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Wilkinson and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2015-057 (1 December 2015)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Complainant

  • Ryan Wilkinson

Dated

1st December 2015

Number

2015-057

Programme

Paul Henry

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

MediaWorks TV Ltd

Summary

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

Paul Henry featured an interview with the president of the Police Association about assaults on police and the debate about whether to arm front-line police officers with tasers. Towards the start of the interview, Mr Henry said, ‘The numbers are truly extraordinary, aren’t they? Violent attacks on police officers are definitely going up’. The Authority upheld a complaint that this comment was inaccurate, as the number of assaults on police officers was actually decreasing. However, it did not uphold a complaint that the item was unbalanced, as MediaWorks made reasonable efforts to provide balance on the issue of taser carriage by police within the period of current interest.

Upheld: Accuracy
Not Upheld: Controversial Issues
No Order


Introduction

[1]  Paul Henry featured an interview with the president of the Police Association, Greg O’Connor, about assaults on police and the debate about whether to arm front-line police officers with tasers. Towards the start of the interview, Mr Henry said, ‘The numbers are truly extraordinary, aren’t they? Violent attacks on police officers are definitely going up’.

[2]  Ryan Wilkinson complained that this statement was inaccurate, as the number of assaults on police officers was actually decreasing, and also argued that Mr Henry ‘provided no counter viewpoint’ to the Police Association president ‘on what is clearly a controversial issue of public importance’.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the accuracy and controversial issues standards, as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast on 16 July 2015 on TV3. 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 broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[5]  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. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.1

[6]  Mr Wilkinson argued that the statement about assaults going up was inaccurate, and pointed to recent statistics cited in the New Zealand Herald showing that ‘[i]n the past five years, the number of assaults dropped by more than 26 per cent, while injuries as a result of the assaults fell by almost 30 per cent’.2

[7]  In its initial response to the complaint, MediaWorks argued that ‘[g]iven the understanding that assaults against police are classified in different categories based on their severity, and that the data provided by the Police Association shows that serious assaults against police have been trending upward over the last five years (and indeed the last decade)’, the item was accurate.

[8]  However, in its response to Mr Wilkinson’s referral, MediaWorks acknowledged that the statement was inaccurate, as the data on which it was based had only been in reference to ‘assaults’ under the Crimes Act, and not the Summary Offences Act, which should have been included. Accordingly, it upheld the complaint under accuracy. However, MediaWorks submitted that this error was ‘unlikely to have adversely impacted viewers’ understanding on the issue of police taser carriage’.

[9]  Having had regard to the material supplied to us by both parties, including that MediaWorks has, subsequent to its initial decision, upheld Mr Wilkinson’s complaint under accuracy, we have also reached the view that Mr Henry’s statement about serious assaults increasing was inaccurate.

[10]  As the accuracy standard applies only to ‘material points of fact’, for the complaint to be upheld we must also find that Mr Henry’s statement was material to the item. In our view it was material. The focus of the interview with Mr O’Connor was arming front-line police officers with tasers. It was towards the beginning of the interview, after noting that already up to eight assaults had taken place ‘this month’, that Mr Henry stated that ‘violent attacks on police officers are definitely going up’ – so this was positioned as a key justification in favour of introducing tasers and framed the discussion which followed. In this sense we think his opening comment did have the potential to impact on viewers’ understanding of the item.

[11]  Accordingly we uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

Did the item discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints?

[12]  The balance standard (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 standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.3

[13]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.4

[14]  Mr Wilkinson argued that Mr Henry offered no alternative perspective to the Police Association president on ‘what is clearly a “controversial issue”’. He said that ‘the onus fell on Paul [Henry] and the producers of the show [to] apply sufficient scrutiny and due diligence to the information provided’, and argued that as it was Mr Henry who asserted that assault rates were going up – not the interviewee – it was irrelevant whether the interview was presented from the Police Association’s perspective.

[15]  MediaWorks agreed that police use of tasers was a controversial issue of public importance, but was ‘satisfied that – given the interview approached the issue from one clearly defined perspective and that police taser carriage has been a subject of public debate for a number of years – it was not necessary for the... programme to present competing viewpoints’.

[16]  We agree with both parties that the issue of arming frontline police with tasers was controversial and of public importance. We do not agree, however, with the broadcaster’s assertion that because Mr O’Connor was speaking from a particular perspective that negated the need for any balance within the programme. While guideline 4b to the balance standard does allow the Authority to take into account ‘whether the programme approaches a topic from a particular perspective’ when assessing whether a reasonable range of views has been presented, the Authority has previously held that this does not completely absolve the broadcaster from the requirement to provide balance; rather it suggests a departure from strict compliance with the standard is permissible.5

[17]  In our view, there was no challenge or counter put forward within the Paul Henry interview which provided balance to the views of Mr O’Connor. On the contrary, Mr Henry evidently wholeheartedly supported police use of tasers and he did not question Mr O’Connor’s view at all.

[18]  However, the balance standard also allows for significant points of view to be presented ‘within the period of current interest’. We are satisfied that the taser issue received considerable coverage over a period, including viewpoints opposed to police being armed with tasers, so it was reasonable to expect that viewers would be aware of the broad perspectives in the debate. In particular, we note that a 3 News item broadcast by MediaWorks the day that police announced the decision to arm frontline police with tasers, two weeks after the Paul Henry interview, contained the following comments which provided an alternative view to that of the Police Association:6

  • ‘While police say it’s the safest option, critics believe it’s a stepping stone to arming officers with guns.’ (Newsreader)
  • ‘But tasers haven’t been without controversy. Two IPCA [Independent Police Conduct Authority] complaints have been upheld in regards to taser use and a man was left dead... after being bitten by a police dog, pepper-sprayed and tasered...’ (Reporter)
  • ‘Can you reassure his family and others that these sorts of incidents won’t increase?’ (Reporter questioning Police Commissioner)
  • ‘The more of them in use, the more they’re going to be used, and the more there’ll be complaints and the more inappropriately they’ll be used.’ (Lawyer)
  • ‘Lawyer [name] says the next step is guns.’ (Reporter)
  • ‘The real worry is that in these situations vulnerable people are going to find themselves electrocuted by the strong arm of the law.’ (Lawyer)

[19]  Accordingly we find that the broadcaster did make reasonable efforts to provide balance within the period of current interest, and we decline to uphold the complaint under Standard 4.

For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by MediaWorks TV Ltd of Paul Henry on 16 July 2015 breached Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[20]  Having upheld the complaint, the Authority may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. We do not intend to do so on this occasion. MediaWorks has signalled to us by upholding Mr Wilkinson’s complaint – albeit after his referral to the Authority – that it accepts that its interpretation of the data on police assaults was materially inaccurate. In these circumstances, we are satisfied that publication of our decision is sufficient to mark the breach and to give guidance to broadcasters around the need to take care when interpreting statistics.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
1 December 2015

 

Appendix

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

1      Ryan Wilkinson’s formal complaint – 16 July 2015
2      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 6 August 2015
3      Mr Wilkinson’s referral to the Authority – 6 August 2015
4      MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 4 September 2015
5      Mr Wilkinson’s final comment – 7 September 2015
6      MediaWorks’ final comment – 17 September 2015

 

 


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

‘Police assaulted more than 40 times a week’, New Zealand Herald, 16 July 2015 (http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11482127). 

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

For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010) and Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Radio (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2009)

See, for example, Insurance Council of New Zealand and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2014-146 at [16]

6 ‘All frontline police to carry tasers’ (3news.co.nz, 31 July 2015). See also: ‘New Zealand police to routinely carry Tasers’ (stuff.co.nz, 31 July 2015); ‘Police to pay $5,000 compensation to children who saw dad illegally tasered’ (stuff.co.nz, 21 July 2015)