The leader of the Future New Zealand Party, Anthony Walton, was interviewed on 3 News broadcast between 6.00–7.00pm on 18 November 1999. The interview was part of a series of interviews with party political leaders in the lead-up to the General Election.
John Bryant, Executive Director of the Christian Heritage Party, complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that it had failed to present a balanced programme because it had not included an interview with the Christian Heritage Party’s leader Mr Graham Capill.
In its response, TV3 advised that formal complaints could only be made about items which had been broadcast, and not about material which had been omitted. It noted that Mr Capill had been offered the same amount of time as the leaders of other small parties, and that it had intended to schedule his interview before that with the leader of the Future New Zealand Party. The two leaders, it emphasised, would have been interviewed independently of each other. However, Mr Capill had declined that offer.
Dissatisfied with that decision, the CHP 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 summarised in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
An interview with the leader of the Future New Zealand Party, Anthony Walton, was broadcast on 3 News between 6.00–7.00pm on 18 November 1999. It was part of a series of interviews with party political leaders in the lead-up to the General Election.
John Bryant, on behalf of the Christian Heritage Party, complained to TV3 that the item lacked balance because it failed to include an interview with its party leader, Graham Capill. It was the CHP’s understanding, he said, that TV3 had intended to interview both Mr Capill and Mr Walton in the same programme and to highlight a perceived division between the parties. In the Party’s view, it was inherently unfair to require Mr Capill, the leader of a Category 3 party with an MP in Parliament, to appear alongside the leader of a Category 4 party with no MP in Parliament. Furthermore, it emphasised that the two parties had nothing in common, and TV3’s decision to lump them together showed that it had misread the political landscape. It was for those reasons, the CHP advised, that Mr Capill had declined to appear on the programme.
TV3 responded that the CHP’s concerns about the broadcast did not constitute a formal complaint under the Codes of Practice. It pointed out that the Codes applied to programme material which had been broadcast, and not to coverage or programming which a viewer believed should have been broadcast.
In an effort to correct what it considered to be a false impression among CHP supporters, it responded that Mr Capill had been offered the same amount of time as the leaders of other small parties (approximately four minutes), and that this would have been in the form of an interview. Mr Walton of Future New Zealand would not have participated in the interview, but would have been interviewed separately following the interview with Mr Capill. It concluded:
Mr Capill was not excluded by TV3. Mr Capill declined the invitation to be interviewed, effectively choosing to reduce coverage of the Christian Heritage Party in the election campaign.
When the CHP referred the matter to the Authority, it began with the observation that Mr Walton of Future New Zealand had been the only Category 4 leader to be interviewed by TV3, and that TV3’s intention had been "to pit [him] against Mr Capill."
To TV3’s response that the CHP had been offered an equal opportunity, the complainant stated that it was incorrect to say that the offer had been turned down. It observed that prior to most television interviews, negotiations were held as to what the ground rules should be. In this case, it said, the rules were rejected by the CHP (namely, a joint interview with Mr Walton). It emphasised that it was not true that Mr Capill had declined to be interviewed. In fact, it said, he had agreed to be interviewed on the same basis as Tau Henare of the Mauri Pacific party, who had been interviewed separately from the leaders of any other Maori party.
The CHP argued that TV3’s action had shown all the hallmarks of bias on the grounds of religious belief, and concluded that it had wished to pit the two leaders against each other as a form of entertainment. It further noted that TV3 had given no coverage to the CHP throughout the whole campaign. At no time were its policies disclosed, nor, it said, were there any ‘human interest’ stories covering its campaign. It concluded that TV3 had shown a lack of balance during the campaign by totally excluding the CHP while giving some coverage to Future New Zealand.
When it responded to the Authority, TV3 advised that the complaint had been considered in the context of standards G6 and G20 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standard G6 requires broadcasters:
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
The other standard reads:
G20 No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial public issues. Broadcasters should aim to present all significant sides in as fair a way as possible, and this can only be done by judging every case on its merits.
First, TV3 repeated that the complaint was not about the content of the interview broadcast on 18 November, but about the alleged exclusion of Mr Capill from the series of pre-election interviews. It advised that it was satisfied that Mr Capill had not been excluded from the series, but had declined to be interviewed because he did not wish to either precede or follow an interview with the leader of Future New Zealand.
It reported that its Director of News had personally assured Mr Capill that he would be allocated the same amount of time as the leaders of the other minor parties, and that he would not have to debate with Mr Walton.
Further, the Director of News had explained that there were sound editorial reasons for having interviews with both party leaders on the same night. This was because Future New Zealand had developed out of the Christian Democrat Party which, along with the Christian Heritage Party, had formed the Christian Coalition. That Coalition had fielded candidates at the 1996 election, and had just failed to make the 5% threshold. In addition, it continued, the leader of Future New Zealand was a pastor, its members were said to be Christians, and its policies were based on Christian principles. Both Future New Zealand and the Christian Heritage Party sought to attract the so-called Christian vote, TV3 noted, although both also regarded themselves as appealing to a wider range of voters.
As a further point, TV3 referred to a feature story on TV One which had screened that same evening which "examined the battle for the ‘Christian vote’", and in which both Mr Capill and Mr Walton appeared.
Finally, TV3 made the point that that aim of the interviews had been to see what each party had to offer, rather than to devote time to exploring any alleged division between the parties. Accordingly, it concluded that there had been no breach of standard G6.
Turning to the complaint under standard G20, TV3 responded that in this case there had been no controversial public issue, but even if there had been, Mr Capill had been offered the same amount of time as the leaders of other minor parties. Mr Capill himself had elected not to avail himself or his Party of the time which TV3 had allocated. It therefore found no breach of this standard.
In its final comment, the CHP reiterated its view that there was no valid reason why TV3 should elevate the status of Future New Zealand (a Category 4 party) by including an interview with its leader at the same time as the leader of the CHP. It pointed out that the CHP was the only party which had ever claimed its members were only Christians, whereas Future New Zealand was a "broad and inclusive" party which had many non-Christian members.
The CHP reported that it had been advised by Ian Douglas of the Natural Law Party that the reason why TV3 wished to interview both Mr Capill of the CHP and Mr Walton of Future New Zealand at the same time was that it "planned to do an item on the division between the parties representing Christian interests". It was clear, the CHP submitted, that TV3 had no plans to interview the leaders of any other Category 4 party. In those circumstances, Mr Capill had declined to appear.
The Authority notes from the background correspondence relating to this complaint that it was the CHP’s belief that TV3 intended to interview the two leaders at the same time to highlight an apparent rift between the two Christian parties. Mr Capill’s decision not to appear was premised on this assumption.
TV3, on the other hand, has denied that it intended to interview the two leaders at the same time, and maintains that it was Mr Capill’s decision not to appear which effectively reduced the coverage of his party in the election campaign.
It is the Authority’s view that it is a matter of editorial discretion for the broadcaster to determine the format and content of its programmes, and whichever version of the background to this matter is correct, it was open to TV3 to decide on its format, just as it was open to Mr Capill to elect not to appear. By declining to participate, Mr Capill took a risk that he might lose the opportunity to promote his party. He also took a risk that his belief about the intended nature of the interview could be wrong.
In the circumstances, the Authority does not consider the CHP can later declare that the broadcaster has failed to provide balanced coverage of its campaign, or that TV3 was unfair to the party in its treatment of the CHP’s leader, Mr Capill. The Authority notes the interview was scheduled during the lead up to the election. In that context, it concludes that no breach of broadcasting standards occurred.
As for the complaint that standard G20 was breached, the Authority has taken into account the matters raised when reaching its decision, to the extent that they involve issues of broadcasting standards. It concludes the broadcast breached neither standard G6 nor G20.
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 when the Authority determined the complaint:
1. Christian Heritage Party’s Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd – 23 November 1999
2. TV3’s Response to the Complaint – 30 November 1999
3. Christian Heritage Party’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority –
8 December 1999
4. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 5 January 2000
5. Christian Heritage Party’s Final Comment – 24 January 2000