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Meiklejohn and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2000-066

Members

  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • L M Loates
  • R McLeod
  • J Withers

Complainant

  • J B Meiklejohn of Dunedin

Dated

25th May 2000

Number

2000-066

Programme

60 Minutes

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
60 Minutes – interview with swimmer Trent Bray – allegations of steroid use – unfair to interviewee – bad taste

Findings
Standard G2 – no uphold

Standard G4 – swimmer given opportunity to tell his side of the story – not treated unfairly – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

Swimmer Trent Bray, who had tested positive to a performance-enhancing drug, was interviewed on 60 Minutes broadcast on TV One on 26 March 2000 beginning at 7.30pm. In an emotional sequence, he denied the allegation.

J B Meiklejohn complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that it was inexcusable and unjustifiably insensitive to broadcast footage of the swimmer "incoherent in grief".

In its response, TVNZ advised that the swimmer had not been coerced into participating in the interview, and had been aware of the scope of questions to be asked. The story, it said, had a strong public interest element, and as a result of his appearance on the programme, viewers had been left better informed. It concluded that the swimmer had not been treated unfairly, and declined to uphold the complaint.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Meiklejohn 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.

Decision

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.

Olympic swimmer Trent Bray was interviewed on 60 Minutes broadcast on TV One on 26 March 2000 beginning at 7.30pm. It was reported that having tested positive to a performance-enhancing steroid, he had appealed the disciplinary body’s findings to the District Court which had then held that the testing procedures were flawed. At the end of the programme it was revealed that this finding was being appealed to the Sports Drug Agency. In an emotional sequence during the programme, the swimmer denied having taken drugs of the kind alleged.

Mr Meiklejohn complained to TVNZ that the interviewer’s style had been insensitive and in extremely bad taste. He said he considered the segment in which the swimmer had been reduced to tears "totally and unjustifiably insensitive". He also objected to the interviewer’s suggestion that the District Court result had been "a hollow victory."

TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standard G4 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires broadcasters:

G4  To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.

It began by noting that the swimmer had "very much wanted" to tell his story to 60 Minutes. TVNZ noted that he had not been tricked or coerced in any way, and had been well aware at the start of the interview of the proposed question line. It reported that the swimmer’s lawyer had been present throughout the interview, and had encouraged him to reveal his emotions.

Secondly, TVNZ noted, the swimmer himself acknowledged the "hollow victory" in the District Court, on the basis that suspicion about his conduct still remained, and there was an appeal to the Sports Drug Agency pending.

It was TVNZ’s view that the interview had a strong public interest element, and that as a result of the swimmer’s appearance on the programme, viewers were better informed about his side of the story. In considering standard G4, it responded that the questioning had been gentle, and that the swimmer’s emotional response had not been instigated by the reporter. Taking that into consideration, and the swimmer’s keenness to talk about the issue, TVNZ said it could not conclude that he had been dealt with unfairly or unjustly. It declined to uphold the complaint.

When Mr Meiklejohn referred the complaint to the Authority he submitted first that the swimmer’s so-called "hollow victory" in the District Court was not a matter about which the media should make comment. Secondly, he complained that it was inexcusable for the interviewer to suggest that as the swimmer was near the end of his competitive career, he might have had an incentive to take banned substances. In Mr Meiklejohn’s view, that cast a slur on the integrity of the swimmer.

Mr Meiklejohn observed that he had been aware that the swimmer’s lawyer was present during the interview. Nevertheless, he said, the fact that neither the lawyer nor the swimmer had expressed concern about the manner in which the interview had been conducted did not invalidate his objection.

In its response to the Authority, TVNZ noted that the complainant had raised a matter which was not part of the original complaint and should therefore be disregarded. However, it observed, in fairness to the swimmer, who had publicly announced he was close to retirement, he had been given the opportunity to refute any suggestion that an athlete near the end of his career could gain from taking anabolic steroids.

The Authority’s Findings

The complainant has alleged that the harsh questioning of swimmer Trent Bray to the point where he broke down in tears was an example of "insensitive behaviour and extremely bad taste". TVNZ has dealt with the complaint under standard G4, which requires broadcasters to treat people fairly. In the Authority’s view, the complainant’s concerns are appropriately addressed under that standard and it too subsumes the bad taste aspect.

According to the report, no other New Zealand athlete had tested positive to the performance-enhancing drug which swimmer Trent Bray was accused of taking. In the item, he denied that he had ever taken the banned substance, and emphasised the enormous distress the incident had caused him and his family. When asked if the District Court’s finding was a "hollow victory", he agreed that it was, since he felt that he still remained under suspicion.

In its response to the complaint, TVNZ reported that the swimmer had been a willing participant and had been aware of the scope of the questions he would be asked. Indeed, it seems to the Authority that it was likely that he was motivated to participate in the programme because it gave him an opportunity to convince viewers of his innocence. With that in mind, the Authority then turns to the aspect of the interview complained about. On the basis that Trent Bray willingly participated and was aware of the media interest in the outcome of his positive drug test, the Authority does not consider that he was treated unfairly. In its view, the reporter asked legitimate questions which the swimmer was given a full opportunity to answer. He had been accused of a serious offence and he had an opportunity to explain the implications of the positive test result while at the same time protesting his innocence. Accordingly, 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

 

Rosemary McLeod
Member
25 May 2000

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1.    J B Meiklejohn’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 27 March 2000

2.    TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 April 2000

3.    Mr Meiklejohn’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 18 April 2000

4.    TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 5 May 2000