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Webber and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2017-051 (4 September 2017)

Members

  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Complainant

  • Hilary Webber

Dated

4th September 2017

Number

2017-051

Programme

Sunday

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Chair Peter Radich declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the Authority's determination of this complaint. 


Following the issue of this decision, the Authority received new information from a third party refuting certain allegations made by the complainant about, and descriptions of, the dairy farm referred to in the decision owned by 'B'. The Authority wishes to note that the descriptions of the farm owned by B used in this decision have been disputed. 


Summary

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

An episode of Sunday, titled ‘The Price of Milk’, followed a reporter as he visited two dairy farms in the Hauraki Plains. The reporter spent time with two farmers, A and B, to hear their perspectives on their work and the issues facing the industry. B operated a ‘low-intensive’ farm, with a focus on soil health and mixed pasture, while A used more traditional farming methods. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the two farms were not representative of dairy farms in New Zealand, which was misleading, unbalanced, and unfair to the farmers involved and to the wider industry. The item was clearly approached from the narrow perspective of the two featured farmers, who provided their views based on their own experiences. As such, viewers would not have expected their perspectives, or their farms or farming practices, to be representative of the industry as a whole. The Authority found that, while some aspects of the programme may have been challenging for viewers, this did not reflect negatively on those featured, or on the wider industry. Given the item’s narrow perspective, it did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of pubic importance, and was therefore not subject to the requirements of the balance standard.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Fairness, Balance


Introduction

[1]  An episode of Sunday, titled ‘The Price of Milk’, followed a reporter as he visited two farms in the Hauraki Plains. The reporter spent time with two farmers, A and B, to hear their perspectives on their work and the issues facing the industry, such as the impact of dairy farming on New Zealand waterways, abuse of bobby calves and financial struggles. B operated a ‘low-intensive’ farm, with a focus on soil health and mixed pasture, while A used more traditional farming methods.

[2]  Hilary Webber complained that this programme purported to provide ‘farmers’ views’ on issues relating to dairy farming in New Zealand. However, the two farms chosen were not typical dairy farms and were therefore not representative of dairy farming in New Zealand. This resulted in a misleading and unbalanced item, which was unfair to the farmers involved and to the dairy industry as a whole.1

[3]  The issues raised in Ms Webber’s complaint are whether the item breached the accuracy, fairness and balance standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast at 7.30pm on 9 April 2017 on TVNZ 1. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The programme

[5]  ‘The Price of Milk’ was introduced by the presenter as follows:

Lately, Sunday has been investigating the impact of agriculture on our environment, from GM food to the state of our waterways – and the news isn’t good for farmers. New Zealand has just been warned we’re pushing our environment to the limit and our cow population needs to be slashed if we’re to meet global greenhouse gas targets. So where does that leave the dairy farmers who bring in billions a year in export earnings? Well, they’re taking plenty of heat from the pundits, from outsiders looking in – so tonight we take a look from the inside out. [Sunday reporter] gets his gumboots on and heads to the Waikato to hear the farmers’ side of the story. Now it shows the reality of life and death on a working farm, so some scenes may be confronting.

[6]  The programme moved on to show the reporter drinking coffee, as he explained that he had never given ‘much thought’ to where his milk comes from. He said that dairy farmers were no longer the heroes they used to be and they had a ‘serious image problem’. He was then shown packing his car, saying:

Now, I’m a townie. I hardly ever set foot on a farm and have little idea of what dairy farmers actually do and think. The dirty dairying message seems to be everywhere: farmers abusing the environment, abusing their animals… I want to find out from them what is the real price of milk.

[7]  As he arrived at the Hauraki Plains in the Waikato, he went on to say:

This is traditional dairy heartland and that’s why I’m here. I’m looking for that quintessential Kiwi cocky to give the farmers’ perspective. Now I chanced upon [A] down at the [rugby club] and thought, ‘well, you’re a character, mate, you’ll do’. [A’s] a fourth generation Plains farmer and he’s agreed to show me how it’s done.

[8]  The next segment of the programme featured A showing the reporter around his farm and talking about his daily life and some of the challenges he faced as a dairy farmer. The reporter was shown A’s calf shed, which was very muddy. The reporter explained, ‘[A’s] farm is showing the effects of one of the soggiest winters to hit these plains in years. Get used to it – with global warming there’ll be a lot more weather like this’. (A’s farm was shown later in the programme in better weather, with cows in long grass).

[9]  A and the reporter discussed bobby calves, which are separated from their mothers within days of birth. This was described by the reporter as a ‘harsh reality of rural life’, and A compared the practice to puppies being sold once weaned. The reporter went on to describe hidden camera footage taken of the abuse of bobby calves, and A agreed that the footage was shocking, but considered that this kind of abuse was not widespread.

[10]  The reporter was surprised to learn that, even on A’s farm which had 600 cows, a second income was required. A’s wife explained that:

There’s a lot of farmers out there that are really, really struggling, and it’s sad. Money is very tight especially when they’re not actually making money at all with the prices of milk at the moment. It’s sad. Sometimes you just – I can see [A] come home and he’s just doing his absolute best, you know, he’s working so hard and he’s doing his absolute best and then you hear all this negativity and it’s just like… He takes such pride in the farm – I reckon he’d be lost without the farm.

[11]  The reporter then spoke to another fourth generation Hauraki Plains farmer, B. The reporter explained that B:

…farms very differently from her neighbours. [B] describes her farm as ‘back to the future’ – minimal input, no nitrate fertilisers to boost grass growth – she reckons that ‘damages the soil and water’. [B] runs less cows per hectare than her neighbours, she worries about the trend of intensive farming causing long term damage.

[12]  B showed the reporter around her farm, filmed in summer, and showed him some of her processes. She explained that she put a lot of her energy into the farm, and was lucky that her husband was supportive, saying, ‘He does nine, ten-hour days building – it definitely takes teamwork.’

[13]  B and the reporter discussed B’s practice of not milking in the afternoons, which she considered made economic sense, as well as providing work-life balance. She explained:

The reality is that the workload that I have isn’t comparable to a high-input farm, for a guy that’s getting paid a salary. And they get exhausted. And I’m imagining that it’s quite a terrifying jump for some people, if you’re driven by fear of not being able to pay your mortgage. That’s real.

[14]  The programme returned to A’s farm, where a cow had given birth to a stillborn calf. A then used a tractor and hip clamp to get the cow back on her feet. The reporter said that, ‘Now all farmers have to worry about how accepted farming practices might appear to the Facebook generation’. The reporter later witnessed a stillbirth at A’s farm.

[15]  Back at B’s farm, B and the reporter again discussed the issue of bobby calves, and B explained that animal activists had their place to ensure animals were well-treated.

[16]  The reporter asked A about the contamination of waterways. A explained to the reporter the processes he used to prevent excrement runoff. He showed the reporter his storage ponds and explained its fertiliser value, and the importance of managing runoff correctly. B’s view differed. According to the reporter, she considered that by ‘working with nature, and not against it, much of the problem will disappear’. She explained that she preferred to care for soil by stimulating natural systems, rather than through use of nitrogen.

[17]  A explained the challenges of expanding and making productive use of his land. The reporter explained that this ‘industrial model’ required ‘enormous inputs’, and he and A discussed urban New Zealanders’ perception that all farmers were wealthy, which A explained was not the case.

[18]  The reporter visited the town of Ngatea, and explained the challenges for such rural communities, where farmers saw themselves as ‘the backbone of the economy’, but felt that all they got in return was ‘criticism from the media’. He spoke to a young farmer at a rugby game who described the negative image of farmers portrayed in the media.

[19]  The reporter then visited the Hauraki Plains Rural Show and spoke to A about the commitment required for the popular children’s calf competition. He spoke to a young girl about where the calf would ‘end up’, and to a mobile slaughterman, who said:

…she knows that’s part of the way of life, and you teach the kids, this is what happens to the animal eventually, instead of them having a big drama about it later on when the animal gets sold and it’s got to go off to the works. Yeah, a lot of people like to bury their heads in the sand about it all, and I think if the world came to an end there’s going to be a lot of people starved pretty quick out there because they wouldn’t know how to do this side of it.

[20]  The reporter also spoke to a Filipino worker at A’s farm, who had a degree in animal science and had spent the last five years dairying in the Middle East. He explained the dairy industry was dependent on over 2,000 Filipino workers, who were often vulnerable to working long hours for little pay.

[21]  During the final segment of the item, the reporter met with the mobile slaughterman who was shown shooting and bleeding a cow, with the assistance of his daughter, and then butchering it for eating. The slaughterman said:

People don’t realise where their meat comes from… they go on about us murdering animals and all this sort of carry on, but at the end of the day they all eat steak and drive a car…

[22]  The reporter asked both A and B about the sustainability of the dairy industry. A said he thought New Zealand was ‘pushing the boundaries’. He said people still needed to eat and the economy depended on it, but New Zealand needed to be ‘more clever’ about how to do this.

[23]  The presenter concluded the programme by asking, ‘what is the true price of milk? And is it a price we’re willing to pay?’

Overview of findings and freedom of expression

[24]  The right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, is the starting point in our consideration of complaints. The right we have to express ourselves in the way we choose, and to receive information, is a fundamental freedom, but it is not an absolute freedom. It is nevertheless an important right, and we may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right is reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society.2

[25]  We consider that this episode of Sunday had high value in terms of the right to freedom of expression, of both the broadcaster to screen the episode, and of audiences to view it. It was in the public interest for New Zealanders to experience the daily lives of the two farmers featured in the item, through the first-hand experience of the reporter, and to hear directly from them their views on issues impacting the dairy industry, such as the mistreatment of bobby calves and the pollution of waterways.

[26]  Our task is therefore to weigh the value of this item (and the importance of the expression) against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In this case, Ms Webber has submitted that harm was caused to audiences due to the misleading nature of the programme, as it provided an unbalanced and inaccurate view of what dairy farming looks like in New Zealand, which was unfair to the dairy farming community.

[27]  Having viewed the broadcast programme and considered both parties’ submissions, we are satisfied viewers would not have expected this item to represent the views or practices of all dairy farmers in New Zealand. The programme was framed as an investigation of the issues facing the dairy industry ‘from the inside out’, and it was therefore presented as a slice of life style documentary, following two selected farmers only.

[28]  We consider it would have been clear to viewers that the programme sought to provide viewers with a glimpse of the two farmers’ daily lives, and provide the opportunity for the ‘townie’ reporter to hear from them directly their perspectives on the challenges facing the industry. It did not purport to provide a full examination of all dairy farmers’ views on the issues canvassed, or to provide an example of all farming styles in New Zealand.

[29]  In these circumstances, we do not consider that the harm alleged by the complainant outweighed the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, or resulted in a breach of the nominated standards. We provide our full reasons for this decision under each standard below.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[30]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) 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 being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[31]  Ms Webber submitted that:

  • This item was misleading as it depicted two dairy farms which did not represent best practice, or the norm for larger commercial farmers or organic farmers.
  • The item contained graphic and distressing scenes, and the methods used by A did not meet best practice. By contrast, B’s organic farm was portrayed as a modern profitable enterprise, however her husband needed to work ‘long hours off-farm to support the farm’, suggesting this ‘was a lifestyle not a business’.
  • There was therefore an agenda to show A’s farm in a poor light and the organic farmer as the ‘better’ example of dairy farming.
  • As such, the programme did not accurately represent dairy farmers in New Zealand.

[32]  In relation to this standard, TVNZ provided detailed comments from the director of the programme, who submitted:

  • The team travelled to Ngatea and spoke with A, who appeared to be an eloquent, open, honest man who loved his farming, and someone urban New Zealanders would like and relate to.
  • He was an ‘ordinary man’, who was not wealthy and ‘couldn’t afford high tech equipment, million dollar shed and irrigation systems’. He was a man ‘trying to keep afloat’. A’s story ‘provided a reality check for those members of the public who try to portray farmers as wealthy, callous individuals’.
  • Dairy farms are likely to be run differently depending on the farmer and location, and there was no one correct way to run a dairy farm, and ‘no farm could ever ‘represent’ the dairy industry. What farmers naturally want of course is to always see the best, most successful farms to be show[n]’.

[33]  TVNZ also submitted:

  • The report was framed from the two farmers’ perspectives. Both had different views but were passionate about the job and the animals they cared for.
  • There was no inference or statement that these farms were representative of all dairy farms, and their stories were personal to each farmer and their farm. The focus of the programme was to portray ‘the lives of ordinary farmers in a small town’, and did not comment on the position of the wider industry. Each farmer shown was clearly presenting their own perspective, and their comments were therefore not subject to the accuracy standard.

Our analysis

[34]  In our view, this item provided an opportunity for the reporter, in the place of the ‘urban’ New Zealand viewer, to speak to real dairy farmers and to hear directly from them about the challenges they faced in their work. While the item therefore canvassed a number of issues facing the industry, including its negative portrayal in the media, the item as a whole was focused on hearing directly from two particular farmers only.

[35]  Therefore, while the current issues facing dairy farmers (such as the mistreatment of bobby calves, the environmental impact and climate change) were outlined by the reporter and during the introduction to the item as challenges for the industry, the item itself was focused on the personal stories of the two farmers featured, who provided their own perspectives on the issues.

[36]  While these might not have been the ‘best’ or most typical farms to visit, A and B provided their own views on the industry and the challenges they faced personally. The item did not purport to present A’s and B’s views as representative of the industry as a whole, but to provide a slice of life perspective on two farmers’ stories. As such, we do not consider viewers would have expected A or B to represent the views of the dairy industry, or for their particular farming styles or experiences to represent all farms in New Zealand.

[37]  As such, we are satisfied that neither farm was presented as being any ‘better’ than the other. We do not agree that the programme set out to directly compare the two farms, with the objective to portray A’s farm in a negative light, and B’s farm in a positive light. The programme did not suggest that the farms were representative of all farms and practices, rather that this was an insight into the daily lives of two farmers, with different operations and farming styles.

[38]  While we agree that some aspects of the segments filmed at A’s farm were challenging (for example, the weather conditions, the run-down nature of the buildings and equipment and footage of still-born calves and lame cows), these were portrayed as some of the challenges that A faced in his work, and part of the ‘price’ urban New Zealanders pay for milk.

[39]  It was also clear from the reporter’s interviews with B that her style of low-impact farming was unusual, and may not have been achievable for those without, for example, the help of a partner or spouse who was also able to work and provide financial support. This did not suggest B’s style of farming was superior to A’s, but provided viewers with an unusual or novel perspective on the sustainability of the industry.

[40]  In our view, this did not result in viewers being misled, but rather allowed them to hear from two particular, and different, perspectives about the challenges facing the industry.

[41]  We therefore do not uphold the accuracy complaint.

Was any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[42]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. 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.3

[43]  Guideline 11d to the standard states that if a person or organisation referred to or portrayed in a broadcast might be adversely affected, that person or organisation should usually be given a fair and reasonable opportunity to comment on the programme, before it is broadcast.

The parties’ submissions

[44]  Ms Webber submitted that:

  • The programme was not fair to a huge majority of dairy farmers. The item was presented as giving the ‘farmer view’, but was not a true reflection of dairy farming and distorted the facts.
  • The broadcaster deliberately chose two farmers who did not represent dairy farmers, and showed them to be representative of two different systems of dairy farming. This was unfair.
  • A’s daughter was exploited and humiliated in the depiction of her involvement in the home kill.

[45]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • There was no criticism of A in the broadcast and no intention to find fault with his farm. Both farmers gave full and informed consent for their involvement in the programme.
  • Farmers as a group were not protected by the fairness standard. In any event, it was clear that the reporter would be speaking to two farmers about their lives and there was no commentary to suggest that all farms would be like those that were depicted in the programme.
  • The child depicted was the daughter of a man running a home kill business (not A’s daughter). She was spoken to about her involvement and her father gave his opinion on the need for children to understand where their meat comes from. The subject was approached in a matter-of-fact way and did not result in any unfairness to participants.

Our analysis

[46]  As we have noted above in our discussion under the accuracy standard, we do not agree that this programme intended to portray A and B, and their views and experiences, as representative of the dairy industry as a whole.

[47]  While the overall issues affecting the industry provided the topics for discussion with the farmers, and helped to frame the item overall, the item itself was narrowly focused on the two featured farmers, and how their own particular experiences and work challenges affected their views on the issues discussed. The programme purported to provide viewers with a glimpse into dairy farming ‘from the inside out’, signalling from the outset the item’s narrow focus. For this reason, we do not consider viewers would have expected these farms to be representative of all dairy farms in New Zealand, or the views of A and B to be representative of the views of all farmers.

[48]  Further, we do not consider that the more challenging aspects of the programme reflected negatively on the dairy industry as a whole. While some segments may have been distressing for viewers, for example, the footage of the birth of a still-born calf, this represented the real, personal story of one farmer in New Zealand and the difficulties he faced carrying out his job.

[49]  In our view, A’s farm was not completely out of step with other traditional, family-owned farms in New Zealand. While A may have not been particularly sophisticated in his practices, or used new and expensive technology, we do not consider this programme was a targeted attack on conventional dairy farming, but rather the reality of farming for some in New Zealand. It did not however give the impression that all farmers practised in this way, or that B would not have had the same issues on her farm.

[50]  The footage of the home kill, while only indirectly relevant to the focus of the story, was important to highlight the item’s theme of urban New Zealand being unwilling to engage with, or ignorant of, the issues experienced by dairy farmers – in this scene, particularly where their food (including milk) comes from and how it is produced.

[51]  The Authority has previously found that the killing of animals for food is a fact of life in New Zealand society, and the broadcast of footage of this nature will usually be acceptable where there is not undue depiction of cruelty.4 In this case, the item featured a warning for confronting scenes and the home kill was clearly signposted for viewers. The child featured was the daughter of the business owner, and the scene included the important message that children should be aware of where their food comes from. This reflected positively on those involved.

[52]  Accordingly we do not uphold the fairness complaint.

Was the item sufficiently balanced?

[53]  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

[54]  Ms Webber submitted that:

  • The issue of dairy farming and its effects on the environment was a controversial issue of public importance. The programme did not show balance or impartiality in its portrayal of two different but non-representative examples of dairy farming.
  • The programme was introduced as covering important issues surrounding dairy farming, such as the impact of agriculture on the environment, the state of waterways, global warming. As such, it went beyond the personal perspectives of the two farming families.
  • The farmers featured were presented as ‘typical’ dairy farmers, representative of the dairy industry, in order to educate ‘urban New Zealand’. However, the programme presented two non-typical farms, and further portrayed one farm in a negative light.

[55]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • This programme was not presented as an exposé on farming and did not set out to study the industry as a whole. Rather, this programme focused on two farmers and their perspectives of their jobs.
  • The farmers did not present themselves as representing the wider industry, and no inferences were drawn with respect to the dairy industry as a whole on the back of their discussions. The decision about who to feature in the programme was an editorial one at the discretion of the broadcaster.
  • The programme was not intended as a direct comparison of the two farms, but to show urban New Zealand ‘a few issues farmers are dealing with’.

Our analysis

[56]  We agree that this item touched on controversial issues of public importance relating to the dairy farming industry (such as the mistreatment of bobby calves and the impact of farming on the environment).

[57]  However, we are satisfied that the programme was predominantly narrowly focused on the experiences and stories of A and B, and the challenges they faced personally. When A and B discussed issues facing the industry more broadly, we consider it was clear to viewers that the programme was focused only on the perspectives of the two featured farmers on these issues. As such, while we agree that the industry was broadly discussed with A and B, viewers would not have expected their views to be representative of the industry as a whole, but rather based on their own experiences.

[58]  Nor do we consider viewers would have expected their farms or farming styles to representative of the industry. The selection of farmers to feature in this story was a matter of editorial discretion for the broadcaster, and the reporter explained that he ‘chanced upon [A] down at the [rugby club] and thought, “well, you’re a character, mate, you’ll do”’. A and B were therefore not represented by the programme as being the typical, or best, examples of farming in New Zealand, but people who New Zealanders might relate to and who could provide the public with a slice of life view of their daily lives.

[59]  In these circumstances, we do not consider the item amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, requiring alternative views.

[60]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under Standard 8.

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

 

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

 

Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
Member
4 September 2017

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1      Hilary Webber’s formal complaint – 30 April 2017
2      TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 31 May 2017
3      Ms Webber’s referral to the Authority – 6 June 2017
4      TVNZ’s response to the referral – 24 July 2017
5      Ms Webber’s final comments – 28 July 2017


1 We have issued a separate decision on a complaint also relating to this episode of Sunday, Wyn-Harris and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-047, which raised similar concerns.

2 See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and Commentary: Freedom of Expression, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6

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

4 Judge and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2016-068