BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Beckett, Cox and Warren and TVWorks Ltd - 2011-047

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainants
  • George Warren
  • John Cox
  • Mark Beckett
Number
2011-047
Programme
Campbell Live
Broadcaster
TVWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
TV3 # 3
Standards Breached

Complaints under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Campbell Live – story about “moon man” Ken Ring and his claims he predicted Christchurch earthquakes – John Campbell interviewed Mr Ring – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, law and order, controversial issues, accuracy, fairness, discrimination and denigration, children’s interests, responsible programming and violence standards

Findings
Standard 6 (fairness) – Mr Ring was treated unfairly – upheld

Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints) – Mr Ring’s predictions were a controversial issue of public importance – his views were presented within the period of current interest in other media coverage – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – complainants did not specify which aspects of the programme they considered to be inaccurate, or provide any evidence of inaccuracy – not upheld

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Broadcast

[1]  An item on Campbell Live, broadcast on TV3 at 7pm on 28 February 2011, was introduced by the programme’s host John Campbell as follows:

Ken Ring is a weather commentator who watches the moon and tides. He’s a very controversial character. He predicts earthquakes. He says he predicted last Tuesday’s one, and he’s predicting another one will hit on March the 20th. His opinions are followed by thousands of people and pooh-poohed by many, many sceptics. We have not found a single scientist, geologist, or seismologist who believes in Ken Ring’s theories. Not one. But so many of you have emailed us and phoned us about his predictions of this Christchurch earthquake that we felt obliged to look into his claims and the counterclaims. Shortly we’ll be talking to Ken Ring and to GNS scientist Kelvin Berryman live. But first [our reporter] talked to three families who believe in Ring’s opinions, followed by [another reporter] with the science of earthquakes.

[2]  During the pre-recorded item, a reporter interviewed members of three families about their preparations based on Mr Ring’s predictions. She said, “So what’s his theory? Ring believes that planet alignment, in this case Jupiter and Saturn, line up each side of Earth. When the moon is full the tides are heavy and those king tides activate the tectonic plates. It’s not scientific and we couldn’t find any geologist who’d support it.” She then said that “the upside is that [these families] were fully prepared for last week’s quake”.

[3]  Another reporter then discussed scientists’ view of what caused the two Christchurch earthquakes.

[4]  Following the pre-recorded item, Mr Campbell interviewed Mr Ring. Throughout the interview, he frequently interrupted Mr Ring and talked over the top of him, and was clearly attempting to discredit Mr Ring’s theories.

Complaints

[5]  Mark Beckett, John Cox and George Warren made formal complaints to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programme breached broadcasting standards.

Mark Beckett’s complaint

[6]  Mr Beckett argued that during the interview Mr Campbell was “degrading, rude, and he continually shouted down Mr Ring”, as well as questioning Mr Ring’s qualifications. He considered that Mr Campbell was “factually incorrect” regarding the number of earthquakes in Christchurch since the September quake and that his attempts to discredit Mr Ring were inaccurate. Mr Beckett argued that these aspects of the programme breached standards relating to good taste and decency, controversial issues, accuracy, fairness and responsible programming.

John Cox’s complaint

[7]  Mr Cox was of the view that Mr Campbell’s interview was “heavy-handed, rude and intimidating” and that he “openly ridiculed his guest, misrepresented Mr Ring’s opinions, did not give him the opportunity to present the views himself, and misrepresented scientific evidence on his predictions”.

[8]  Mr Cox argued that the programme breached Standard 4 (controversial issues) because it failed to give Mr Ring a reasonable opportunity to present his views. He considered that Mr Ring was “insulted, badgered and hounded, and misrepresented”, and that the evidence for and against his predictions was also misrepresented.

[9]  With regard to accuracy, Mr Cox contended that the programme failed to accurately present Mr Ring’s views or the views of other scientists who were quoted. He considered that the programme implied that the one or two scientists quoted were representative of scientific thought, and that Mr Campbell could not find a single scientist who supported Mr Ring, but it did not indicate how many scientists were approached. He argued that the programme implied that scientists who predicted continuing aftershocks up to magnitude 5 were correct, and that Mr Ring was wrong to predict a big earthquake between 18 and 25 February. Mr Cox noted that Mr Ring was correct as there was a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on 22 February.

[10]  Mr Cox argued that “the badgering and insulting way Mr Ring was interviewed,” and the failure to accurately report Mr Ring’s views or the correctness of his predictions, breached Standard 6 (fairness). He considered that the programme denigrated Mr Ring on the basis of his expression of his beliefs relating to earthquake predictions, in breach of Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration). Mr Cox also argued that the failure to accurately represent Mr Ring’s views would have deceived and disadvantaged viewers in breach of Standard 8 (responsible programming).

[11]  Mr Cox submitted that the broadcaster should apologise to Mr Ring, publish a timeline of Mr Ring’s predictions along with dates and details of earthquakes that occurred, and publish a summary of the evidence for and against the accuracy of earthquake predictions based on Mr Ring’s methods.

George Warren’s complaint

[12]  Mr Warren argued that Mr Campbell “bullied and shouted down” Mr Ring and that Mr Ring was subjected to a “verbal bashing” and called a “charlatan” without being given a fair opportunity to defend his position. He considered that the programme breached standards relating to good taste and decency, law and order, controversial issues, fairness, discrimination and denigration, responsible programming, children’s interests and violence.

Standards

[13]  TVWorks assessed the complaints under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Standard 4 Controversial Issues – Viewpoints

When discussing controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or 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.

Standard 5 Accuracy

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/or
  • does not mislead.
Standard 6 Fairness

Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainants

[14]  Looking first at Standard 4, TVWorks accepted that Mr Ring’s predictions had become a controversial issue of public importance for the reasons described by Mr Campbell in the introduction for the item, and in the interview.

[15]  The broadcaster maintained that significant points of view on that issue were presented within the period of current interest. It noted that the pre-recorded item which preceded Mr Ring’s interview included comments from people who believed in Mr Ring’s predictions, and that it also covered scientific findings in relation to the Christchurch earthquakes. TVWorks was of the view that, despite being interrupted during his interview, Mr Ring “still managed to argue some points and had the opportunity to address some of the host’s questions that addressed some of his specific predictions”. The broadcaster noted that Campbell Live ran a story on 16 March investigating whether there was any scientific basis for Mr Ring’s predictions as that day the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor had “rubbished [his] predictions”. Campbell Live ran another story on 21 March comparing actual seismic activity in Christchurch and the claims made by Mr Ring. Finally, TVWorks stated that the day after Mr Ring’s interview he received an apology from the executive producer of Campbell Live and from Mr Campbell, and Mr Ring was given the opportunity to appear again on the programme.

[16]  TVWorks therefore concluded that significant points of view were presented, and reasonable opportunities were given to Mr Ring to present his views, within the period of current interest following the 22 February earthquake. It declined to uphold the complaints under Standard 4.

[17]  Turning to accuracy, the broadcaster argued that “all content in the 28 February interview was clearly demarcated as either opinion (as in John Campbell’s opinion of Ken Ring’s theories) or fact (such as the record of Ken Ring’s predictions”. It said that Standard 5 did not apply to opinion, and that it was “confident that Campbell Live can support the factual content of the broadcast with written content from websites and media interviews”. TVWorks therefore declined to uphold the complaints under Standard 5.

[18]  The broadcaster considered that the complainants’ main concerns were matters of fairness. It said that “Both John Campbell and other Campbell Live staff came to the conclusion soon after the interview that Mr Ring had been treated unfairly.” TVWorks provided the following comments from the executive producer to informal complaints received, which it considered “demonstrates the attitude and efforts that the programme makers made to correct the situation”:

You are right; [Mr Campbell] was rude to Mr Ring. He did not give our invited guest an opportunity to speak.

Following the programme, both [Mr Campbell] and I phoned Mr Ring to apologise and our apologies were accepted. We invited Mr Ring on our programme again at that time. I also offered Mr Ring five minutes of uninterrupted airtime without [Mr Campbell] to have his say. Mr Ring was unavailable due to a commitment in Australia but is considering appearing at a later date.

[Mr Campbell] also made both a public apology to our viewers and a public apology to Mr Ring the following night to apologise for any offence caused.

[19]  TVWorks emphasised that Mr Campbell himself wrote and broadcast his own on-air apology in the next episode following the interview. Near the beginning of Campbell Live on 1 March, Mr Campbell said:

But first briefly a personal note. Last night we had Ken Ring on the programme. It will have been apparent to anyone watching that I don't believe he can predict earthquakes. Nor do any of the scientists here. But many people I’ve spoken to in the city do, and Mr Ring’s predictions terrify them. After a week here watching the city shouldering the burden of last Tuesday I believe with all my heart that Christchurch doesn’t need that kind of stress. They are hurting enough already here. But I should have kept my heart out of it, or kept it under control, and as many of you have pointed out I should have let Mr Ring speak. You’re right, I should have. He was our guest. I phoned Mr Ring to personally apologise, I repeat that apology to him now and I want to extend it to everyone watching who was offended by my treatment of Mr Ring. I am sincerely sorry. We did invite Mr Ring back onto the programme tonight promising him a far fairer hearing and at length. He declined.

[20]  TVWorks maintained that Mr Ring accepted the personal apology from Mr Campbell and for the reasons outlined above did not accept Campbell Live’s offer of another interview.

[21]  The broadcaster therefore concluded that “the programme makers made significant efforts to address the error that developed live on air in a timely and sincere manner and that overall, Mr Ring was treated fairly”.

Referrals to the Authority

[22]  Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Beckett, Mr Cox and Mr Warren referred their complaints to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Mr Beckett’s referral

[23]  Mr Beckett disagreed that Mr Ring was given time to present his theories, and maintained that Mr Campbell “badgered, talked down and interjected with other comments, which distracted both the viewer and Mr Ring”. He noted that TVWorks had accepted that Mr Ring was treated unfairly in the interview, but he was of the view that Mr Campbell’s apology the following night “came across as insincere and had various excuses woven into it in an attempt to justify the behaviour”.

[24]  Mr Beckett said that while he understood Campbell Live’s intention to allay the fears of some members of the public, TVWorks should have ensured viewers’ “right to balanced journalism in order to make informed choices”.

Mr Cox’s referral

[25]  Mr Cox maintained that Mr Campbell’s treatment of Mr Ring was “dismissive and arrogant” and that he did not give Mr Ring an opportunity to explain his theory. Rather, Mr Campbell inaccurately summarised Mr Ring’s theory, he said, and was “rude and condescending”. Mr Cox considered that Mr Campbell falsely claimed that Mr Ring had no support and that his theories were dismissed by all scientists, and did not give Mr Ring a chance to respond to these attacks. The complainant noted that TVWorks’ response was inconsistent in that it accepted that Mr Ring had been treated unfairly, yet declined to uphold the complaint. Mr Cox maintained that the programme breached Standards 4, 5 and 6.

Mr Warren’s referral

[26]  Mr Warren maintained that Mr Ring was treated unfairly, and that he was “abused” and called a “charlatan”. He considered that only Mr Campbell was allowed to give his opinion, and not Mr Ring, so the interview was one-sided.

Authority’s Determination

[27]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about as well as Mr Campbell’s apology, and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Preliminary Matter

[28]  We note that in their complaints Mr Beckett, Mr Cox and Mr Warren nominated standards relating to good taste and decency, law and order, controversial issues, accuracy, fairness, discrimination and denigration, responsible programming, children’s interests and violence. We agree with TVWorks’ approach in assessing the complaints under the most relevant standards, Standards 4, 5 and 6. Accordingly, we have limited our determination to those standards.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[29]  Standard 6 states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. The complainants argued that Mr Campbell’s treatment of Mr Ring during the interview was unfair, and that Mr Ring was not given a fair opportunity to present his views.

[30]  We agree with the complainants that Mr Ring was treated unfairly in this respect. Having put questions to Mr Ring, Mr Campbell did not allow him a fair opportunity to respond and to put forward his perspective. Mr Campbell interrupted Mr Ring throughout the interview, and his manner towards him was aggressive and condescending. In circumstances where Mr Ring’s predictions had created considerable controversy, and he was being accused of causing distress for already very distressed and frightened Christchurch residents, it was important, in the interests of fairness, that he be given a reasonable chance to respond.

[31]  TVWorks accepted in its decision that Mr Ring was treated unfairly, but did not uphold the Standard 6 complaints because it considered that Campbell Live adequately remedied the unfairness by broadcasting an apology to viewers and to Mr Ring the following evening, and by personally apologising to Mr Ring. While we consider that TVWorks acted commendably in this respect, we note that Standard 6 does not allow for fairness to be achieved across programmes; fairness must be assessed only in relation to the programme subject to complaint.

[32]  Having reached the conclusion that Mr Ring was treated unfairly, we must consider whether to uphold the complaints as a breach of Standard 6.

[33]  In Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd,1 the Authority determined that upholding a complaint under Standard 6 would be prescribed by law and a justified limitation on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression as required by section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act. In that decision, the Authority described the objective of Standard 6 in the following terms:

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.

[34]  We acknowledge that, in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, there was public interest in questioning Mr Ring’s claims. However, a finding that Standard 6 was breached would not restrict the broadcaster’s ability in this respect. Rather, it would ensure that, when a broadcaster discusses an individual’s views in this manner, that individual is dealt with justly and fairly, and is given a reasonable opportunity to comment.

[35]  In this respect, upholding the complaint clearly promotes the objective of Standard 6, and places a justified and reasonable limit on TVWorks’ freedom of expression. Accordingly, we uphold the complaint that Campbell Live breached Standard 6.

Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints)

[36]  Standard 4 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.

[37]  We acknowledge that following the Christchurch earthquakes, Mr Ring’s theories and predictions had caused considerable controversy, because of the distress they were causing for some people. We therefore find that Campbell Live discussed a controversial issue of public importance.

[38]  Standard 4 allows for balance to be achieved within the period of current interest. Mr Ring’s theories were extensively covered in the media following the earthquakes, and we therefore consider that viewers could reasonably be expected to have a broad understanding of his views, and of significant perspectives on the issue.

[39]  Accordingly, we find that Standard 4 was not breached.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[40]  Standard 5 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.

[41]  The complainants did not specify any statements of fact in the programme that they considered to be inaccurate, and did not provide any evidence to support their view that the programme was inaccurate or would have misled viewers.

[42]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 5 complaints.

 

For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by TVWorks Ltd of Campbell Live on 28 February 2011 breached Standard 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[43]  Having upheld part of the complaint, we may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. Having regard to the fact that TVWorks and Campbell Live acted promptly and appropriately following the broadcast to redress the unfairness to Mr Ring, we have reached the view that in all the circumstances the publication of our decision is sufficient and no order is warranted.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
8 July 2011

Appendix

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

Mark Beckett’s complaint

1                  Mark Beckett’s formal complaint – 1 March 2011

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 15 April 2011

3                 Mr Beckett’s referral to the Authority – 15 April 2011

4                 TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 4 May 2011

John Cox’s complaint

1                  John Cox’s formal complaint – 6 March 2011

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 15 April 2011

3                 Mr Cox’s referral to the Authority – 17 April 2011

4                 TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 6 May 2011

George Warren’s complaint

1                  George Warren’s formal complaint – 14 March 2011

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 15 April 2011

3                 Mr Warren’s referral to the Authority – 9 May 2011

4                 TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 13 May 2011


1Decision No. 2008-014