60 Minutes – documentary – youth suicide – mental health – psychosis and depression – drug use – misleading to blame suicide on cannabis – statements from Life Education Trust Director misleading
(1) Standard G1 – no inaccuracies – no uphold
(2) Standard G6 – no bias or imbalance – story told from family perspective – honest opinions broadcast – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An item on 60 Minutes broadcast by TV One at 7.30pm on 13 February 2000 concerned the suicide of James Carruthers. The programme was based around the reflections of James’s parents, and the factors they believed had led to his death.
Mr Currie complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme had misleadingly blamed cannabis use for James’s behaviour and suicide.
TVNZ responded that the programme was a personal family story, made public so that others might detect tell-tale signs and prevent similar tragedies in the future. It considered that the item was a fair and balanced appraisal of the circumstances leading to James’s death.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Currie 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.
An item on 60 Minutes broadcast by TV One at 7.30pm on 13 February 2000 concerned the suicide of James Carruthers. The programme was based on the reflections of James’s parents, and traced his involvement with drugs, the onset of a mental disorder, a period of drug rehabilitation, and his final descent into depression.
Mr Currie complained to TVNZ that, in his opinion, the item was grossly misleading because:
i) it failed to establish that James’s drug use was a symptom of his mental illness, not a cause
ii) Trevor Grice, the Director of the Life Education Trust was portrayed as a drug expert with medical expertise
iii) cannabis alone was blamed for James’s disruptive behaviour and death
iv) it implied that teenagers who used drugs were inevitably at risk
v) it asserted that James was beyond human help as a result of using cannabis; in the complainant’s view, he could have been helped had he been admitted into or treated at a mental hospital.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G1 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
In TVNZ’s view, Mr Currie had offered an alternative view about the death of James Carruthers, "but that did not make invalid the views conveyed by the item".
TVNZ considered that there were a number of points which Mr Currie may have missed when he made his complaint. First, it said that the programme made it clear that James Carruthers had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Secondly, TVNZ maintained that at no stage in the programme was it stated that James’s death was due to cannabis and drug use alone. James was, it said, portrayed as having both a mental illness and an addiction problem. Thirdly, TVNZ explained that Mr Grice was aware of James’s mental illness. TVNZ noted that Mr Grice had decades of experience helping people cope with or overcome alcohol and drug dependencies. TVNZ also noted that James Carruthers had in fact been assessed by a psychiatrist, contrary to Mr Currie’s belief.
As a further point, TVNZ said it felt that Mr Currie was:
perhaps a little too ready to dismiss out of hand a link between cannabis use and suicide when a mental disorder is also involved.
TVNZ cited research from the Department of Psychological Medicine, Christchurch School of Medicine in support of this point.
Finally, TVNZ considered that Mr Currie might have overlooked the programme’s clear reference to the difficulty James had taking prescription drugs and the likelihood that he was "self-medicating" with recreational drugs.
Dealing with standard G1, TVNZ considered that, although he had challenged some of the viewpoints in the programme, Mr Currie had not identified any error of fact. As to standard G6, TVNZ said it believed that the programme was balanced, fair and impartial, "reflecting accurately what those closest to James Carruthers believed contributed to his tragic and untimely death". Although it accepted that others might interpret the events of James’s life and death differently, it did not believe that standard G6 required that every possible viewpoint should be included on every issue.
In his referral of the complaint to the Authority, Mr Currie repeated his belief that many viewers watching the programme would have believed that cannabis was responsible for James’s problems. In his opinion, balance in the programme required mention of the view that cannabis did not cause deviant behaviour, but rather that it was frequently used by those already predisposed to deviant behaviour. He contended that the correlation between cannabis and suicide made in the programme was alarmist and required balancing opinion.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ specifically rejected any suggestion that it was in collusion with the Life Education Trust.
TVNZ also commented on Mr Currie’s observation that the "programme was heavily biased against cannabis and misleading". It commented that the programme was not an item which examined in depth the role cannabis might play in the development of depressive illness, and that it reflected the questions those close to James were asking in the aftermath of his suicide.
In his final comment, Mr Currie referred to standards G7 and G16 and asked that his complaints be considered under these standards as well as standards G1 and G6.
The Authority begins by noting that, in accordance with its review function prescribed in the Broadcasting Act, it has limited its consideration of this matter to the standards raised in the complainant’s original complaint. Accordingly, it makes no finding in relation to either standard G7 or G16.
Mr Currie contended that the programme contained several inaccuracies concerning the role that James’s drug-taking played in his illness and death. The Authority considers that the correlation made in the programme between drug use and mental illness was made in the context of a story told from the perspective of James’s family about their efforts to come to terms with his problems and eventual death, and that the views of James’s family and of Trevor Grice were their honestly held opinions.
The Authority considers that the programme’s perspective was made evident to viewers of the programme. In this context, the Authority does not consider that the programme contained any inaccuracies as alleged. Accordingly, it finds that standard G1 was not breached.
Mr Currie alleged that what he considered were claims made in the programme about cannabis being a cause of depressive illness and death were biased and required balancing input. However, the Authority finds that, to the extent that such claims were made, they were clearly identified as being the opinions of James’s family and Trevor Grice. Furthermore, as recorded above, the Authority considers that the programme was made from a particular perspective which was clearly stated. For these reasons, the Authority finds that standard G6 was not breached.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
11 May 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. David Currie’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 28 February 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 8 March 2000
3. Mr Currie’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 14 March 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 30 March 2000
5. Mr Currie’s Final Comment – 6 April 2000