When Women Kill, a documentary about two women who had both served 10 years in prison for murder was broadcast on TV One on 18 October 1999 at 8.30pm.
Bruce Tichbon complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that individuals referred to in the programme by the two women had not been treated fairly as they had not been given an opportunity to respond to accusations made about their conduct. He also complained that the programme was unbalanced because of comments made by a prison manager and because, Mr Tichbon said, it portrayed women as victims and men as violent abusers of women and children.
TVNZ responded that the programme had not concealed the fact that it was tracing the women’s lives from their point of view. In those circumstances it considers it was not necessary to include the people referred to in the programme. It maintained that the programme was fair and did not consider it lacked balance in broadcasting the observations of the prison manager, or in its review of the lives of the two women. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Tichbon 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.
When Women Kill was a documentary broadcast on TV One on 18 October 1999 at 8.30pm which traced the lives of two women who had each served ten years in prison for murder. The programme was based on the work of author Rhonda Bungay who, it was reported, had helped the women confront their pasts and take responsibility for what they had done.
Bruce Tichbon complained to TVNZ that the programme was unfair because the men and children in the lives of the women who had been referred to (and about whom accusations had been made) had not been given an opportunity to be heard. In particular, he noted that the husband of one woman had been accused of manipulating, physically abusing and brainwashing her; that the lawyer who represented one woman at her trial was accused of not representing her correctly; the father of one was accused of sexually abusing her; and details had been given about their children, and photographs of them shown. He argued that those identified should have been given an opportunity to respond to the accusations made.
Mr Tichbon also contended that standard G6 had been breached by the prison manager’s "sweeping and sexist statements and comparisons about the relationship of men to prison, compared to women."
He maintained that standard G6 was further breached because the item portrayed women as victims and men as both violent abusers of women and children, and generally socially inferior. He expressed his concern that New Zealand on Air funding had been used for the item.
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standards G4 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They require broadcasters:
G4 To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
TVNZ began with the observation that the programme had not concealed the fact that it was tracing the women’s lives from their point of view. Each was given the opportunity to think back over what they believed had influenced them to kill and to reflect on the consequences of their actions and what the ten years in prison had meant to them.
In TVNZ’s view, it was "faintly ironic" that Mr Tichbon had accused the programme of consistently portraying the women as victims. Both women were killers, it noted, and had admitted their crimes. As presented, TVNZ contended it was a valid inquiry into why the women had resorted to murder. Its view was that the programme had provided an unusual insight into the workings of the human mind. It acknowledged that the programme had looked sympathetically at both women, but noted that there had been no suggestion that they had not deserved their life terms.
Turning to the specifics of the complaint, TVNZ maintained that there had been no reason to seek any further comment from the people referred to by the women. It noted that the emphasis had been on the women’s recollections of their past, and their view of the role of others in their lives. In TVNZ’s view, there was no unfairness in not introducing those other people into the programme. It noted that it had not had a complaint from any of those mentioned. It declined to uphold the complaint under standard G4.
Next it dealt with the complaint that standard G6 was breached when the prison manager was permitted to express her views on the different behaviour of men and women in prison. TVNZ emphasised that the prison manager had expressed her own views, and in view of her long experience she was qualified to make the observations she did. In its view it was not sexist to point out that men and women in general behaved differently in prison.
To the claim that the programme had an overall tone which showed women as victims, TVNZ responded that it did not consider the programme suggested any general philosophy about victims and abusers in the community. It wrote:
Clearly both these women believed, rightly or wrongly, that they had been victims of abuse, but it was also clear that they had themselves been guilty of the ultimate abuse – murder.
In TVNZ’s view, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with a documentary that took a female point of view. It said it was satisfied that standard G6 was not breached and declined to uphold this aspect.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Tichbon alleged that in addition to the breaches of standards G4 and G6 referred to in his original complaint, the item had also breached standard G13 (discrimination) and s.4(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act (the requirement to maintain standards of law and order).
He also expressed his concern that the Broadcasting Standards Authority shared premises with New Zealand on Air which funded the documentary. He sought a reassurance that no conflict of interest would arise.
Mr Tichbon complained that the accusations made against individuals in the programme "were substantive" and in many cases those individuals would have been recognisable. He maintained that particularly in the case of the children, appropriate consent should have been obtained. He noted that TVNZ had not responded to his question as to whether the individuals mentioned had been contacted.
In Mr Tichbon’s view, the programme had created great sympathy for the women by examining what had driven them to their crimes in a way that questioned their guilt. He suggested that when women claimed to be victims of physical and psychological abuse they were given lighter sentences. The true facts, he said, were that men and women caused domestic violence about equally.
Mr Tichbon contended that the comments from the prison manager, although her own views, contributed to the programme’s imbalance.
He claimed that the issues were controversial, and acknowledged they were being researched by various groups, many of which had highly polarised positions. However, he argued, TVNZ was bound by the provisions of the Broadcasting Act and therefore prevented from presenting biased research and reports.
Mr Tichbon concluded that standard G6 had been breached, especially in the light of the current debate in New Zealand about abused women who commit crimes. He argued that standard G13 was breached because the item implied that men were the cause of abuse and were portrayed as socially inferior. Section 4(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act was breached, in Mr Tichbon’s view, because the programme suggested that women should receive lighter sentences if they committed crimes after being abused. He suggested that lowering sentences would increase the likelihood that women would commit crimes such as murder.
TVNZ advised that it had little further to add. It asserted that the programme had not questioned the guilt of the women involved, but had placed their guilt in a broader social context. It had not concealed that both women had been guilty of murder.
As preliminary points, the Authority notes first that, in accordance with its usual practice, it confines its determination to the matters actually raised by the complainant in his original letter of complaint and assesses the complaint under standards G4 and G6 only. Secondly, the Authority records that its business is entirely separate from New Zealand On Air and that it is completely independent of that body. It is satisfied it has no conflict of interest in dealing with a complaint about a programme funded by New Zealand On Air.
The complainant contended that the individuals referred to in the programme by the women should have been given the right to respond. He asked whether they had been contacted by the programme makers, told of their being mentioned and given permission to be included in the programme. He concluded this had not been done, and contended that those individuals had therefore not been dealt with fairly.
The Authority’s view is that the programme took a particular point of view – made clear at the outset – and that its intention was to give the women’s perspective on what had led them to murder. In reflecting on their lives, they each referred to incidents and people who had been significant. Although it was clear that some of those mentioned had had a negative impact on the women’s lives, both of the women accepted responsibility themselves for committing murder.
In reaching its decision on this point, the Authority takes into account the provision of standard G3 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice which requires broadcasters:
G3 To acknowledge the right of individuals to express their own opinions.
In its view, the women were entitled to voice their opinions, and to reflect on the circumstances and influences which affected their lives. Because the documentary was explicitly formulated from their point of view, it was inevitable that it focused on the personal, as it attempted to explore why the two women had become murderers and what their experience in prison had taught them about themselves. In these circumstances, the Authority concludes that it was not necessary for the programme to have interviewed those family members and associates referred to. It declines to uphold the complaint as a breach of standard G4.
Turning now to the standard G6 aspect, the Authority observes that this standard applies when "political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature are discussed". As this documentary was neither a political matter nor current affairs, the question for the Authority is whether it dealt with a question of a controversial nature.
The Authority concludes that this threshold is not met. The programme dealt with the experience of two women, both of whom had committed a horrific crime. It examined their motives, the process by which they took responsibility for their crimes, and the work done in the prison to rehabilitate them before their eventual release. Far from being controversial, this, to the Authority, records the process of dealing with criminal behaviour in New Zealand. Nevertheless, even if it were to be accepted that the programme satisfied the threshold to be considered under standard G6, the Authority does not consider any balancing material was required, for the reasons articulated above in its discussion under standard G4.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
9 March 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined this complaint:
1. Bruce Tichbon’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 16 November 1999
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 9 December 1999
3. Mr Tichbon’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 January 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 1 February 2000