaction with the programme appeared to have arisen
not because of inherent faults in the programme, but because [she] would have preferred an item which was dealing with different issues than those tackled here.
The broadcaster noted that the programme could not be considered in isolation and that each programme added "elements to an existing fund of public knowledge." TVNZ said:
The Committee took the view that the facts of spousal abuse to which you refer have been widely publicised in the past and would be recognised by viewers as an ingredient in the broad issue of divorce, separation and child custody.
In the broadcaster’s view, issues of spousal violence and possible sexual abuse by fathers did not need to be specifically restated in the programme. The programme, it said, looked at the issue of divorce and its consequences from a different angle, "that of a proposed law change and the men who feel disenfranchised under present legislation."
TVNZ noted the complainant’s criticism that the non-custodial parents who appeared in the programme were predominantly male. The broadcaster said that seemed to reflect the fact that "the overwhelming number of non-custodial parents in society are men." It said:
The Committee believed you could not, in fairness, simply dismiss this fact on the basis that some men are violent or abusive, and that some may pose a threat to their children and former partners.
The broadcaster said that, when reviewing possible changes to New Zealand’s family law system, the reporter had "quickly discovered" claims made by non-custodial males that the current family court system demonstrated gender bias. Those claims had been aired on the programme and had been responded to by a number of people interviewed in the programme.
TVNZ quoted some of the statements made which countered what the men had said:
Associate Justice Minister, Margaret Wilson: I think myself that people have given them [men] an extremely good hearing, but being consulted and listened to doesn’t always mean that your way is going to prevail. There are always other sides to the story and it’s our job to try and balance those.
Alliance MP Liz Gordon: It may well be their time, but let me tell you the sort of things that they say. They give advice to people – to the men who come to them – they say things like "remember, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Now that’s a very much older ideology than the 1970s. That reminds us that it’s been thousands of years of anti-women propaganda.
Associate Justice Minister, Margaret Wilson (incorrectly attributed by TVNZ to Dr Muriel Newman MP, sponsor of the Shared Parenting Bill): … the focus … was on the parent, not the child, and if you start with the child as being the primary and fundamental concern for the legislation then of course there may well be shared parenting arrangements that are suitable in some instances and some instances where there is violence they are not at all suitable to be frank.
TVNZ also noted that programme makers were "severely restricted" by present New Zealand law which forbids publication of any detail of family court proceedings which may lead to the identification of any children. For that reason, it had been necessary for Assignment to travel to the United States to interview the only non-custodial mother, it explained. Details of that case could not have been reported, had it happened in New Zealand, it said.
TVNZ said Assignment had applied to the Family Court for special permission to report details about both sides of a custody battle, but had been unsuccessful.
In relation to one of the men crying on the programme, which Ms George had said was "tacky", TVNZ said Assignment’s reporter and producer had both found "high levels of emotional strain" among the people they spoke to while making the programme. The broadcaster did not accept that the tears amounted to emotional manipulation.
Under standard G6, TVNZ observed that the programme appeared to have achieved what it set out to do. As stated in the programme’s introduction, the item had successfully looked at the issues surrounding possible law changes, and at the reasons men felt disenfranchised under present law.
In relation to whether the programme had achieved balance, TVNZ said the item had opened by emphasising the number of children affected by divorce and had introduced viewers to various situations. In one situation a father had gained custody of his Californian-born son, and in another the man’s separation from his child had driven him to what family members regarded as an "obsessive state". The programme had then shown two examples of men who felt harshly treated by New Zealand’s guardianship laws, as well as an apparently successful example of shared parenting in which both parents were enthusiastically involved. TVNZ said political and legal observations had been made by politicians from ACT, Labour and the Alliance, and from New Zealand’s Principal Family Court Judge and other judges in the United States. An academic perspective had been provided by a don from Otago University. A viewpoint which TVNZ’s Complaint Committee judged to be close to that of the complainant had been provided by MP Liz Gordon.
TVNZ said it believed there was a sense in which the complainant felt that the men on the programme should not have been allowed to voice their opinion because, in her view, "men loudly demanding their rights" only proved that "they [were] unfit fathers." The broadcaster drew attention to section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 which states that, "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form." In TVNZ’s view, "everyone" included non-custodial fathers.
As such, TVNZ concluded that standard G6 had not been infringed.
Ms George referred her complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, saying she believed the programme "should never have been given screening time on television."
In her opinion, the decision to make the programme had been based on "male sympathy within the TVNZ crew for the propaganda being spread by non-custodial fathers." The type of "controlling" behaviour expressed by the interviewee who said it was time fathers "got their own way" was probably what had ended the men’s marriages, she said. She added:
The role-modelling message being sent to younger men is that it is alright to use force and intimidation to get what you want. I believe these fathers need to learn new, healthier ways of negotiating relations – in private, away from the public arena.
Ms George said:
The main reason for my complaint was due to the fact that the contents of the programme showed non-custodial fathers bullying and loudly demanding their right to gain access to children and shared parenting rights, unacceptable role modelling in my opinion which just keeps the cycle of violence in our society continuing.
In the complainant’s view, the programme was "a symptom of the underlying epidemic domestic violence and the means of controlling women and children in our society, violence which was pointedly avoided in the programme."
Ms George said she objected to the programme having "largely ignored" what she believed were the "underlying reasons for the behaviour of these men".
The complainant went into some detail about her own experience of divorce and child custody, explaining that it was necessary to tell her story "to point out that if mothers and children don’t get protection under law from intimidating, abusive males, then the cycle of abuse just continues into the next generation."
She concluded by saying that the "behaviour and propaganda being spread by these non-custodial fathers is totally unacceptable, and they need to find healthier, individual ways of negotiating their relationship with others."
Following receipt of TVNZ’s response to the Authority, in which it advised it had nothing to add to its initial response to her, the complainant wrote to the Authority that she had again received abusive, unsolicited mail from what she believed was a member of a fathers’ rights movement.
I strongly object to the secretive abuse to which I have been subjected from the fathers’ rights movement because I chose to speak out publicly in opposition to shared parenting. … I also strongly object to the threats being made publicly by non-custodial fathers towards the lives of judges and "disobedient" custodial mothers, and that these fathers use violence, aggression and intimidation to try and achieve their goals.
I believe it shows tacit approval for this violent behaviour when the television media grants screening time to fathers apparently obsessed about ex-wives and children.
Ms George complained that "The Parent Trap" was biased towards men. She said the programme lacked balance because it failed to address the issue of domestic violence and only interviewed one non-custodial mother.
In the Authority’s view, the substance of the complaint is essentially that the complainant would have preferred a different programme, dealing with different issues, to go to air. Having viewed the programme, the members of the Authority are of the view that it achieved its purpose, which was stated in the introduction when the presenter said the programme would
… [examine] calls to change our family law and [ask] why a growing number of men feel disenfranchised under the present system.
Along the way, the programme interviewed parents, both male and female, and a number of politicians and professionals holding a range of views on both sides of the shared parenting debate.
The programme was not about domestic violence, an issue which has been widely debated. It was about some of the reasons why some men feel disadvantaged by the present family law system. The Authority notes the broadcaster’s view that the men’s freedom of expression is protected under section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. In the Authority’s assessment, whether viewers agreed with them or not, the men were entitled to have their views aired. It also notes that various contributors to the programme provided balance on the issue of shared parenting.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
22 March 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
- Suzanne George’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 22 November 2000
- Ms George’s Further Letter to TVNZ – 1 December 2000 (plus attachments)
- TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 11 December 2000
- Ms George’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 7 January 2001
- TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 15 January 2001
- Ms George’s Final Comment – 26 January 2001