One News – footage of atrocities in Chechnya – disturbing and alarming – unsuitable for children
Standard V16 – no warning – broadcaster did not demonstrate it was mindful of children – footage graphic and disturbing – uphold
Decision No: 2000-033 distinguished
Standard V12 – not cited – potential uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Footage of atrocities committed by the Russian army in Chechnya was broadcast on One News on TV One between 6.00–7.00pm on 25 February 2000. A body was seen being pushed off a truck, and another was shown being dragged by the heels behind a truck. There were also shots of more bodies being buried by soldiers.
John Shrapnell complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that it was unacceptable to show graphic shots of such atrocities in the early evening.
TVNZ responded that the complaint raised the important issue of the balance to be struck in news items between serving the public interest and protecting children. The footage, it said, provided visual confirmation of serious war crimes and it had a responsibility to show it. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Shrapnell 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 upholds 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 broadcast on One News on TV One on 25 February 2000 reported that Russian soldiers had committed atrocities in Chechnya. Evidence of those atrocities was captured on film, and the item included footage showing a body being pushed off the back of a truck, a body being dragged along by the heels behind a vehicle, and bodies being buried by soldiers.
John Shrapnell complained to TVNZ that it was unacceptable to show graphic shots of atrocities in the early evening news. He said that he did not dispute the significance of the story, or disagree with the film being shown to adult audiences with an appropriate warning. In his view, the item had breached standard V16 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standard. It reads:
V16 Broadcasters must be mindful of the effect any programme, including trailers, may have on children during their generally accepted viewing periods, usually up to 8.30pm, and avoid screening material which could unnecessarily disturb or alarm children.
TVNZ began by noting that the complaint raised the important issue of the balance to be struck in news programmes between serving the public interest and the protection of children during their normal viewing times.
It acknowledged that the pictures were graphic, but said it believed that parents and caregivers recognised that at times news contained content which was unpleasant or disturbing. In its view, it would be unconscionable for a news service to "over-sanitise coverage of gross breaches of human rights simply for the comfort of viewers in New Zealand."
It said it considered the issue of human rights in Chechnya to be of some international importance and noted that the pictures shown provided visual confirmation of what had hitherto been only rumoured. Furthermore TVNZ maintained that there was nothing gratuitous about the material, and that the reference to the evidence of the atrocities adequately signposted the pictures which were to be screened. It wrote:
In the specific context of this news event and the atrocity it represented, it was [TVNZ’s] view that One News complied with the requirements of V16 by properly indicating that the item was to contain "hard evidence" of atrocities while at the same time obeying the public interest imperative.
TVNZ referred to the Authority’s Decision No: 2000-033 which dealt with the broadcast of footage relating to human rights atrocities in East Timor. On that occasion, the Authority had declined to uphold the complaint on the basis that the content was adequately signposted and there was nothing gratuitous in its use. Furthermore, the issue had been topical and the Authority had concluded it was important to broadcast news without undue censorship.
When Mr Shrapnell referred the complaint to the Authority, he acknowledged TVNZ’s views on the significance of the news item, and its social responsibility not to sanitise news. However, he continued, the footage was graphic, and the rules under standard V16 were unequivocal.
In Mr Shrapnell’s view, the shots would and did unnecessarily disturb and alarm children. He said he had conducted an informal survey of parents in his community who confirmed that children had been disturbed not by the verbal content, but by the graphic images.
When asked to comment on the referral, TVNZ first submitted that a key word in standard V16 was the word "unnecessarily". It argued that there was no absolute ban on showing material which might cause distress. It wrote:
There are times, such as when a gross infringement of human rights is confirmed, that it becomes imperative in the pubic interest that sufficient visual evidence is supplied to demonstrate that the material is in fact "the first hard evidence…", as this item claimed. It is our view that the item showed considerable restraint and made the point verbally that the most explicit material could not be shown.
Secondly, TVNZ reminded the Authority that although the news could have been conveyed in verbal form, television was a visual medium.
Thirdly, TVNZ referred to the Codes of Guidance of the British Standards Commission which, it noted, reflected the concerns raised by Mr Shrapnell. However, it noted that those provisions specifically endorsed not glossing over violent acts and their consequences.
In his final comment, Mr Shrapnell argued that the key word in standard V16 was not, as TVNZ claimed, "unnecessarily", but "children". He noted that standard V16 clearly acknowledged that television was a visual medium and that was why it used the words "children’s viewing" and "avoid screening".
Mr Shrapnell observed that standard V16 caused a "continuing problem" for any news editor dealing with news programmes in the early evening. However, he argued, parents should be able to rely on the fact that up until 8.30pm was regarded as a time when children may well be watching, and broadcasters would be taking care about what was shown. He suggested that broadcasters could use the constraints imposed by standard V16 positively to promote the late news as a programme where adults could be given full facts and pictures.
The essence of this complaint is that the graphic images of atrocities which had occurred in Chechnya were inappropriate for inclusion in an early evening news programme. Mr Shrapnell acknowledged TVNZ’s social responsibility not to sanitise the news, but contended that the visual images were unnecessarily disturbing and alarming to children, and were therefore in breach of standard V16.
The Authority has been invited by TVNZ to apply the same reasoning on this occasion as in its Decision No: 2000-033. In that Decision it concluded that the inclusion of still photographs showing atrocities committed in East Timor did not breach broadcasting standards because the pictures themselves were relatively indistinct, and adequate notice of the contents had been given to adults to enable them to determine the suitability of the item for children in their care.
The Authority is not persuaded that this is a similar fact situation. First, it notes, the item complained about was not preceded by a warning, either express or implied. It was introduced by the presenter who stated "The first hard evidence is now emerging…", and continued with a report from an English correspondent in Chechnya who described and showed footage of barbaric acts said to have been committed by the Russian Army. In the Authority’s view, the presenter’s introductory remarks did not constitute a warning – or even a signpost – which would have alerted parents and caregivers to the nature of the footage, or demonstrate that the broadcaster was mindful that there were children in the viewing audience. Secondly, in the Authority’s view the video footage was far more graphic than the brief shots of the three still photographs which were the subject of the earlier complaint, and which had been rendered indistinct by the broadcaster. Accordingly, the Authority upholds the complaint under this standard.
While noting that the complainant’s concerns about the item are addressed by the application of standard V16, the Authority observes in passing that had the complaint also alleged a breach of standard V12 – one of the standards addressed in Decision No: 2000-033 – the Authority would have upheld that aspect for the same reasons as it upheld the complaint under standard V16. In particular, it is the absence of any kind of clear warning – coupled with graphic and disturbing footage – which causes the Authority concern. In situations such as this, the Authority recognises that a broadcaster is required to exercise editorial discretion without compromising the integrity of its news service. However, the standards specifically point to the need to exercise particular caution when dealing with footage of this nature, particularly when it is broadcast in an early evening news programme during family viewing time. Both standard V12 and V16 anticipate that there will be occasions when it is deemed appropriate to broadcast such footage. However, that ability is fettered by a requirement to comply with the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. In some instances that will be achieved by providing a suitable warning, while on other occasions it will be achieved by showing the material later in the evening. Finally, the Authority notes that its 1999 research on community attitudes indicates that a majority of people find it unacceptable to include disturbing and graphic material in the early evening news hour.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority upholds the complaint that an item on One News broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd on 25 February 2000 between 6.00–7.00pm breached standard V16 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It invited the parties to make submissions on penalty. TVNZ submitted that a penalty was not appropriate on this occasion and that in its view, discussion of the decision and its implications was the most suitable outcome. Mr Shrapnell advised by telephone that he was satisfied with the upheld decision. Having taken into account these submissions, the Authority also concludes that no penalty is warranted on this occasion. It signals its intention to discuss the issue of graphic content in the early evening news hour further with broadcasters.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
29 June 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. John Shrapnell’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 8 March 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 30 March 2000
3. Mr Shrapnell’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 2 April 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 11 April 2000
5. Mr Shrapnell’s Final Comment – 16 April 2000
6. TVNZ’s Submission on Penalty – 1 June 2000