Our People, Our Century: "Cradle to Grave" – unbalanced – unfair – inaccurate portrayal of history – failure to acknowledge social initiatives of National party
Standard G6 – authored perspective – not a controversial issue – no uphold
Standard G19 – not an editorial matter – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The second programme in the series Our People, Our Century was broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on 14 February 2000. It was entitled "Cradle to Grave" and interpreted New Zealand’s recent social history through an examination of the lives and experience of three different families.
Bruce Fulton complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme lacked balance and fairness because it neglected to acknowledge any political party other than the Labour Party. In his view, it therefore fell short of presenting a balanced, accurate view of events of the period.
In its response, TVNZ emphasised that the programme was a social rather than a political history, and that it was interpreted through the eyes of the three families involved. It maintained that because of the interpretive nature of the programme, balance was not applicable. The requirement for impartiality and fairness had been met, it argued, by reflecting the views of the families featured.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Fulton 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 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.
The second programme in the series Our People, Our Century was broadcast on TV One on 14 February 2000 beginning at 8.30pm. Entitled "Cradle to Grave" it examined the role of the welfare state in the lives of different generations of three families who had lived through the period.
Bruce Fulton complained to TVNZ that the programme lacked balance and fairness. He noted that there had been no acknowledgment of any political influence on the changing circumstances in New Zealand except for that of the Labour party. In his view, programmes such as this should be factual and fair so that history was recorded without social engineering.
As an example, Mr Fulton cited the programme’s emphasis on the role of the Labour Party in the birth of the welfare state. He acknowledged that this was a significant change in government thinking and had had a profound effect on the country. However, he noted, when the programme recorded the prosperous period of the fifties and sixties, no mention was made of the government, or its leaders. He said that as the National party had governed the country for approximately two thirds of the time covered, he would have thought it might have been mentioned. In Mr Fulton’s view, the programme had fallen short of presenting a balanced, accurate record of events of the period, and "had a heavy socialist bias".
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G6 and G19 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:
G19 Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed.
First, TVNZ said, it considered the nature of history. It noted that all histories were necessarily interpretive, and that "history was an authored interpretation of the meaning of the events being described." It wrote:
It seemed to the Committee that to the extent that a "history" is an interpretation, balance is not applicable in the same way that it might be in describing a controversial issue of the moment. In this case the principle of balance becomes even more problematic because this history was clearly presented as being viewed through the eyes of the three families involved. It was a social rather than a political history and it was the attitudes and beliefs of the families that informed the historical interpretation and the conclusions reached.
In the context, TVNZ argued, it was not inappropriate to refer to the first Labour government’s role in the genesis of the welfare state. It noted that the family members whose history was recorded themselves saw the first Labour government as being the turning point in their personal stories.
With respect to the complaint under standard G6, TVNZ’s view was that balance was not applicable to a history such as Our People, Our Century because of its interpretive nature. In its view the requirement for impartiality and fairness had been met, because the content reflected the views of the families through whom the story had been told.
As for the complaint that standard G19 was breached, TVNZ responded that while history was necessarily interpretive, the programme had been built around hard facts and these had not been distorted. It declined to uphold the complaint.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Fulton expressed his dissatisfaction with TVNZ’s reply, arguing that any programme entitled Our People, Our Century should certainly require balance and impartiality. Furthermore, he wrote:
…the claim that balance is not applicable in a social history such as this is undermined by the many glowing comments made about various Labour governments, not only by two of the three families being interviewed, but also and more importantly by the narrator!
Mr Fulton noted that any time a social welfare initiative had been mentioned, it was always attributed to a Labour government, even though throughout most of the time span covered by the programme, a National government had been in power. He suggested that there was a clear inference that National governments were not responsible for any social initiatives. That, he said, was factually and historically incorrect.
Mr Fulton suggested that it was curious that the only Labour government to be criticised was the fourth Labour government and yet, he said, it was the only one to win a second term in office. In his view, that indicated that the fourth Labour government was more deserving of praise than either the second or third Labour governments. He concluded:
I contend that this programme failed to present a fair balanced reflection of our welfare system over the decades and that a predetermined agenda was carried out to portray only one political party, the Labour Party, to be either supportive of or indeed interested in providing state welfare.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ stressed that the series represented social history and that history was by its very nature interpretive, with conclusions being reached subjectively on the basis of the evidence studied. Because of its nature, TVNZ wrote, balance was not applicable in the same way as it would be if this were a news item dealing with a current matter of controversy.
In his final comment, Mr Fulton repeated that his complaint was made on the basis that the programme lacked any political balance and had ignored the political party which had governed New Zealand for approximately two-thirds of the time period covered by the programme. He noted that TVNZ had agreed with him that the programme lacked balance, but had contended that balance was not applicable when viewing social history.
Mr Fulton contended that if TVNZ were sincere about recording the social history of the period, then it could have had three quite different families telling the story, and not "two out of three to sing a similar tune". By its selection of the families chosen, he maintained, TVNZ had deliberately set out to record New Zealand’s social history in a particular way. In his view, that was wrong.
He suggested that an objective observer would have been led to believe that the Labour Party was solely responsible for all social change in this country, which "we know is utterly wrong."
The Authority begins by noting that the programme, by its title, foreshadowed the focus it intended to take. It traced the lives and experiences of three families, beginning in the 1930s with the development of the welfare state, and examined the impact of subsequent social and political changes on those families.
The complainant has contended that the programme was unbalanced and unfair because all of the positive social changes made over a period of about 60 years were attributed to Labour governments, when in fact National governments had also been responsible for some of those initiatives.
The first threshold in considering a complaint alleging a breach of standard G6 is that the subject must be a political matter, current affairs or a question of a controversial nature. The Authority considers that this was a programme in documentary form about New Zealand’s social history personalised through the lives and experiences of the families selected. The families each had a perspective on events which was unique to their circumstances and experience. The Authority concludes that the story of those personal collective experiences was not a political matter or current affairs, and did not raise any question of a controversial nature to which the balance and fairness requirements of standard G6 might apply. It therefore concludes that standard G6 is not relevant and declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
The complainant also contended that standard G19 was breached because the programme distorted historical facts to convey an impression that Labour governments were responsible for all of the social welfare initiatives introduced during the past 65 years. In the Authority’s view, the compilation of the programme does not raise an issue under this standard. The standard provides a remedy where programme material is edited in such a way that it distorts the facts. That did not occur here. The families interviewed for the programme gave their own perspective of the history which they had lived through and – in two cases – they ascribed to Labour governments the credit for improving their circumstances. That is their personal view and one which the Authority considers they were entitled to voice. As TVNZ argued in its response to the complainant, history is by its nature interpretive, and conclusions are invariably reached subjectively. This was one view of history. On the basis that the programme was clearly presented from the perspective of these families, the Authority finds no breach of standard G19 and 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
11 May 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Bruce Fulton’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 15 February 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 2 March 2000
3. Mr Fulton’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 22 March 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 31 March 2000
5. Mr Fulton’s Final Comment – 8 April 2000