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Sperry and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2012-076

Members

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

Complainant

  • Graham Sperry of Reporoa

Dated

4th December 2012

Number

2012-076

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 reported on a study into the effects of 1080 poison on native robins – allegedly in breach of controversial issues, accuracy, fairness and responsible programming standards

Findings
Standard 4 (controversial issues) – the use of 1080 as a method for pest control in New Zealand is a controversial issue of public importance – use of 1080 has been the subject of ongoing debate and the item contributed a new development in the debate – viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of arguments on both sides of the debate – significant viewpoints were presented in the programme to an extent that was appropriate given the nature of the issue – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – alleged inaccurate headlines did not form part of television broadcast so outside our jurisdiction – reporter’s statements were not material to the focus of the item and would not have materially altered viewers’ understanding of the broadcast – broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the item was accurate and did not mislead by interviewing the Professor who conducted the study – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  A One News item reported on the controversial practice of 1080 poison use in New Zealand, with reference to a recent study conducted by the University of Otago. The newsreader introduced the item as follows:

Perhaps 1080 poison doesn’t dramatically kill off bird life after all – that appears to be the result of a new university study. The poison is used to eradicate possums and has long been criticised for killing other wildlife as well.

[2]  The item was broadcast on TV One on 21 April 2012.

[3]  Graham Sperry made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, on behalf of the New Zealand Wildlands Biodiversity Management Society, alleging that the item was misleading in the way it presented the results of the study, and that the broadcaster did not approach sufficient people or organisations for balancing comment.

[4]  We consider that Standards 4 (controversial issues) and 5 (accuracy) are most relevant to the complainant’s concerns, and we have limited our determination accordingly. Mr Sperry also raised Standards 6 (fairness) and 8 responsible programming). In summary, we find that these standards were not breached because:

  • the complainant did not identify who was treated unfairly (Standard 6)
  • One News is an unclassified news programme, and viewers would not have been ‘deceived or disadvantaged’ (Standard 8).

[5]  The issue therefore is whether the item breached Standards 4 and 5 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.

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

[7]  In assessing an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we must give proper consideration to the right to freedom of expression. Any restriction on the right to free speech must be prescribed by law, reasonable, and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.1

[8]  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. 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

[9]  Here, the alleged harm, in terms of the underlying objective of the controversial issues standard, was said to derive from a lack of balancing comment on the results of the 1080 study. Mr Sperry argued that TVNZ made “false claims” about the results of the study and their interpretation, and did not give sufficient opportunity for the presentation of anti-1080 viewpoints.

[10]  TVNZ accepted that the item discussed a controversial issue of public importance, and argued that differing viewpoints were presented. It said that each side was given ample opportunity to offer their perspectives on the issue, which they did so articulately. It concluded by saying that, “One News contributed a significant point to the ongoing discussion of this issue which has arguably been debated for decades.”

[11]  We agree that the use of 1080 poison as a method for pest control in New Zealand is a controversial issue of public importance. It has been the subject of ongoing debate for many years. This was expressly recognised in the introduction to the item (see paragraph [1]), when the presenter stated, “Perhaps 1080 poison doesn’t dramatically kill off bird life after all… the poison is used to eradicate possums and has long been criticised for killing other wildlife as well”. Footage of anti-1080 protestors was shown, and the reporter continued, “1080 use has long been a polarising issue… but a University of Otago study of the local Robin population north of Dunedin has given way to the pro-1080 voice”.

[12]  We agree that the item contributed a new development to the ongoing debate, which was outlined in the introduction to the item when the presenter stated, “Perhaps 1080 poison may not dramatically kill off bird life after all”. The Otago Professor who carried out the study summarised the findings, stating, “The 1080 drop killed possums and it also killed rats but it didn’t kill any of the robins.”

[13]  Given the ongoing nature of the issue, we consider that viewers could reasonably be expected to be broadly aware of the competing arguments on both sides of the debate. In this respect, there was a lesser requirement to present alternative views on the issue, in accordance with guideline 4b. Guideline 4b states that an assessment of whether a reasonable range of views has been presented takes account of, among other things, whether viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage. Guideline 4a also recognises that:

No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial issues of public importance. Significant viewpoints should be presented fairly in the context of the programme. This can only be done by judging each case on its merits.

[14]  In addition to the interview with the Professor who carried out the study, the item included comment from a spokesperson for Forest and Bird, and an anti-1080 campaigner. We consider that these were appropriate people to obtain comment from, and that significant viewpoints were sufficiently sought and presented. The anti-1080 campaigner, and acknowledgements within the item that the issue was polarising and that other views existed, provided sufficient balance, given the nature of the issue.

[15]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Was the item inaccurate of misleading?

[16]  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.3

[17]  There are two aspects to Mr Sperry’s accuracy complaint, and we have addressed these separately.

Alleged inaccurate headlines

[18]  Mr Sperry argued that the news item, as it appeared on TVNZ’s website, contained a number of headlines relating to the overall findings of the study, which were inaccurate. These headlines appeared online only; they did not appear in the item broadcast on TV One. Our jurisdiction under the Broadcasting Act 1989 is limited to “broadcast” content. On-demand content is explicitly excluded from the definition of “broadcasting” in section 2 of the Act. Written headlines on web pages are also outside the definition of “broadcasting”. We therefore have no jurisdiction to consider the website headlines identified by Mr Sperry, and we decline to uphold this part of the accuracy complaint.

Alleged misrepresentation of study results

[19]  Mr Sperry argued that the item misrepresented the results of the Otago University study. In particular, he said that the reporter made the following inaccurate comments:

  • “the [robin] population also increased by 67 percent compared with just 8 percent in the non-1080 area”
  • “Researchers say they will repeat the study”.

[20]  In regard to the first statement, Mr Sperry argued that the study related to nesting success, not population increase, and that nesting success had actually decreased in the poisoned area, though the difference was not statistically significant. In addition, he said that the comparison with the non-1080 area was invalid because of the difference in forest types between the two sites and “hence potential differences in their predator guilds”. In relation to the second statement, Mr Sperry argued that the study recommended continued monitoring, not repeated studies, as contended. He said that the study went for 80 days only, and that the recommendation for long-term monitoring was to determine whether rats would return to the site and diminish any long-term benefits.

[21]  TVNZ maintained that the Professor had not taken issue with the way the study results were reported by One News. It noted that the reporter’s statement about population increase was immediately followed by the reporter explaining the Professor’s qualification of this statement, saying, “The Professor says that’s because possums and rats were killed off.” In terms of the reporter’s statement the study would be repeated, the broadcaster said that the language used “simply represents the necessary economy of language required” in a short news bulletin.

[22]  In our view, the reporter’s statements were not material in the context of the item and its overall focus, and would not have materially altered viewers’ understanding of the broadcast. The overriding purpose of the item was to report the findings of a study which appeared to indicate that 1080 did not have a negative impact on bird life. The reason, it was suggested by the person who conducted the study, was because of the effect of 1080 on predators. We do not think that a more detailed analysis of the results was necessary or practicable in the brief two-minute news item, or that viewers would have been misled.

[23]  In addition, we consider that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the item was accurate and did not mislead by interviewing the Professor who carried out the study; it was reasonable to expect him to accurately summarise the results.

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

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
4 December 2012

Appendix

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

1           Graham Sperry’s formal complaint – 9 May 2012

2          TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 7 June 2012

3          Mr Sperry’s referral to the Authority – 4 July 2012

4          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 2 September 2012

5          Mr Sperry’s final comment – 17 September 2012


1See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

2Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

3Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036