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Wray and Mediaworks TV Ltd - 2017-014 (15 May 2017)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Nicola Sage Wray

Dated

15th May 2017

Number

2017-014

Programme

Newshub

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

MediaWorks TV Ltd

Summary

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

An item on Newshub reported on the conviction and sentencing of a New Zealand woman, A, for the murder of her 20-year-old severely autistic and intellectually disabled daughter, B. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the item ‘sympathised with the murderer over the victim’ and ‘morally absolved [A]’. The broadcast was a factual news item which reported on the outcome of criminal proceedings involving A, and largely reflected the Judge’s statements at sentencing. It was focused on the circumstances of A’s particular case and did not contain a discussion of the wider issues of violence against disabled people or family violence, and therefore did not require balancing perspectives on these issues. While the item could be seen to report A’s sentence with some sympathy, it was based on the Judge’s findings and did not promote or condone harm against disabled people. In the context of a factual news report about the outcome of A’s case, the item also did not reach the threshold for encouraging discrimination against, or the denigration of, people with disabilities. Notwithstanding its findings, the Authority acknowledged the complainant’s concerns about important societal issues, such as the status of disabled people in our community and the proper understanding of disabilities.

Not Upheld: Balance, Law and Order, Discrimination and Denigration


Introduction

[1]  An item on Newshub reported on the conviction of a New Zealand woman, A, for the murder of her 20-year-old severely autistic and intellectually disabled daughter, B. The item focused on the Judge’s sentencing of A to four years in prison and his description that this was a ‘once-in-a-generation’ case.

[2]  Nicola Sage Wray complained that the item ‘sympathised with the murderer over the victim’. She considered that ‘the cumulative effect of the [broadcasting standards] breaches identified was to put disabled people at greater risk of discrimination that can be as serious as murder, as well as to prevent disabled people from being able to feel safe in a community that morally absolves people such as [A]’.

[3]  The issues raised in Ms Wray’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the balance, law and order, and discrimination and denigration standards as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast on 3 February 2017 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.

Overview of findings

[5]  The item and the complaint raise important societal issues, namely the status of disabled people in our community and the proper understanding of disabilities. We recognise the value of advocacy for the disabled community. While we have ultimately found that the item did not breach broadcasting standards for the reasons expressed below, we do not intend this outcome to dismiss the validity and importance of these issues, nor the value of this complaint as a reminder of the importance of these issues.

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

[6]  The balance standard (Standard 8) 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 viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

The parties’ submissions

[7]  Ms Wray submitted:

  • Both family violence and violence against disabled people are controversial issues of public importance.  
  • The difficulties that A faced in caring for B were explored in depth, however there was no opposition, no call for justice for B, and no suggestion that the circumstances which ultimately resulted in B’s death should never have occurred. Balance could have been provided by referring to prosecution arguments, or by talking to NGOs representing the disabled community and/or combatting family violence.
  • The item was ‘overwhelmingly in support of a convicted murderer, at the expense of her victim’; ‘The mother’s wellbeing for 20 years was shown as paramount, but no importance given to [B’s] right to be safe’.
  • ‘[B was] presented only as a burden and never as a person...’
  • The four-year sentence was not presented as a just punishment so much as it was a continuation of the hardship that A suffered because of her daughter.
  • ‘Disabled people saw that New Zealand does not understand when they act violently because of their disability, and that New Zealand puts no value on their life if it adversely affects a non-disabled person’.
  • Newshub is responsible for choosing the scope of the broadcast, and if ‘the case carried significant public interest’, it is difficult to see why the apparently limiting format was chosen (in response to MediaWorks’ submissions below).
  • The follow up item (broadcast on 4 February 2017) continued to be uncritically sympathetic towards A.

[8]  MediaWorks submitted:

  • The broadcast did not purport to be an examination of the issue of violence against disabled people and family violence in a broad sense.
  • The item had a narrow scope – to report the conviction of A for the murder of her daughter, to summarise the details of the crime and to examine the circumstances of the case that were relevant to the unusual sentence handed down by the Court.
  • The item provided an accurate reflection of the court proceedings it reported.
  • The item did not portray A as blameless, as it explained that she had been convicted and sentenced for murder.
  • The case carried significant public interest and therefore it was reasonable for Newshub to report the details of the case following the lapse of the suppression order. While MediaWorks understood the complainant’s concerns, it was not practicable for Newshub to examine the wider issues proposed by the complainant within the limited scope of the broadcast.
  • A Newshub item broadcast the following day (4 February 2017) included a subsequent report about the case. The item expanded the scope of the story and provided viewers with a broader understanding of issues relating to the care and safety of disabled people.

Our analysis

[9]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered.1 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’.2

[10]  The Authority has previously found that programmes that are focused on individual stories typically do not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance.3 The Authority has also concluded that news items that simply report information about what may be controversial issues, for example where there has been a newsworthy development, are not discussions which require balancing perspectives.4

[11]  The item in question was a news report focused on the circumstances of A’s particular case – her conviction and sentence for murdering B, and her personal experiences caring for her daughter. A large portion of the item comprised a straightforward account of the Judge’s findings and remarks during A’s sentencing, which viewers would have understood as representing his views and reasons for the sentence awarded. Given the circumstances of A’s case, the Judge’s statements briefly touched on the wider issues of violence against disabled people and family violence. However the item was presented as being narrowly focused on the story of A and B, and did not in our view amount to a discussion of those wider issues.

[12]  We therefore find the requirements of the balance standard were not triggered and we do not uphold this part of the complaint.

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

[13]  The purpose of the law and order standard (Standard 5) is to prevent broadcasts that encourage audiences to break the law, or otherwise promote criminal or serious antisocial activity.5 The standard is concerned with broadcasts that actively undermine, or promote disrespect for, the law or legal processes.

The parties’ submissions

[14]  Ms Wray submitted:

  • The item actively promoted murder. By emphasising the stress A was under, and how difficult it was for her to look after her daughter, the item framed B’s murder as justifiable and morally acceptable.
  • The comment, ‘her love for her daughter was never questioned’ portrayed A sympathetically and her decision as the right one, and suggested there was no other reasonable choice in the circumstances.
  • Other desperate and/or abusive parents of disabled children may have been watching, which places disabled people in danger.
  • ‘Stories such as this can, and have many times in the past, created serious and tangible harms for the disabled community. [B] was given the blame for her own murder – described as being her mother’s abuser – even though this was far from her fault. Her mother no doubt faced considerable hardship in caring for [B], but nothing that extinguishes her right to life’.

[15]  MediaWorks’ submissions in response were as follows:

  • While it recognised the complainant’s concerns in relation to the safety of disabled people, there was no suggestion in the broadcast that violence toward disabled people is an ‘acceptable option’ or a ‘reasonable choice’.
  • The item did not actively promote illegal behaviour. Rather, the item examined the circumstances surrounding what the Judge described as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ case, establishing a context against which A’s sentence could be understood. By law, the crime of murder requires a life sentence (with a non-parole period of 10 years).
  • The reference to a ‘once-in-a-generation case’ was intended to mean that the circumstances were so unique that A’s sentence would not be the norm, and did not condone the taking of a life.
  • The inclusion of the statement, ‘her love for her daughter was never questioned’ was there to explain A did not kill B because she felt ill will or hatred towards her daughter.

Our analysis

[16]  We acknowledge the complainant’s view that the item may be seen to have portrayed A, and her conviction for murder, with some sympathy. However, a sympathetic portrayal of someone convicted of criminal activity does not necessarily equate to active promotion of that criminal activity. In order to breach the law and order standard, a broadcast must actively undermine, or promote disrespect for, the law or legal processes.6 For example, direct incitement to break the law is likely to breach the standard, if there is a real likelihood that the audience will act on it.7

[17]  We are satisfied that the item did not promote or condone murder or the murder of disabled people. The item clearly referred to the events as ‘murder’, and to the prison sentence which followed. The consequences of A’s actions were outlined for viewers, and we do not think the murder of her daughter was glamorised or positively reported.

[18]  As we have said in relation to the balance standard, the content of the item largely reflected the Judge’s statements at sentencing. The Judge commented at length on the highly unique circumstances of the case, including the relationship between A and B and the reasons why A took the course of action that she did. These comments served to explain why the Judge took the unusual step of departing from the mandatory minimum sentence for murder.

[19]  For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint under Standard 5.

Did the broadcast encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, people with disabilities as a section of the community?

[20]  The objective of the discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 6) is to protect sections of the community from verbal and other attacks. The standard protects against broadcasts that encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

[21]  ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment. ‘Denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community.8

[22]  Guideline 6c to the discrimination and denigration standard states that this standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is:

  • factual
  • a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion
  • legitimate humour, drama or satire.

The parties’ submissions

[23]  Ms Wray submitted:

  • The item both encouraged discrimination and was an example of discrimination itself.
  • In family violence cases of non-disabled children, the deaths of those children are presented as unacceptable and those children are shown to be worthy of living – contrary to the portrayal of deaths of disabled children, whose lives are presented as of lesser value.
  • ‘The different treatment here is the extent to which we are treated as people, and the detriment can range anywhere from mocking the disabled to murdering us’.
  • The objection lies where the reporter moved beyond fact to frame the story in such a way as to promote the moral judgement that [B’s] violence towards her mother somehow excuses [B’s] murder.

[24]  MediaWorks submitted:

  • The item’s content fell within the categories listed in guideline 6c.
  • The views put forward in the item were those of the sentencing Judge.
  • The difficulties around the care of B were highlighted to give accurate, factual background detail to the case, not to portray B as a burden.

Our analysis

[25]  We consider the news item fell within the scope of guideline 6c, as factual material. The item reported on A’s conviction and sentencing for the murder of her daughter. A significant portion of the item featured footage of the Judge’s statements at sentencing, and the reporter’s comments drew from the Judge’s conclusions about the case. In particular, the item emphasised the Judge’s finding that this was a ‘once-in-a-generation’ case.

[26]  This court footage was interspersed with footage from a 2002 current affairs item featuring A and B. This footage was also factual, and was used to give background detail to what was an unusual murder case (in terms of the resulting sentence). This footage emphasised the ‘human’ aspect of this case and was valuable in depicting A and B together.

[27]  As we have said above in paragraph [5], we acknowledge that issues around the treatment of disabled people in our community – including instances of discrimination – are important and valid. However, we are satisfied that this item, which was factual in nature and reported on A’s conviction and sentencing, did not contain any material which encouraged the different treatment of, or devalued the reputation of, people with disabilities.

[28]  Accordingly, we do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich
Chair
15 May 2017

 

Appendix

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

1      Nicola Sage Wray’s formal complaint – 3 February 2017
2      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 3 March 2017
3      Ms Wray’s referral to the Authority – 6 March 2017
4      MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 23 March 2017
5      Ms Wray’s final comments – 3 April 2017

 

 


1  These criteria are legislative and are set out in Section 4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

2  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)

3  For example, one man’s advocacy for voluntary euthanasia (Right to Life NZ and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2015-003); one woman’s experience with adopting battery hens (Egg Producers Federation of New Zealand Inc and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2009-053) and one man’s experience with the public health system (Young and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2009-001).

4  As above n 2

5 See, for example, Keane and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-082

6 Commentary: Standard 5 – Law and Order, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 15

7 As above

8 Guideline 6a