Skip to main content

Pietkiewicz and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2012-013

Members

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

Complainant

  • Thomas Pietkiewicz of Hamilton

Dated

8th June 2012

Number

2012-013

Programme

Close Up

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Close Up – item reported on an incident at Fairfield College in which a group of teenage girls were admitted to hospital after taking drugs – included summary of problems previously experienced at Fairfield College – allegedly in breach of standards relating to controversial issues, accuracy and fairness

Findings
Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints) – item did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance – in any event, alternative viewpoints were presented and representatives from Fairfield College were invited to appear on the programme – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – item was not inaccurate and did not create a misleading impression about the problems faced at Fairfield College – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – Fairfield College was provided with a reasonable opportunity to comment and its response was adequately conveyed in the broadcast – Fairfield College was treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  An item on Close Up, broadcast on TV One on 22 November 2011, reported on an incident at Fairfield College in which a group of teenage girls were admitted to hospital after taking the class C drug commonly known as ‘BZP’. The presenter introduced the item, stating, “The drug scandal is the latest blow for Hamilton’s Fairfield College, a school that, as [name] reports, never seems to be too far away from the headlines.” The first part of the report summarised problems previously experienced at Fairfield College.

[2]  Thomas Pietkiewicz made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item “blatantly persecuted” Fairfield College, was inaccurate, unfair, “biased”, and “sensationalist”. He sought an apology to the school, the students, the Fairfield community and the general public for “dampening the reputation” of the school and for misleading viewers about the “true Fairfield culture and spirit”.

[3]  The issue is whether the item breached Standards 4 (controversial issues), 5 (accuracy), and 6 (fairness) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Nature of the programme and freedom of expression

[5]  At the outset, we recognise the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and acknowledge the importance of the values underlying that right. The right to free expression includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form. Any restriction on the right to freedom of expression must be prescribed by law, reasonable, and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (section 5).

[6]  The Close Up item was a serious report into the myriad of issues faced by Fairfield College over a number of years, in the context of a recent drug-taking incident which resulted in six students being admitted to hospital. The incident attracted widespread publicity and rightfully raised questions about the health and safety of Fairfield College students, as it occurred on school grounds. The item included interviews with the Clinical Director of Waikato Hospital’s Emergency Department (the Clinical Director) and a representative from Teen Challenge New Zealand, an organisation dedicated to educating young people about substance abuse.

[7]  We consider that the report had a high value in that it exposed serious social issues – drug-taking and hospitalisation of students – the discussion of which was in the public interest. This aspect of the report was wider than the particular incident at Fairfield College and looked at drug abuse by young people in general, and included an interview with an expert in the field. The summary of problems faced by Fairfield College was also high value speech as it raised legitimate concerns about student learning, engagement and achievement at the school.

[8]  Taking into account the nature of the item and the high value of the speech engaged on this occasion, we consider that a compelling justification is required to restrict the broadcaster’s right to impart such information and the audience’s right to receive it.

Did the item discuss a controversial issue of public importance requiring the presentation of significant viewpoints?

[9]  Standard 4 states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[10]  The Authority has previously stated that the balance standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.1 The standard only applies to programmes which discuss “controversial issues of public importance”, and therefore this objective is of vital importance in a free and democratic society.

[11]  Mr Pietkiewicz argued that Fairfield College was a “controversial school” because of “consistent media persecution” of the school and the Fairfield area. He said that the broadcaster failed to present significant points of view, which “extends outside the college’s Board of Trustees and Senior Leadership Team, and into the Fairfield community, student body, stakeholders, alumni, and local politicians”.

[12]  TVNZ argued that the problems previously experienced by Fairfield College and outlined at the start of the item, while of public importance, were not controversial as there was no dispute that they occurred. In any event, it considered that significant points of view were presented in relation to the content of the report.

[13]  The focus of the item was a specific incident of drug-taking involving a group of young girls at Fairfield College. The first part of the report outlined previous problems at the school. In our view, neither the drug-taking incident, nor the other issues discussed in relation to Fairfield College, amounted to controversial issues of public importance. The item simply reported on events that occurred at the school and made reference to NCEA results that were “well below comparative schools”, as well as a report from the Education Review Office “claiming little progress had been made during [principal’s name]’s two-and-a-half year tenure”. The information divulged, while unfortunate and largely negative, had a factual basis and was not the subject of conflicting opinion or ongoing debate.

[14]  In any event, we agree with TVNZ that the item presented significant viewpoints in the form of comments from a range of people, including students and former students, the Commissioner appointed by the Ministry of Education to “fix Fairfield’s problems”, and the President of the Secondary Principals Association. In addition, a statement from Fairfield College was displayed onscreen as the presenter read it aloud verbatim, saying:

Fairfield College has faced a number of challenges over the past few years. Throughout these times, the health and safety of our students has been our first priority, and remains so today. The Board considers any threat to the health and safety of our students to be very serious.

[15]  We also note that Fairfield College representatives and the Ministry of Education were invited to appear on the programme, but declined.

[16]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint as the item did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance, and in any case reasonable efforts were made to present significant perspectives.

Was the item inaccurate or misleading?

[17]  Standard 5 (accuracy) 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. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.2

[18]  Mr Pietkiewicz argued that the item misled the public through its inaccurate and unfair “investigation” and its failure to present the “truth about Fairfield College, and its positive history”. He referred to the achievements of Fairfield College, its students and staff, and stated that the school “should be commended for its approach to the isolated incident and for ensuring the safety of its students during the process of events that took place”. The complainant argued that the following statements were inaccurate and contributed to an impression of Fairfield College that was misleading and unfair:

  • “13 years old seems too young to be taking drugs... too young to be rushed to hospital...” (presenter)
  • “...the latest blow for Hamilton’s Fairfield College, a school that, as [name] reports, never seems to be too far away from the headlines...” (presenter)
  • “Fairfield College’s student achievement card is nothing to skite about. NCEA results from last year are well below comparative schools, but that’s not their only problem.” (reporter)
  • “[the drug-taking incident] couldn’t have happened at a worse time, it was one of our busiest days ever...” (Clinical Director)
  • “Slow progress for a school that’s not making the grade.” (presenter)

[19]  TVNZ asserted that Fairfield College made media headlines because of the issues it faced, not because of “media persecution”. It contended that the summary of the problems faced by Fairfield College was intended to provide background to the latest drug-taking incident. The summary provided a fair and accurate presentation of the issues faced by the school, in the context of a discussion of a major news story with significant public interest, it said.

[20]  In our view, the comments referred to by the complainant were clearly distinguishable as comment, analysis and opinion, rather than statements of fact, and were therefore exempt from standards of accuracy under guideline 5a to Standard 5.

[21]  Mr Pietkiewicz also argued that the item’s title “Fairfield College Woes” was inaccurate. Having viewed the programme, we are satisfied that this phrase was not used in the broadcast.

[22]  The complainant argued that the recurring image of Fairfield College in the background of the interview with the representative from Teen Challenge, suggested a connection between the school and the “drug culture” in New Zealand. We disagree. The images of Fairfield College were shown very briefly four times in the background of the live interview. They were not the focus of the interview, and did not dominate the background images.

[23]  With regard to the complainant’s argument that overall the item was misleading, we note that in Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd, Williams J stated that to mislead in the context of the accuracy standard meant “to give another a wrong idea or impression of the facts”.3 Determinations about what information to include in a broadcast, and the manner in which that information is presented, is largely a matter of editorial discretion for the broadcaster, provided that the requirements of the Code are met. Given the focus of the item, and our reasoning expressed at paragraph [13] above, we do not consider that, overall, the omission of positive information about Fairfield College and its achievements, combined with the specific inaccuracies alleged, resulted in a misleading report. Rather, viewers were provided with a summary of the problems faced by the school in the context of the latest drug-taking incident, as well as a number of significant perspectives on that matter, and were left to form their own impressions from the information presented.

[24]  For these reasons, we decline to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Was Fairfield College treated unfairly in the item?

[25]  Standard 6 states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme.

[26]  One of the purposes of the fairness standard is to protect individuals and organisations from broadcasts which provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.4

[27]  Mr Pietkiewicz argued that the item presented Fairfield College in an unfairly negative light, and reiterated his arguments in relation to accuracy.

[28]  TVNZ contended that the item did not criticise the actions of the school in relation to the drug-taking incident, and asserted that Close Up went to great lengths to obtain comment from the school. It emphasised that the statement provided by Fairfield College was included in full in the item.

[29]  As noted under Standard 4, Fairfield College was provided with a reasonable opportunity to comment, and its response was adequately included in the broadcast. We therefore do not consider that viewers would have been left with an unfairly negative impression of Fairfield College, or that it was treated unfairly.

[30]  For these reasons, and taking into account the importance of freedom of expression, we decline to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 6. 

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
8 June 2012

Appendix

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

1                  Thomas Pietkiewicz’s formal complaint – 11 December 2011

2                 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 22 February 2012

3                 TVNZ’s additional comments – 11 April 2012

4                 Mr Pietkiewicz’s referral to the Authority – 21 March 2012


1Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

2Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036

3Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd PDF1.92 MB, CIV-2011-485-1110 at paragraph 98

4Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014