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McKay and TVWorks Ltd - 2012-125


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989

Nightline and 3 News – news items reported on release of convicted sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson – referred to Mr Wilson as “the Beast of Blenheim” and “the Beast” – allegedly in breach of standards relating to good taste and decency, law and order, privacy, controversial issues, accuracy, fairness, responsible programming and children’s interests

Findings
Standard 6 (fairness) – standard only applies to individuals and organisations so cannot be considered in relation to prisoners in general – label was assigned to Mr Wilson and the nature of his crimes many years ago and has been used extensively throughout the media – it has become a well-known nickname and the broadcaster cannot be held responsible for its continued use – broadcasts also contained Mr Wilson’s legal name – not upheld

Standard 2 (law and order) – use of the label “the Beast of Blenheim” and “the Beast” did not encourage viewers to break the law or otherwise promote or condone criminal activity – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  Items broadcast on 3 News and Nightline reported on the release of sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson after serving 18 years in prison for more than 20 sex offences against women and children over a 20-year period. The items referred to Mr Wilson as “the Beast of Blenheim” and “the Beast”, as well as by his legal name. The Nightline item was broadcast on 4 September and the 3 News item was broadcast on 5 September 2012 on TV3.

[2]  Richard McKay made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the use of the label “the Beast” dehumanised and stigmatised Mr Wilson and was a deliberate attempt to incite “public hostility and animosity” against Mr Wilson and other prisoners.

[3]  We consider that Standards 2 (law and order) and 6 (fairness) are most relevant to the complainant’s concerns, and we have limited our determination accordingly. Mr McKay also raised other standards which we have addressed at paragraph [19] below.

[4]  The focus of this decision therefore is whether the broadcasts breached Standards 2 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The members of the Authority have viewed recordings of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was Mr Wilson or any other individual referred to in the broadcasts treated unfairly?

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

[7]  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.1

[8]  The complainant argued that the continued labelling of Mr Wilson as “the Beast”, even though he had served his prison sentence, was degrading and “purposefully designed to cause hurt, injury and harm to Mr Wilson (and his kind)”. He referred to all other prisoners “as victims of both media and the public”.

[9]  Standard 6 applies only to individuals and organisations, and cannot be considered in relation to prisoners in general. We have therefore limited our consideration to whether Mr Wilson was treated unfairly.

[10]  TVWorks said that it understood the sentiment behind the complaint, but believed the news items remained objective and contextualised the nickname by ensuring it featured “subordinately” alongside Mr Wilson’s real name. Accordingly, it did not consider that the use of the label “the Beast of Blenheim” was unfair to Mr Wilson.

[11]  The label “the Beast of Blenheim”, shortened to “the Beast”, was assigned to Mr Wilson many years ago at the time he was convicted on multiple sex offences spanning several years. Since then it has been used repeatedly throughout the media and has become a well-known nickname, reflecting the public’s reaction to the nature of the crimes he committed. The broadcaster cannot be held responsible for continuing its use in these circumstances.

[12]  We also note that the label was used only once in each item and that Mr Wilson was also referred to by his legal name. Further, Mr Wilson’s position was clearly stated in the 3 News item when the reporter read out excerpts from a letter in which he expressed his view that he had “paid the penalty imposed by society” and wanted to get on with his life.

[13]  Overall, we are satisfied that Mr Wilson was not treated unfairly, and we decline to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Did the broadcasts encourage viewers to break the law, or otherwise promote, condone or glamorise criminal activity?

[14]  The intent behind the law and order standard is to prevent broadcasts that encourage listeners to break the law, or otherwise promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity.2 The standard exists to ensure that broadcasters refrain from broadcasting material which does not respect the laws which sustain our society.3

[15]  Mr McKay was concerned that the items showed disregard for Mr Wilson’s human rights in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. He argued that, “The grooming of the public by TV3 against Mr Wilson (in collaboration and union with other broadcasters who hold to the same practices and ideology of separatism, hatred and contemptuous superiority) is a crime in New Zealand”.

[16]  This part of Mr Wilson’s complaint appeared to be directed primarily at the justice system rather than at the broadcast itself. For example, he referred to Mr Wilson’s right to freedom of movement, and his right not to be arbitrarily detained. Mr McKay expressed his concern with the way prisoners in general are stigmatised by society, and in particular, by the media and politicians. These are issues that are beyond the scope of broadcasting standards and in particular the requirements of the law and order standard.

[17]  In any case, for the reasons expressed above in relation to fairness, we disagree that the broadcasts encouraged viewers to treat Mr Wilson in a way that undermined his human rights. The nickname has been used extensively over many years throughout the media, and its singular use in these broadcasts could not be said to have jeopardised the maintenance of law and order or to have encouraged criminal activity.

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

Did the broadcasts breach the other standards raised in the complaint?

[19]  Mr McKay also raised Standards 1 (good taste and decency), 3 (privacy), 4 (controversial issues), 5 (accuracy), 7 (discrimination and denigration), 8 (responsible programming) and 9 (children’s interests). In summary, these standards were not breached because:

  • The good taste and decency standard is primarily concerned with sexual material, nudity, coarse language and violence, and most viewers would not have been offended by the use of the label “the Beast of Blenheim” and “the Beast”, considering the label has been used to refer to Mr Wilson for many years throughout the media (Standard 1).
  • The label was not a “private fact” and no other private information relating to Mr Wilson was disclosed in the broadcasts (Standard 3).
  • The brief news reports did not amount to discussions, and the use of the label was not a controversial issue of public importance. In any event, the 3 News item presented Mr Wilson’s perspective (Standard 4).
  • The label was not a “material point of fact”, and the item also used Mr Wilson’s real name, so viewers would not have been misled (Standard 5).
  • The label did not contain any invective and did not encourage discrimination or denigration against prisoners as a section of the community (Standard 7).
  • 3 News and Nightline were unclassified news programmes targeted at adults, and the label did not amount to “subliminal messaging” which “forced” viewers to “involuntarily submit… to TV3’s hatred and hostility toward Mr Wilson (and other prisoners)”, as contended by the complainant (Standard 8).
  • The complainant was concerned that the label would have “disturbed” or “confused” young children, however, it was used in unclassified news programmes which were not targeted at children, and which were unlikely to be watched by children unsupervised. Children would not have been distressed or alarmed by the use of the label (Standard 9).

[20]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the complaint that these standards were breached.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
29 January 2013

Appendix

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

1       Richard McKay’s formal complaint (including information about the Justice
        Association of New Zealand) – 17 September 2012

2      Mr McKay’s letter to the Authority – 23 September 2012

3      TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 16 October 2012

4      Mr McKay’s referral to the Authority – 2 November 2012

5      TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 23 November 2012


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

2See, for example, Keane and TVNZ, Decision No. 2010-082.

3See, for example, Hunt and Māori Television, Decision No. 2009-010.