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Rose and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-078 (27 November 2018)

Members

  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Susie Staley
  • Wendy Palmer

Complainant

  • Jim Rose

Dated

27th November 2018

Number

2018-078

Programme

1 News

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint about an item on 1 News, which reported on the Government’s intention to remove a benefit reduction sanction that can apply to sole beneficiary parents who do not name the remaining parent. The complainant alleged the item was unbalanced and misleading, as the report omitted details about the exemptions that can apply to the sanction, including that a parent will not have to name the other parent where the child or sole parent could be at risk of violence. The Authority found that the focus of this item was the Government’s desire to remove the sanction. The omission of details about the exemptions was therefore not material to the overall focus of the item, and did not mislead viewers. The Authority also found that the balance standard did not apply, as the item was a brief, straightforward news report on the possible legislative change, and did not purport to be an in-depth discussion of the detail and merits of the existing law and proposed change.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance, Fairness



The broadcast

[1]  A 1 News segment reported on the Government’s intention to remove a benefit reduction sanction from the Social Security Act 1964, that can apply to sole beneficiary parents who do not name the remaining parent.

[2]  The segment began with the interview of a mother and beneficiary who is subject to the sanction, and who refused to name her children’s father, stating she did not want them ‘put into danger’. The report then stated that Hon Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister for Social Development had received official advice that the sanction could be removed as soon as October this year (2018). The reporter then briefly described the sanction:

Solo parents who won’t identify the other parent can have their benefit cut by $22 a week for each child they have. [Emphasis added]

[3]  The segment also featured brief comment from Jan Logie, Green Party Social Development representative, Hon Sepuloni and an Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) representative regarding the sanction. Hon Sepuloni stated the Government intends to have the sanction removed during its first term.

[4]  The segment was broadcast on 14 August 2018 on TVNZ 1.

Background

[5]  Under s 70A of the Social Security Act 1964, a sole parent receiving a benefit can be sanctioned for refusing to name the remaining parent, which can result in a reduction in their benefit payments. There are exemptions to this sanction under s 70A(3), which mean a sole parent beneficiary who does not name the remaining parent will not have their payments reduced.

[6] The exemptions include cases where the other parent cannot be named because there is insufficient evidence,1 where the child or sole parent could be at risk of violence,2 where the child was conceived as a result of incest or sexual violation,3 where the sole parent was actively trying to identify the other parent,4 or where there was another ‘compelling circumstance’.5

The complaint

[7]  Jim Rose complained that the broadcast breached the accuracy, balance and fairness standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice for the following reasons:

  • The omission of information about the exemptions, particularly the ‘risk of violence’ exemption,6 resulted in a biased, unbalanced and misleading report.
  • This omission misled viewers by implying there were no exceptions to the rule and the remaining parent must be named to avoid a benefit reduction.
  • The idea that the exemption does not work in practice because single mothers face a number of barriers in asking for the exemption (for example, they do not know of the exemption, or need to pay a lawyer to represent them), is an ‘untruth fed to [TVNZ] by beneficiary activists.’ Mr Rose submitted responses received under the Official Information Act 1982 to support his view.
  • A wide range of people and organisations are able to provide evidence of the threat of violence on behalf of the beneficiary, including doctors, police, Women’s Refuge and churches. Lawyers are not listed by Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) as a reputable organisation or person to substantiate threats of violence or abuse.
  • The Minister for Social Development should have been questioned about the exemptions in order for the broadcaster to achieve balance.

The broadcaster’s response

[8] TVNZ submitted the broadcast did not breach broadcasting standards for the following reasons:

  • The report included many significant viewpoints on this issue, including from the Minister for Social Development, the Green Party Social Development representative, a sole parent affected by the sanction and an AAAP representative.
  • The omission of any information about the violence exemption under s 70A(3)(ba), or other exemptions, was not misleading.
  • While the exemption to the sanction does exist, in practice the claim of a fear of violence from the other parent must be proven. A letter from a lawyer must be provided to verify the claim. This barrier means that in practice there are sole parents who might be eligible for the exemption who have not managed to secure one. 
  • In 2016 over thirteen thousand sole parents were subject to s 70A deductions.
  • The Social Security Appeal Authority told the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) it should change its policy requiring lawyers’ letters. MSD has disregarded that recommendation and is still requiring letters.
  • There are problems with the exemption process including:
    • Beneficiaries subject to the sanction who could claim an exemption do not know their entitlements and are often not told by WINZ staff
    • Finally, TVNZ submitted the broadcast did not breach the fairness standard, noting that while Mr Rose raised this standard, he did not make any submissions on why it was breached.

The standards

[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 being significantly misinformed. Technical or unimportant points unlikely to significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the programme as a whole are not material.

[10]  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 arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion. For the standard to apply the subject matter must be an issue of public importance, it must be ‘controversial’ and it must be ‘discussed’.

[11]  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.

Our findings

[12]  Our task in relation to this complaint is to weigh the right to freedom of expression, which is valued highly and enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In this case the harm alleged is the potential for the public to be misinformed about nature of the s 70A sanction through what the complainant considers to be unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate reporting.

[13]  Informing viewers on potential legislative or political changes that could affect a large number of New Zealanders helps to create an ongoing, active public discourse, which is an important part of a free and democratic society. Against this background we have considered whether any real or potential harm was caused by the item in the manner alleged by the complainant.

[14] As the complainant did not make any submissions under the fairness standard, we have focused our decision on the accuracy and balance standards.

Accuracy

[15]  In making a decision under the accuracy standard, the primary question for us to consider was whether audiences would have been misled or misinformed as a result of this broadcast. The complainant has submitted the broadcast was misleading by omission. Our focus therefore was on whether the omission of details about the exemptions was likely to significantly affect viewers’ understanding of the segment as a whole.

[16]  The item was led with the personal perspective of a mother who is subject to the sanction and the impact which it has on her. The focus then shifted to the current Government’s intent to remove the sanction and the official advice Hon Sepuloni had received about doing so. The segment featured statements from Hon Sepuloni and Green MP Jan Logie in support of the Government’s intention to remove the sanction.

[17]  In our view, the overall purpose of the item was to report on the political desire for legislative change and the potential timing of the change, rather than to provide a comprehensive overview of the sanction and how it applies. It was clear the broadcast was not intended to be an in-depth discussion of the merits of the sanction and application of the exemptions. A discussion of the exemptions was therefore not necessary to convey the item’s overall message of the Government’s desire for change.

[18]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

Balance

[19]  We have identified the required elements for this standard in paragraph [9] above. We agree that this item covered an issue of public importance, being something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the public.7 We also accept that the issue of solo parents being subject to a benefit reduction sanction and the potential removal of that sanction may be controversial, as it has topical currency, excites conflicting opinion and is subject to ongoing public debate.8

[20]  However, while the item raised a controversial issue of public importance, we find this broadcast did not amount to a ‘discussion’ of the merits or barriers of the sanction or the exemptions. The broadcast was a brief, straightforward news report informing viewers that Minister for Social Development Hon Carmel Sepuloni had received official advice that the sanction could be removed in the near future and noting the Government’s desire to do so. It was not intended to be an in-depth discussion about the merits of the sanction or practical application of the exemptions. We therefore find the balance standard does not apply on this occasion.

[21]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.

Fairness

[22]  This standard only applies to individuals or organisations taking part or referred to in a broadcast. The complainant did not identify or make submissions on any individual or organisation as being the subject of any unfairness arising from the broadcast.

[23] Accordingly we do not uphold the complaint.

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

 


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

27 November 2018 

 


Appendix

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

1     Jim Rose’s formal complaint – 14 August 2018
2     TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 12 September 2018
3     Mr Rose’s referral to the Authority – 12 September 2018
4     MSD’s response to Mr Rose – 11 September 2018
5     TVNZ’s further comments and supporting documents – 19 October 2018
6     Mr Rose’s final comments – 25 October 2018
7     MSD’s further response to Mr Rose – 3 October 2018
8     Hon Carmel Sepuloni’s response to Mr Rose – 9 October 2018


1 Section 70A(3)(a)
2 Section 70A(3)(ba)
3 Section 70A(3)(c)
4 Section 70A(3)(b)
5 Section 70A(3)(bb)
Section 70A(3)(ba)
Commentary – Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
8 As above