A One Network News item reporting on the situation in East Timor included three photographs which had been smuggled out of the territory. The photographs were said to depict the severed head of a man impaled on a stake, the body of a woman who it was alleged had been raped, and the body of a beheaded man being dragged along on a rope. The item was broadcast on TV One on 23 September 1999 commencing at 6.00pm.
Mrs Barker complained to Television New Zealand Limited, the broadcaster, that none of the photographs was fit for broadcast at that time of night. That was supposed to be a safe viewing time for young people, she wrote. She added that the photographs were "horrific", and that it was "totally irresponsible" and "totally inappropriate" to show them without any warning.
TVNZ responded that the images were not gratuitous, but were relevant to the story of East Timor and the nature of the brutality which had been inflicted on the people there. In the context of a news programme, it was important that the atrocities should not be sanitised to the extent that the reporting did not reflect the horror, it wrote. The images were indistinct, and viewers would not have known what the pictures contained without the commentary, it said. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mrs Barker referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons 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.
An item on One Network News on 23 September referred to the situation in East Timor. It included three photographs which it said had been smuggled out of the territory. The photographs were described as depicting the severed head of a man attached to a pole, the body of a woman who it was said had been raped, and the body of a headless man being dragged along behind a truck.
Mrs Barker objected to what she said was the graphic depiction of such scenes within what she called a safe viewing time. None of the photographs was fit for viewing at that time, she wrote, the photographs were horrific, and she had felt physically sick and had to leave the room. It was, she continued, totally inappropriate to show such "terrible scenes" without any warning. There was no need to screen such sights at all, but to display them so early in the evening and without any warning was totally irresponsible, she contended.
The photographs were alarming to viewers, Mrs Barker continued, and would have had an adverse effect on child viewers at a time which was accepted as children’s viewing time. She added that the photographs were disturbing and violent and the item should have contained a warning.
In its response, TVNZ noted that the news item provided for the first time evidence of atrocities which had been reported from East Timor. It was important to place the material in the context of a news programme, it wrote. Sometimes, it said, news programmes must show disturbing or distressing material. If a news audience was to be informed, then matters such as the East Timor atrocities should not be so sanitised that the reporting did not reflect the horror of the occasion, it submitted, asking:
Had there been television during the Second World War, would it have been right to relegate pictures proving the holocaust to news bulletins broadcast late in the evening?
Considering the photographs separately, TVNZ said the severed head was electronically concealed, the picture of the supposed rape victim was indistinct, and the image of the headless body was very blurred. It doubted that a viewer would know what each picture showed if the commentary had not explained it. Mrs Barker’s objection was based on what the commentary told her she was seeing, rather than the images themselves, it concluded.
TVNZ disagreed that the photographs should not have been shown on television at all. There was nothing gratuitous in the images, they were relevant to the East Timor story, and they were important in establishing the nature of the brutality being inflicted on the people there, it submitted.
A warning was unnecessary in the context in which the pictures appeared, it wrote. The word "grisly" was used in the headlines at the beginning of the news, TVNZ observed, and the phrases "horrific atrocities" and "barbaric acts" were used in the studio introduction immediately preceding the item. It said that the item was careful to avoid any close-up of the still photographs. The horrifying content therefore was well signposted and a specific warning was unnecessary, especially where it might be interpreted as the broadcaster asking viewers to turn away when confronted with the reality of the Timorese atrocities.
TVNZ considered the complaint in the context of standards G11(i), G12, G16, V3, V5, V10, V12 and V16 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice which had been nominated by Mrs Barker. The first two standards require broadcasters:
G11 To refrain from broadcasting any programme which, when considered as a whole:
i) Simulates news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm viewers.
G12 To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times.
The remaining standards provide:
G16 News, current affairs and documentaries should not be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress.
V3 Warnings should be given, at least at the beginning of a programme, when a programme contains material which is likely to be disturbing to the average viewer or which is unexpectedly violent for that programme genre.
V5 Programmes having rape as a theme must be treated with the utmost care. Explicit detail and prolonged focus on sexually violent contact must be avoided. Any programme dealing with rape in any detail must be preceded by a warning.
V10 The cumulative or overall effect of violent incidents and themes in a single programme, a programme series or a line-up of programmes back to back, must avoid giving an impression of excessive violence.
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.
V16 Broadcasters must be mindful of the effect any programme, including trailers, may have on children during their generally accepted viewing periods, usually up to 8.30 pm, and avoid screening material which could unnecessarily disturb or alarm children.
The broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint under standard G11(i). It said that the standard was not relevant because the news was not simulated but showed the reality of the situation in East Timor. There was nothing misleading about that, it wrote.
Turning to G12, TVNZ wrote that the material was contained in a news programme which had carefully signposted the horrifying nature of the events which would be described. That indicated that it was mindful of the effect the material could have on children. Viewers, it said, understood that news bulletins must carry distressing and unpleasant material from time to time. It declined to uphold the complaint under standard G12.
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint under standard G16 and wrote that there was nothing "unnecessary" about the images shown and the descriptions given. "This was the first time evidence had emerged of the atrocities the world had been hearing about", it observed.
TVNZ referred to its earlier comments that warnings were unnecessary in the context in which the pictures had appeared, and declined to uphold the standard V3 complaint. It did not believe the scenes were unexpectedly violent in view of the verbal descriptions which had been given in the item, it wrote.
TVNZ maintained that as the item was concerned with brutality, standard V5 was not relevant because rape, although it was mentioned, was not a theme.
Standard V10, it observed, was not applicable to news reporting of a situation which was inherently excessively violent and it declined to uphold the complaint under that standard. To sanitise the report "would be to mislead and misinform", TVNZ added.
In considering standard V12, the broadcaster contended there was evidence of "careful editorial discernment" in deciding the level of graphic detail which had been shown. The story was an important one, it said, and rightly found a place in the day’s major news programme. It accepted that the combination of the images and the description of events was distressing, but noted that news of atrocities could hardly be otherwise. The images were either electronically concealed, or presented in a blurred and indistinct fashion, it noted. It declined to uphold the complaint under standard V12.
The scenes had not been placed to "unnecessarily disturb" children or anyone else, TVNZ said in its consideration of standard V16. It declined to uphold the complaint under this standard.
In referring her complaint to the Authority, Mrs Barker reiterated her view that none of the photographs was fit for viewing at that time of night, when young people "were supposed to have safe viewing". She repeated that it had been inappropriate to show them, especially without a warning. What was shown on television should be carefully chosen so young people did not get a "continual diet of violence", she wrote.
When invited to reply, TVNZ said it had nothing further to add.
In a final comment, Mrs Barker wrote that if it was acceptable to show that particular visual material at that time of the evening, then "just about anything is okay to show at the normal time children are expected to be watching". Mrs Barker said that she disagreed with TVNZ that a warning was unnecessary before the pictures were shown. She was aware of quite a few parents who strongly disagreed with TVNZ’s assessment, she said, who were most upset that their children had seen the images, and who would have prevented them from doing so if there had been a warning.
Noting that the broadcaster had agreed the material was distressing, Mrs Barker asked why then it considered that viewers needed to see the material at that time of night with so many children still up. "How insensitive can they be?" she asked. She also commented on what she described as the contradictions in TVNZ’s view that scenes were not unexpectedly violent, and then stating that the theme of the item was one of brutality. "What is violence if not brutal?" she asked.
Mrs Barker wrote that, in its comment that it was a "natural human reaction to be disturbed", the broadcaster did not deny that this broadcast had disturbed and seemed to regard that "as a successful achievement". She continued:
Do they take responsibility for trying to put a child to sleep after they have seen this and are fearful and afraid of nightmares?
TVNZ did not take standard V16 into consideration at all, Mrs Barker suggested. Alternatively, the broadcaster had "no experience of working or having children in their homes, not even older children can cope with this kind of brutality", she concluded.
The Authority begins by acknowledging that the photographs displayed in the item were germane to the issue being reported. They provided evidence to the world of the atrocities previously only rumoured to have occurred in East Timor. It also acknowledges that their contents and the accompanying narrative were, by their very nature, horrifying and disturbing.
The Authority notes that standard G11(i) refers to news or events which have been simulated in a way which misleads or alarms viewers. It is unable to discern in this item any simulation of any news or event. The photographs and the narrative involved actuality, and the standard therefore is not applicable. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
Next the Authority records that it does not consider that the item broadcast was "presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress", as is provided in standard G16. The standard, it believes, is not applicable to this item as it accepts that in the context of a legitimately newsworthy item, "unnecessary" distress was not caused. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
The Authority also finds no breach of standard V5 occurred. This standard applies to programmes "having rape as a theme". Although rape was mentioned, the Authority is not persuaded that it was a theme of the item.
Standard V12 specifically addresses the inclusion of violent and distressing material in news programmes. On this occasion, the Authority subsumes its consideration of standards V3 and V10 under standard V12, as the issues raised appear to it to overlap.
Where the broadcaster considers violent and distressing material is relevant and essential to a proper understanding of an event, standard V12 requires that an appropriate prior warning be considered. In this instance, TVNZ included in the item what the Authority has earlier accepted was horrifying and disturbing material. The question then for the Authority is whether a warning should have been included.
The Authority notes that the photographs which were shown were blurred, and that TVNZ had taken steps to ensure that the already indistinct images were pixellated. It also acknowledges that TVNZ considered it necessary to report that evidence had been obtained about the rumoured atrocities in East Timor, and to provide visual confirmation of that. It does not question TVNZ’s editorial judgment in that regard.
The Authority observes that the presenter of the item alluded in advance to the shocking nature of the material it was about to screen. In its view, TVNZ adequately signposted the content of the item before the photographs were screened. Moreover, it considers that there was nothing gratuitous in the use of the material. The situation in East Timor was highly topical at the time of the broadcast, it considers. The Authority is also influenced by the importance of broadcasting the news without undue censorship. Accordingly, it declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
The Authority turns to the remaining standards G12 and V16 which it is asked to consider. These standards both require broadcasters to be mindful of the effect of programmes on children during their normal viewing times. As standard V16 is addressed specifically to the effect on children of material in news or current affairs programmes, the Authority subsumes its consideration of standard G12 under standard V16.
The Authority is of the view that the broadcaster had shown that it was mindful of the effect of the item on children, for the reasons it gave in relation to standard V12, and also because it believes that children of a vulnerable age are unlikely to watch the news unattended. The Authority considers that parents and caregivers were given adequate notice of the contents of the item and would have been able to determine its suitability for viewing by those in their charge. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
2 March 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined this complaint:
1. Glenyss A Barker’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – undated
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 8 October 1999
3. Mrs Barker’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 26 October 1999
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 2 November 1999
5. Mrs Barker’s Final Comment – 17 November 1999