Late Edition – Breakfast – alleged rat infestation in Helensville – no evidence of rats – community views not sought – item unfair and unbalanced
Standard G14 – item failed to uphold standards of accuracy, impartiality and objectivity – uphold
Costs of $500 to Crown
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An item broadcast on TV One on Late Edition on 6 June 2001, and on Breakfast on 7 June 2001, dealt with an alleged infestation of rats in and around Helensville.
Hans Van Duyn complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unfair and lacked balance. He said the only person interviewed was a former Helensville Mayor, Mr Eric Glavish, who had his own "reasons or agenda to make unsubstantiated allegations". Mr Van Duyn also complained that it was "false pretences and a deliberate attempt to mislead the viewers" for TVNZ to have accompanied the item with footage of dead rats not filmed in Helensville.
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. It said Mr Glavish was an acceptable source for the television item and there was "irrefutable evidence of the deplorable state of the riverbanks in and around the town". The file footage of rats used in the item did not misrepresent the facts, it said.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Van Duyn referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the complaint. It orders the broadcaster to pay $500 by way of costs to the Crown.
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 TV One on Late Edition on 6 June 2001, and on Breakfast on 7 June 2001, reported on an alleged "plague of rats" in and around Helensville. The reporter began by quoting from the "Pied Piper of Hamlin", accompanied by archival footage of rats, including one emerging from a toilet. The reporter was also shown looking one night with a camera crew for rats in the area, but without success. The item included interviews with former Helensville Mayor Eric Glavish, and with the widow of a fisherman who had died from leptospirosis, an infectious bacterial disease occurring in rodents, dogs and other mammals. It concluded by reporting that the local council was about to begin a concentrated poisoning programme.
Hans Van Duyn complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unfair and lacked balance. He said Mr Glavish had "his own reasons or agenda to make unsubstantiated allegations", and the broadcaster had not sought information or comment from representatives of any of the town’s organisations or from the community. Mr Van Duyn also complained that it was "false pretences and a deliberate attempt to mislead the viewers" for TVNZ to have accompanied the item with footage of dead rats. He noted that the TV One camera crew had been unable to find any rats.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standard G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. In the preparation and presentation of programmes, the standard requires broadcasters:
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
TVNZ explained that the item had been produced following a front-page story in the Rodney Times which highlighted an alleged rat infestation in and near Helensville. The newspaper had quoted Mr Glavish, and Mr Glavish was also an acceptable source for the television item, TVNZ said. The broadcaster said:
He [Mr Glavish] was able to relate his experience with the Kaipara River rats to his experience in local government in the district. He further believes the inadequate poison methods of the current council until now has led directly to the level of rats increasing.
In TVNZ’s view, while the complainant might consider the former mayor an unsuitable source, Mr Glavish had a "proper view" that he was entitled to express.
TVNZ considered the story had made it clear that the rodents were "mainly in the rubbish that litters the shore and reserves of the area", before turning to deal with the more serious effects unchecked rats might bring to a neighbourhood. The broadcaster said:
The plight of the dead fisherman who worked on the Helensville wharves, and the blame his widow placed squarely on the rats was fair reporting. It was also backed by the veterinary surgeon who had treated local animals for leptospirosis.
TVNZ said the item’s producer had told its Complaints Committee that the piece reflected the "irrefutable evidence of the deplorable state of the riverbanks in and around the town".
With regard to the aspect of Mr Van Duyn’s complaint about footage of rats used in the item, TVNZ said the file pictures, although not labelled as such on screen, did not misrepresent the facts as claimed by Mr Van Duyn. The item’s reporter had informed TVNZ’s Complaints Committee that "crashing along the banks with a ‘sun gun’ and a cameraman in tow rendered the task of finding a rat almost impossible". However, TVNZ said the failure of its camera crew to obtain footage of the rats did not mean that there was no infestation.
TVNZ said since the item went to air the current mayor of Rodney District Council, Mr John Law, had confirmed that there had been "heavy activity" in rat infestation at Helensville, reflected in the amount of bait taken in a three to four week period. Mr Law had confirmed that baiting would continue at three monthly intervals and that there would be a "clean-up" of the riverbank and harbourage. TVNZ said it considered this information "conclusive proof" of the problem.
The danger to civilian populations of unchecked rat infestation anywhere in New Zealand was a matter of clear public concern, TVNZ said, and the item had not aimed to deliberately damage Helensville’s image.
Declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ said the views of those who had been affected, and of a former Mayor, had been properly canvassed, and the brief use of file footage had not distorted the balance of the item.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Van Duyn noted that standard G6 did not cover dishonesty. He said it was "extremely dishonest, unnecessary, false and irresponsible" and a "misuse of file footage" to show a rat climbing out of a toilet and "scores of dead rats" as if they had been caught and killed at Helensville.
In the complainant’s view, it was a "pathetic statement and excuse" for TVNZ to state that Mr Glavish was an acceptable source because he was able to relate his experience with the Kaipara river rats to his experience in local government and in the district. The complainant said that while TVNZ had accepted that Mr Glavish had a proper view that he was entitled to express, so did all members of the community. He stated:
Mr Glavish served TVNZ’s purpose at the time for its own benefit without any consideration to others in our community.
Mr Van Duyn challenged TVNZ’s statement that there was "irrefutable evidence of the deplorable state of the river banks", questioning why the camera crew and reporter had been unable to find any rats, dead or alive.
The complainant disputed that the item had not damaged Helensville’s image, and again questioned the credibility of Mr Glavish as a source.
Rejecting Mr Van Duyn’s claims of dishonesty, TVNZ informed the Authority:
A reporter went to Helensville and, perhaps not surprisingly, did not succeed in filming any rats. That fact was reported fairly on air.
We reiterate that the shots of the rats were generic and merely illustrative. To label them as being "file footage" we consider was not called for on this occasion. It was clear from the reporter’s narration that these were not rats filmed by TVNZ in Helensville.
TVNZ expressed concern that the complainant continued to be critical of its use of Mr Glavish to comment on the situation, saying Mr Van Duyn had not disproved Mr Glavish’s credibility and that the former mayor was "a very acceptable person to interview".
TVNZ enclosed a copy of a recent article from the Rodney Times, and an advertisement in the Rodney Times in which the Rodney District Council was advertising free rat bait to residents. The broadcaster said:
The photograph [accompanying the newspaper article] of the Baker Street Reserve where rat poison is scattered by contractors certainly shows conditions which are likely to harbour rats. One would assume that it is not part of the town image that the complainant has in mind when he urges us to concentrate on Helensville’s more "positive" side.
In his final comment to the Authority, referring to the advertisement for free rat bait, Mr Van Duyn asked, "what is [TVNZ] trying to prove with this?" He suggested the advertisement was a "normal responsibility" of the local council which had resulted from TVNZ’s programmes.
Mr Van Duyn said he considered TVNZ’s assertion that he had not disproved the former mayor’s credibility "to be a challenge for me to do so". Accordingly, the complainant set out a number of reasons why he considered Mr Glavish’s credibility doubtful, including that Mr Glavish lived on a street where there might be rats.
The complainant reiterated his view that it had been unfair to show "such a detrimental programme of our community which was extremely damaging to our community and region".
He asked the Authority to uphold his complaint "in the interest and fairness of our community and the region", and suggested as an appropriate penalty that TVNZ be ordered to pay $50,000 to the Helensville and District Historical Society to enable it to remove the museum and court house to its new location.
When the Authority began its deliberations on this complaint, it formed the view that standard G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice more adequately reflected the substance of Mr Van Duyn’s complaint. Accordingly, it invited TVNZ to respond to it under standard G14, which reads:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
With regard to accuracy, TVNZ responded that the item accurately reflected a story which had been broadcast in the public interest, and which had already been the subject of newspaper articles published in the district. TVNZ referred the Authority to a local newspaper article published on 16 August which reported that a clean up of the Helensville riverside was under way, but did not provide a copy of the article.
In relation to objectivity, TVNZ said there was no evidence that the item was the product of "any journalist’s personal feelings or opinions". It said:
The fact that the issue has come up a number of times in local newspapers in the Helensville area indicates that it has wider currency and is recognised as a matter of genuine public interest.
As for the requirement for impartiality, TVNZ said:
In our view this was not an occasion in which there was any real debate about whether or not there was a rat infestation in the Helensville area.
Again, the broadcaster made reference to press stories, and said the "deplorable state of the river banks seen by the news team" was evidence that a rat problem existed. That view had been subsequently confirmed by the Mayor of Rodney District Council, Mr Law, it said.
TVNZ reiterated that it did not consider it necessary to have labelled the footage of the rats as file footage. It said:
While it is our policy to label as "file footage" material which is relevant to a particular time and place, we do not see that generic shots need such labelling. In the event of a development in the dairy industry, for instance, we would not feel the need to superimpose a "file footage" caption over archival material of cows grazing in a field.
The rat pictures had been used to "draw the attention of viewers to the type of rodent in question" in the same way that generic images of cows might be used to illustrate a story about dairy farms, TVNZ said.
Responding to TVNZ’s comments under standard G14, Mr Van Duyn reiterated a number of his earlier concerns. In particular, he repeated his concern that only one member of the community had been interviewed, and his view that TVNZ had created a problem and brought it to the attention of the wider public, which he said was unwarranted, unjustified and highly irresponsible.
With regard to the file footage, he said:
Labelling of file footage in my view was highly essential and was not done on purpose and as such they portrayed that the rats were filmed in Helensville, in order to have some substance and justification of their program.
Mr Van Duyn suggested that standard G14 did not adequately reflect the seriousness of his complaint, and asked the Authority also to consider standards G1, G7, G11, G12 and G16.
First the Authority will touch on the complainant’s request that it consider his complaint against a number of standards in addition to standard G14. In the Authority’s view, standard G14 adequately encompasses the substance of the complaint, and is broad enough to allow the Authority to consider Mr Van Duyn’s various concerns.
Standard G14 requires news to be presented accurately, objectively and impartially. In the Authority’s view, the item which is the subject of this complaint failed to meet the requirements of the standard.
The item began with the announcement that the Department of Conservation was about to begin the world’s largest rat eradication programme on Campbell Island. The presenter then said:
… and speaking of rats, a town just 50 kilometres out of Auckland has given up on finding a Pied Piper – Helensville is battling a plague of rats and it, too is pinning its hopes on poison.
There followed a tongue-in-cheek account by the reporter of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, accompanied by archival footage of rats, and the comment, "we’ve got our own Hamlin, on the Kaipara Harbour just north of Auckland". The item included an interview with the widow of a fisherman who had died of leptosporosis, which the reporter said she believed he almost certainly contracted through "unwitting contact with urine or droppings left by rats". It also included an interview with a local veterinarian.
Following a clip in the item where the reporter and camera crew were shown searching for rats, the reporter said:
But search high and low as we might without success, there’s little doubt there is a rat plague in Helensville – ask the locals.
The item concluded with the observation that:
… in Helensville – or Hamlin-on-the-Kaipara as some now call it – the rats remain a civic disgrace. But there’s no need to call the Pied Piper yet. The local Council is poised to begin a concentrated poisoning programme.
Although the broadcaster provided the Authority with a newspaper article referring to a council rat poisoning programme, and an advertisement for free rat bait, the Authority considers the item complained about contained no persuasive evidence to support its assertions that Helensville was "battling a plague of rats". In its view, in order for the item to have established that there was "little doubt of a rat plague", and that the rats remained a "civic disgrace", the broadcaster was required to do more than simply talk to the former mayor. The interviews with the veterinarian and with the widow of the man who died of leptospirosis did not, in the Authority’s view, support the contention that there was a "rat plague". The Authority considers there was nothing in the item which indicated the broadcaster had sought further information or comment from the local council.
Mr Van Duyn objected to archival footage of rats being used when the reporter had found no evidence of any rats. The Authority notes that, provided it is obvious to viewers that it is archival footage, the use of unlabelled generic footage will not generally be cause for concern. In the item complained about, generic footage of rats was used twice. It was used at the beginning of the item to accompany the lighthearted introduction linking the alleged rat problem to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The Authority considers it would have been clear to viewers that that particular footage was archival. However, accompanying the observation that "the rats remain a civic disgrace" was more footage of piles of dead rats. In the Authority’s view, the footage accompanied the narrative in such a way as to give the appearance that the rats had been filmed in Helensville. As such, the item did not meet the requirement for accuracy, objectivity and impartiality.
For the reasons given, the Authority upholds the complaint that an item broadcast on TV One on Late Edition on 6 June 2001, and on Breakfast on 7 June 2001, breached standard G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under ss. 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act. Accordingly, it invited the parties to make submissions on penalty.
The complainant requested that the Authority order the broadcaster to broadcast a statement. He also asked the Authority to award $5,000 compensation to the Kaipara community, to be paid to the Helensville and District Historical Society.
TVNZ’s submission said it considered publication of the decision would be sufficient penalty.
Before making the order, the Authority notes that it has no discretion under the Broadcasting Act 1989 to award compensation to community organisations. The only power it has to award costs is to the Crown and to the parties.
Having considered the parties’ submissions, the Authority makes the following order.
Pursuant to s.16(4) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Broadcasting Standards Authority orders Television New Zealand Ltd to pay, within one month of the date of the decision, the sum of $500 by way of costs to the Crown.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
8 November 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint.