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McQueen and TVWorks Ltd - 2012-068

Members

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

Complainant

  • Ewen McQueen of Auckland

Dated

25th September 2012

Number

2012-068

Programme

Campbell Live

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Campbell Live – reported on voluntary euthanasia in the context of New Zealand law – included interviews with two strong advocates of euthanasia – allegedly in breach of controversial issues standard

Findings
Standard 4 (controversial issues) – euthanasia is a controversial issue of public importance – item did not purport to discuss all arguments for and against euthanasia but was presented from the perspective of Sean Davison – euthanasia is a long-running moral issue with an ongoing period of current interest – alternative viewpoints adequately included, taking into account the focus of the item and the nature of issue – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  An item on Campbell Live, broadcast on TV3 on 27 April 2012, reported on voluntary euthanasia. The item included interviews with euthanasia advocates Sean Davison and Labour Party MP Maryan Street. It was introduced by the presenter as follows:

It has been nine years since Parliament last debated legislation that would allow legal euthanasia in New Zealand. Then, it was voted down but by a very slim margin, just 60 votes to 57. Since then, a number of high profile cases have reignited the debate around assisting people to die.

[2]  Ewen McQueen made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was “strongly sympathetic towards a law change to allow euthanasia with only a cursory acknowledgement that other viewpoints exist”. He argued that no reasonable opportunity was given to present alternative viewpoints in the item, or in other coverage within the period of current interest.

[3]  The issue is whether the item breached Standard 4 (controversial issues) 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 item and freedom of expression

[5]  The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. We acknowledge the importance of the values underlying that right. In determining an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we assess the importance of the particular speech and the extent to which the values of freedom of expression are engaged, and weigh this against the level of harm in terms of the underlying objectives of the relevant standards.

[6]  The topic under discussion in the Campbell Live item was voluntary euthanasia in the context of New Zealand law. The focus was Mr Davison’s involvement in the debate, which had been reignited by Ms Street’s Private Member’s Bill to legalise euthanasia in some circumstances. Mr Davison was a topical example of how the current law applies, given his recent release from home detention after being charged with the attempted murder of his terminally ill mother.

[7]  Voluntary euthanasia is a highly charged social and legal issue, and the item encouraged debate and discussion about that issue. There was a high level of public interest in the item, which the courts have suggested is an indicator that speech is socially important.1

[8]  We therefore think we should be cautious about interfering with the item’s broadcast and reception.

Did the item contain a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance which required 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.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.

[11]  We accept that voluntary euthanasia is a controversial issue of public importance to which Standard 4 applies. The question is whether the item amounted to a discussion of that issue, and if so, whether reasonable efforts were made, or reasonable opportunities given, to present significant perspectives on the issue.

[12]  Guideline 4b to Standard 4 states that an assessment of whether a reasonable range of views has been presented takes account of some or all of the following:

  • the programme introduction
  • whether the programme approaches a topic from a particular perspective
  • whether viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage.

[13]  The item was clearly not intended as a wide-ranging discussion of the competing perspectives on euthanasia and whether it should be legalised. The focus was much narrower than that; it was presented from the perspective of Mr Davison who expressed his support for Ms Street’s Private Member’s Bill. This was made clear in the introduction, when the presenter stated that “a number of high profile cases have reignited the debate around assisting people to die”. Viewers would not have expected the item to be an in-depth or even-handed analysis of all arguments for and against legalising euthanasia.

[14]  In any event, we are satisfied that, while the item contained interviews with two strong advocates of euthanasia, it included counter viewpoints to an extent that was adequate, considering the focus of the item and the nature of the issue.

[15]  Standard 4 is about ensuring that viewers are informed, and we therefore take account of balance provided in other programmes and in other media during the period of current interest. Guideline 4b recognises that the requirement for a broadcaster to provide balance may be lessened if the issue is one that has been the subject of such widespread national debate that the basic facts and a range of significant viewpoints are already common knowledge. Euthanasia is recognised as a long-running moral issue that has an ongoing period of current interest.3 It is accepted that the broad perspectives in the debate are well-known to the public and that different viewpoints from both sides of the debate will be offered from time to time.

[16]  Accordingly, we consider that it was sufficient in this case for the item to acknowledge the existence of other perspectives, without discussing those perspectives in detail. The item achieved this by including footage from a public debate, in which participants commented:

  • “…relaxing the law on euthanasia in this context is fraught with possibilities for abuse, I believe will lead to new pathways for elder abuse…”
  • “…a lot of people approaching death or who have a terminal illness have got depression, so would they be considered of sound mind…”

[17]  With regard to Mr McQueen’s argument that one of these participants was laughed at which undermined any balancing effect, we consider that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts by including the footage in the item; reactions of people at the debate were beyond its control and were in our view barely audible and likely to go unnoticed by viewers, and the item itself did not comment on or undermine the validity of those perspectives.

[18]  For these reasons, and giving full weight to the requirements of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, we find that upholding the complaint would be an unjustifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression.

[19]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
25 September 2012