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Dennis and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2018-029 (18 June 2018)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Peter Dennis

Dated

18th June 2018

Number

2018-029

Programme

The Project

Channel/Station

Three

Broadcaster

MediaWorks TV Ltd

Summary

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

An episode of The Project featured an item about several aspects of the gun control debate in New Zealand, including the Police Association’s call to introduce a firearm registry and tighter restrictions on firearm ownership and importation. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the item was materially inaccurate in relation to the number of firearms being legally imported every year into New Zealand. The Authority also found that it was not misleading to use Police Association survey statistics (rather than NZ Police data) in the broadcast as the source of the statistics was clearly identified. Overall, the Authority was satisfied that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure the item was accurate and not misleading, so the harm alleged to have been caused by the broadcast did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression in this case.

Not Upheld: Accuracy  


Introduction

[1]  An episode of The Project featured an item about several aspects of the gun control debate in New Zealand, including the Police Association’s call to introduce a firearm registry and tighter restrictions on firearm ownership and importation. The item included some statistics about the use of firearms in New Zealand, including:

  • ‘[I]n the past decade, 242 million dollars’ worth of firearms have been legally imported – that’s around 55,000 firearms each year…’
  • ‘Back home the Police Association is raising red flags after their recent survey revealed 21% of cops had been threatened with a firearm in the past year alone…’

[2]  The item featured interviews with Police Association President Chris Cahill and Gun City owner David Tipple.

[3]  Peter Dennis complained that the item created an incorrect picture of the extent of the firearms issue because: the actual number of firearms imported into New Zealand every year is significantly lower than 55,000; the Police Association survey is not a reliable source of information; and the number of officers who were allegedly threatened with a firearm last year does not match up with the ‘constantly falling’ number of firearms offences.

[4]  The issue raised in the complaint is whether the broadcast breached the accuracy standard of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The item was broadcast on Three on 15 February 2018. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Freedom of expression

[6]  When we determine a complaint alleging a breach of broadcasting standards, we first give consideration to the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the value of the broadcast item, as well as the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and limit the right to freedom of expression where doing so is reasonable and justified.1

[7]  In our view this broadcast carried a high level of public interest. It explored a topical, contentious and wide-ranging issue – gun control and firearm regulation in New Zealand – about which people in the New Zealand community will hold a variety of views, and they are entitled as part of the right to freedom of expression to see these issues discussed and analysed on television. This encourages robust public discourse, which is an important feature of freedom of expression and democratic society.

[8]  The question for us to consider is whether the harm that is alleged to have been caused – that the item broadcast inaccurate or misleading information – is such that it warrants our intervention and warrants limiting the right to freedom of expression in this case.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[9]  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 receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.

The parties’ submissions

[10]  Mr Dennis submitted:

  • The facts used in the story about firearms registration have already been proven to be incorrect and have been withdrawn and corrected by other news agencies.
  • There are not 55,000 firearms a year imported into New Zealand – the figure is closer to 20,000. This exaggeration in importation figures did not provide the correct context for viewers.
  • In relation to the figures used for the number of officers threatened with firearms, the broadcaster failed to use actual Police data and instead used a survey carried out by ‘what is effectively a union’.
  • The actual figures for firearms offending has been falling for many years.

[11]  MediaWorks submitted:

  • While there is conjecture around the number of firearms imported each year and the manner in which relevant data may be gathered and categorised, the number given in the broadcast was not misleading.
  • The importation statistic was included chiefly to provide context to the discussion by establishing that a large number of firearms are imported into New Zealand every year – it was a minor aspect and unlikely to affect the audience’s understanding overall.
  • The information regarding Police being threatened by firearms was sourced from the Police Association and was gathered by a survey of its members. The broadcast clearly identified this source. There was no obvious reason for this information to be questioned and no reason to suspect that Mr Cahill had misrepresented the results of the survey.
  • Regarding Mr Dennis’ submission that the number of Police threatened does not match the ‘falling’ number of firearms offences, the arrest data and the results of the Police Association survey measure different things; there are a number of reasons why a threat may not result in an arrest.

Our analysis

[12]  We have identified the following statements from the broadcast as being relevant to the complainant’s concerns under the accuracy standard:

  • ‘[I]n the past decade 242 million dollars’ worth of firearms have been legally imported – that’s around 55,000 firearms each year…’ (The complainant submitted that the amount of firearms legally imported into New Zealand annually is significantly lower than the number reported, so this statement fundamentally affected viewers’ understanding of the firearms debate in New Zealand.)
  • ‘Back home the Police Association is raising red flags after their recent survey revealed 21% of cops had been threatened with a firearm in the past year alone…’ (The complainant questioned why, if the number of police officers being threatened by firearms according to the Police Association survey was correct, firearm offending makes up less than 1% of crime and has been constantly falling for many years. He also considered the broadcaster should have used Police data rather than the Police Association survey statistics.)

55,000 firearms imported into New Zealand each year

[13]  The first question is whether the figure identified by the complainant amounted to a material point of fact in the context of this item. We are satisfied that, as a statistic, this figure could be verified and therefore that it was a point of fact (rather than an opinion, which is someone’s view, and contestable).2

[14]  We also consider that it was a material point, for the purposes of this item. The Authority has previously found that audience members are likely to take note of highlighted statistics, so it is important to ensure that the figures used are correct, particularly where they are used to frame an item’s focus.3 In this particular case, the statistic was used to highlight the significant amount of firearms in circulation in New Zealand considering the level of firearms licence holders, and to introduce the argument for a compulsory firearm registry in New Zealand, as advocated for by the Police Association.

[15]  Based on the information available to us, we are satisfied that there was a reasonable basis for the figure used. A response under the Official Information Act from NZ Customs, to a request querying the 55,000 figure, attaches a document showing the average number of firearms legally imported into New Zealand from 2013-2017 was 51,5284. The response states however that the figures for the last five years do not include types of firearms for which, when imported, the importer is not required to declare the quantity, for example pistols and revolvers.5 Therefore the exact number of firearms imported annually is unknown.

[16]  In these circumstances we do not consider the estimation used by the presenter was materially inaccurate.

Number of Police who have been threatened with a firearm

[17]  Regarding Mr Dennis’ second concern, we note that he has not suggested that the figure itself, as reported from the survey findings, is incorrect or that it was incorrectly reported. Rather, he submitted that the figure is not consistent with the ‘actual figures for firearms offending’, which Mr Dennis submits, have ‘been falling for many years’. He is also concerned that the broadcaster used the Police Association survey data in this broadcast.

[18]  As noted by the broadcaster, the number of police who reported in the survey they were ‘threatened’ with a firearm does not necessarily correlate with the number of actual arrests or offences. We therefore do not consider the use of the figure was misleading in this respect.

[19]  We note however that the item did include a countering view, through interviewing Gun City owner David Tipple. Mr Tipple countered the veracity of the statistics and the Police Association’s view, saying, for example, ‘Police are not being confronted with firearms more and more. There are a number of imitation firearms. These comments are fearmongering.’ This gave viewers an alternative perspective as to the weight to be given to the statistics reported.

[20]  Additionally, the source of the statistics was clearly identified in the broadcast as the Police Association, originating from a survey of its members. It was reasonable for the broadcaster to refer to the Police Association survey findings, and we do not consider that the broadcaster’s decision to report on the survey results (rather than referring to NZ Police data) resulted in the item being misleading, given the source was clearly identified.

[21]  For these reasons, we find the harm alleged to have been caused by this item did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression in this case. Accordingly, we do not uphold Mr Dennis’ complaint.

 

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

 


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
18 June 2018


Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined these complaints:
1       Peter Dennis’ formal complaint – 15 February 2018
2       MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 15 March 2018
3       Mr Dennis’ referral to the Authority – 16 March 2018
4       MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comment – 9 April 2018


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

2  See the Authority’s Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing fact and analysis, comment or opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 62

3  Laven and Radio New Zealand Ltd (Decision No. 2015-076)

4  NZ Customs Service response to OIA Request (CR OIA 18-039), https://fyi.org.nz/request/7273/response/24094/attach/4/OIA%20data.pdf, February 2018

5  NZ Customs Service response to OIA Request (CR OIA 18-039), https://fyi.org.nz/request/7273/response/24094/attach/3/Letter.pdf, 8 March 2018