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Seymour and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2012-082

Members

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

Complainant

  • Gareth Seymour of Hamilton

Dated

24th October 2012

Number

2012-082

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item included Colmar Brunton poll results on the percentage of party votes for major political parties – results did not take account of “undecided voters” – allegedly inaccurate

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – omission of undecided voters not material given the focus and context of the item which was the decline in the level of support for the National Party – potential harm in terms of impact on voter participation was not significant given the length of time until next general election – viewers would not have been misled in any material respect – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  During One News, broadcast on TV One on 4 July 2012, an item reported that the National Party’s “popularity with voters has slipped below 50 percent for the first time in two years, according to the latest ONE News Colmar Brunton poll”. The political editor outlined the results in terms of the percentage of party votes for the major political parties, and translated those into their number of seats in Parliament.

[2]  Gareth Seymour made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging the item presented the poll results in a manner that was inaccurate and misleading, as the results did not take account of “undecided voters”, which “artificially increased perception of support for larger political parties, and misrepresents the degree of closeness between the larger parties”.  

[3]  The issue is whether the item breached Standard 5 (accuracy) 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.

Was the item inaccurate or misleading?

[5]  In assessing an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we must give proper consideration to the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Any restriction on the right to free speech must be prescribed by law, reasonable, and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (section 5).

[6]  The starting point is to assess the value of the particular speech, and then to balance this against the potential harm that is likely to result from allowing the unfettered dissemination of that speech. The focus of the broadcast was the drop in public support for the National Party, following the Government’s Budget 2012, according to the latest One News political poll. The broadcast contained political speech which is of value in terms of the underlying objectives of freedom of expression.

[7]  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

[8]  Here, the alleged harm, in terms of the underlying objectives of the standard, was the purported inaccurate reporting of poll results and the potential impact on voting behaviour. Mr Seymour referred to a report by the Electoral Commission which found that one of the reasons for the low voter turnout during the 2011 general election was the impact of media reporting of political polls. This was because such reporting “exaggerates support for political parties” so that non-voters took the view that “it was obvious who would win so why bother”, he said. The complainant asserted that the June poll had an undecided party vote of 7 percent, which was “statistically significant”.

[9]  TVNZ said that it could not identify any material errors of fact, and that viewers were sufficiently informed of the parameters of the poll when the presenter stated, at the end of the item, “the poll surveyed 1,005 eligible voters and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent”. 

[10]  We acknowledge the complainant’s concerns about the way the poll results were presented in the item. His concerns relate to issues wider than this particular broadcast, namely the accepted method for the reporting of political polls by the media, and the impact this has on voting behaviour. 

[11]  These concerns have been highlighted in research conducted by the Electoral Commission in relation to the 2011 general election.2 We also note a meeting of the New Zealand Political Polling Forum held at Parliament on 9 May 2012 to discuss creating a political polling code of practice for the industry and media. Questions have been raised about the potential impact of the reporting of political polls on democracy and elections, and suggestions have been made that reporting includes reference to the number of undecided voters to ensure viewers understand that the results are only indicative of trends in party support.

[12]  However, our focus, in assessing the alleged breach of broadcasting standards, is the particular One News item subject to complaint. As noted above, the focus of the report was the decline in support for the National Party. The point being made, as stated in the item’s introduction, was that National’s “popularity with voters has slipped below 50 percent for the first time in two years”. The reference to “below 50 percent” was accurate, whether or not the number of undecided voters was included. In this sense, the omission of undecided voters was not material in the context of the news report, and viewers would not have been misled in this respect. In addition, the report explicitly noted that the poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percent, indicating to viewers that the percentages reported were not precise or exact; trends were the focus. The potential to mislead viewers and thereby affect voter participation, was not significant, in our view, given the length of time until the next general election.

[13]  For these reasons, and giving full weight to the requirements of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, we find that upholding the Standard 5 complaint would be an unjustifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression. We therefore decline to uphold the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
24 October 2012