60 Minutes – allegation of bullying in RNZ Navy’s gunnery section – sensational – unfair – unbalanced
Standard G4 – Navy spokesperson responded to detailed allegations – no uphold
Standard G6 – full opportunity for Navy to respond – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An item on 60 Minutes, entitled "Breaking Ranks", told the story of one former naval rating who spoke of brutal assaults in the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) gunnery section. Because he had broken the code of silence by accusing instructors of assault, the item reported that he had been forced to leave the Navy.
Pauline McIntosh complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast was based on unsubstantiated evidence and lacked balance. She said that her son was in the gunnery section and that he gave a different account of the incidents described during the broadcast by the former rating.
In response, TVNZ said it had seen the records of the Court-Martial referred to in the item. The Court-Martial records, it said, confirmed the account of the former rating, and a senior Navy Officer in Auckland had been interviewed and provided balance. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Ms McIntosh referred her complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons 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.
"Breaking Ranks", an item broadcast on 60 Minutes on 3 June 2001, presented the views of a young man who had joined the Royal NZ Navy gunnery section and later accused others in the section of violent and brutal assaults. In accusing instructors of assault, the item stated that in breaking a code of silence in the gunners, he had had to resign from the Navy.
Pauline McIntosh complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was based on "the unsubstantiated evidence" of one ex-naval rating and, only a little balance had been provided during an interview with the Navy’s Commodore Wardlaw. Moreover, she wrote, the programme "was heavy on emotional implication and innuendo", and had featured an incident involving the former rating and Ordinary Seaman Joseph McIntosh. This person, the complainant advised, was her son.
The item had reported an incident when her son had been beaten by OS Timoko and, when left unconscious, her son had urinated and passed a bowel motion. Ms McIntosh complained that the report of this embarrassing incident breached her son’s privacy. Moreover, Ms McIntosh added, the item did not report that at the subsequent Court-Martial of OS Timoko, her son had testified they had been play fighting. She added:
A game that unfortunately on this occasion had gone wrong.
Ms McIntosh advised that the Court-Martial had occurred as the rating, who had later left, had reported OS Timoko for abusing her son. Further, she said, there was no corroborative evidence at the Court-Martial that OS Timoko had dragged her son some distance, observing:
This was a fiction of [the former rating] to give him credibility, as a whistle blower.
Ms McIntosh contended that the 60 Minutes reporter, who was at the Court-Martial, had suggested that OS Timoko was found guilty of assaulting her son and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. However, she wrote, the three charges in relation to her son "were dropped" and he had been convicted only for an unrelated offence.
Enclosing a letter from her son in support of her position, Ms McIntosh argued that the item had not challenged [the ex-rating’s] credibility. Because of the item’s unbalance and unfairness to other Navy personnel, she considered that a public apology was appropriate.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards G4 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice which require broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of programmes:
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.
TVNZ said it was shown a release from the Judge Advocate’s Office of the New Zealand Armed Forces (a copy of which was later provided to the Authority when requested) which confirmed that OS Timoko had been convicted at a restricted Court-Martial on three counts of assault committed between November 1999 and February 2000. Two of the victims were [the former rating] and Ms McIntosh’s son. OS Timoko, the release added, had been sentenced to 21 days detention from 28 August 2000.
TVNZ also advised that 60 Minutes, before the item was screened, requested the Navy to inform the families involved in the assaults of the forthcoming item.
TVNZ continued in its letter to Ms McIntosh:
The [Complaints] Committee found that the confirmation of the assaults, including the specific one involving your son and the accuser, justified the investigation and exposure of the violence by 60 Minutes. Violence or threats of violence towards any person volunteering for the New Zealand armed forces, in particular from those involved in their training, is the Committee considers a matter of public interest and concern.
Throughout, the Committee considered that the young sailor at the centre of the now substantiated allegations told his story in an unassuming and direct way. He realised that by coming forward to make his internal complaint, he would be ostracised by his gunnery mates and would almost certainly have to quit the service.
After the enquiries, TVNZ reported that it had been satisfied in accepting the accuracy of the events given by the former rating.
On the issue of balance, TVNZ explained that RNZN had provided its most senior officer in Auckland, who responded to the claims about the "code of silence" and other matters. He also dealt with the reaction of other Navy personnel to the disclosures.
Declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ concluded:
The Committee accepted that the item was accurate in that it was based on accusations not denied and accepted as fact as a Navy Court-Martial. It was fair in that every accusation was put to and answered by the Commodore. This included specific criticisms of those in the gunnery school responsible for the care of young ratings, including your own son.
When she referred her complaint to the Authority, Ms McIntosh repeated her concerns that there was no corroboration for the remarks made by the former rating. She said that the item should have included an interview with her son or OS Timoko, and then the viewer would have been able to decide on the truthfulness of each of the participants. Ms McIntosh reiterated the point that the incident between her son and Timoko had involved play fighting. She accepted that Timoko had been convicted, observing:
Unfortunately in the Politically Correct world we live even if it is consensual between two individuals – by the Navy was judged as an assault. Thus this explain and justifies the light sentence received.
Describing the item as "shoddy", she said that her son, OS Timoko, and all Navy personnel deserved a public apology.
The Authority considered that it was important in considering this complaint to know whether Mr Timoko had been convicted of charges of assault. TVNZ supplied the Authority with a report from the Judge Advocate General’s section of the Armed Forces which recorded that Ordinary Gunner Timoko was convicted on three charges of assault at a Restricted Court-Martial on 28 August 2000, and sentenced to 21 days detention. One conviction related to Mr McIntosh, the complainant’s son, and another referred to the former rating whose story was told in the item.
This information was important, in the Authority’s opinion, as the complainant raised questions about the credibility of the former rating.
TVNZ argued that the item was relevant as it told a story of what it described as the "substantiated" allegations of violence and threats of violence in the armed forces.
The Authority does not accept that the report from the Judge Advocate General’s section necessarily substantiates all the details advanced by the rating in the broadcast. It does however confirm the substance of the allegations.
The Authority acknowledges the complainant’s belief that other ratings from the Gunnery section should have been interviewed. This applies in particular to OS Timoko and OS McIntosh. However, while the complaints made by the rating referred to these other ratings, the item’s theme dealt with violence in the gunnery section. In these circumstances, the Authority accepts that comments from a senior naval officer were necessary and sufficient.
The item included a full interview with Commodore Mike Wardlaw, the Navy’s Maritime Commander in Auckland. He was given the opportunity to respond in detail to the allegations.
In summary, the item advanced one rating’s account about the practices in one section of the Navy, and the rating was able to refer to a Court-Martial ruling in support of his contentions. The item then gave the Commodore every opportunity to respond. By doing so, the Authority concludes that TVNZ met its obligations under standards G4 and G6.
For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 September 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: