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Stowe and SKY Network Television Ltd - 2012-025

Members

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

Complainant

  • Dillon Stowe of Auckland

Dated

17th July 2012

Number

2012-025

Programme

Prime News

Channel/Station

Prime TV

Broadcaster

SKY Network Television Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Prime News – pre-recorded BBC item reported on controversial comments by television presenter Jeremy Clarkson that striking workers should be shot – allegedly in breach of controversial issues, accuracy, fairness and responsible programming standards

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – focus of the item was the comment made by Mr Clarkson which caused controversy – therefore not misleading to omit footage of other comments – not upheld

Standard 4 (controversial issues) – item was a brief snapshot of the response to Mr Clarkson’s comments – did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue that was of public importance in New Zealand – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – higher threshold for finding unfairness to public figure – Mr Clarkson was not treated unfairly – not upheld

Standard 8 (responsible programming) – viewers were not disadvantaged or deceived by the clip of Mr Clarkson’s comments – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  An item on Prime News, broadcast on Prime TV on 2 December 2011, reported on controversial comments made by British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson that striking workers should be shot. Introducing the item, the newsreader said:

Jeremy Clarkson’s mouth is famously as fast as some of the cars he drives. But this time the Top Gear presenter has been forced to apologise for his comments on a talk show when asked about Britain’s public service strikes. Clarkson said strikers should be lined up and shot in front of their families drawing almost 5000 complaints to the BBC.

[2]  In a pre-recorded BBC item, a reporter questioned Mr Clarkson in an airport about the comments, saying, “Jeremy Clarkson had this to say about his latest controversy”. Mr Clarkson was shown commenting, “See what I actually said and then be the judge.” The reporter said, “So we did,” and part of Mr Clarkson’s comments was shown, as he said:

I’d have them all shot, take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how dare they go on strike when they’ve got these guilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living.

[3]  The reporter went on to say, “And while you’re deciding whether it was a good joke, a tasteless remark or a threat, bear in mind that Clarkson makes a good living saying outrageous things on the show to plug this new DVD. But thousands complained and now politicians are being asked to get involved.” British Prime Minister David Cameron was shown saying, “Well it was obviously a silly thing to say and I’m sure he didn’t mean that…” The Labour leader then commented, “I think they’re disgraceful and disgusting comments and I think they’re outrageous and Jeremy Clarkson should apologise for those comments”. The reporter said that Mr Clarkson had now apologised.

[4]  Dillon Stowe made a formal complaint to SKY Network Television Ltd (SKY), the broadcaster, alleging that the item breached broadcasting standards because the editing of the clip of Mr Clarkson’s comments was misleading and omitted important context.

[5]  The issue is whether the news item breached Standards 4 (controversial issues), 5 (accuracy), 6 (fairness) and 8 (responsible programming) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[6]  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 item and freedom of expression

[7]  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).

[8]  On this occasion, the brief news item reported on controversial comments made by a well-known media commentator, which attracted widespread publicity and many complaints to the BBC. The purpose of the item was to provide a snapshot of the public’s response to the comments, and to inform viewers of the development in the story, that Mr Clarkson had since been made to apologise. The report related to events which occurred outside New Zealand, and therefore was likely only to be “of interest” to viewers, as opposed to carrying a high level of public interest.

Was the item inaccurate or misleading?

[9]  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.1

[10]  Mr Stowe argued that the editing of the clip of Mr Clarkson’s comments was misleading, because, in fact, Mr Clarkson “first made hyperbolic positive comments about the strike action, then made a facetious remark about balance in the media, and then made his hyperbolic negative remark”. The complainant considered that Prime News intentionally edited the footage “to omit the fact that Clarkson was presenting two extreme and contradictory views at the same time” which would have misled and deceived viewers.

[11]  SKY asserted that the focus of the item was the public outcry at Mr Clarkson’s comments, and not whether his comments were reasonable. In its final comments on the complaint, SKY argued that only the comment which had sparked public outcry was included, as the preceding comments were immaterial (that is, because they were not the comment that generated controversy). It did not consider that the omission of Mr Clarkson’s earlier comments made the story inaccurate. Further, it maintained that the item was not based on the BBC item, and re-edited, as alleged.

[12]  As the clip of the comments did not amount to “a material point of fact”, the issue is whether the clip of Mr Clarkson’s comments as it was shown, was misleading. As noted above, the comments attracted widespread publicity. We agree with SKY that the item was clearly about the public’s reaction to the particular statement by Mr Clarkson which drew attention, as opposed to being an analysis of, or judgement about, the comments themselves. In regards to the reporter’s comment at paragraph [2], followed by the excerpt of Mr Clarkson’s comments, we accept SKY’s submission that it included this comment because it was the part that caused controversy. In this context, we do not consider that the omission of footage of any other comments made by Mr Clarkson resulted in the item being misleading.

[13]  Taking into account the right to free speech and the limited harm likely to result from the broadcast of the edited comments, we consider that upholding the complaint is unjustified.

[14]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

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

[15]  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.

[16]  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.2 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.

[17]  Mr Stowe maintained that Prime News had edited the clip of Mr Clarkson’s comments so that it omitted important contextual material that was necessary to achieve balance.

[18]  SKY argued that different networks had taken different perspectives on the issue. It said that Prime News approached the story from a particular perspective, namely the public outcry, rather than whether the outcry was reasonable. This approach differed from networks which had longer bulletins, it said, and therefore focused on the various statements made by Mr Clarkson as well as the consequences.

[19]  In our view, the item was a brief snapshot of the public’s response to Mr Clarkson’s comments, and a follow-up to the original story, in that it informed viewers that Mr Clarkson had since been made to apologise. We do not consider that this brief, straightforward news report amounted to a discussion. Nor do we consider that the story was of public importance in New Zealand, given that the comments related to events in Britain, rather than a local issue that was of concern to, or had a significant impact on, members of the New Zealand public.

[20]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold this part of the complaint.

Was the item unfair to any individual or organisation?

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

[22]  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.3

[23]  Mr Stowe did not identify who he considered had been treated unfairly. We presume that he felt the broadcast of the clip was unfair to Mr Clarkson. In response, SKY reiterated its view that the item accurately portrayed events and reported the public outcry over the comments.

[24]  The Authority has previously recognised that there is a higher threshold for upholding a fairness complaint concerning a public figure, than for a lay person.4 The item did not make any adverse comments about Mr Clarkson, though it did report the opinions of others who were critical of Mr Clarkson’s controversial remarks. We do not consider that the editing of Mr Clarkson’s comments was unfair to him, particularly given the significant number of complaints that the comments that were shown had generated. Public figures should expect that any comments they make publicly may be reported on or scrutinised.

[25]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Did the item breach the responsible programming standard?

[26]  Standard 8 requires that programmes are correctly classified, and do not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.  

[27]  Mr Stowe argued that the programme deceived and disadvantaged viewers. SKY maintained that the item did not deceive or mislead viewers, as the focus was not whether or not the public outcry was justified, but rather that the comments had caused public outcry.

[28]  For the reasons expressed above, in particular that Mr Clarkson’s comments were widely reported in the media, we find that the editing of the clip in the news item would not have deceived or disadvantaged viewers in the manner alleged.

[29]  We therefore decline to uphold the complaint under Standard 8. 

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
17 July 2012