One News – news item on Select Committee deliberation on changes to ACC – inaccurate, unbalanced and lacked objectivity
Standard G1 and Standard G14 – acceptable summary of complex situation – no inaccuracy or lack of objectivity – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A news item concerning Select Committee deliberations on proposed changes to accident insurance legislation was broadcast on One News on TV One between 6.00 and 7.00pm on 29 February 2000.
The New Zealand Trade Union Federation complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast was inaccurate, unbalanced and lacked objectivity. In its opinion, the item sought to create the impression that proposed changes were "purely irrational", unsupported by evidence, promoted only by the Alliance and Labour parties, and only continued to be supported because of an election promise. Furthermore, the NZTUF complained that an "entirely misleading picture" was presented of the existing accident insurance legislation.
TVNZ responded that the item had reported fairly and accurately on the deliberations of a Select Committee on a controversial legislative measure, noting that it was not the role of news programmes to promote a position on any issue. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, NZTUF 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.
A news item about proposed changes to accident insurance legislation was broadcast on One News on TV One between 6.00 and 7.00pm on 29 February 2000. The item concerned submissions to a Select Committee on legislation replacing the competitive accident insurance regime installed by the previous Government.
The New Zealand Trade Union Federation complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast was inaccurate, unbalanced and lacked objectivity. In its opinion, the item sought to create the impression that proposed changes abolishing the competitive delivery of workplace insurance were "purely irrational", unsupported by evidence, promoted only by the Alliance and Labour parties, and continued to be supported only because of an election promise. Furthermore, the NZTUF complained that an "entirely misleading picture" was presented of the existing accident insurance regime.
Specifically, NZTUF alleged that statements made in the item breached broadcasting standards in the following ways:
"Only Government parties are recommending the changes go through."
NZTUF maintained that this was inaccurate as the Green Party, which was not a member of Government, also supported the Bill.
"If you’re injured at work, soon the Accident Compensation Corporation will be your only choice for workplace insurance. The Government’s kicking all private insurers out of the market. These MPs have considered that change, and are now reporting back to the Government, but they can’t agree."
NZTUF contended that this statement was inaccurate as it stated that workers chose their workplace insurer, implying that accident insurance scheme workers currently could choose from a range of insurers. It commented that the image accompanying the comment left no doubt about this. NZTUF submitted that the comment was inaccurate because employers, not workers, chose who to contract with.
NZTUF contended that the comment was also inaccurate because it stated that workers currently exercised their right to choose an insurer after they had been injured. In NZTUF’s view, this was an "absurd proposition", which added to the "rosy and entirely fallacious image of the situation under the Accident Insurance Act."
And it is a picture which will be credited by many viewers for the following reasons: workplace accident insurance is not conventional insurance; the Act is complex and still relatively new; and the Act has been the subject of many conflicting descriptions. The responsibility of the journalist to present an accurate description is all the greater under these circumstances.
"The Government’s kicking all private insurers out of the market."
NZTUF alleged that the phrase "kicking out" was emotive and "of an inappropriate register".
"Yet Labour says it’s going ahead, despite the evidence".
NZTUF maintained this statement was inaccurate because Labour had said it was going ahead because of the evidence.
"Of the more than one thousand public submissions, eighty six percent were opposed to returning ACC to a state funded monopoly. Only 7 percent supported the change. Seven percent didn’t take a position. Yet Labour says it’s going ahead, despite the evidence.
[Graham Kelly (ACC Select Committee Chairman)] "One of the great criticisms of New Zealand politicians over the years has been that they don’t keep their promise. Well we are keeping our promise."
[Gerry Brownlee (National MP, ACC)] "It is a fatally-flawed Bill. It misses the mark. It will not do what it’s supposed to do."
NZTUF alleged that none of the quotations from Select Committee submissions contained a substantive reason for the views presented, and that:
the reporting of Select Committee evidence purely on the basis of the number of submissions presented without regard to the content of submissions or the number of groups or individuals represented in any one submission raises a serious question for broadcasting standards.
"but employers and community groups who all claim to have saved thousands by going private say they’re bracing themselves for major price hikes."
NZTUF submitted that this was inaccurate because not all of those employers and community groups who had made submissions claimed to have saved thousands of dollars. Furthermore, NZTUF said that of those who claimed to have saved money, not all said they did not believe the Government claim that ACC premiums would be lower in future, and that even fewer stated they were "bracing themselves for major price hikes". NZTUF alleged that many, when questioned, expressed the view that should ACC deliver on its promise of lower premiums than the average under private insurance, their concerns would largely be allayed.
"Yet the Government is pledging premiums under the new ACC will stay the same"
NZTUF maintained that this statement was inaccurate as the Government had said premiums would be lower.
"Labour, Alliance and Green MPs say a single insurer like ACC will bring workplace accidents down, but ACT, National and New Zealand First disagree, saying premiums will rise when ACC is restored as the only insurer, and in the last seven months private insurers have delivered lower premiums, so why change? Yet the Government is pledging premiums under the new ACC will stay the same, but employers and community groups who all claim to have saved thousands by going private say they’re bracing themselves for major price hikes."
NZTUF complained that this statement was not objective because no attempt was made to establish the truth of claims of reductions in premiums or the level of future premiums, despite the availability of information from the insurance regulator set up under the Accident Insurance Act. NZTUF added that the failure was compounded by "the ‘thousands’ in ‘who claimed to have saved thousands’ which is vague and emotive".
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G1 and G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standard G1 requires broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
Standard G14 provides:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
TVNZ’s response began with its observation that it was not the role of news programmes to promote a position on any issue. On this occasion, it said that it believed it was the intention of the news item "to report fairly and accurately the deliberations of the Select Committee on what was a controversial legislative measure".
TVNZ then commented in turn on the points raised in NZTUF’s complaint.
TVNZ felt that the complainant was "splitting hairs" by contending that the Green Party, whose support the Government relied on for confidence and supply, was not a Government party. In its view, in commonsense terms it was accurate to state that only Government parties were recommending the changes.
TVNZ disagreed that it had said that workers chose their insurer. It maintained that the phrase "your choice" in the statement complained about referred to everybody seeking workplace insurance, and was strictly accurate.
TVNZ disagreed that the phrase "kicking out" was "emotive" and "inappropriate", saying that ACC Minister, Dr Michael Cullen, had himself first used the phrase.
TVNZ said it believed its statement was accurate, and that for NZTUF to suggest that its inclusion was for a malicious purpose was unjust and unfair to its reporter. It said that its Standards Committee had heard that the Prime Minister had told Parliament that:
Returning accident compensation to a state funded monopoly was an election promise and would be done despite the latest evidence
That as Prime Minister she doubted the credibility of some of the evidence of the Insurance Council presented to the Select Committee.
TVNZ disagreed that there was any inaccuracy in reporting the number of submissions for, against and neutral on the matter in question.
TVNZ believed NZTUF had misinterpreted the word "all", saying that it was accurate that "all of those who are bracing for major price hikes claim to have made savings under private schemes". It added its view that the sentence carried extra weight when considered against the submissions made to Select Committee:
Only 75 of the thousand submissions agreed with the Government’s move to return accident compensation to a state monopoly. Eighty six percent of all submissions claimed they were paying lower premiums under private schemes and most believed they would face premium rate rises if the state monopoly system were to be reinstated.
TVNZ disagreed that there was no pledge that ACC premiums would stay the same, contending that the Government had in fact made a statement consistent with the report.
TVNZ did not accept that the item lacked objectivity. It noted that the vast majority of Select Committee submissions had claimed savings of thousands of dollars through insuring privately. In its opinion, there was nothing vague or emotive about the statements, which it believed reflected accurately information revealed at the Select Committee.
TVNZ declined to uphold NZTUF’s complaint.
In its referral of the complaint to the Authority, NZTUF alleged that TVNZ had responded inadequately to the complaint.
NZTUF reiterated that it was false to include the Green Party as a Government party, and disagreed with TVNZ’s position that it was commonsense to do so.
NZTUF maintained that workers did not have a choice of insurer, as only employers and the self-employed had this choice. It commented that:
If workers really were associated with employers in this matter, then there would be no debate over the privatisation of accident insurance and nothing for TVNZ to report on.
NZTUF said that it withdrew this aspect of its complaint "if indeed the Minister of Finance used this expression".
NZTUF also said that it withdrew this aspect of its complaint if the Prime Minister had said what TVNZ reported. However, it noted its scepticism about whether the Prime Minister had used the phrase "despite the evidence" and observed that TVNZ had not identified any source for the statement.
NZTUF commented that its original complaint had asked "how evidence to the select committee can accurately be quantified, especially for reporting by the media".
NZTUF disagreed that it had misinterpreted the word "all" in the sentence, reiterating its original complaint that the statement was false.
Again, NZTUF reiterated its original complaint about this statement.
Conceding that it was "perhaps a matter of speculation what motives lay behind [the] inaccuracy", NZTUF said that the cumulative effect of so much inaccuracy in a news item was "a serious lack of objectivity and detachment". NZTUF alleged that the defence advanced by TVNZ relied on a very low standard of truth and accuracy, saying that, "At its worst, the standard could only be described as pre-literate."
In its response to the referral, TVNZ advised that it held to its earlier expressed views, and that its Parliamentary staff had confirmed the statements made by Dr Cullen and the Prime Minister reported in TVNZ’s response.
The Authority deals first with the aspects of NZTUF’s complaint concerning accuracy.
NZTUF complained that the statement made in the item that only Government parties supported the Bill was inaccurate, as the Green party supported the Bill, and it was not a Government party. The Authority considers that, although the statement was not literally true, it was acceptable in the context of the report for TVNZ to include the Green party in a reference to "Government parties" for the reasons advanced by TVNZ in its response to NZTUF. It concludes that there was no breach of standard G1 in relation to this aspect of the complaint.
NZTUF also complained that it was inaccurate for the item to imply that workers could currently choose their workplace insurer. The Authority does not accept that such an implication was made in the item. The statement made was "If you’re injured at work, soon the Accident Compensation Corporation will be your only choice." The Authority considers that this was an acceptable shorthand way to describe an otherwise complex scenario. It does not consider that there was any breach of standard G1 in relation to this aspect of the complaint.
The next aspect of NZTUF’s complaint about matters of accuracy concerned the statement "Yet Labour says it’s going ahead despite the evidence." TVNZ contended that this statement was accurate, noting that its Standards Committee had heard evidence that the comment was attributable to the Prime Minister. The Authority notes that on that basis NZTUF was prepared to withdraw its objection. In the absence of any evidence being provided by the complainant to the contrary, the Authority accepts TVNZ’s contention and therefore does not find that the statement breached standard G1.
Next, NZTUF complained about what it called "quotations" from Select Committee submissions. It complained that it was inaccurate to refer to numbers of submissions made without reference to their content or their relative significance. The Authority accepts that TVNZ accurately reported the number of submissions for, against and neutral about the proposed new regime. Again, the Authority was provided with no evidence to support the contention of inaccuracy. In the absence of such evidence it cannot conclude that what was reported was inaccurate in terms of standard G1. Moreover, it is not persuaded that there was any reason for TVNZ to report more fully on the content of submissions in the context of a brief news item, and therefore it declines to uphold a breach of standard G1 on this aspect of the complaint.
NZTUF also complained about the following statement:
but employers and community groups who all claim to have saved thousands by going private say they’re bracing themselves for major price hikes.
The Authority considers that this was an acceptable summary of submissions made to the Select Committee. It is not persuaded that the statement was inaccurate as suggested by NZTUF.
The final aspect of NZTUF’s complaint which alleged inaccuracy related to the statement made in the item that premiums would stay the same under the new system when NZTUF claimed the Government had said they would be lower. The Authority considers that as TVNZ’s Standards Committee heard evidence that this was deduced from a source, and as no contradictory evidence was adduced by NZTUF, no breach of standard G1 occurred.
The remainder of NZTUF’s complaint dealt whether the item was objective. NZTUF maintained that the use of the phrase "kicking out" in the item lacked objectivity. However, the Authority notes that TVNZ has claimed the phrase was attributable to Dr Michael Cullen and NZTUF produced no evidence to suggest otherwise.
NZTUF also maintained that a statement made in the item about those who claimed to have saved "thousands" lacked objectivity. Again, the Authority notes that the statement was attributed to a source – information from submissions to Select Committee – and it was not provided with evidence to question whether the information was accurately reported.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
1 June 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. The New Zealand Trade Union Federation’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd –
6 March 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 24 March 2000
3. NZTUF’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 11 April 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 26 April 2000