W and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1998-168, 1998-169
- S R Maling (Chair)
- J Withers
- R McLeod
- L M Loates
ProgrammeOne Network News
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Pictures of a crashed, burning light aeroplane, the only one of its kind in New Zealand, were shown on One Network News on 28 August 1998 beginning at 6.00pm. It was reported that two people had been killed in the accident.
W complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast constituted a breach of privacy and good taste. She pointed out that as the widow of one of those killed, she had not at that stage been informed of the accident. She complained that in its haste to get the item to air, TVNZ had omitted to consider the feelings of the widows and families of the two men killed. She contended that it must have known that there had not been sufficient time to inform the families.
Apologising for the distress caused the family, TVNZ explained that it had no option but to report the crash. In its view, it was reported accurately and sensitively and avoided intruding into the family’s grief. As for the privacy complaint, it responded that as no private facts were revealed, there was no privacy breach.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, W referred the complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.
The members of the Authority have viewed the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.
A report broadcast on One Network News on 28 August 1998 beginning at 6.00pm stated that two people had been killed in a small plane accident. It was accompanied by pictures of a crashed and burning home-built aeroplane, described as the only one of its kind in New Zealand.
First the Authority records that this is an appropriate case in which to suppress the complainant’s name. The reasons will be obvious from the facts of this case and the Authority sees no need to add to the complainant’s burdens by publicising her name.
W, widow of one of the men who died in the crash, complained to TVNZ that the report breached its obligation to observe standards of good taste and decency, and breached her family’s privacy. She pointed out that by identifying the plane as the only one of its kind, she realised that it was her husband’s plane and that he had crashed in it. At the time of the broadcast she had not received confirmation that he was a victim of the crash. In fact, she reported, she was not notified by the police until two hours later. In her complaint she emphasised the devastation her family felt at being confronted with the pictures on television of the wreckage of her husband’s burning plane being doused by firemen, knowing that there was no hope of anyone having survived the crash. In particular she complained that in its haste to put the item to air, TVNZ had failed to ascertain whether the families of the victims had been informed.
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standards G2, G16 and G17 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, and under s.4(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. Standard G2 requires broadcasters:
G2 To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.
The other standards read:
G16 News should not be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress.
G17 Unnecessary intrusion in the grief and distress of victims and their families and friends must be avoided. Funeral coverage should reflect sensitivity and understanding for the feelings and privacy of the bereaved.
Broadcasters must avoid causing unwarranted distress by showing library tape of bodies or human remains which could cause distress to surviving family members. Where possible, family members should be consulted before the material is used. This standard is not intended to prevent the use of material which adds significantly to public understanding of an issue which is in the public arena and interest.
Section 4(1)(c) reads:
4(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with the privacy of the individual
TVNZ expressed its sympathy for W’s loss, and reassured her that it fully understood her anger at learning about the tragedy in this fashion. It added that it wished she had heard about the accident in a less impersonal manner.
TVNZ observed that the complaint brought into focus a problem which was faced by the electronic media in an age of near instant communication. It cited similar instances, also involving air tragedies, in which it had had to balance its responsibility to keep the public informed with the needs of the families of those involved in the accidents. With respect to the Swissair jet crash off Nova Scotia earlier this year, TVNZ pointed out that by identifying the plane, relatives and friends of those travelling across the Atlantic on other flights that day would have been reassured. In connection with the plane which crashed in Foveaux Strait, TVNZ recognised that its report gave no comfort to those related to the passengers, but emphasised that it did relieve the anxiety of anyone else with loved ones in the air that evening.
In the case of the accident involving W’s husband, it maintained that it had no option but to report the crash. It emphasised that news of the accident had already been published before One Network News went to air, and that once such news was circulating, it was the role of the news media to report it accurately. It noted that all information in the item had been checked with the police before the broadcast. It advised that the reason why a decision was made to name the type of aircraft was to relieve the anxieties of relatives of other people flying in light planes in the area that afternoon.
In TVNZ’s view, the tragedy was reported accurately and with due sensitivity, and there was nothing which exceeded currently accepted norms of decency and good taste.
Turning to standard G16, TVNZ stated that it understood the item brought great distress to the family, but suggested that the distress was caused by the fact of the accident rather than by TVNZ’s coverage of it.
With respect to standard G17, TVNZ maintained that it had complied with the requirement to avoid intruding into the grief and distress of victims and their families, and noted that the victims were not named, and no attempt had been made to approach family members.
As far as the matter of privacy was concerned, TVNZ responded that it had difficulty in ascertaining how this matter fitted into that category. It emphasised that the accident was a public occurrence and that no private facts were revealed in the item.
TVNZ concluded by observing that it wished it had not been the messenger which had brought the tragic news. However, it advised, the report had not breached any broadcasting standards.
The Authority has a great deal of sympathy for W and understands her distress at learning this news from the television footage. On the other hand, it appreciates TVNZ’s argument that it has a responsibility to report news. In its assessment of the complaint, the Authority first notes the relevant factual matters. W had been told, at about 5.45pm, that a small plane had crashed. However, when she telephoned the police to ascertain if it was her husband’s plane, they were unable to confirm the details. In fact, it was not until two hours later that she received official confirmation that it was her husband’s plane. In the meantime, the news broadcast began with the item about the crash, and the plane was identified as the only one of its kind in New Zealand. For those who knew that W’s husband flew this plane, it would have been apparent that he was likely to have been involved. In counterpoint, the broadcaster’s position was that it had pictures of the crash scene and, having confirmed the information with the police, it wished to go to air. The Authority’s task is to decide whether, in the preparation and presentation of the programme, TVNZ transgressed any broadcasting standards.
First the Authority deals with the complaint that the item exceeded the good taste standard. It concludes that although the subject matter was distressing and unpleasant, the tragedy was dealt with in an appropriate manner. It understands the anguish experienced by the victims’ families when their fears were confirmed and they realised whose plane had been involved. However, it does not find the coverage of the tragedy transgressed the standard.
Turning to standard G16, it is the Authority’s view that this standard is not applicable on these facts. It is a standard which is intended to apply, for example, to a report which can cause widespread public alarm or distress. In this instance, it is inevitable that any report of the crash would have distressed the families. However, as TVNZ pointed out, it is not the report so much as the tragedy itself which is the source of their distress. The Authority therefore declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
Next the Authority deals with the complaint that standard G17 was breached. That standard relates to material which can cause distress to family members and requires that, where possible, they should be consulted before such material is used. However, the standard is not intended to prevent the publication of material which it is in the public interest to report. The Authority notes that TVNZ had verified the details with the police before broadcast. However, the police had not notified the families of the victims. That they had not done so is, the Authority believes, the principal reason why the complainant is so aggrieved. It understands her anger at receiving news of the tragedy via a television network. However, although it is regrettable that the family had not been informed, the Authority accepts that TVNZ had a responsibility to convey the news, and it did so. It therefore concludes that this standard was not transgressed.
With respect to the complaint that the family’s privacy was breached, the Authority agrees with TVNZ that there was no privacy issue here. The fact of the crash was publicly known, and it was in the public interest to report it even though, as it transpired, W had not been informed.
In reaching its conclusion that no broadcasting standards were breached, the Authority records again its sympathy for W. It was indeed unfortunate that she had not been officially advised before the broadcast. However, on this occasion the Authority concludes the broadcaster had fulfilled its obligations by confirming the accuracy of the report with the police.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
17 December 1998
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. W’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 21 September 1998
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 12 October 1998
3. W’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 3 November 1998
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 9 November 1998
5. W’s Final Comment – 17 November 1998