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Morris and SKY Network Television Ltd - 2018-050 (24 August 2018)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Stephen Morris

Dated

24th August 2018

Number

2018-050

Programme

Prime News

Channel/Station

Prime TV

Broadcaster

SKY Network Television Ltd

Summary

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that a story on Prime News, reporting on incorrect deductions that were made from a solo mother’s benefit, was inaccurate and resulted in Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) being treated unfairly. The featured mother was repaid $7,000 from WINZ after discovering that deductions had been made from her benefit in error, as she qualified for an exemption from a policy requiring her to identify the father of her child. The Authority considered that the item was a fair and accurate report on the issue. WINZ was the agency responsible for administering the woman’s benefit and for making the deductions under legislation. It was therefore reasonable for the broadcaster to refer to WINZ and to rely on comment from the Minister for Social Development in response. While the story may have been critical of the policy and of the incorrect deductions that were made, the Authority considered that upholding this complaint would represent an unreasonable and unjustified limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, and therefore did not uphold the complaint.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Fairness 


The broadcast

[1]  A story broadcast on Prime News on 13 May 2018 reported on a mother who was repaid $7,000 from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ), after incorrect deductions were made from her benefit. The reporter explained that:

A weekly benefit sanction is imposed on sole mothers who have not identified the father of their child. The purpose is to encourage child support payments. But there are exemptions – like when there is a threat of violence.

[2]  This exemption applied to the woman featured in the item, whose benefit had been deducted by $28 per week, in error, for many years.

[3]  The item also featured interviews with a spokesperson from Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), who described the policy as ‘punitive to children, racist and sexist’, and the Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni. The reporter said the Minister would be ‘working to ensure women, like [the mother featured in the item] know what they’re entitled to’, with the Minister saying she would ensure:

…a lot more proactive training with staff to ensure that they are giving people the correct advice and the correct entitlement.

[4]  The reporter ended the item by saying that the featured mother was no longer on the benefit and now had a job as a barista at a local café.

The complaint

[5]  Mr Morris complained to the broadcaster that this item was in breach of the accuracy, fairness and discrimination and denigration standards. He said that:

  • Child support payment deductions are imposed by the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) and it was inaccurate for the item to attribute the error to WINZ.
  • The Minister of Revenue should therefore have been given the opportunity to comment, rather than the Minister for Social Development.
  • The AAAP spokesperson implied that WINZ was ‘punitive’, ‘sexist’ and ‘racist’ and the Minister’s comments regarding further training for WINZ case managers unfairly discriminated against WINZ.
  • The item omitted information about how WINZ assisted the featured mother to get a job, which would have balanced the item’s portrayal of the organisation.

[6]  SKY did not respond to Mr Morris’ complaint within the required 20 working day timeframe. Mr Morris therefore chose to refer his complaint to the Authority for investigation.

The broadcaster’s response

[7]  In its response to Mr Morris’ referral, SKY said:

  • The featured mother’s benefit was administered by WINZ. WINZ communicated any changes or requirements to the mother, including that she had been underpaid, and facilitated repayment. It was therefore correct for the reporter to refer to WINZ throughout the item.
  • The broadcaster was directed by the Government to the Minister for Social Development, as the appropriate representative to comment.
  • The AAAP spokesperson referred to the ‘policy’ as punitive, sexist and racist. He did not attribute blame for the policy to WINZ and nor did the item.
  • The reporter did not consider that reference to the mother getting her job through WINZ was relevant to the central story.
  • The purpose of the discrimination and denigration standard was to protect sections of the community from verbal and other attacks – it did not apply to individuals or organisations.

The standards

[8]  In his referral, Mr Morris asked us to consider his complaint under the accuracy and fairness standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, given the discrimination and denigration standard did not apply to WINZ as an organisation.

[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. 

[10]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) requires broadcasters to deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a broadcast.

Our findings

[11]  When we consider a complaint that broadcasting standards have been breached, we first take into account the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the value of the broadcast, and the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused.

[12]  We all agreed that this particular broadcast had value. It informed the New Zealand public about a policy which has received criticism for causing undue hardship to sole parents, often women, and provided viewers with the story of a woman impacted by it. We understand that Mr Morris’ concern is that the broadcast, by referring to WINZ in relation to the policy, was inaccurate and portrayed WINZ in an unfairly negative light.

[13]  We first looked at whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the broadcast. We carefully considered whether the broadcaster took the appropriate steps to ensure this report was accurate, and whether it would have misled viewers. We also discussed whether WINZ would have been unfairly impacted by this story. We came to the conclusion that this was an accurate and fair report on the issues, for the reasons we have set out below.

[14]  Our understanding is that the New Zealand child support scheme is managed by IRD1 and the Child Support Act 1991 requires social security beneficiaries to apply for a child support formula assessment. This requires a sole parent to identify the other parent.2 However, under the Social Security Act 1964, WINZ may reduce a benefit where the other parent has not been identified.3 Various exceptions to these deductions apply, including where there may be a risk of violence.4

[15]  In these circumstances, we do not consider that the item was materially inaccurate or misleading by referring to WINZ, rather than IRD. This is because even though the initial requirement for the other parent to be identified comes under legislation administered by the IRD, WINZ was the agency responsible for administering the featured mother’s benefit and for making the deductions under the Social Security Act 1964.

[16]  We believe it was reasonable for the broadcaster to rely on the Government to point it to the appropriate spokesperson to comment for the story. As the Minister for Social Development is the Minister responsible for the administration of the Social Security Act, we do not consider that it was misleading or unfair for the broadcaster to refer to her for comment.

[17]  We agree that viewers would have understood the AAAP spokesperson’s comments to be referring to the policy itself, rather than to the actions of WINZ. The Minister’s comments regarding further training represented the Government’s response to the issue, and we do not consider that these comments reflected negatively on WINZ, in a manner requiring us to intervene.

[18]  The reporter’s decision not to refer to the assistance provided to the mother by WINZ was an editorial decision and in our view, the omission of this information did not result in WINZ being portrayed in an unfairly negative light.

[19]  Overall we consider that this was a fair and accurate story, highlighting one woman’s particular experience and explaining to viewers some of the issues arising from the application of this policy. While the story might have been critical of the policy itself, and of the incorrect deductions that were made to the woman’s benefit, ultimately these deductions were repaid and the Minister provided comment on how these processes could be improved. If we were to uphold this complaint, we consider this would represent an unreasonable and unjustified limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.

[20]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint.

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
24 August 2018

 


Appendix

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

1     Stephen Morris’ formal complaint – 17 May 2018
2     Mr Morris’ referral to the Authority – 16 June 2018
3     SKY’s response to the complaint – 9 July 2018
4     Mr Morris’ further comments – 16 July 2018
5     SKY’s final comments – 18 July 2018


1  If a parent receiving child support payments is on a sole parent or unsupported child’s benefit from WINZ, child support payments are made directly to WINZ (unless the amount to be paid is more than the amount of the benefit, in which case the payment is made directly to the parent).

2  Section 9

3  Section 70A, Social Security Act 1964, administered by the Ministry of Social Development

4  Section 70A(3)