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Hill & Knowlton (NZ) Ltd and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-027

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
  • R McLeod

Complainant

  • Hill & Knowlton (NZ) Ltd of Auckland

Dated

22nd March 2001

Number

2001-027

Channel/Station

TV2

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Havoc and Newsboy’s Sell Out Tour 2 – allegations about public relations companies – offensive language – inaccurate – unbalanced, biased and unfair

Findings
Standard G1 – subsumed

Standard G2 – no uphold

Standard G4 – serious allegations made – no acknowledgment that they were contestable – uphold

Standard G6 – subsumed

Order
Broadcast of statement

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

A sequence broadcast during the satirical programme Havoc and Newsboy’s Sell Out Tour 2 on TV2 on 15 August 2000 beginning at 9.30pm, contained an interview with political activist Nicky Hagar. Mr Hagar made a number of claims about the public relations industry. Among references to various public relations companies, Mr Hagar named Hill & Knowlton, an international company operating in New Zealand, as being responsible for putting a favourable spin on America’s involvement in the Gulf War.

Hill & Knowlton, through its solicitors, complained to Television New Zealand Ltd that the broadcast was unfair, offensive and unbalanced.

TVNZ responded that the remarks had to be interpreted in the satirical context of the programme. It was clear, it said, that this was not a serious current affairs or documentary programme. In the context of a satirical comedy programme aimed at a "youthful and anarchic audience", TVNZ did not consider it breached any standards and declined to uphold the complaint.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Hill & Knowlton 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 upholds the complaint that Standard G4 was breached. It declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaint.

Decision

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.

Nicky Hagar, a political activist, was interviewed on Havoc and Newsboy’s Sell Out Tour 2 broadcast on TV2 on 15 August 2000, beginning at 9.30pm. He claimed that any time there was a controversial issue, there would be a public relations company behind it. By way of illustration, he identified Hill & Knowlton, which he said was the second largest public relations company in the world, and claimed the company was influential in the American Congress’s decision to engage in the Gulf War. According to Mr Hagar, at a crucial hearing before the Congress before that decision was made, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl had given evidence that people were being left to die in Kuwait hospitals. In fact, he said, she was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, had never been in the hospitals in that country and was acting on behalf of the Kuwait government to push the Americans into attacking Iraq. Mr Hagar also claimed that Hill & Knowlton acted for the Indonesian military in a contract relating to East Timor. He said he did not know who the company was working for in New Zealand as it acted secretly, and added, "wherever there’s a dirty thing going on they’ll be in there helping." While he was speaking, visuals from the Gulf War were shown on a split screen.

Through its solicitors, Hill & Knowlton complained to TVNZ that the programme breached standards relating to good taste and decency, truth and accuracy, fair and just dealing with any person, and balance, impartiality and fairness. The company claimed that the statements made by Mr Hagar and the presenters were "factually incorrect and derisive and designed to bring [it] into disrepute." It suggested that it would have been clear that to invite Mr Hagar to appear on the programme without the input of the public relations companies about whom he was speaking, would result in a breach of standards. It sought apologies from the presenters and Mr Hagar to be broadcast and provided in written form.

The particular aspects to which the complainant objected included:

  • The allegation that it had been involved in "morally reprehensible and arguably illegal acts".
  • Images of tanks, missiles and Iraqi soldiers which were inflammatory and designed to undermine its reputation.
  • Language which breached the bounds of good taste.
  • The presenters spitting on the ground as a clear sign of disgust in relation to the company.
  • The allegation that Hill & Knowlton manufactured a story about a Kuwait hospital in order to obtain Congressional votes. Mr Hagar’s version of the story was factually incorrect and noted that the young woman’s story had been verified by numerous independent media sources. It was also incorrect for Mr Hagar to state that it was acting for the Kuwait government.
  • The allegation that it acted for the Indonesian military was incorrect. In fact, it had ceased acting for any interest relating to Indonesia when conflict arose in East Timor, the company wrote. It had never acted for the Indonesian military.
  • The allegation that it assisted the Turkish government in covering up the gassing of the Kurds. This allegation was completely without merit and false.
  • The inference that Hill & Knowlton was acting "secretly" in New Zealand. The identity of its clients was confidential, Hill & Knowlton explained, which was standard practice in the industry. It was erroneous and inflammatory to imply that it acted "secretly".
  • Allegations which were factually incorrect, which were designed to cause the company harm and which were not put to it for comment resulted in presentation of a programme in an unfair and unbalanced manner.
  • Mr Hagar’s statement that "wherever there’s a dirty thing going on they’ll be in there helping" summed up the programme’s portrayal of the company, Hill & Knowlton said.
  • It was a breach of the Act and the Code to include Mr Hagar, who was known to be a vocal opponent of public relations companies, without providing the views of those companies.

  • TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 and standards G1, G2, G4 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters:

    G1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

    G2  To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.

    G4  To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.

    G6  To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.

    Section 4(1)(a) provides:

    4 (1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with –

    a) The observance of good taste and decency

    Beginning with a general observation about the satirical nature of the Havoc and Newsboy series, TVNZ noted that the approach to "information" or "current affairs" was different to that found in a serious news, current affairs or documentary programme.

    TVNZ argued that:

    …[Mr Hagar’s] very earnestness was itself seen as a joke in contrast to the light-hearted and deliberately irresponsible and anarchic behaviour of "Havoc" and "Newsboy".

    It also suggested that the expectations of a youthful and young adult audience well familiar with the presenters’ style had to be taken into account when considering the programme.

    When it considered the breach of good taste aspect of the complaint, TVNZ subsumed the statutory provision into standard G2, explaining that the standard more fully dealt with the intent of the Act. It responded first that it did not consider the visuals from the Gulf War were inappropriate, and that they were part of the "over-the-top" satirical approach the presenters used. With respect to the spitting, it advised that this was a "prop" or device the pair had used to express mock disgust. Bearing in mind the context of a satirical comedy programme aimed at a youthful and anarchic audience, TVNZ said it did not accept that the programme breached any standards.

    With respect to the complaint under standard G1, TVNZ responded that it doubted that the measurement for truth and accuracy was the same in a satirical programme as it was in a news, current affairs or documentary programme. In its view, there was nothing new in what Mr Hagar had to say, and it was clear that the comments were his own.

    TVNZ did not consider the company was treated unfairly so as to constitute a breach of standard G4. It said that the sequence was part of a process of lampooning the public relations industry, which was a perfectly legitimate target for satire. It suggested that the "outspoken, opinionated and loud nature of [the presenters’] comments is an essential part of their humour."

    In the context of a satirical programme, TVNZ did not consider there was a requirement for factual balance. It suggested that, if it had been subjected to a similar mocking style of interview in the interests of balance, Hill & Knowlton "could well have been embarrassed well beyond any discomfort it may have felt as a result of being one of the firms singled out during a lampoon of the public relations industry." TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint under standard G6.

    TVNZ concluded that in the context of satire, the programme did not breach any broadcasting standards. It said it recognised that humour was subjective and that probably many did not understand or appreciate the style used by the presenters. However, the presenters did have a strong following among young adults and their humour could not be discounted on the basis of it not being universally enjoyed, TVNZ said.

    Hill & Knowlton referred the complaint to the Authority on the basis that it was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision not to uphold the complaint on the ground that the programme was "allegedly satirical in nature." In particular, it said, TVNZ had not dealt with its specific complaints relating to the false allegations made.

    In its response to the Authority, TVNZ took issue with the complainant’s description of the programme as "allegedly satirical". It submitted that there was nothing "allegedly" about it. Both this programme and others in the series had clearly been satire, it said.

    TVNZ also submitted that the sequence relating to Hill & Knowlton should be seen in the context of a satirical series targeted at a late teen and young adult audience, "with all the youthful rebellion and anarchic attitudes that that implies."

    In its final comments, Hill & Knowlton stated that it did not matter whether the series was satirical or targeted at youth, because the particular broadcast complained about did not, in itself, have the hallmarks of satire and had to be viewed in isolation in that regard. Hill & Knowlton submitted:

    The comments made by Mr Hagar and the presenters were not satirical in nature and would not be taken as satirical by the youth audience. This is particularly so in relation to Mr Hagar who comes across as very sincere in respect of his statements.

    Hill & Knowlton reported that it had received inquiries following the broadcast from young people concerned about the activities the company had allegedly carried out. According to the complainant it had been necessary to meet with many of these young people to "set the record straight" and protect its reputation. Hill & Knowlton argued that those young people, who had not viewed the broadcast as satire, should be considered indicative of the audience.

    In any event, Hill & Knowlton claimed that even if the broadcast was deemed satirical, that label did not justify the "broadcasting of untruths". Hill & Knowlton argued that TVNZ could not allege the programme was satirical in order to avoid "the full force of clear programming standards."

    The Authority’s Findings

    The Authority deals first with the opposing views of the broadcaster and the complainant as to the context in which this complaint should be considered. The broadcaster argues, in light of the satirical nature of the programme, that there was no breach of broadcasting standards. On the other hand, Hill & Knowlton contends that the overall satirical nature of the series is irrelevant to the determination of this complaint, given that in its view the programme segment complained about did not have the hallmarks of satire.

    The Authority does not dispute the intended general satirical nature of the programme. It acknowledges the broadcaster’s comments about lampooning the public relations industry, and its argument that the "outspoken, opinionated and loud nature" of the presenters is an essential part of their humour. However, the Authority considers that aspects of the tone and style of the programme segment complained about distinguished it from the rest of the programme. Serious allegations were made by a political activist who was earnest, and not humorous, in his intent, and the presenters made no attempt to distance themselves from the allegations. As a consequence, the programme segment complained about cannot be assessed solely in the context of humour and satire.

    Against that background, the Authority turns to consider the complaint. Under standard G1, the Authority is in no position to judge the accuracy of Mr Hagar’s claims and declines to determine this aspect of the complaint. Under standard G6, the Authority considers that in the overall context of a satirical series it may well have been inappropriate to invite Hill & Knowlton onto the programme to offer balance, as if the programme was a conventional news programme. The Authority therefore subsumes all parts of the complaint under standard G4. The general requirement for fairness encompassed in standard G4 appears to the Authority to adequately reflect the substance of the complaint.

    In the Authority’s view, the broadcaster’s decision to invite a known critic of the public relations industry onto the programme had the potential to raise issues of fairness. In spite of the programme’s overall satirical nature, given that Mr Hagar’s claims were made in all seriousness, the Authority finds that the broadcaster had an obligation to at least challenge his views. In the interests of fairness, at the very least the Authority considers it was necessary to point out that the claims were contestable. In this respect, it concludes, TVNZ breached the requirement to deal justly and fairly with Hill & Knowlton in the programme.

    In relation to Hill & Knowlton’s complaint that the programme breached standards of good taste and decency, the Authority finds the juxtaposition of Mr Hagar’s views with images of the Gulf War, the spitting in mock disgust, and the general language and demeanour of the presenters, were not sufficiently offensive to breach Standard G2. It reaches this conclusion by taking into account the overall satirical nature of the programme.

     

    For the reasons given, the Authority upholds the complaint that Havoc and Newsboy’s Sell Out Tour 2 broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd on TV2 at 9.30pm on 15 August 2000 breached standard G4 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

    The Authority declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaints.

    Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose penalties under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act. It invited the parties to make submissions on penalty.

    TVNZ considered the most appropriate penalty would be the broadcast of a statement summarising the Authority’s decision, at a time of night similar to that of the original broadcast.

    Hill & Knowlton submitted that a statement, including an apology, be broadcast, and its submission included a suggested statement.

    Hill & Knowlton also submitted, pursuant to section 16(1) of the Broadcasting Act, that the Authority order TVNZ to pay costs of $2,000 to the company, being the reasonable costs incurred in making the complaint.

    The Authority has considered the submissions and decides that the broadcast of a summary of the decision is the appropriate penalty on this occasion. The Authority notes that under section 13(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, the content of the statement is a matter for the broadcaster and the Authority.

    Order

    Pursuant to section 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 broadcaster’s attention to the requirement in section 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 has been complied with.

    Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

     

    Judy McGregor
    Member
    22 March 2001

    Appendix

    The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

    1. Hill & Knowlton’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 11 September 2000
    2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 27 September 2000
    3. Hill & Knowlton’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 17 October 2000
    4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 25 October 2000
    5. Hill & Knowlton’s Final Comment – 2 November 2000
    6. TVNZ’s Submission on Penalty – 7 February 2001
    7. Hilll & Knowlton’s Submission on Penalty – 14 February 2001