Allison and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1999-080
- S R Maling (Chair)
- J Withers
- R McLeod
- L M Loates
- Robert Allison
ProgrammeOne Network News
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
The lead story on One Network News on 14 February 1999 at 6.00pm reported a fatality at Western Springs Speedway in Auckland. Footage of the accident showed a spectacular crash before the driver was flung out, crushed by his car and killed. That footage was repeated during the item.
Mr Allison of Nelson complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the footage was offensive, distasteful, and showed a callous disregard for those close to the victim and for all viewers. He objected to its graphic nature and the fact that it was shown without warning during early evening family viewing time.
TVNZ responded that the item’s emphasis was on how the accident had occurred and why the driver’s safety harness had failed. The accidental death was, it contended, a matter of public concern and interest, particularly as it occurred at a public event. It declined to uphold the complaint that the item exceeded accepted norms of decency and good taste, arguing that it had reported the event accurately, responsibly and considerately. It also declined to uphold the complaint that the item’s content was too graphic and distressing for the early evening news broadcast.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Allison referred the complaint 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 complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is summarised in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
A news item on One Network News broadcast on 14 February 1999 at 6.00pm showed the accidental death of a driver at the Western Springs Speedway in Auckland. The footage showed the accident occurring, the driver being flung from the car and crushed to death. The footage was included in the news preview, and repeated three times during the item. The report focused on why, when the driver had been strapped into a sophisticated safety harness, he had been flung out of his car when it crashed.
Mr Allison, who described himself as a long-time motor sport fan, complained to TVNZ that the footage of the accident had shocked him and left him totally aghast. In his view it was not acceptable to show a man being crushed to death by his car and sustaining fatal injuries. He asked why there had been no warning in the introduction to the item, noting that the driver had been clearly visible and the script had made it clear what was being portrayed. What was worse, he said, was that the footage was repeated, again with no warning.
Mr Allison expressed his concern that the item was shown at a time when young children would be watching television. He also questioned whether TVNZ had given thought to the impact of the item on the victim’s family and friends.
In concluding, Mr Allison acknowledged that the death at a speedway meeting was a newsworthy event. However he believed it would have sufficed to have shown the crash itself without showing the driving being flung into the path of the car. He added:
"What was gained by showing this man’s grisly end? All I can think of is TVNZ dining out on the shock value in the misguided belief that the average Kiwi is some kind of ghoul."
He cautioned TVNZ to remember that television was a powerful medium and that it had to take responsibility for what was aired.
In its response, TVNZ advised that it had considered the complaint under standards G2 and V12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. 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 standard reads:
V12 The treatment in news, current affairs and documentary programmes of violent and distressing material calls for careful editorial discernment as to the extent of graphic detail carried. Should the use of violent and distressing material be considered relevant and essential to the proper understanding of the incident or event being portrayed, an appropriate prior warning must be considered.
Particular care must be taken with graphic material which portrays especially disturbing images, such as:
ill-treatment of people or animals
close-ups of dead and mutilated bodies of people or animals
views of people in extreme pain or distress, or at the moment of death
violence directed at children or children in distress
Material shown in the late evening may be more graphic than that shown during general viewing times.
The death of the driver was, TVNZ began, intrinsically newsworthy, particularly as it occurred at a public event where the victim was "providing excitement and entertainment for the crowd". It denied that showing a fatal motor accident at a motor sports event was something new and "reprehensible".
TVNZ emphasised that the report focused on how the accident had occurred and why the driver was thrown from a safety harness which was meant to be failsafe. It noted that the pictures were not in close up and were indistinct in nature. However, it added, they indicated the force of the accident.
In response to the complaint that no warnings were given, TVNZ responded that it had to be judicious in its use of warnings lest viewers become cavalier about them. In this case, it argued, the pictures showed the accident at a distance and the imagery was indistinct. It suggested that as far as imagery was concerned, many road accident scenes were more graphic than the pictures shown in this item, as were pictures from overseas relating to war, famine and natural disasters.
TVNZ reported that "of course" it had taken into account the effect of the pictures on the family and friends of the victim. It made the point that in every circumstance when an accident was reported, there were friends and relatives, but that did not mean the reports could not be broadcast.
In reference to standard G2, TVNZ did not consider the coverage exceeded norms of decency and taste. It believed the item reported the event accurately, responsibly and with a proper degree of respect and sympathy for the victim.
As far as standard V12 was concerned, it believed that the absence of any close up material and the careful editing of the shot demonstrated that particular care had been taken when showing this material.
TVNZ acknowledged the distress the item had caused Mr Allison but concluded that the broadcast had breached no broadcasting standards.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Allison acknowledged that the driver’s death was newsworthy, but said he did not agree that it was necessary to show him being flung from his car and crushed.
Mr Allison suggested that TVNZ’s response that the matter was in the public interest had missed the crux of his complaint. He concurred that in the interests of safety in the sport such incidents should be made public. However, he asked, how did the shots of the driver being flung from his car and crushed contribute to this understanding? He suggested that if the focus of the story was the safety issues, it could have opened with shots of a safety harness and an explanation of what was thought to have gone wrong.
Mr Allison said that he suspected the answer was that shots of a safety harness were not as spectacular as footage of a man’s death. He wrote:
"I believe TVNZ opened its item with that footage because it made good television, not because it felt a journalistic obligation to heighten safety awareness among speedway drivers or the public at large."
"Watching the footage did not in any way help me understand the safety issue at hand."
"TVNZ says the pictures were indistinct and not in close up. Nevertheless, the driver’s body was obvious. What was happening was obvious. What the viewers saw was a man dying."
In response to TVNZ’s argument that it used warnings sparingly, Mr Allison emphasised that the early hour of the broadcast, and the fact that children were around necessitated some kind of warning.
As for TVNZ’s argument that accidents could not go unreported merely out of deference to the families, Mr Allison responded that he had never suggested such a thing. However, he added, how an accident was reported should be taken into consideration. In his view, the shot of the accident was gratuitous.
Mr Allison also took issue with TVNZ’s argument that the footage had been carefully edited, particularly as, he noted, it had been repeated. To TVNZ’s argument that he was the only complainant, Mr Allison assured the Authority that the item had been a talking point among his circle of friends. He added that every other motor sports enthusiast to whom he had spoken shared his disgust at the item.
Mr Allison emphasised that he did not want the scenes shown in the 14 February news item to become commonplace. To TVNZ’s argument that worse footage came from road accidents, he responded that he had never seen footage of a fatal accident showing a person as they died. He said he remained firmly of the opinion that New Zealanders did not wish to see people dying on their screens.
When it responded to the Authority, TVNZ described the item as a "sad but newsworthy" event, which it considered had been covered accurately and without prurience.
To Mr Allison’s question as to why the item had not commenced with the shots of a safety harness, TVNZ responded that the answer was that the context had to be established before the issue was discussed. It suggested there would have been no issue had a man not been killed in the circumstances shown.
On the issue of children and families watching, TVNZ emphasised that this was a news bulletin and that responsible reporting of news frequently involved distressing material. It concluded that parents who did not want their children to see news events had the right to stop them doing so. It added that it was not TVNZ’s role to be a child minder.
In his final comment, Mr Allison reiterated that his complaint did not focus on the newsworthiness of the report, or on TVNZ’s right to report it. His concern, he said, was directed at how the news was presented and the necessity for TVNZ to have repeated the footage of the accident.
Mr Allison also challenged TVNZ’s argument that the footage contributed to an understanding of the concerns raised about the failure of the safety harness. That the footage was repeated more than once confirmed his opinion that its purpose was simply to add drama, he said. He also expressed mystification as to TVNZ’s reason for not preceding the item with a warning.
The Authority’s Findings
The Authority acknowledges the competing arguments relating to the broadcast of footage showing this fatal accident. On the one hand, it was newsworthy because it occurred at a local speedway and there was a safety issue raised when the driver’s safety harness appeared to have failed, thus causing him to have been flung from his car when it flipped over. However, on the other hand, it was a sensitive matter to be broadcast in the early evening news bulletin as it showed the man being thrown out of the car and the moment of impact when it landed on top of him and killed him. Furthermore, it was repeated three times during the item after having been featured in the news headlines.
The first issue for the Authority is whether the broadcast breached standard G2, which requires broadcasters to observe standards of good taste and decency. There is no general guideline about the suitability of such footage and, as with all complaints alleging a breach of good taste, contextual factors are of importance. On this occasion, the footage showed a fatal accident when it occurred at a local speedway. There was, therefore, a high likelihood that the television audience included people who knew the victim. Although filmed from a distance, the footage was broadcast a total of four times during the broadcast, including once in the news headlines. By the time of the third and fourth repeats of the footage, viewers would have been in little doubt as to which object was the man and how he was killed. Furthermore, the item was placed early in the news bulletin and was not preceded by a warning. These matters are factors which potentially could result in a breach of the standard.
Against this, the Authority notes that the accident was filmed from a distance, that it was not immediately clear which of the objects that were flung from the car was the man, and that there were no shots of the aftermath of the accident. Furthermore, as TVNZ has described, the commentary raised an issue about the failure of the safety harness and reported that officials were mystified as to why the driver had not been restrained when the car flipped. As it was a well patronised local event the Authority acknowledges that it was of interest to viewers, particularly as the race track apparently had a good safety record.
Taking these factors into account, the Authority concludes that on balance there was no breach of the good taste standard on this occasion. However, although it falls short of a breach, it does signal its disquiet about what it considers was unnecessary repetition of the footage of the fatal accident.
Next the Authority turns to the complaint that standard V12 was breached. That standard requires broadcasters to use "careful editorial discernment" and care when showing disturbing images such as a person at the moment of death. The Authority does not consider the footage of the accident crosses the threshold to breach this standard, because although it recorded a distressing and tragic accident and it was made abundantly clear that a man was killed, the accident was filmed from a distance and no details were discernible. Accordingly it declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
24 June 1999
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
Mr Robert Allison’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 28 February 1999
TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 17 March 1999
Mr Allison’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 April 1999
TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 27 April 1999
Mr Allison’s Final Comment – 25 May 1999