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Wyn-Harris and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2017-047 (4 September 2017)

Members

  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Complainant

  • Steve Wyn-Harris

Dated

4th September 2017

Number

2017-047

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, 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. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that this item was misleading, unbalanced and treated one of the farmers, A, unfairly. The item was clearly approached from the narrow perspective of the two particular farmers, and was focused on hearing their views about the issues canvassed in the item. As such, viewers would not have expected the item to represent all farmers or farming styles. The Authority did not agree that the item made a direct comparison between the two farms, favouring one over the other, and considered that all participants were portrayed positively in the item. Given the item’s narrow perspective, it did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public 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]  Steve Wyn-Harris complained that this programme was not representative of the dairy industry, and was therefore misleading and unbalanced.1

[3]  The issues raised in Mr Wyn-Harris’ 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. The reporter 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 item had high value in terms of the right to freedom of expression, and it was in the public interest for viewers to hear directly from the selected farmers on the issues covered by the programme. As discussed in the item, these farmers felt the dairy industry has been subject to criticism and negative media coverage on a number of issues, including the mistreatment of bobby calves and the pollution of waterways. We consider it was important for New Zealanders to see, through the first-hand experience of the reporter, the daily lives of two dairy farmers, and to hear their perspectives on the challenges facing the industry.

[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, Mr Wyn-Harris has argued that audiences would be misled by this item’s narrow portrayal of dairy farming in New Zealand, and that the item was unfair to one of the farmers featured in the programme.

[27]  We accept that this item was introduced as being the reporter’s opportunity to hear ‘the farmers’ side of the story’. However, we consider it would have been clear to viewers that the item did not intend to provide viewers with the perspectives of all dairy farmers, or to provide a glimpse into all farming practices in New Zealand.

[28]  We are satisfied that this programme was framed as an investigation of the issues ‘from the inside out’. It was presented in the style of a slice-of-life documentary, following the two selected farmers and allowing the ‘townie’ reporter the opportunity to hear directly their personal views on the portrayal of farmers in the media and the real challenges they face daily. There were a number of signposts that pointed to the item being from the perspective of two farmers, and not the industry as a whole.

[29]  As such, we find that the harm alleged by the complainant did not outweigh the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression in this case and we find no breach of broadcasting standards. We expand on our reasons for this decision 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]  Mr Wyn-Harris submitted that:

  • The broadcaster deliberately chose an ‘unsophisticated’ dairy farmer to represent the industry. A had an untidy property with a lack of trees and a calf shed full of mud, which was ‘a disgrace’. TVNZ should have chosen an average farmer, or one of hundreds of environmental award-winning farmers from over New Zealand, rather than A.
  • A’s farm was ‘obviously under stress’. In comparison, B’s farm was ‘a big lifestyle property’, with only 40 cows and a partner working as a full time builder to supplement their income. Her farm was filmed in summer, whereas A’s was filmed in winter.
  • During the programme, the host commented that farmers would have to attend to the waterways, but more than 90 percent of waterways were already fenced, either because of requirements or industry self-policing.

[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.
  • The waterways and water quality was a widely discussed topic. Farming and water quality was an ongoing issue and affected all areas of New Zealand.

Our analysis

[34]  It appears to us that the key concern raised by Mr Wyn-Harris was the perceived comparison made in the item between A’s farm and B’s, and their portrayal to viewers who might not realise that these farms were not representative of the industry as a whole, and allegedly did not represent best practice.

[35]  This item was presented as the reporter’s opportunity to speak to real dairy farmers and to hear directly from them about the hardships facing the dairy industry, including its negative portrayal in the media. It gave the reporter a chance, in the place of the ‘urban New Zealand viewer’, to learn more about the difficulties facing dairy farmers. However, we consider the item was focused on hearing the personal stories of only two farmers in particular.

[36]  Therefore, while the current issues facing dairy farmers (such as the mistreatment of bobby calves, the environmental impact and climate change) were framed at the outset of the item, we consider the item itself was narrowly focused on the personal stories of two particular farmers, allowing the reporter to view the industry ‘from the inside out’. While they might not have represented ‘best’ practice or typical farms, the farmers provided their own views on the industry and on the challenges they faced personally, which was what the reporter set out to learn.

[37]  We do not agree that the programme set out to pit the two farms against each other, with the objective to portray A’s farm in a negative light, and B’s farm in a positive light. We consider it was clear that the reporter wished to explore the daily life of two farmers, with different operations and farming styles. These two farms represented two, of many, styles of dairy farming in New Zealand, and in our view, the item did not purport to suggest that these were representative of all farms and practices.

[38]  We acknowledge that aspects of segments filmed at A’s farm could be seen as challenging (for example, the weather conditions, the run-down nature of the buildings and equipment and footage of still-born calves and lame cows). However, these were portrayed as part of the challenges of A’s job, and representative of the difficulties facing some farmers, particularly those struggling.

[39]  The weather conditions in particular were commented on by the reporter, ensuring viewers were aware that the level of rain and mud was unusual. It was also clear to viewers that these segments were filmed during winter, highlighting the impact of weather conditions on dairy farming.

[40]  The segments filmed at B’s farm clearly took place during summer, and we do not agree that this was a deliberate choice on the part of the broadcaster in order to portray this style of organic farming in a positive light. B made clear the fact that her style of low-intensity farming was made possible through her partner’s support, and her views on farming practices, such as the use of nitrogen on soils, may have been an unusual or novel perspective for viewers with little experience or knowledge of farming.

[41]  In our view, this style of farming was not presented as being ‘better’ than A’s, but offered a different way for viewers to think about the dairy industry and its sustainability.

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

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

[43]  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

[44]  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

[45]  Mr Wyn-Harris submitted that:

  • A was misrepresented during the item, as he was unaware his property would be compared to a different farm in a different season. Many good things were filmed on A’s property, but these were not included in the item.
  • A was ‘exploited, humiliated in front of his peers and unfairly identified’. 
  • There was no reason to include the segment of the home kill, as this had no relevance to dairy farming or the other issues canvassed by the programme. Further, the child should not have been shown bleeding the cattle.

[46]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • There was no criticism of A in the broadcast and no intention to find fault with his farm. The producers thought ‘there might be value to show a farm in wintery conditions to show city people the reality of what farmers have to put up with…’
  • A gave full and informed consent for his involvement in the programme.
  • While A’s farm was shown in winter, and B’s in summer, the programme recognised the conditions at A’s farm, with the reporter saying, ‘[A’s] farm is showing the effects of one of the soggiest winters to hit these plains in years’.
  • No criticism was levelled at A for this, and no favourable comment made on B’s farm in regard to weather conditions.
  • The child depicted was the daughter of a man running a home kill business. 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. This subject was approached in a matter-of-fact way and did not result in any unfairness to participants.
  • Farmers as a group were not protected by the standard.

Our analysis

[47]  We do not agree that the item’s presentation of the two farms suggested to the viewer that B’s farm was a ‘better’ type of dairy farm. It was clear to viewers that the segments were filmed during different seasons, and the impact of the weather on farming is a known challenge, outside of a farmer’s control.

[48]  As noted above in our findings under the accuracy standard, we also do not agree that the item made unfair comparisons between the two different farms, or that A was treated unfairly as a result of this comparison.

[49]  It was clear to viewers that these farms operated differently, and that these practices were not representative of all dairy farms in New Zealand (B acknowledged that her own personal approach to farming practices might not be suitable, or possible, for other farmers). Further, we consider the item portrayed both farmers in a positive light. Both A and B came across as passionate, hard workers, who cared for their animals and did the best they could in difficult conditions. They were also given the opportunity to provide their own perspectives on issues often raised about farming.

[50]  Much of the backlash to this story focused on the practices of A, for example, the thinness of his stock, lack of dry straw calving pads and padding on the hip clamp used to help the cow to her feet.4

[51]  However, we do not consider that the challenging aspects of A’s segment reflected negatively on him, or on the dairy industry as a whole. As noted above, we think he was portrayed positively overall. The item was narrowly focused on the personal stories and challenges of two farmers, and while some aspects of A’s segment may have been challenging for viewers, this presented the real, personal story of one farmer in New Zealand, and we do not agree viewers would have taken A’s story to be representative of all dairy farmers.

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

[53]  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. Where New Zealanders’ food (including milk) comes from and how it is produced was an issue addressed by the item, and in this scene in particular. 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.

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

Was the item sufficiently balanced?

[55]  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

[56]  Mr Wyn-Harris submitted that the broadcaster deliberately pitted two unrepresentative examples of dairy farms against each other, and showed A’s property in a bad light, and B’s in a good light ‘to demonstrate the producers’ preference for organic hobby type farming’.

[57]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • An exposé of dairy farming would amount to a controversial issue of public importance. However, this programme did not set out to study the industry as a whole, but looked at two farmers and asked them about their perspectives on their jobs. No wider inference was made on the dairy industry as a whole on the back of this discussion, and the farmers did not present themselves as representing the wider industry.
  • The programme was not intended as a direct comparison of farms, but to show urban New Zealand ‘a few issues farmers are dealing with’.
  • While the complainant disagreed with the choice of farmers, this decision was an editorial one, and not a matter of programme standards.

Our analysis

[58]  This item canvassed controversial issues of public importance relating to dairy farming (such as the mistreatment of calves and its impact on the environment), however it offered the perspectives of only two farmers in particular on these issues. Therefore, while the item was presented as an opportunity to hear from the side of dairy farmers about these issues, we consider that it would have been clear to viewers that this would be achieved through experiencing the daily life of two particular farmers only.

[59]  The item was therefore narrowly focused on the perspectives of A and B, whose views did not represent the dairy industry as a whole – being based on their own experiences.

[60]  In these circumstances, the item did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, requiring alternative views.

[61]  We have addressed the alleged comparison between the two farms as matters of accuracy and fairness, above.

[62]  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      Steve Wyn-Harris’ formal complaint – 10 April 2017
2      TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 11 May 2017
3      Mr Wyn-Harris’ referral to the Authority – 25 May 2017
4      TVNZ’s response to the referral – 4 July 2017


1 We have issued a separate decision on a complaint also relating to this episode of Sunday, Webber and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-051, 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

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

4 For example, see Backlash over skewed Sunday programme (Federated Farmers, undated Media Release)