Our People Our Century: "In the Family Way" – inaccurate, sexist statements – women portrayed as victims, men as violent abusers
G1 – not inaccurate – no uphold
G4 – not unfair – no uphold
G6 – not relevant – balance not required in social history – no uphold
G13 – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The first episode of the documentary series Our People Our Century was broadcast on TV One on 7 February 2000 at 8.30pm. It was entitled "In the Family Way" and looked at family life in New Zealand through the experiences of three different families.
Bruce Tichbon complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme made a number of inaccurate sexist statements in relation to men, and unfairly and inaccurately portrayed women as victims and men as violent abusers.
TVNZ responded that it found no inaccuracies in the programme and said it considered the balance standard inapplicable in a social history based on family experience and recollection. It also rejected the complaint that men were represented as inherently inferior.
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.
"In the Family Way" was the title of the first episode in the series Our People Our Century and was broadcast on TV One on 7 February 2000 beginning at 8.30pm. It examined family life in New Zealand during the 20th century through the experiences of three different families.
Bruce Tichbon complained to TVNZ that the programme breached standards G1, G4, G6 and G13 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. In particular he objected to the fact that the husband of one woman featured was accused of being drunken and violent, neglecting his family, committing rape within the marriage and failing to pay child maintenance. In Mr Tichbon’s view, the man, or someone representing him, should have been given the right to respond to those accusations. He also objected to what he described as "sweeping sexist statements" including "[a]s breadwinners, men were the boss in the family", and "the law gave men conjugal rights that required women to provide sex no matter what they were feeling". Mr Tichbon contended that those statements were not true, but had been presented as facts.
Overall, Mr Tichbon concluded that the item had portrayed women as victims and men as violent abusers and as generally socially inferior. He described this as anti-male sexist propaganda.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards, which require broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
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.
G13 To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual, or
ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs programme, or
iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.
TVNZ began by noting that all histories were "necessarily interpretive and representational" and that this series had an identified author. In its view, to the extent that history was always an interpretation, balance was not necessarily applicable. It wrote:
In this case the principle of balance becomes even more problematic because the story of the changes in family life is told through the reminiscences of three families. It was the personal attitudes, beliefs and assumptions of the families which informed the historical interpretation and conclusions reached.
It then responded to the specific points made by the complainant. First, it pointed out that the man who Mr Tichbon considered should have had a right of reply to the accusations made about him had been dead for some years. It added that the descriptions of his violent behaviour had been supported by all surviving family members involved in the programme, and noted that no other person had come forward to suggest that his widow’s memory of his abusive behaviour had been anything other than fair and accurate. TVNZ’s view was that the oral history provided by his widow had been of relevance in a programme which examined the changing relationships within families over the century.
TVNZ defended the statement that "[a]s breadwinners, men were the boss in the family", noting that this generalisation was one which would be accepted by virtually every historian who had studied New Zealand families in the mid 20th century. It added:
It is unquestionably true that men were almost invariably the "breadwinner" in New Zealand households at that time and it is also well-established that the breadwinning role placed them at the top of the family hierarchy.
It concluded that the comment was not inaccurate.
With reference to the statement that the law gave men conjugal rights that required women to provide sex, TVNZ noted that the statement had been followed in the programme by the observation that "until 1985 there was not such a thing as rape in marriage". In its view, the comment was therefore fair and accurate.
As a further point, TVNZ noted that in the programme only one man had been portrayed as a violent abuser, and that the women featured were not generally portrayed as victims.
TVNZ concluded that there was no breach of standard G1 and observed that Mr Tichbon had not explained why the statements he objected to had been untrue. With respect to the complaint that standard G4 was breached, TVNZ noted that the behaviour of the man accused of violence had been described accurately. As for the requirement for balance, TVNZ noted that the standard was not applicable in a social history based on family experience and recollection. Finally, dealing with the complaint under standard G13, TVNZ did not consider that viewers would have perceived men as "inherently inferior" because of the manner in which they were depicted on the programme. In concluding, it wrote:
It was the view of [TVNZ] that overall, the experiences of the three families raised a variety of issues about morals, values and relationships across the century which, when placed in an historical framework, reflected broad truths about changing domestic relationships through the period under review.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Tichbon argued that one of the primary objectives of the Broadcasting Act and the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice was to prevent capture of items by biased special interest groups.
He contended that the description of men being breadwinners and the boss in the family was not true and was misleading because a large number of other factors besides income alone contributed to the balance of family relationships.
He also maintained that it was untrue to state that the law gave men conjugal rights, because "women have for hundreds of years had the legal ability to take assault and other charges." In his view, the two statements had been extremist.
TVNZ advised that it had no further comment.
The Authority begins by noting that this programme was part of a series which examined New Zealand’s social history throughout the 20th century. The theme of this episode was the family, and changes in family life over the century were illustrated by reference to the experience of three very different families.
Mr Tichbon complained that it had been inaccurate to state that as men were the breadwinners, they were the boss in the family, and to refer to the fact that until 1985 women did not have legal protection against rape within a marriage. The Authority considers both statements accurately summarised the position which existed in New Zealand in the first half of the century and declines to uphold the complaint that they were inaccurate.
To the complaint that the programme was unfair to a man accused of mistreating his wife and family, the Authority notes TVNZ’s point first that the man had been dead for some years, and secondly, that no other person challenged his widow’s recollection as being other than accurate. It declines to uphold this aspect.
Standard G6, the Authority finds, does not apply to a social history comprising the recollections of named individuals as it is not a political matter, current affairs or a question of a controversial nature to which the standard would apply. It declines to uphold this aspect.
Turning finally to the complaint that men were represented as inferior on the programme, the Authority finds no evidence to support such a contention. It declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
25 May 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Bruce Tichbon’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 3 March 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 20 March 2000
3. Mr Tichbon’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 April 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 28 April 2000