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Waddington and SKY Network Television Ltd - 2014-140

Members

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

Complainant

  • Moira Waddington of Wellington

Dated

5th February 2015

Number

2014-140

Channel/Station

Prime TV

Broadcaster

SKY Network Television Ltd

Summary [This summary does not form part of the decision]

An episode of The Brokenwood Mysteries portrayed a character believed to have Asperger Syndrome as a lead suspect in a murder. The Authority did not uphold the complaint that the broadcast denigrated people with Asperger Syndrome. The programme legitimately employed dramatic licence to develop this fictional character, and the character was not intended as a comment on, or a reflection of, all people with Asperger Syndrome.

Not Upheld: Discrimination and Denigration, Accuracy, Fairness


Introduction

[1]  An episode of a local murder mystery series, The Brokenwood Mysteries portrayed a character believed to have Asperger Syndrome (Amanda) as a lead suspect in a murder. Amanda was portrayed as intense and socially awkward, which other characters attributed to her possible Asperger Syndrome. Amanda was later proven not to be the murderer.

[2]  Moira Waddington complained that the episode implied 'that people were dangerous because they had Asperger Syndrome' and 'conflated them with sociopaths'.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the discrimination and denigration, accuracy and fairness standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The episode aired on Prime TV on 5 October 2014. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Did the programme encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, people with Asperger Syndrome?

[5]  The discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 7) protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, a section of the community. The term 'denigration' has consistently been defined by the Authority as blackening the reputation of a class of people.1 'Discrimination' has been consistently defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular group to their detriment.2 It is also well-established that in light of the requirements of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, a high level of invective is necessary for the Authority to conclude that a broadcast encourages denigration or discrimination in contravention of the standard.3

[6]  Ms Waddington argued that the portrayal of Amanda as being 'more interested in the quality of her wine than the murder victim' was 'appall[ing]'. She considered that the broadcast 'conflated [people with Asperger Syndrome] with sociopaths' which denigrated people with Asperger Syndrome.

[7]  Guideline 7a to the discrimination and denigration standard explicitly recognises that the standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of legitimate drama. Amanda was a fictional character in a murder mystery, and it is within the broadcaster's artistic licence and right to freedom of expression to develop characters with different attributes, including medical or psychological conditions.

[8]  As an aside, we note SKY's comment that 'in whodunnit mysteries, the storytelling generally misdirects the audience purposely to make innocent characters look guilty with "red herring" plot devices'. Ultimately, Amanda was proven not to be the murderer so there was no suggestion that she was actually violent, and while she was portrayed as being socially awkward and somewhat strange, she was also called a 'genius', was described as being the best in her field and was respected by other characters.

[9]  For these reasons, we are satisfied that the programme did not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, people with Asperger Syndrome and we decline to uphold the Standard 7 complaint.

Was the programme inaccurate or likely to mislead?

[10]  Ms Waddington argued that the programme linked Asperger Syndrome with violence. She said that no comment 'was made to the effect that there is no reliable research linking autism [which Asperger Syndrome is a form of] to planned violence'.

[11]  The accuracy standard (Standard 5) 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.

[12]  As The Brokenwood Mysteries was a fictional drama and not a news, current affairs or factual programme, the accuracy standard does not apply. We therefore decline to uphold this part of the complaint.

Was the programme unfair to any individual or organisation?

[13]  The fairness standard (Standard 6) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

[14]  Ms Waddington did not outline who she thought was treated unfairly, though she noted that Amanda was described as 'difficult'.

[15]  This standard applies only to real individuals or organisations participating in a programme. It does not apply to 'people with Asperger Syndrome' as a group in general, or to fictional characters. We therefore decline to uphold the fairness complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
5 February 2015

 

Appendix

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

1     Moira Waddington's formal complaint – 6 October 2014
2     SKY TV's response to the complaint – 13 November 2014
3     Ms Waddington's referral to the Authority – 19 November 2014
4     SKY TV's response to the Authority – 21 November 2014

 

 


1 See, for example, Mental Health Commission and CanWest RadioWorks, Decision No. 2006-030

For example, Teoh and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2008-091

E.g. McCartain and Angus and The Radio Network Ltd, Decision No. 2002-152