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Benson-Pope and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2006-023

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • The Hon David Benson-Pope
Number
2006-023
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – reported allegations that during his time as a teacher, Cabinet Minister David Benson-Pope was “sleazy” and made female students stand outside in their nighties as punishment at a school camp – included comments from Mr Benson-Pope – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – controversial issue of public importance whether Mr Benson-Pope had acted inappropriately towards female students during his time as a teacher – significant perspectives were aired during period of current interest – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccuracies or misleading impressions – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – door-stepping interview not unfair – reporter entitled to approach Cabinet Minister – overall Mr Benson-Pope treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An item on One News on TV One at 6pm on 20 February 2006 described allegations made about the actions of a Cabinet Minister, the Hon David Benson-Pope, during his time as a teacher at Bayfield High School. The introduction to the item said:

Cabinet Minister David Benson-Pope’s political career continues to be haunted by his former job as a school teacher. Political opponents are again calling for his resignation after claims he used to punish female students by making them stand in the freezing cold in just their nighties.

[2] The item reported that “fresh allegations” had surfaced from a former female student’s statement to the police while they were investigating two allegations of criminal conduct against Mr Benson-Pope. The item said:

The former student claims David Benson-Pope was always “sleazy if he could be” and that he seemed to “thrive on it” and that she and others felt he was always staring at female students’ legs beneath their desks. She also alleges Benson-Pope, at a camp in 1982, punished a group of girls for talking after lights out by telling them to take off surplus clothing like jerseys and track pants and making them stand outside wearing just nighties. She claims Mr Benson-Pope stood and watched for an hour, as they stood in the freezing cold.

[3] The item showed the One News reporter approaching Mr Benson-Pope for comment about the allegations. Mr Benson-Pope stated that he did not accept suggestions that standing girls outside in their nighties was untoward, and said:

There’s nothing new and that material was all with the police. It was in the public domain some months before Christmas and I’ve certainly got no further comment to make.

I’ve never denied that I stood children outside when they were disruptive in the evening, I never did so on my own and I always did so in terms of school policy.

[4] The item contained a brief comment from National MP Judith Collins who stated that Mr Benson-Pope was “not fit for the job of Minister of Social Development”. It also reported that one of the “many former students” that had supported Mr Benson-Pope had told the reporter that the latest allegations were “rubbish”.

Complaint

[5] Through his press secretary, David Benson-Pope complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair. He argued that the item had made serious allegations that impugned his character. Further, he added that One News had not reported relevant facts and contextual information in its possession, which had led to the item being “extremely misleading, if not deceptive”.

[6] In the complainant’s view, the item dealt with two main issues. First, it had raised the issue of camp discipline, stating that Mr Benson-Pope had punished students by making them stand outside in their nighties. The complainant submitted that the item had wrongly led viewers to believe that standing pupils outside in their night attire was:

  • Mr Benson-Pope’s personal form of punishment (not school policy)
  • applied only to girls
  • improper
  • an “allegation” that had just been “discovered”.

[7] Further, Mr Benson-Pope said that the news item had implied a lewd motive to this form of discipline. This had been compounded by the reporter implying that the practice was “untoward”, he said.

[8] Mr Benson-Pope stated that the reporter had telephoned his office during the day for comment, but had not put any specific allegations to him. The reporter had not requested an interview prior to “ambushing him at a scheduled appointment”, he said. The complainant argued that the visual impact of this exchange would have left viewers with the impression that Mr Benson-Pope was failing to talk to the media, and was only responding because he had somehow been caught in the open. In fact, he had been entering a function where he was the main speaker, and could not stop. Mr Benson-Pope submitted that the impression created by the item was unfair to him.

[9] In Mr Benson-Pope’s view, the matters raised by the item were “far too serious for a reporter to deal with by door-stepping”. He said that TVNZ had been in possession of a police file which contained statements from Bayfield High School teachers that this method of discipline was normal school policy, and was used commonly by teachers and parents at camps. The statements showed that it was always done in the presence of more than one adult (including a female teacher with regard to girls) and applied equally to boys and girls.

[10] The complainant stated that the day prior to the broadcast, his press secretary had sent the reporter the police file references of 20 teachers who clearly stated that the discipline was standard school policy. The complainant said:

It can only be assumed that TVNZ deliberately suppressed this information, as it would have run counter to the salacious tone of the news item as broadcast.

[11] The complainant argued that, while interviewing him, the reporter had implied that Mr Benson-Pope had denied that he had practiced that form of discipline. Because of this, Mr Benson-Pope had felt compelled to head this assertion off by stating that he had “never denied” that he stood children outside. This inference was extremely unfair, he said, because that form of discipline was well documented in the police file and was a matter of public record. Moreover, the information given to the reporter by Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary had clearly negated any suggestion that Mr Benson-Pope had denied disciplining students in that manner.

[12] Turning to the second issue dealt with in the item, Mr Benson-Pope submitted that the news item had raised serious allegations by a former student about his conduct. These were that Mr Benson-Pope:

  • was “always sleazy if he could be”
  • “seemed to thrive on it”
  • “she and others felt he was always staring at female students’ legs beneath their desks”.

[13] The complainant maintained that by presenting these allegations both visually and verbally, TVNZ had given the allegations prominence and impact. He argued that TVNZ had treated the allegations as fact, and this had been emphasised by stating that the information had been provided to the police. Mr Benson-Pope said, however, that TVNZ had provided no information to suggest that the person making the allegations had been interviewed by TVNZ, that her credibility or motivation had been checked, or that TVNZ had obtained independent corroboration of the allegations.

[14] Mr Benson-Pope contended that TVNZ had relied exclusively on the fact that the allegations were included in a police statement, but had failed to report that no other police statements corroborated the former student’s allegations. This was “unbalanced in the extreme”, he said, and the fact that the allegations were from a police statement did not relieve TVNZ of its obligations under broadcasting standards.

[15] The complainant argued that the statement from a former student who thought the allegations were “rubbish” had not been given the same prominence as the allegations themselves. It appeared to have been added “almost as an after-thought”, he said, and this suggested that TVNZ either made no attempt to corroborate the story, or was unable to. Mr Benson-Pope wrote:

TVNZ had been in possession of a large number of statements by former students and teachers (contained in the police files), which not only did not back up the allegations of this individual, but discredited them.

…This must have raised serious questions as to the credibility of the person on whom TVNZ was relying as the source of the allegations.

[16] Mr Benson-Pope maintained that TVNZ had broadcast very selective information from the police files in the form of serious allegations, contrary to broadcasting standards.

Standards

[17] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[18] TVNZ noted that, while the material included in the item formed part of the larger police file covering allegations made in 2005, the descriptions relevant to the school camp were essentially new to the public at large. The broadcaster observed that the item had opened with the words “Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope, back in the firing line…”. It said that this was essentially true because the issue had become a matter of wide public interest that day through the publication of the Investigate article quoting the police statement made by the former student.

[19] TVNZ referred to Mr Benson-Pope’s claim that the item wrongly led viewers to believe that “the standing of pupils outside in their night attire” was a mode of punishment particular to him. It observed that Mr Benson-Pope had been given an opportunity to respond to this suggestion, and the item had included his statement that “I never did so on my own, and I always did it in terms of the school policy”.

[20] Referring to the allegation that Mr Benson-Pope was “ambushed” by the reporter and that the matter was too serious for door-stepping, TVNZ contended that door-stepping was a legitimate method of gathering balancing comment when all other options had been exhausted. In this case, the complainant’s press secretary had been asked whether Mr Benson-Pope would “front up today” but was told that he would not, and instead supplied a quote for attribution.

[21] TVNZ agreed that the matters under discussion could not thoroughly be dealt with in a door-stepping interview, but it said that after Mr Benson-Pope had declined all other opportunities to respond in a more extended and detailed form, it was better than not having an interview at all. The broadcaster noted that Mr Benson-Pope had given an interview some days after the broadcast in which he had supplied a number of details which may have led to a change in perception about the allegations among the public at large. However, it said, on 20 February the reporter could only work with what he had been able to glean from the door-stepping interview.

[22] Turning to Standard 4 (balance), TVNZ maintained that the news item was “internally balanced”. The reporter had made reasonable efforts to obtain an interview with Mr Benson-Pope through his press secretary. He had also provided reasonable opportunities for Mr Benson-Pope to give a response when he was approached, it said.

[23] The broadcaster also noted that Standard 4 acknowledges that balance can be further achieved in “other programmes within the period of current interest”. TVNZ stated that it had provided Mr Benson-Pope with every opportunity to express his opinions and describe his recall of events throughout the controversy surrounding his conduct.

[24] Another balancing factor, TVNZ asserted, was the reference to one of Mr Benson-Pope’s former students who described the allegations as “rubbish”. The broadcaster disagreed with the complainant’s statement that this reference was “almost an after-thought”. It also maintained that political balance had been achieved by including a comment from the National Party’s spokesperson.

[25] Maintaining that One News had treated the allegations as allegations, and not as fact, TVNZ stated that Standard 5 (accuracy) had not been breached. The item truthfully and accurately reflected the principal allegations which were “renewed and highlighted in the Investigate article”. It was not appropriate, TVNZ stated, for a news programme to take a position on news events. It observed that the item neither agreed nor disagreed with the allegations being made; it had simply reported them and asked Mr Benson-Pope to respond.

[26] The broadcaster expressed its surprise at the complainant’s objection to the allegations being given “prominence and impact with the aid of graphics”. It noted that television was a visual medium and it was routine for quotes from evidence of statements to be displayed by on-screen graphics. TVNZ observed that each of the graphics to which the complainant referred had the word “allegations” prominently displayed at the top.

[27] TVNZ also declined to uphold the Standard 6 (fairness) complaint. It noted that Mr Benson-Pope had been given the opportunity to respond to the questions raised by the allegations. While a pre-arranged interview would have been preferable, TVNZ said, news media had been led to believe by Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary that no such interviews were available. The door-stepping technique had left viewers in no doubt that the complainant was vigorously denying the allegations, it said.

Referral to the Authority

[28] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Benson-Pope referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He disagreed with TVNZ’s assertion that Mr Benson-Pope had been given every opportunity to respond, stating that this was impossible because the interview had been a door-stepping exercise.

[29] The complainant referred to TVNZ’s argument that a door-stepping interview was necessary because all other options had been exhausted. He stated that TVNZ had been given the opportunity to put questions to him through his press secretary. The fact that the reporter had made no attempt to do this indicated that he did not wish to give Mr Benson-Pope advance notice of the questions he would ask. This was backed up by the fact that the reporter chose to ignore relevant material that he had been given, the complainant said.

[30] With respect to Standard 4 (balance), the complainant maintained that the allegations were not balanced by including the views of a former student who thought they were “rubbish”.

[31] Mr Benson-Pope did not accept that by merely accurately reporting the allegations of a particular student, TVNZ had fulfilled its obligations with regard to Standard 5 (accuracy). The complainant noted that TVNZ had not provided any information about what steps it had taken to corroborate the serious allegations reported in the item.

[32] Mr Benson-Pope noted that a phone call to a current Bayfield High teacher would have revealed that standing students outside at night was still regarded as an appropriate form of discipline. He said:

That no efforts were made to make the simplest of enquiries, or to even read relevant documents in TVNZ’s possession, indicate that TVNZ were more interested in creating a salacious news item than accurately and fairly reporting the news in a balanced way….

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[33] The broadcaster stated that it found “astonishing” Mr Benson-Pope’s statement that TVNZ had the opportunity to put questions to him through his press secretary. It said:

As the Authority will be aware the preference of any political journalist serving the public interest is to ask questions of the Minister directly – not through an intermediary. It is our understanding that the door-stepping interview was undertaken only after the press secretary had declined a request from the reporter that Mr Benson-Pope “front up today”. That the press secretary declined such a request, demonstrates that the reporter – acting in the public interest – did request an interview.

[34] TVNZ noted that Mr Benson-Pope appeared quite willing to answer questions and that the door-stepping interview was in fact reasonably lengthy, amicable and productive. It also pointed out that at the time of the broadcast, the matters covered in the news item were the subject of wide media coverage.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[35] Through his lawyer, Mr Benson-Pope stated that the item was “a concoction and fabrication”, and an example of the lengths the media would go in order to create a story. Mr Benson-Pope said that the item contained a false or fabricated claim as to why opposition politicians were calling for Mr Benson-Pope’s resignation, and a misleading inference that the police had decided not to prosecute Mr Benson-Pope in respect of the “fresh allegations”. It had included a comment from Judith Collins which did not relate to the allegations, but seemed to be inserted to raise the spectre of Mr Benson-Pope being “deceitful”, he said.

[36] Mr Benson-Pope turned to consider each of his specific concerns.

Misleading statement that fresh allegations had surfaced

[37] Despite Mr Benson-Pope’s statements that there was nothing new about the allegations, he noted that the reporter had still described them as “fresh allegations” which had “surfaced”. This was misleading, Mr Benson-Pope contended, because the information had been made available to TVNZ, and virtually all the media in New Zealand, months prior to the item.

Misleading inference that Mr Benson-Pope had acted outside school policy, had denied implementing the policies, and his conduct was untoward

[38] Mr Benson-Pope reiterated that his press secretary had “bent over backwards” to ensure that the One News reporter understood that Mr Benson-Pope did not deny, and had never denied, implementing the school discipline policy at school camps. The press secretary had referred the reporter to a number of statements on the police file as well as Mr Benson-Pope’s police interview where he had fully acknowledged implementing the school policy. Despite this, he said, TVNZ had encouraged the viewer to draw the inference that Mr Benson-Pope had denied it. The reporter had asked Mr Benson-Pope “do you deny…”, to which he had replied “I’ve never denied…”.

Highly offensive but unsubstantiated claim that Mr Benson-Pope was “sleazy”

[39] Mr Benson-Pope contended that the allegation that he had been “sleazy” had not been raised by the reporter either prior to the interview, or indeed in the course of the interview. He wrote that he had been given no opportunity to address or rebut the claim, and had only become aware of it when the news item was broadcast. He maintained that this was a “destructive and harmful allegation” which should have at least been put to him during the door-stepping interview.

[40] Mr Benson-Pope stated that, had he been advised that this allegation was going to form part of the broadcast, he would have rebutted or responded to that allegation. He noted that the “sleazy” allegation had been made by just one student in the course of the police investigation.

Mr Benson-Pope’s implementation of the school policy was “untoward”

[41] In questioning Mr Benson-Pope, the reporter had asked “there’s a suggestion that was untoward at the time, do you accept that?” to which he had replied “No”. Mr Benson-Pope contended that there had never been any suggestion that his implementation of school discipline policies was untoward. On the contrary, he noted, all the teachers and other students who had commented on the camp discipline matter accepted that Mr Benson-Pope had acted entirely appropriately. He noted the following statements from the police file:

  • To this day I feel the punishment was deserved (female student)
  • I thought it was a mild punishment really (female student)
  • I felt this punishment was justified (male student)

[42] The complainant questioned the basis for TVNZ’s suggestion that the discipline was “untoward”, and suggested that the broadcaster should be required to provide details of this. He said:

…the clear inference is that [the reporter] has used that description to add to the picture of lewdness that he is seeking to conjure up in the course of the news item. The reference to “untoward” must be seen in the context of the description of “sleazy” conduct which preceded it in the news item…

[43] Mr Benson-Pope reiterated that he had been unaware of these claims, and that in the context of the item his denial of anything untoward would have appeared to viewers as “at best lame, and at worst farcical and unbelievable”.

TVNZ’s responses

[44] Mr Benson-Pope referred to TVNZ’s assertion that the reporter was acting in the public interest. He argued that it was difficult to see how the news item – which had “so clearly been fabricated and manipulated” in order to paint him in a bad light – could be said to be in the public interest.

[45] The complainant also noted TVNZ’s suggestion that, at the time of the broadcast, the matters covered in the news item were the subject of wide media coverage and a major talking point in the community. This was not correct, Mr Benson-Pope maintained, as other media outlets had not reported on the Investigate article which had prompted the item. The matters discussed in the item did not appear to have had any further significant exposure in the media again, he said.

[46] Mr Benson-Pope disagreed with TVNZ’s assertion that the item had been “internally balanced”. He stated that it was not possible for an item to be balanced when it was not accurate and when unfair processes had been followed. Mr Benson-Pope said that he had the right to decline to be interviewed, and that this did not absolve TVNZ of its obligation to present significant points of view. He said that, even without his comment:

TVNZ had access to a raft of information and evidence in the police files which could and should have been referred to in the news item. TVNZ chose not to refer to any of this.

[47] Further, the broadcaster’s suggestion that the item achieved “political balance” by including the brief comment from Judith Collins was incorrect, he said. Her comment did not in any way relate to the subject matter of the news item.

[48] In conclusion, Mr Benson-Pope stated that he had a legitimate expectation that, prior to any broadcast, TVNZ would carry out its own research and investigation and, at the very least, would include a reading and analysis of the relevant police files. This had not occurred, he said, and TVNZ appeared to have simply re-presented the Investigate article.

Further information from TVNZ

[49] TVNZ argued that the latest response from Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer was constructed quite differently to the original complaint and was “for all intents and purposes, a new complaint”. It noted that the principal submission in that letter was that the news item was “a concoction and a fabrication…” and this submission had not been included in the original letter of complaint or the referral. TVNZ requested that the Authority set that submission aside during its investigation and review of the broadcaster’s decision.

[50] TVNZ referred the Authority to Decision No. 2002-157/158, in which the Authority said that referrals to it may not raise new issues.

Further information from the complainant

[51] Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer disagreed with TVNZ’s argument that his letter had constituted a new complaint. The original complaint had made it clear that accuracy, fairness and balance had been breached, he said, and the content of his letter had focussed on these issues. Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer contended that there was nothing new in the matters he had raised.

Further Information from TVNZ

[52] TVNZ maintained that the correspondence from Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer should not be considered by the Authority. It said that the complaint could be properly considered on the basis of what had originally been submitted as a complaint to TVNZ, TVNZ’s response, and the subsequent submissions arising from those two letters.

[53] The broadcaster maintained that the item had made it clear that what had been said about girls standing outside at school camps were “claims”. They had not been presented as proven facts, it said, and it was a fact that those allegations had been made. TVNZ asserted that it was not in a position to judge whether those allegations were correct; that was the job for the courts or some other judicial body.

[54] TVNZ turned to consider the specific concerns outlined in Mr Benson-Pope’s submissions.

Misleading statement that fresh allegations had surfaced

[55] TVNZ observed that, although the news media had been given the police report in December 2005, it had not picked up the former female student’s allegations at that time. TVNZ pointed out that – while these allegations may have been put in the public domain by virtue of the release of the police file – they were obviously fresh allegations as far as the public was concerned.

Misleading inference that Mr Benson-Pope had acted outside school policy, had denied implementing the policies, and his conduct was untoward

[56] TVNZ maintained that there had clearly been a suggestion from the former pupil who had made the allegations that what Mr Benson-Pope had done was “untoward”, and the Minister had emphatically denied this.

Highly offensive but unsubstantiated claim that Mr Benson-Pope was “sleazy”

[57] The item had made it clear that it was the former female student who made the allegation in her statement to the police that Mr Benson-Pope was “sleazy”, TVNZ noted. This was not an “unsubstantiated claim” made by TVNZ. The broadcaster noted that Mr Benson-Pope had declined to give a formal interview which would have provided him with the opportunity to respond to these allegations. One News had been left to get Mr Benson-Pope’s response “as best it could”.

Other matters

[58] TVNZ contended that it was not necessary for the reporter to refer to what other teachers had said about the camp discipline, because Mr Benson-Pope had made it clear in the item that he did not deny having stood children outside, that he had done so in terms of school policy, and had never done so on his own.

[59] In terms of balance, TVNZ noted that Mr Benson-Pope had spoken to Close Up on 2 March 2006, and he had addressed the allegations about camp discipline and also allegations that he was “a bully, liar or a pervert”. It said that balance within the item had been provided through Mr Benson-Pope’s emphatic denial, the statement that many former students supported him, the statement that a former pupil regarded the allegations as “rubbish”, and the statement that the Prime Minister was standing by him.

[60] TVNZ contended that in a daily news item, it was not possible to cover comment from school teachers, pupils and parents. The important point was what Mr Benson-Pope had to say with regard to the allegations, and his denials had been heard both in the One News item and in more extended form on Close Up ten days later.

Further Information Requested by the Authority

[61] The Authority asked TVNZ to comment on whether Mr Benson-Pope was given an opportunity to respond to the former student’s allegations that he was “sleazy if he could be” and that he seemed to “thrive on it”, and that she felt he was “always staring at female students’ legs beneath their desks”.

[62] In response, TVNZ answered with “an emphatic ‘yes’”. It noted that Mr Benson-Pope had been invited to provide an on-camera response to the article published in Investigate magazine under the headline of “Minister of Sleazy Developments”. He had been given a further opportunity to comment when he had been advised that the One News reporter would approach him during an engagement later that day, it said. TVNZ wrote:

In this case Mr Benson-Pope had a “reasonable opportunity” to pause in his walk towards his engagement, in order to comment on what was in the article. The questions asked during the “door step” were, necessarily, hurried – but had the interview been extended it is clear that either on his own initiative, or as a result of a question from the reporter, the opportunity was there for Mr Benson-Pope to comment on the issues you have enquired about.

Further Information from the Complainant

[63] Mr Benson-Pope reiterated a number of the points made in earlier correspondence and responded to some of the matters raised in TVNZ’s last letter. Referring to the Authority’s request for information from TVNZ (outlined above in paragraphs [61] and [62], the complainant denied that he had been given an opportunity to comment on the allegations that he had been “sleazy”. Mr Benson-Pope pointed out that TVNZ had previously stated that it was “not prepared to put questions on such an issue to the Minister through…[his] press secretary”, and that it had only asked if Mr Benson-Pope was going to “front up today”. This was a far cry from TVNZ’s subsequent claim that he was given the opportunity to comment on specific matters, he said.

[64] The complainant maintained that balance had not been provided by Mr Benson-Pope’s denials in the item, because he had not been asked to respond to the allegations that he had been “sleazy”.

Further Information from TVNZ

[65] TVNZ maintained that Mr Benson-Pope had been offered an opportunity to respond to the Investigate article entitled “Minister of Sleazy Developments”. Referring to a file note made by Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary of his conversation with the reporter, TVNZ noted that the press secretary had given the reporter comments “approved by Mr Benson-Pope”. This showed that the complainant was aware of the allegations which called for a response, it contended.

Further Information from the Complainant

[66] Mr Benson-Pope agreed that, as a Minister of the Crown, he was accountable to the New Zealand public. However, he said, the fact that he was a Minister of the Crown did not mean that lesser broadcasting standards should apply. Mr Benson-Pope maintained that he was entitled to be treated fairly and news items which referred to him should be accurate.

Further Information from TVNZ

[67] The broadcaster did not accept that Mr Benson-Pope was treated under “lesser broadcasting standards”. He had been given the same rights to balance and fairness as was accorded to any member of the public, it said.

Further Information from the Complainant

[68] Mr Benson-Pope was advised by the Authority that it had obtained a copy of the interview conducted with him on Close Up on 2 March 2006, and would be considering that programme in assessing his complaint.

[69] The complainant stated that the “sleazy” allegations made in the One News item had not been put to him in the Close Up interview. He noted that allegations raised by the Close Up presenter about his conduct in respect of girls’ dormitories and shower blocks had not been the subject of the 20 February item. Mr Benson-Pope submitted that TVNZ’s claim that balance was provided by the Close Up interview needed to be considered in light of these two facts.

Further Information from TVNZ

[70] In response to Mr Benson-Pope’s submissions regarding the Close Up interview, TVNZ pointed out that the 2 March programme was “an all-embracing opportunity for Mr Benson-Pope to comment on all of the allegations about his conduct as a school teacher”. It submitted that the concept of “sleaze” was implicit in the questions put to Mr Benson-Pope in that interview.

Authority's Determination

[71] The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Procedural Matter

[72] TVNZ has argued that the letter from Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer was, in effect, a new formal complaint that should not be considered by the Authority. It contended that the letter was based on the following submission which, it argues, was not made in the formal complaint or in the referral to the Authority:

The principal submission is that the TV One News story about Mr Benson-Pope…is a concoction and a fabrication…

[73] In the Authority’s view, the letter from Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer was obviously a continuation of the correspondence from Mr Benson-Pope and, while it might have raised some new issues, it was not a separate formal complaint.

[74] In terms of the issues raised, TVNZ noted the Authority’s Decision No. 2002-157/158, where the Authority said that referrals to it may not raise new issues. The Authority notes the following passage from that decision:

While the original formal complaint may establish the broad boundaries of the issues which the Authority may consider, the Authority has not taken the approach that a complainant is confined by the legislation to the arguments advanced in the original complaint. When referring a complaint to the Authority for review and investigation, most complainants debate aspects of the broadcaster’s response and may well elaborate on points made initially.

[75] The question for the Authority is whether the additional points raised in the letter from Mr Benson-Pope’s lawyer were elaborations of points made in the original complaint, or whether they were new issues which should not be considered by the Authority. The complainant’s lawyer raised the following points that were not explicitly raised in the original complaint:

  • the news item was “a concoction and fabrication”
  • the item contained a false claim about why politicians were calling for Mr Benson-Pope’s resignation
  • the quote from Judith Collins was misleading as she was referring to Mr Benson-Pope’s handling of the police file, not these allegations
  • the item implied that the police had made a decision not to prosecute Mr Benson-Pope over these “fresh allegations”.

[76] In the Authority’s view, the first allegation that the news item was “a concoction and fabrication” was simply a generalisation of Mr Benson-Pope’s complaint that the item was inaccurate and in breach of Standard 5. However, the Authority finds that the other three matters constitute new issues which are not merely elaborations of arguments raised in the original complaint. In these circumstances, the Authority excludes these matters from its consideration of the complaint.

Standard 4 (balance)

[77] Standard 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed. In the Authority’s view, the item discussed whether a Cabinet Minister with responsibilities in the areas of education and social welfare had acted inappropriately towards female students during his time as a teacher. The Authority considers this to be an issue to which Standard 4 applies.

[78] Standard 4 provides that balance in respect of a controversial issue can be provided “within the period of current interest”. In the Authority’s view, irrespective of whether the 20 February item itself was balanced, TVNZ made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view on the controversial issue within the period of current interest.

[79] TVNZ has provided the Authority with a copy of an interview it conducted with Mr Benson-Pope which was broadcast on Close Up on 2 March 2006. The broadcast interview was 15 minutes in length. Among other things, Mr Benson-Pope addressed the allegations that were raised in the One News item about camp discipline.

[80] While his responses did not address the specific “sleaze” allegations that were reported on 20 February 2006, Mr Benson-Pope did give his perspective on the controversial issue of public importance canvassed in the One News item – that is, whether he had acted inappropriately towards female students during his time as a teacher.The responses given by Mr Benson-Pope in the later programme constituted, from the viewer’s point of view, an important and significant perspective on all the various allegations of inappropriate behaviour that had been made about Mr Benson-Pope. The interview was clearly Mr Benson-Pope’s response to these allegations generally, and it did not need to discuss each individual detail to constitute an effective response.

[81] As a result, the Authority considers that TVNZ made reasonable efforts to present Mr Benson-Pope’s perspective on the controversial issue discussed in the One News item within the period of current interest. It declines to uphold the balance complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[82] The complainant’s main concern under Standard 5 (accuracy) was that the “non-reporting of relevant facts…meant that the item was extremely misleading”. Mr Benson-Pope argued that the reporter was in possession of the police investigation file which confirmed that this was the only student who had alleged that Mr Benson-Pope was “sleazy”. Furthermore, the police statements from at least 20 former Bayfield High School teachers confirmed that standing children outside was usual practice at Bayfield High School camps for both boys and girls, and that the discipline was always supervised by more than one teacher (with a female teacher present for girls).

[83] The complainant alleged that the item left viewers with a number of misleading impressions which would have been corrected if TVNZ had broadcast this additional information. For the reasons outlined below, the Authority finds that the item was not misleading or inaccurate in any of the respects alleged by the complainant, and therefore it concludes that TVNZ was not required to broadcast further information from the police file.

Standing children outside in their night attire was Mr Benson-Pope’s personal form of punishment, and there was some kind of lewd motive behind it

[84] The complainant argued that the item implied that standing children outside at school camp was a form of discipline applied only by Mr Benson-Pope, and that he had a lewd motive for making children stand outside in their night attire. The Authority notes that Mr Benson-Pope made the following statement in the item:

I’ve never denied that I stood children outside when they were disruptive in the evening, I never did so on my own and I always did so in terms of school policy.

[85] In the Authority’s view, Mr Benson-Pope’s statement effectively conveyed the fact that it was school policy to discipline students in this manner, and that the discipline was never conducted alone. He also commented on allegations that it had been “untoward”, and he emphatically denied this. The Authority considers that Mr Benson-Pope’s statements would have left viewers with a clear understanding that this form of discipline was school policy at Bayfield High School, and that he had acted in accordance with that policy. Accordingly, it finds that the item was not misleading or inaccurate on this point.

Mr Benson-Pope only applied this form of discipline to girls

[86] The allegations on which the item was based were made by a former female student, and concerned the treatment of her and other female students. As such, the item focussed on concerns about whether standing children outside at school camps was an appropriate form of discipline for female students.

[87] While the item did not specify whether this form of punishment was also applied to boys, the Authority notes that it did not exclude this possibility. Further, Mr Benson-Pope’s statement in the item referred to “children”. In the Authority’s view, the item was not misleading in this respect.

These were allegations that had just been “discovered”

[88] The item stated that “fresh allegations” had “surfaced from a former female student’s statement to police”. The complainant has argued that the allegations had been in the public domain since the release of the police investigation file in 2005, and therefore they were not “fresh” allegations.

[89] The Authority acknowledges that the student’s allegations were technically placed in the public domain when the police file was released to the media. Mr Benson-Pope made this point in the item when he said:

There’s nothing new and that material was all with the police. It was in the public domain some months before Christmas…

[90] However, the Authority notes that these were still “fresh” allegations for members of the general public, who did not have access to the file and were hearing the allegations for the first time. As a result, the Authority finds that it was not inaccurate or misleading to describe the allegations in this way.

TVNZ presented the allegations as though they were fact and did not independently corroborate the allegations

[91] Guideline 5e to Standard 5 states that broadcasters must take all reasonable steps to ensure that information sources for news items are reliable. The complainant has argued that TVNZ was required to independently corroborate the allegations before broadcasting them. The Authority does not agree.

[92] On this occasion, the broadcaster did not make any judgment about whether or not the allegations were true. It simply reported that the allegations had been made by the female former student in her statement to police and then offered Mr Benson-Pope’s response. In these circumstances, the Authority finds that TVNZ was not required to independently corroborate the student’s allegations. Accordingly, it does not uphold this part of the accuracy complaint.

[93] Having found that the item was not misleading or inaccurate, the Authority declines to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[94] Mr Benson-Pope argued that the item was unfair to him in a number of respects. The Authority deals with each allegation individually.

Door-stepping interview

[95] Mr Benson-Pope complained that the manner in which the reporter approached him was unfair, stating that the allegations were too serious to be dealt with in a door-stepping interview. Mr Benson-Pope argued that the reporter had not exhausted all other available options, and could have put specific questions to him via his press secretary.

[96] The Authority has applied a strict approach to door-stepping in past decisions, particularly where the interviewee has had little or no experience in appearing on television. The Authority has stated that door-stepping should be a last resort when every alternative legitimate way of obtaining a person’s comment has been exhausted (see, for example, Decision No. 1999-073). However, for the reasons outlined below, the Authority finds that door-stepping was not unfair on this occasion.

[97] First, as a Cabinet Minister, Mr Benson-Pope is directly accountable to the public for his actions. Having been told that Mr Benson-Pope was not going to “front up today”, the Authority considers that the reporter was entitled to approach Mr Benson-Pope directly rather than putting questions to him through his press secretary. Second, Mr Benson-Pope has had considerable experience in dealing with the media and he was able to address the reporter’s questions in a clear and concise manner. Accordingly, the Authority finds that Mr Benson-Pope was not treated unfairly in this respect.

Opportunity to respond to “sleazy” allegations

[98] The complainant has argued that he was unaware that the One News item would contain the allegations that he had been “sleazy”, and therefore he was not offered an opportunity to respond on this matter. However, the Authority notes that the reporter told Mr Benson-Pope’s press secretary that the item would focus on the Investigate article entitled “Minister of Sleazy Developments”. That article contained all of the allegations made by the female former student that were reported in the item. In these circumstances, the Authority concludes that Mr Benson-Pope should have had a clear understanding of the likely content of the news item. It therefore concludes that TVNZ offered him a reasonable opportunity to comment on that issue, and thus treated him fairly in this respect.

Impression that Mr Benson-Pope was failing to talk to the media

[99] Mr Benson-Pope also argued that the manner in which the reporter approached him made it look as though he was failing to talk to the media. The Authority does not agree that the item left this impression but, even if it had, the Authority notes that Mr Benson-Pope had in fact repeatedly declined to give interviews to the media. It declines to uphold this part of the complaint.

The item implied that Mr Benson-Pope had denied punishing students in this manner

[100] Mr Benson-Pope has argued that, during the door-stepping interview, the reporter implied that Mr Benson-Pope had denied standing children outside at school camp. The complainant said that this had prompted him to state that he had “never denied” practising that form of discipline. However, the broadcast item did not include the reporter’s question which is alleged to have contained this inference. In these circumstances, the Authority considers that viewers would not have been left with the impression that Mr Benson-Pope had ever denied the allegation. Accordingly, it finds that the broadcast was not unfair to Mr Benson-Pope in this respect.

[101] As a result, the Authority declines to uphold the Standard 6 (fairness) complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
19 October 2006

Appendix

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

  1. David Benson-Pope’s formal complaint – 21 February 2006
  2. TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 9 March 2006
  3. Mr Benson-Pope’s referral to the Authority – 6 April 2006
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 27 April 2006
  5. Mr Benson-Pope’s final comment – 7 June 2006
  6. Further information from TVNZ – 8 June 2006
  7. Further information from TVNZ – 13 June 2006
  8. Further information from Mr Benson-Pope – 21 June 2006
  9. Further information from TVNZ – 12 July 2006
  10. Further information from Mr Benson-Pope – 25 August 2006
  11. Further information from TVNZ – 4 September 2006
  12. Further information from Mr Benson-Pope – 6 September 2006
  13. Further information from TVNZ – 7 September 2006
  14. Further information from Mr Benson-Pope – 29 September 2006
  15. Further information from TVNZ – 2 October 2006