One News – collapse of floor during wedding celebration in Jerusalem – amateur footage of moment of collapse – gratuitous and sensationalist – breach of good taste and decency
Standard G2 – footage a legitimate part of news item – not especially graphic – no uphold
Standard V12 – action taken by broadcaster sufficient – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An item broadcast on One News at 6pm on 26 May 2001 reported on a civil disaster in Israel, in which the floor of a building in Jerusalem had collapsed during a wedding party, killing 30 people and injuring hundreds more. The item featured amateur video footage from the wedding celebration, including the moment the floor collapsed.
J Carapiet complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast breached standards of good taste and decency. He said it was "gratuitous and sensationalist" to have included footage of people in the final moments of their lives, and in the process of being killed by the floor collapsing under them.
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of good taste, maintaining that there was intrinsic news value in the sequence and that One News had been justified in using it. However, it upheld the complaint as a breach of the requirement in standard V12 that an appropriate prior warning be considered when broadcasting violent or distressing material.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Carapiet referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.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.
An item broadcast on One News at 6pm on 26 May 2001 reported on a civil disaster in Israel, in which a building in Jerusalem had collapsed during a wedding party, killing 30 people and injuring hundreds more. The item included amateur video footage from the wedding celebration, including the moment the floor collapsed.
J Carapiet complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast breached the requirement in section 4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 that broadcasters maintain standards consistent with the observance of good taste and decency. He said it was "gratuitous and sensationalist" to have included footage of people in the final moments of their lives, and in the process of being killed by the floor collapsing under them.
Mr Carapiet complained that there was "no good rationale in terms of news or public interest" to have included the sequence. He believed its inclusion had been motivated by "sensationalism, in which voyeurism and the psychological power of horror inappropriately dominated over the broadcaster’s aims to impart information".
The complainant requested the broadcaster to review its process for making decisions on which news images of moments close to, or at, death were acceptable. The complainant also commented that an international broadcaster had not used the footage in its news coverage of the event.
TVNZ considered the complaint under standards G2 and V12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. In the preparation and presentation of programmes, standard G2 requires broadcasters:
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.
The other standard reads:
V12 The treatment in news, current affairs and documentary programmes of violent and distressing material calls for careful editorial discernment as to the extent of graphic detail carried. Should the use of violent and distressing material be considered relevant and essential to the proper understanding of the incident or event being portrayed, an appropriate prior warning must be considered.
Particular care must be taken with graphic material which portrays especially disturbing images, such as:
ill-treatment of people or animals
close-ups of dead and mutilated bodies of people or animals
views of people in extreme pain or distress, or at the moment of death
violence directed at children or children in distress
Material shown in late evening may be more graphic than that shown during general viewing times.
TVNZ noted that the sequence complained about had been shown four times. It appeared in the opening headlines, twice during the BBC’s report on the collapse of the dance floor, and again later in the programme when the main points of the news were summarised.
In TVNZ’s Complaints Committee’s opinion, by the evening of 26 May the fact that a wedding cameraman had filmed the moment of collapse had become part of the story of the tragedy.
TVNZ said it recognised the complainant’s concerns about the sequence. It noted, however, that "for many, many years pictures – either still or moving images – have been a legitimate part of informing the public about the nature of terrible events". In that regard, it cited as examples of horrifying events that were filmed and in which people died, the destruction of Hindenburg in the United States in the 1930s, and the moment of death as a young suffragette threw herself in front of the King’s horse in the Epsom Derby.
TVNZ said its Complaints Committee had concluded that there was intrinsic news value in the sequence and that One News had been justified in using it. Noting the complainant’s observation that a network in Germany may not have used the pictures, the broadcaster said the station must have been in a "very small minority". It said every other news service with which it was familiar had used the sequence, and the One News report had come from the "highly reputable BBC in London".
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of standard G2.
However, the broadcaster did uphold the complaint as a breach of standard V12, on the basis that an "appropriate prior warning" should have been included. While noting that the inclusion of a warning was a matter of editorial discernment, TVNZ said its Complaints Committee was of the opinion that the "horrifying nature of this sequence – with many victims being seen seconds before death – did require a warning". The broadcaster also said the pictures should not have been used in the opening headlines, given that there was no opportunity to attach a warning.
TVNZ said its Acting Managing Editor of News and Current Affairs had informed the Complaints Committee that he would remind news staff of the requirement in V12 to consider warnings where appropriate.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Carapiet referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 . He said he had also complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd about its coverage of the same news item on 3 News. TV3 had not upheld the complaint as a breach of standard V12, and Mr Carapiet said he was concerned that the broadcasters’ two different decisions indicated "inconsistency in standards being applied". He said TVNZ’s rejection of the complaint under standard G2 was "not based on a sound assessment of the difference between recording imagery and broadcasting".
Mr Carapiet said:
Although I respect their professionalism in TV1’s decision to uphold my complaint under V12 I believe that the particular sequence of video I am complaining about, when broadcast at the time, and without the story really being about "the cameraman" as suggested, may actually have breached G2 because it was not in line with publicly accepted norms of taste.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ reiterated its view that standard G2 had not been breached. The broadcaster said there was undoubtedly intrinsic news value in the sequence and it was right that it was screened. It said:
To do so was not in breach of any accepted norm of decency in taste and language or behaviour. The footage was shown around the world and we do not consider that the horrific episode it portrayed was such that it should have been omitted from One News.
Before it considers whether or not the item broadcast on One News breached broadcasting standards, the Authority addresses the complainant’s concern that Television New Zealand Ltd and TV3 Network Services Ltd applied broadcasting standards inconsistently.
On 26 May 2001, both television broadcasters included items on their evening news bulletins about the disaster. Amateur video footage, including the moment the floor collapsed, was a key feature of the news coverage on both One News, broadcast by TVNZ, and 3 News, broadcast by TV3. However, the broadcasts differed in a number of respects, including that 3 News warned viewers that the footage was "disturbing", whereas there was no warning on One News.
TVNZ upheld Mr Carapiet’s complaint that the item breached standard V12, on the basis that a prior warning should have been given. TV3 declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of standard V12, principally because the coverage on 3 News did include a warning. The Authority considers there is nothing inconsistent in the respective broadcasters’ application of standard V12. Each broadcaster was required to assess whether its broadcast breached the standard and, as the broadcasts differed, their different conclusions cannot be said to be inconsistent.
The Authority now considers whether the item broadcast on One News breached standard G2. When it considers a complaint alleging a breach of good taste and decency, the Authority takes into account the context in which the item complained about occurs. The Authority accepts as valid TVNZ’s view that there was intrinsic news value in the sequence, and the fact that a wedding cameraman had filmed the tragedy was part of the story. It notes that the footage, while disturbing in that it showed people in the moments before death, was not especially graphic. For instance, the footage did not include close-ups of dead bodies or images of people at the actual moment of death. Taking these factors into account, the Authority considers the item did not breach good taste and decency. Indeed, it considers that to uphold a breach of standard G2 would unjustifiably infringe the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Nonetheless, the Authority is obliged to record its concern that TVNZ chose to show the footage four times throughout the bulletin, which it considers verges on the excessive. However, it considers TVNZ’s decision to uphold the standard V12 aspect of the complaint adequately addresses this concern.
TVNZ upheld the standard V12 aspect of the complaint on the basis that an "appropriate prior warning" should have been given, due to the distressing nature of the footage. TVNZ also accepted that the footage should not have been used in the opening headlines of the bulletin, given that there was no opportunity for a warning.
The Authority’s task now is to consider whether the action taken by TVNZ, having upheld the standard V12 aspect of the complaint, was sufficient. In its response to the initial complaint, TVNZ said its Acting Managing Editor of News and Current Affairs had informed [TVNZ’s] Complaints Committee that he would remind news staff of the requirement in standard V12 to consider warnings where appropriate. In the course of its deliberations, the Authority sought confirmation from TVNZ that this action had taken place. TVNZ confirmed that its decision to uphold the complaint had been drawn to the attention of the head of daily news, who had discussed it with production desk staff who are responsible for making decisions about warnings.
In this instance, the Authority is satisfied that TVNZ has taken appropriate action. It believes this complaint is a timely reminder to broadcasters of their obligations under standard V12. On this occasion, the Authority is of the view that no further penalty is warranted.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
18 October 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint