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Vero Insurance New Zealand Ltd and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-030 (18 June 2018)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Vero Insurance New Zealand Ltd

Dated

18th June 2018

Number

2018-030

Programme

1 News

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

A brief item on 1 News discussed a protest in Christchurch against Vero Insurance (Vero) regarding outstanding insurance claims. The item contained footage of the protestors and the newsreader stated that ‘[One of the protestors] says Vero has kept them locked in a virtual prison for seven years.’ The broadcaster upheld a complaint from Vero under the balance and fairness standards, as Vero ought to have been given an opportunity to comment. Vero referred the complaint to the Authority on the basis it was dissatisfied with the action taken by the broadcaster in response to its original complaint, and it also maintained that the accuracy standard was breached. The Authority did not uphold the complaint, finding the statement complained about was a statement of opinion and therefore the accuracy standard did not apply. The Authority considered that a broadcast statement on this occasion would have been disproportionate to the breach, and therefore it did not uphold the complaint that the action taken by the broadcaster was insufficient.

Not Upheld: Balance (Action Taken), Fairness (Action Taken), Accuracy


Introduction

[1]  A brief item on 1 News discussed a protest in Christchurch against Vero Insurance (Vero) regarding outstanding insurance claims. The item contained footage of the protestors in a Christchurch mall, accompanied by the newsreader saying:

A group of protestors dressed in mock prison clothing marched through a shopping mall in Christchurch today, over their outstanding insurance claims. Around 12 people joined Christchurch man [name] who was leading action against insurance company Vero. [Name] says Vero has kept them locked in a virtual prison for seven years.

[2]  Vero complained that the item was unfair, unbalanced and inaccurate, submitting that it should have been asked for comment, as the item contained statements that were critical of Vero.

[3]  TVNZ upheld Vero’s complaint under the fairness and balance standards, on the basis Vero should have been asked for comment, as critical comments were made about Vero in the item. TVNZ apologised to Vero and discussed the complaint and the issues raised with 1 News and the reporter who prepared the item. However it considered an on-air statement would be disproportionate to the breach. TVNZ did not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard, finding the statement complained about was a statement of opinion, therefore the accuracy standard did not apply.

[4]  Vero referred the complaint to this Authority on the basis it was dissatisfied with the action taken by TVNZ in response to the upheld aspects of the complaint. Vero argued that a broadcast statement or correction was required to remedy the harm caused by the breaches of broadcasting standards. Vero also maintained that the broadcast was inaccurate.

[5]  The issues raised in Vero’s complaint are:

  • whether the broadcaster took sufficient action having upheld the complaint under the balance and fairness standards; and
  • whether the broadcast breached the accuracy standard as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[6]  The item was broadcast on TVNZ 1 on 3 December 2017. 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 action taken by TVNZ, having upheld the complaint under the balance and fairness standards, sufficient?

[7]  Vero submitted:

  • The relevant ratings for the broadcast showed that the story reached 600,000 people nationwide, and Vero did not have the opportunity to put its position to those people.
  • While the story may have been a brief report, its length did not absolve TVNZ of the need to make reasonable efforts to achieve balance.
  • Trust and confidence in the insurance industry in Canterbury has been damaged by the perception of insurers’ response to the Canterbury Earthquakes. In such circumstances, the broadcast of the story, without an opportunity for Vero to respond to serious allegations of misconduct by it, was a serious breach of broadcasting standards.
  • Despite TVNZ’s assertion that the story was not broadcast online, there remains available an item containing the same footage of the protest, albeit with a brief comment from Vero.
  • TVNZ has admitted that it breached the fairness and balance standards, and Vero has been detrimentally affected, so a broadcast of an apology or clarification statement, in a format to be agreed with Vero, is warranted.

[8]  TVNZ submitted:

  • In relation to the balance standard:
    • The item was a brief, straight report on the actions of the protestors in Christchurch rather than being an in-depth examination of the issues that the protestors raised, eg, it was not an investigation into criticisms of Vero Insurance. It was clear that the named protestor’s comments were coming from a particular perspective, and this signalled that other perspectives existed.
    • Vero’s perspective was reported in other media in the period of interest, including by RNZ on 29 August 2017 and 1 News on 17 November 2017.
    • Nevertheless, TVNZ accepted this item raised a controversial issue of public importance and therefore the item ought to have contained comments from Vero.
    • TVNZ apologised to Vero for the breach and assured Vero that its complaint and the issues raised had been discussed with 1 News. The reporter who prepared the story had acknowledged the mistake and stated she had ‘taken this on board to avoid repeating a similar error’.
  • In relation to the fairness standard:
    • In circumstances where the item contained comments and images (of placards) which were critical of Vero, Vero’s comment ought to have been included.
    • It apologised for this breach and reiterated that Vero’s concerns had been raised with 1 News and taken on board by the reporter.
  • An on-air apology would be disproportionate to the level of the standards breach, given the brief nature of the item (rather than being an in-depth examination of the claims). TVNZ also considered an on-air or online apology would be inappropriate, as it would likely only draw more attention to the protestors’ claims.
  • The news item of 3 December was never published online. The earlier item of Friday 17 November remains online, which includes Vero’s response.

Our analysis

[9]  In this case, TVNZ has acknowledged that the broadcast contained critical comments about Vero, without seeking or broadcasting comment from them, which resulted in an unfair and unbalanced broadcast in breach of the standards. The question for us is whether the actions taken by TVNZ in response to the breach (outlined in its submissions above) were sufficient in the circumstances. In making this assessment we must consider the context of the item, the extent of actual or potential harm that may have arisen, and the action taken by the broadcaster.

[10]  While we acknowledge that the item was critical of Vero, this was a brief, straightforward report focused on the views of the protestors about how certain claims have been handled. It was not a lengthy in-depth investigation of Vero and outstanding claims. In our view this reduced the potential for harm to be caused to Vero’s reputation.

[11]  Additionally, we note the footage was included in a brief online article published the day after this item, which contained a short comment from Vero (that it had been trying to settle the named protestor’s claim ‘for more than a year’).1

[12]  With respect to the action taken by the broadcaster, we have taken into account that Vero’s complaint and the issues it raised were discussed with 1 News staff and in particular the reporter. We are advised that the reporter has taken the advice on board and undertaken to avoid a similar situation in future.

[13]  In our view, in the context of the item, and the subsequent online article, these steps were proportionate to the brevity and limited focus of the 1 News item on television. We agree with the broadcaster that in this instance a separate follow-up item or statement conveying Vero’s position would be disproportionate to the severity of the breaches and may also have the effect of drawing further attention to the protests.

[14]  We therefore do not uphold Vero’s complaint in relation to action taken by the broadcaster.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[15]  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 the standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.

[16]  Technical or unimportant points unlikely to significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the item as a whole are not ‘material’.2 The requirement for accuracy also does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.3

The parties’ submissions

[17]  Vero submitted:

  • The statement ‘Vero has kept us locked in a virtual prison for seven years’ is inaccurate. The public was significantly misinformed by the story and left with the impression that the demonstrators had been waiting seven years to have their claims settled by Vero, which is untrue.
  • The protestor who made this claim did not exceed the statutory cap until early 2016, at which time Vero immediately began working with him to settle his claim (which is now settled).
  • Vero’s earthquake-claims staff have not been able to identify any of the people pictured in the story as current customers with an outstanding earthquake claim (other than the protest leader, whose claim has now been settled on confidential terms).

[18]  TVNZ submitted:

  • The statement related to the group’s claims, not the named protestor specifically.
  • The statement clearly represented the protestor’s opinion (rather than being a statement of fact) so the standard did not apply.
  • It was not materially misleading to show the pictured protestors as marching over their outstanding earthquake insurance claims. If the people pictured are not themselves claimants (as Vero suggests), it remains accurate and correct to say that there are outstanding earthquake insurance claims. The protestors pictured were clearly supporting claimants on this issue and expressing frustration that those disputes are ongoing, and this was an accurate visual depiction of the scale of the alleged problem.

Our analysis

[19]  The first question is whether the statement complained about was a statement of fact, or an opinion. A fact is verifiable, while an opinion is someone’s view, and is contestable.4

[20]  Whether the statement was attributed to someone is a relevant consideration.5 In this case the statement, ‘[Name] says Vero has kept them locked in a virtual prison for seven years’ was clearly attributed to the named protestor. It relayed his opinion regarding the difficulty and longevity of Vero’s process and his experience with the process in the time since the earthquakes. We are therefore satisfied that the statement was distinguishable as opinion and as such the accuracy standard did not apply. We also note the reference to ‘them’ also implied that the protestor was referring to the remaining claimants collectively, rather than only his claim.

[21]  With regard to the footage of protestors, the newsreader did not state that all of the protestors were Vero claimants. The protestors were clearly expressing their disapproval with how Vero has handled certain claims, regardless of whether they were customers of Vero or supporters of other customers. We do not consider the use of this footage in the broadcast would have left viewers significantly misinformed about the nature of the protest.

[22]  We therefore do not find any breach of the accuracy standard.

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 this complaint:
1       Vero’s formal complaint – 5 December 2017
2       TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 16 February 2018
3       Vero’s referral to the Authority – 16 March 2018
4       TVNZ’s response to the referral – 10 May 2018
5       Vero’s final comments – 17 May 2018
6       TVNZ’s final comments – 25 May 2018


1  https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/watch-protesters-wearing-mock-prison-clothes-march-through-christchurch-mall-over-quake-claims, 4 December 2017

2  Guideline 9b

3  Guideline 9a 

4 Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 62

5 As above