The experiences of teenagers who had been involved in romantic liaisons which had turned violent were recounted in a documentary entitled Dating Violence screened on TV2 on 11 November 1999 at 8.30pm. The programme contained interviews with the young women who were presented as victims of such violence, and with two men who had behaved violently.
Rob Thomson complained to Television New Zealand Ltd that by showing only women as victims of violence and men as perpetrators, the documentary was biased and unbalanced. He referred to some New Zealand research which he said showed that more women than men were perpetrators of violence.
TVNZ noted that while the documentary focused on victims who were women, it did not believe that viewers were invited to draw the conclusion that all such victims were women. It emphasised that the programme was not about who the aggressors were, but was concerned with the impact of violence on its victims and that its clearly stated intention was to tell stories of relationship violence which had happened to teenage girls. It concluded that the programme had shown no lack of balance and declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Thomson 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 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.
A documentary, entitled Dating Violence recounted the experiences of teenagers who had become involved in romantic liaisons which had become violent. It included interviews with young women who were victims, and with two men who had been responsible for violence in a relationship.
Mr Thomson complained to TVNZ that the programme was unbalanced and biased because it conveyed the impression that victims of violence were only women, and that only men were perpetrators. He said the programme had purported to be a documentary "following personal stories of teenagers whose first experience of love is dangerous to their health" but that in fact it only showed women as victims of violence. He referred the broadcaster to a number of studies which he said showed that women were more likely to be the perpetrators of violence in a relationship.
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standard G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires broadcasters:
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
It noted that while in all of the cases described in the documentary the victims were women, it did not believe that viewers were invited to draw the conclusion that all victims of violence in dating situations were women. It suggested that the complainant had expressed a personal preference in his view that it should have also shown women as perpetrators of violence.
TVNZ explained that the purpose of the programme had been to demonstrate the impact of violence on young people and their families, and to tell stories of relationship violence that had happened to teenage girls. As far as it could ascertain it said that none of the programme trailers or publicity material had described the programme as, in the complainant’s words, "following personal stories of teenagers whose first experience of love is dangerous to their health". The programme, it said, had been produced with the assistance of the National Network of Stopping Violence Services (NZ Inc), Victim Support and the New Zealand Women’s Refuge.
It was TVNZ’s view that the programme approached each case in a fair and impartial manner and it noted that the aggressors, who happened to be men, were given the opportunity to put their sides of the stories.
In addition, TVNZ noted that the research undertaken by the programme makers indicated that no studies had been done in New Zealand about teenage relationship violence. It pointed out that most of the studies which Mr Thomson had quoted concerned men and women, and not teenagers. It reported that none of the sources it had consulted was aware of the National Youth Survey to which Mr Thomson had referred.
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Thomson enclosed a report about the "Dunedin multidisciplinary study" and a supporting letter from a person he described as an expert in gender analysis. He expressed his dissatisfaction with TVNZ’s contention that the programme did not invite viewers to conclude that women were the only victims of violence in relationships, and argued that the inference was nevertheless there. He suggested that when no reference was made to men as victims of violence, it was reasonable that viewers would conclude that the number of men who may be victims was so insignificant as to not be worthy of mention. In his view, that showed a lack of balance.
Mr Thomson also took issue with TVNZ’s description of the programme’s purpose, pointing out that because it had been gender specific it had failed to comply with broadcasting standards requiring balance. If, he asked, its purpose was to demonstrate the impact of violence on young people and their families, why had it shown the victims as women?
Mr Thomson also objected to TVNZ’s conclusion that his complaint related to a personal preference. He submitted that expectation of balanced coverage was more than a personal preference, and was an obligation on broadcasters.
Next he repeated his contention that the programme had been promoted as being about teenagers’ stories. He suggested that the Authority review the television broadcast logs and trailers for the programme.
In response to TVNZ’s advice that the documentary had been produced with the assistance of groups assisting victims, Mr Thomson suggested that there was an implied lack of balance in its reliance on those groups.
As a further comment, he noted that none of those featured had been randomly chosen, and argued that they were not necessarily typical representatives of young people in general or of those who had experienced violence in dating situations. He continued:
The predictable result was a one hour infomercial for the "women as victims/men as perpetrators" funded interventions industry. No serious attempt was made to present a fair and balanced view of a very serious social issue.
In response to TVNZ’s remark that none of its sources was familiar with the National Youth Survey, Mr Thomson said it suggested to him that none had read the Dunedin Multidisciplinary study. He noted that the latest study had surveyed the Dunedin group at age 21 and suggested that if there was no teen research, then this work should be seen as the closest thing to research on teens. In his view, the findings were clear enough and dramatic enough to make inferences regarding the behaviours of those who were 2-5 years younger (16-19 years old). As a final point he suggested that if there was no research done with teenagers, then the producers of the programme would not be able to argue that their coverage was representative since they too lacked research to back their claim.
In conclusion, he submitted that TVNZ’s decision on his complaint was as unbalanced as the programme itself.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ advised that it had little to add except to observe again that approaching a documentary from a particular perspective did not make that programme breach the requirement for balance. It wrote:
Historians use the phrase "one past – many histories", and so it is with most documentary subjects. That a perfectly valid documentary can be produced along the lines favoured by Mr Thomson does not make invalid the programme broadcast on 11th November.
Mr Thomson, in his final comment, made some observations about TVNZ’s reference to historians’ views of the past.
He then repeated that the documentary had been advertised as being concerned with the current state of "violence in young people’s lives" but in fact only dealt with violence in young women’s lives. He agreed that was a serious issue, but argued that dating violence was not a problem which related only to women. He contended that the "one past–many histories" argument used by TVNZ was no justification for bias in the documentary.
The Authority begins with the observation that the programme’s stated purpose was to tell "stories of first love turning violent" and "stories of teenagers in love and danger". Here, teenage girls who were the victims of relationship violence told their stories, as did two men who were instigators of violence. The complainant has suggested that this focus resulted in a lack of balance because it failed to recognise statistical evidence which he said showed that women were more likely to be perpetrators of violence than men, and that men were more likely to be victims. The Authority has not sought to verify whether this is the case as it does not consider it to be relevant to the issue at hand. In its view, the focus of the programme was on the fact that such things as verbal abuse, abduction and rape were happening to teenagers in their relationships, and on how they affected both the victims and the perpetrators.
The complainant has also contended that by presenting only women as victims of violence, the programme has reinforced a stereotypical view about domestic violence. The Authority does not agree that this is the only logical conclusion to be drawn. It notes in particular that the programme did not purport to do anything more than to recount the individual experiences of some young men and women who had been involved in violent relationships at a young age, and how it had affected them and their families. While the Authority accepts that there may well be a place for a documentary about trends in violence among teenagers, this was not necessary in the programme complained about. It finds it perfectly legitimate that that the programme confined itself to some individual experiences. Indeed, those personal stories were not told from the point of view of a particular gender – they were the stories of both victims (who happened to be women) and perpetrators of violence (who happened to be men).
In the circumstances, the Authority concludes that no issue of lack of balance arises, and accordingly 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
17 February 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Rob Thomson’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 15 November 1999
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 30 November 1999
3. Mr Thomson’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 5 December 1999
4. TVNZ’s Referral to the Authority – 20 December 1999
5. Mr Thomson’s Final Comment – 1 January 2000