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Chapple and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-064 (26 February 2019)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Reuben Chapple

Dated

26th February 2019

Number

2018-064

Programme

Sunday

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 that an episode of Sunday, which investigated gay conversion therapy in New Zealand, was unbalanced and inaccurate. The Authority found the existence of differing viewpoints was pointed to throughout the programme, with balancing comments provided by those featured and in final comments from the presenter. The broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the programme, relying on authoritative medical opinion from health experts regarding current views on gay conversion therapy and the potential harm that could be caused by the practice. In making these findings, the Authority recognised the high public interest in this story and found that upholding the complaint would represent an unjustified and unreasonable limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy  


The broadcast

[1]  On 17 June 2018, TVNZ’s Sunday programme investigated gay conversion therapy and whether this practice was happening in New Zealand. The story featured interviews with three men about their experiences with gay conversion therapy, and a clinical psychologist. It also featured hidden camera footage of three individuals who appeared to be offering gay conversion therapy to an undercover reporter.

[2]  In determining this complaint, the members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast, and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[3]  Reuben Chapple complained that:

  • No balancing viewpoints were provided during the programme on the issue of gay conversion therapy, for example, from someone who had ‘moved from gay to straight after reorientation [and] found that beneficial and was happy with the result’.
  • There were secular psychologists who provided counselling to those wishing to alter their sexual preference, none of whom were interviewed or cited to provide balance to the story.
  • Opinion was presented as established fact throughout the programme. For example, homosexuality was referred to throughout as an ‘orientation’, rather than ‘a sexual preference’. This ignored extensive evidence from a number of individuals who had changed their sexual preference, and evidence that homosexuality was a ‘disorder of psychosexual development’.

The broadcaster’s response

[4]  TVNZ responded that:

  • The conventional, professional mental health view of gay conversion therapy is that it is unethical as it can cause harm. TVNZ cited the public statements of various organisations and agencies as evidence for this statement.1
  • In any event, commentary from various individuals featured in the programme provided the viewpoint that conversion was achievable.
  • It relied upon recognised, respected experts for the claims made in this story and it was entitled to rely on expert statements for the broadcast. For example, TVNZ cited a public statement from the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom, which stated that there was ‘no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences have any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation…’ and that ‘there is no evidence that such change [of orientation] is possible’.

The standards and applicable guidelines

[5]  The issues raised in Mr Chapple’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[6]  The balance standard (Standard 8) aims to ensure that significant points of view are presented in news, current affairs and factual programmes, to enable viewers to form their own informed and reasoned opinion about controversial issues of public importance.

[7]  Guideline 8b to the standard states that ‘no set formula’ can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial issues of public importance. This means that, depending on the context of the broadcast, it may be sufficient that differing viewpoints are pointed to or acknowledged, so that audiences are aware of the existence of competing arguments.

[8]  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.

[9]  The source of the material (including whether the programme relied on an authoritative expert) will be a relevant consideration when assessing whether the broadcaster’s efforts to ensure accuracy were reasonable.2

Our findings

[10] When we consider a complaint that broadcasting standards have been breached, we first take into account the right to freedom of expression. We may only interfere and upho ld a complaint where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society. This involves weighing the right to freedom of expression on one hand, and on the other, the harm that is alleged to have been caused by the broadcast. Where there is a potential for harm we must consider whether our intervention in limiting the exercise of the right to freedom of expression is justified.

[11]  Among the members of this Authority, we all agreed that this programme had high value in terms of the right to freedom of expression, and carried a high level of public interest. The programme highlighted an issue that might not have otherwise been known to the wider New Zealand public, reporting on an allegedly misleading practice which has been recognised to cause significant harm to vulnerable people.

[12]  We then considered whether any real or potential harm arose from the broadcast in the manner alleged in Mr Chapple’s complaint, and concluded it did not.

[13]  Looking first at the balance standard, we agreed that the programme discussed a controversial issue of public importance, namely the potential harm that could be caused through gay conversion therapy and whether this practice was occurring in New Zealand. This meant that the requirements of the balance standard were triggered in this case.

[14]  We were also satisfied that a range of significant points of view on the issue of gay conversion therapy were pointed to throughout this programme, meeting the requirements of the standard.

[15]  While the programme clearly approached the topic from the perspective that gay conversion therapy was harmful, it provided viewers with alternative perspectives, through the comments of those featured and through critical questioning by the reporter. For example:

  • ‘From his perspective [Principal of a religious counselling service] your attraction can absolutely be changed… He has never come across someone who has not been able to trace the cause of their same sex attraction and therefore undo it.’ (Counsellor)
  • When asked whether it was possible to change from having gay feelings to ‘being straight’, one of the individuals commented: ‘Yes, that’s been the experience of lots of people. Yes, absolutely. Do we force it? No.’ (Individual covertly filmed)
  • ‘…it might take a year, it might take two years or whatever, but we will support them to give Christ time to do the healing. I have a group of seven: there were three marriages out of the seven guys.’ (Individual covertly filmed)
  • When asked if it was possible to change someone’s sexuality, the clinical psychologist interviewed for the programme said: ‘It’s really difficult because people do say that they’ve changed, sometimes, but they’re trying to suppress their natural instincts and needs and they pretend that they’re someone they’re not.’
  • ‘If people are putting their hand up and they’re saying, I don’t want to be gay – what’s so wrong with helping them in this way?’ (Reporter)
  • ‘Well, all of the people we filmed say they don’t offer or practice gay conversion therapy. They say they’re there to help those who come looking for it. We also spoke to [the Principal of a religious counselling service] who said he successfully converted around 100 people, but he was too busy to talk to us on camera’. (Presenter)

[16]  Given the views expressed above, we do not consider it was necessary for the item to include positive comment directly from an individual who had experienced gay conversion therapy.

[17]  We were also satisfied that TVNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of this programme, relying on a number of authoritative sources both in New Zealand and overseas for its position that gay conversion therapy could result in harm. As we have outlined above, the programme also featured comments from individuals who claimed that change was possible, pointing viewers to the existence of other perspectives on the issue.

[18]  Overall, we do not consider viewers would have been materially misled by the programme’s references to sexual orientation, or by the omission of information, such as that provided by the complainant, which alleged sexual orientation was caused by early childhood experiences. TVNZ relied on authoritative sources for the claims made and in these circumstances, we consider that our intervention in upholding the complaint would represent an unreasonable and unjustified limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.

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

 


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judge Bill Hastings
Chair
26 February 2019


Appendix

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

1     Reuben Chapple’s formal complaint – 18 June 2018
2     TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 16 July 2018
3     Mr Chapple’s referral to the Authority – 5 August 2018
4     TVNZ’s further comments – 23 August 2018
5     Mr Chapple’s final comments – 23 August 2018


Including the Human Rights Commission, the New Zealand Association of Counsellors, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the New Zealand Psychologists Board and the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK.

2  Guideline 9d