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Richard-Howes and Wilson and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2011-019

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Mary Anne Shanahan

Complainants

  • Alistair Richard-Howes of Palmerston North
  • Dorian Wilson of Christchurch

Dated

8th July 2011

Number

2011-019

Programme

Close Up

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaints under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Close Up – item on Haitian Vodou – interviewed New Zealand vodou high priest and one of his spiritual children – allegedly in breach of privacy, accuracy, fairness and discrimination and denigration

Findings

Standard 3 (privacy) – interviewee’s partner could have been identified through their relationship but no private facts disclosed in a highly offensive manner – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – points raised by the complainants were not material points of fact – not inaccurate or misleading – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – Haitian Vodou not an organisation to which the standard applies – not upheld

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – broadcast did not carry invective necessary to encourage denigration of, or discrimination against, Haitian Vodou believers as a section of the community – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Broadcast

[1]  An item on Close Up, titled “Voodoo Man” and broadcast on TV One at 7pm on Friday 18 February, reported on the practice of Haitian Vodou. The presenter introduced the item as follows:

Mention the word vodou and you think dolls, zombies, curses and bloody   rituals. But a Palmerston North man says the religion’s got a bad rap. Now what would a bloke from Palmy know about it, I hear you asking. Well after years of practising vodou, Liam Richards [sic] was ordained a vodou high priest in a two-week secret ceremony in Haiti. That, I suggest, makes him slightly unusual.

[2]  A reporter then interviewed Liam Richard-Howes about his religion. The reporter said, “He’s one of only two Kiwis who are vodou high priests. The other happens to be his partner, but he won’t front.” A photo of the two men was shown, in which they were wearing hats with straw that covered their faces. The reporter asked Mr Richard-Howes if he was a witch hunter, if he was “crazy” and if he sacrificed animals, to which he responded no. Mr Richard-Howes discussed some of the rituals that he practised, and he was filmed with the other complainant, Dorian Wilson, performing a “salute”.

[3]  When asked about his followers, Mr Richard-Howes said that he preferred to call them “spiritual children”. The reporter said, “[Mr Wilson] claims to have 20 spirit children, with many over the world. Only one is willing to front, Dorian from Christchurch.” Dorian Wilson was shown saying, “He’s my father, he’s a priest to me as well”. The reporter said, “He tells me Vodou is having a positive effect on his life”. Mr Wilson said, “[it’s] taught me lessons I’ve needed to learn, and it’s made me a better person and a better human being”.

[4]  Mr Richard-Howes commented, “Vodou is not about harm. You know, basically in our own lives we seek to live in accordance with the will of God.” The reporter said, “One day, he hopes to build the first Vodou temple here, he says to dispel the myths [surrounding his] religion.” Mr Wilson commented, “In no way is it a cult. It’s a religion. And it happens to be organised into families.” Mr Richard-Howes said, “We want everyone around us to live a happy and fulfilled life.” Mr Richard-Howes and Mr Dorian were shown chanting at the conclusion of the item.

[5]  Back in the studio, the Close Up presenter said, “Okay... well that’s it from us,” as he smiled and laughed.

Complaints

[6]  Alistair Richard-Howes and Dorian Wilson made formal complaints to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item breached broadcasting standards.

Alistair Richard-Howes’ complaint

[7]  Mr Richard-Howes, the partner of the high priest interviewed, said that he had a verbal agreement with TVNZ that he would not be mentioned in the story. He considered that the reference to him breached his privacy and was disrespectful. He said he had started a new job with a client base that fit Close Up’s demographic, and considered that the disclosure of the fact he was a vodou high priest might affect his work. He also considered that the reporter’s statement, “he won’t front” was disrespectful.

[8]  Mr Richard-Howes argued that the item was inaccurate in a number of respects. He said that his partner’s name was Liam Richard-Howes, not Liam Richards as reported. He considered that it was inaccurate to state that only one “spiritual child” was willing to front, as Close Up was offered the option of Skype or phone interviews with other spiritual children. Mr Richard-Howes argued that it was inaccurate to state that “he won’t front”, because he had explained he could not participate in the programme because of his new job. He also noted that the reporter had said that the secrets his partner would not reveal about the ceremony were readily available on the internet, but the web page shown in the item did not reveal any secrets. The reporter also stated, “what he does, that is a secret”, but Mr Richard-Howes said that his partner’s website and Trade Me listings outlined what he did.

[9]  The complainant was of the view that the programme did not fairly represent Haitian Vodou in breach of Standard 6, especially given that Close Up conducted a four-hour interview with his partner and Mr Wilson and could have clarified their responses.

[10]  Mr Richard-Howes contended that the item breached Standard 7 because “Close Up failed to treat Haitian Vodou as the genuine religion that it is. [The presenter’s] comment at the end was shameful and would not have been tolerated if it was aimed at any other religion,” he said.

Dorian Wilson’s complaint

[11]  Mr Wilson argued that the presenter’s “behaviour while introducing the segment... was deplorable”. He said, “Despite the fact that the intention of the interviewees was to portray Vodou as a legitimate, beautiful and non-threatening religion, [the presenter] repeatedly promoted the segment as being about going to a Vodou high priest if you needed to stick pins in dolls, and delving into the ‘black magic’ world of Vodou”. Mr Wilson said that he agreed to take part in the story because he thought he “would be helping to expose these misconceptions for what they are and help the public understand a much maligned religion”. Instead, he said, the presenter “repeatedly referenced negative stereotypes and, after the segment in question had aired, had the gall to laugh at my religious practice”. Mr Wilson maintained that for these reasons the programme breached standards relating to discrimination and denigration.

[12]  Mr Wilson also argued that the item was inaccurate. He said that Liam Richard-Howes had 10 spiritual children, not 20, and it was incorrect to say that he was the only one willing to “front up” because they were given three days notice before the interview, and the other spiritual children were overseas and could not travel to New Zealand in that time. He considered that the reporter’s statement that he was the only person willing to front up “implied... that practitioners of Vodou are ashamed of their religion”.

Standards

[13]  The complainants nominated Standards 3, 5, 6 and 7 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice in their complaints. These provide:

Standard 3 Privacy

Broadcasters should maintain standards consistent with the privacy of the individual.

Standard 5 Accuracy

Broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming:

  • is accurate in relation to all material points of fact; and/or
  • does not mislead.
Standard 6 Fairness

Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Standard 7 Discrimination and Denigration

Broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainants

[14]  Looking first at privacy, TVNZ said that it must first determine whether the person whose privacy was allegedly interfered with was identifiable in the broadcast. It noted that Mr Richard-Howes only contained “one verbal reference to Liam Richard-Howes’ partner” and that he was not named or shown in the item. It therefore considered that, while he may have been identifiable to a small group of individuals locally, he would not have been identifiable to the wider public.

[15]  TVNZ went on to consider whether the item disclosed any private facts about the complainant. It argued that the fact he practised Haitian Vodou was in the public domain and available on his website. TVNZ also considered that nothing in the story concerning the complainant, including the photo which was supplied by his partner, in which his face was covered and which was also available on the website, amounted to a private fact. It noted that there were photos of the complainant on the website which showed his face.

[16]  In any event, TVNZ did not consider that the disclosure of the material in the item would be highly offensive to an objective reasonable person, “as it is information that [the complainant has] already chosen to publish in the public realm”.

[17]  It therefore declined to uphold the Standard 3 complaint.

[18]  With regard to Mr Richard-Howes’ argument that TVNZ had agreed not to refer to him in the story, the broadcaster maintained that “Both the reporter and producer are adamant they only agreed not to name him or use pictures of him which identified [the complainant]. This agreement was respected. The photograph shown in the item was supplied by Liam and approved for use by him and it did not identify [Alistair].”

[19]  Turning to consider accuracy, TVNZ maintained that “Liam Richards” was the correct name, and that the reporter believed that was the correct name at the time of the interview. It said that Close Up would be happy to make a correction if it was given proof of an official name change. TVNZ said that the reporter considered it was accurate to state that only Mr Wilson would “front” for an interview, and that the reporter was told most of the “spiritual children” lived overseas, which the complainants had confirmed in their complaints. It was also correct to state that Mr Richard-Howes would not front to be interviewed, TVNZ said. TVNZ wrote:

The reporter has stated that the Close Up item is an accurate refelction of both the conversations and of the interview where the reporter was both frustrated and bemused by the responses to his questions. The reporter was repeatedly told something was a secret when he was later able to find much of that information on the internet.

[20]  With regard to Mr Wilson’s complaint, TVNZ considered that the number of spiritual children was not a material point of fact and that “the audience was not misled by a difference of ten followers”. It maintained that the story did not imply that Vodou followers were ashamed of their religion.

[21]  TVNZ concluded that nothing in the item was inaccurate or misleading, and it declined to uphold the complaints under Standard 5.

[22]  The broadcaster maintained that Liam Richard-Howes was treated fairly, and that the item fairly represented the reporter’s interview with him. TVNZ considered that the interviewee was given a fair opportunity to present his positive views on Vodou and that several of these responses were included in the item. The broadcaster noted that Standard 6 was not designed to protect religious groups, which were best considered under Standard 7. It declined to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

[23]  With regard to Standard 7, TVNZ noted that the Authority had consistently defined denigration as blackening the reputation of a class of people, and discrimination as encouraging the different treatment of members of a particular group, to their detriment. It considered that Liam Richard-Howes had been provided with ample opportunity to present his perspective on Vodou, and that his views were faithfully reported in the item. TVNZ maintained that the presenter’s comment following the item was his “genuine and personal reaction to the story”. It considered that “there was no invective in his utterances and his comments did not reach the necessary level of invective to be in breach of this broadcasting standard”. TVNZ therefore declined to uphold the complaints under Standard 7.

[24]  Noting that Mr Richard-Howes had raised concerns about material on Close Up’s Facebook page, TVNZ pointed out that material published on the internet was not subject to broadcasting standards.

Referrals to the Authority

[25]  Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Richard-Howes and Mr Wilson referred their complaints to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Mr Richard-Howes’ referral

[26]  Mr Richard-Howes maintained that TVNZ had agreed not to refer to him, and that he was identifiable in the story, which he argued had negatively affected his professional relationships. He reiterated his view that the item was inaccurate in reporting his partner’s name, and in stating that he would not front, and that only one of his followers would “front”. With regard to the “secret” ceremony, Mr Richard-Howes maintained that the website shown only named the ceremony but explained that what took place was a secret.

[27]  Mr Richard-Howes argued that the item was unfair in its discussion of animal sacrifice, as Close Up did not allow Liam to explain the Vodou perspective. He said that while parts of the interview fairly represented Vodou, they were minimal.

[28]  The complainant considered that the presenter’s comments and facial expressions following the item were “gratuitous and offensive” and “denigrating”.

Mr Wilson’s referral

[29]  Mr Wilson considered that the evidence TVNZ put forward to support its arguments was “selective” and that it failed to deal with the substance of his complaint.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[30]  TVNZ provided copies of Liam Richard-Howes’ website material, including photos of the complainant.

Authority’s Determination

[31]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 3 (privacy)

[32]  Mr Richard-Howes argued that the item breached his privacy because TVNZ had agreed that the item would not refer to him.

[33]  When the Authority considers a privacy complaint, it must first determine whether the person whose privacy has allegedly been interfered with was identifiable in the broadcast. We note that in the item the reporter said, “[Liam is] one of only two Kiwis who are Vodou high priests. The other happens to be his partner, but he won’t front.” A photo of the two men was shown, in which they were wearing hats with straw that covered their faces.

[34]  In our view, the complainant was not identifiable in the photo that was shown. However, we accept that some viewers may have been able to identify him through his relationship with Liam Richard-Howes.

[35]  The next step is to consider whether any private facts were disclosed about the complainant. TVNZ provided us with website material including information about, and photos of, the complainant’s involvement in Haitian Vodou. As this information is publicly available on the internet, we find that nothing in the item amounted to a private fact.

[36]  In any event, we do not consider that the disclosure of this information in the item would be highly offensive to an objective reasonable person.

[37]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold Mr Richard-Howes’ privacy complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[38]  Standard 5 states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.

[39]  The complainants argued that the following aspects of the item were inaccurate:

  • Liam Richard-Howes’ name (reported as Liam Richards).
  • The statement that “only one” of Liam’s spiritual children was “willing to front”, because Close Up was offered Skype or phone interviews with other followers.
  • The statement that Liam’s partner “won’t front”.
  • The statement that Liam has 20 spiritual children, when he in fact has 10.
  • The statement that what Liam does is a “secret”, because his website and Trade Me listings outline what he does.

[40]  In our view, none of these amounted to “material points of fact” for the purposes of the standard. The item was a human interest story focusing on Liam Richard-Howes, some of his beliefs, and his choice to become a Vodou high priest. We do not consider that viewers would have been misled by any of the above points in the manner suggested by the complainants.

[41]  Accordingly, we are satisfied that the item was not inaccurate or misleading, and we decline to uphold the Standard 5 complaints.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[42]  Standard 6 states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. Mr Richard-Howes argued that the item did not fairly represent Haitian Vodou. In our view, Haitian Vodou is a set of religious beliefs rather than an organisation to which the standard applies. We therefore decline to uphold this part of the complaint.

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration)

[43]  The complainants argued that the item failed to present Haitian Vodou as a genuine religion and promoted negative stereotypes about Vodou, and that Close Up’s presenter laughed at their religion.

[44]  The Authority has consistently defined denigration as blackening the reputation of a class of people (for example, Mental Health Commission and CanWest RadioWorks1), and discrimination as encouraging the different treatment of members of a particular group, to their detriment (for example, Teoh and TVNZ2). It is also well-established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act, a high level of invective is necessary for the Authority to conclude that a broadcast encourages denigration or discrimination in contravention of the standard (for example, McCartain and Angus and The Radio Network3).

[45]  In our view, the item simply referenced some of the notions that many people would associate with “voodoo”. We note that it also reported that Liam Richard-Howes believed that vodou “got a bad rap”, and we consider that he and Mr Wilson were given a fair opportunity to explain their beliefs and present their views in support of their religion. Viewers were then left to form their own judgement about Haitian Vodou. With regard to the presenter’s comment, “Okay... well that’s it from us,” as he smiled and laughed, we are of the view that it was his own personal response to the story, and would not have influenced viewers’ perceptions of the religion.

[46]  Accordingly, we are satisfied that the broadcast did not encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, people who believe in Haitian Vodou. We therefore decline to uphold the complaints under Standard 7.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
8 July 2011

Appendix

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

Alistair Richard-Howes’ complaint

1                  Alistair Richard-Howes’ formal complaints – 20 and 28 February 2011

2                 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 21 March 2011

3                 Mr Richard-Howes’ referral to the Authority – 5 April 2011

4                 TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 27 May 2011

 

Dorian Wilson’s complaint

1                  Dorian Wilson’s formal complaint – 18 February 2011

2                 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 21 March 2011

3                 Mr Wilson’s referral to the Authority – 22 March 2011 

4                 TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 27 May 2011


1Decision No. 2006-030

2Decision No. 2008-091

3Decision No. 2002-152