The referendum proposition to decrease the number of MPs from 120 to 99 was the subject of debate on Crossfire broadcast on TV One on 7 October 1999 beginning at 9.30pm. The matter was discussed by Act’s leader Richard Prebble MP in support of the proposal, and Labour MP Steve Maharey, who opposed it.
Keith Flint complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that as the referendum had been initiated by a private citizen, the absence of a representative of the public to debate the matter resulted in the programme lacking balance and objectivity.
In its response, TVNZ emphasised that the question being debated was whether a reduction in the number of MPs would result in better government and, in that context, it was entirely appropriate that it should be debated by one MP who supported the cut in numbers, and one who did not. In its view there was no editorial reason why the woman who initiated the referendum should have been invited to participate. It also noted that, as both sides of the debate were put, the programme was balanced.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Flint referred the matter 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 which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
The proposition that the number of MPs should be reduced from 120 to 99 was the subject of debate on Crossfire broadcast on TV One on 7 October 1999, beginning at 9.30pm. Act leader Richard Prebble, who supported the reduction in numbers, debated the issues with Steve Maharey, who supported the status quo. The matter was the subject of a referendum which had been initiated by a private citizen.
Keith Flint complained to TVNZ that as the matter concerned the public as a whole, and had been initiated by a private citizen, a person representing the public should have been included on the programme. In his view, the two MPs had tended to use the occasion as a means to score political points for their parties, whereas a private citizen would have focused on the issues. Mr Flint suggested that as an election was imminent, the media "should see issues from a public perspective rather than the news media or political perspective."
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G3 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They require broadcasters:
G3 To acknowledge the right of individuals to express their own opinions.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
Having viewed the programme, TVNZ said it had concluded that Mr Flint’s complaint was based on personal preference rather than on the basis of his having established a breach of programme standards. It wrote:
The question being debated on the programme was whether a smaller number of MPs would mean "better government, cheaper government and better-behaved MPs" and it seemed to [TVNZ] that in that context it was entirely appropriate that the discussion should involve one MP who supported the cut in numbers and one who did not.
TVNZ maintained that there was nothing editorially unsound in the structure of the programme as broadcast, and maintained that the debate yielded useful information from two experienced politicians who had had to work within the present system. While the views of the woman who initiated the referendum were of interest, it did not consider her absence left the debate incomplete.
In reference to standard G3, it argued that as the woman behind the referendum had appeared on television many times before and her views had been widely reported, there was no editorial reason why her appearance on Crossfire was necessary.
As for the complaint under standard G6, TVNZ advised that it found no breach of that standard as the programme had clearly balanced the two opposing views. Furthermore, it argued, when it examined s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act, from which standard G6 was derived, there was provision that balance could be achieved by other broadcasts "within the period of current interest". It was TVNZ’s view that even if it could be argued that Crossfire was unbalanced (which it denied), over the period in which the matter had been topical, a variety of views had been broadcast. It declined to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Flint maintained that as the debate concerned a public referendum, someone from the public, such as the woman responsible for initiating the referendum, or someone not connected with Parliament but who had a knowledge of Parliamentary procedure, should have been interviewed.
In relation to standard G6 he said he felt that neither of the politicians were as passionate about the issue as someone from the public would have been, and noted that both had used the opportunity to "bolster their egos". Referring to Richard Prebble’s statement that he knew 20 MPs who were not pulling their weight in Parliament, Mr Flint argued that if the public interest had truly been represented, those MPs would have been named.
As a final point, Mr Flint suggested that TVNZ had the expertise to defend itself and to interpret things from its perspective. The public on the other hand "may see things in a more simplistic way".
When asked to comment further on the complaint, TVNZ reiterated its view that Mr Flint was expressing a personal preference in his complaint, rather than establishing any breach of broadcasting standards.
It reminded the Authority that the subject of the debate was whether a smaller number of MPs would mean "better government, cheaper government and better-behaved MPs", and argued that the best people to answer that were the MPs themselves. TVNZ’s conclusion was that the programme as broadcast was perfectly valid, and although Mr Flint would have preferred a different programme, that did not mean that there had been any breach of broadcasting standards.
The Authority has been asked to adjudicate on whether the Crossfire debate between two sitting MPs lacked balance and objectivity because no member of the public was invited to participate.
It notes Mr Flint’s argument that the referendum had been initiated by a private citizen, and that members of the public who had a particular perspective on the issue were not heard. The question for the Authority is whether the debate from the MPs’ perspective addressed the issues which would assist voters to make an informed decision on the referendum, and whether the failure to include a member of the public resulted in the programme being unbalanced.
The Authority considers that the debate covered issues of relevance to voters, highlighting contentious matters such as whether the reduction in numbers would result in better government, more competent MPs, increased time to speak in the House, and a significant decrease in cost to taxpayers. Balanced against this were the arguments in favour of retaining the present number of MPs, which kept New Zealand in line with other countries of comparable size. The point was also made that the present system had only been in operation for three years, and that more time was required to assess its success. The Authority concludes that despite the proponents both being MPs, the issues surrounding the debate were fairly and adequately canvassed. Furthermore, it notes, the matter had been debated in the public arena on other occasions in the lead-up to the election, and the perspective of members of the public, and in particular the initiator of the referendum, had been heard. Accordingly it declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
14 February 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Keith Flint’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 15 October 1999
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 29 October 1999
3. Mr Flint’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 20 November 1999
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 29 November 1999