60 Minutes – Dover Samuels – Police investigation found insufficient evidence to prosecute – inaccurate to state he was "cleared" of the charges
Standard G1 – inaccurate use of the word "cleared’ – does not mean "insufficient evidence" – uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A 60 Minutes item, broadcast on 17 December 2000 on TV One at 7.35pm, looked into allegations made against Dover Samuels MP, which had been forwarded to the Police by the Prime Minister. Near the end of the item, the reporter stated that Mr Samuels had been "cleared" of previous allegations investigated by the Police.
Peter Low complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that TV One had been inaccurate in using the word "cleared". Mr Low explained that the Police had used the term "insufficient evidence".
TVNZ responded that television used language as simply and directly as possible. The word "cleared" seemed to TVNZ to be appropriate to convey that, after the first police enquiry, no charges had been brought against Mr Samuels. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Low 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 G1 was breached.
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.
A 60 Minutes item on allegations made against Dover Samuels MP, was broadcast on TV One on 17 December 2000 at 7.35pm. The item revealed that the Prime Minister had written to the Police Commissioner to pass on information, that Mr Samuels was allegedly involved in drug running through his Northland fishing business, and had committed incest with his daughter. The item included interviews with Mr Samuel’s wife and daughter, and other acquaintances in Matauri Bay, who supported his innocence. The reporter noted that the Police and the Prime Minister had both refused to be interviewed. Near the end of the item, the reporter stated that Mr Samuels had been "cleared" of previous allegations investigated by the Police and that no charges had been brought.
Mr Low complained to the broadcaster, Television New Zealand Ltd, that the use of the term "cleared" was inaccurate. He said the Police finding was one of "insufficient evidence".
TVNZ considered his complaint in the context of standard G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. This standard provides, in respect of news, current affairs and documentaries, that:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
…in television, the language is used as simply and directly as possible. Unlike a newspaper to which a reader is able to refer back if he or she has not fully understood what was written on the first reading, television must convey its message so that it can be grasped at the one and only hearing.
In this case, the context makes it clear that the information the item was trying to convey was that after the first police inquiry no charges were brought against the Minister. In this sense, the word "cleared" seemed to the committee to be appropriate.
…had the programme followed the path you suggest, the viewers would be left with an impression perhaps that Mr Samuels had not been charged only because the Police had failed to find the evidence. Such an implication in the circumstances would surely be at the very least unfair to Mr Samuels.
…You are apparently arguing that a person has to face a court in order to be "cleared" of charges. We would argue that in common parlance a police decision not to proceed after being unable to substantiate damaging allegations also amounts to a person being "cleared".
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of standard G14.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Low advised that he believed viewers were attracted to 60 Minutes because they had the "wit and nous to understand a simple term such as insufficient evidence". If the Police had no evidence at all, he observed, they would have brought down a finding of "cleared". In reference to whether or not the term used by the police was unfair to Mr Samuels, he said:
And unfair or not to Mr Samuels, it was a decision made by the Police and not 60 Minutes; their job under [standard] G14, is to present the news accurately.
Mr Low maintained that TV One had not presented the Police finding accurately or objectively. He said he believed TV One had preferred to put its "own spin on the issue", rather than broadcast the truth. In his opinion, TVNZ had gone out of its way to protect Mr Samuels, regardless of the truth of the Police finding.
The Authority is clearly of the view that reference to Mr Samuels having been "cleared" of charges was inaccurate and a breach of standard G1. The official statement was that there had been "insufficient evidence" on which to charge him. The statement did not state that Mr Samuels had been cleared of the charges.
The Authority disputes TVNZ’s argument that television must convey its message so that it can be grasped at the one and only hearing. The Authority considers that TVNZ is doing a disservice to its 60 Minutes viewers, who watch such programmes presumably, because they wish to see topical issues at length. In the Authority’s opinion, viewers would understand such terms as "insufficient evidence" without such terms being interpreted for them.
For the reasons given, the Authority upholds the complaint that a 60 Minutes item broadcast on TV One on 17 December 2000 at 7.35pm breached standard G1 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld the complaint, the Authority may make orders under ss. 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. On this occasion, the Authority does not consider the breach warrants an order.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
7 June 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: