BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Blackaby and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-048

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • John Blackaby
Number
2003-048
Programme
Holmes
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
Holmes – interview with Probation Services Manager – conduct of the interviewer – biased – unfair

Findings
Standards 4 and 6 – live interview – not unbalanced – interviewee presented viewpoint – dealt with fairly – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] An interview with the Manager of the Probation Service was broadcast on Holmes on TV One at 7.00pm on 13 February 2003. The interview centred around the release of a report by the Probation Service regarding its management of an offender while on parole.

[2] John Blackaby complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced and that the interviewee had been dealt with unfairly, because of the "bully-boy" conduct of the presenter.

[3] In response, TVNZ argued that it was necessary for the presenter to canvass as much information as possible from the report in the time allocated, and maintained that while the presenter was "persistent in his questioning", he was not rude. The interviewee had an opportunity to present her views, it contended. Accordingly, it declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Blackaby referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video and read a transcript of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] An interview with the Manager of the Probation Service was broadcast on Holmes on TV One at 7.00pm on 13 February 2003. The interview concerned the release of a report that day by the Probation Service in respect of its management of an offender who, while on parole, killed three people.

The Complaint

[7] John Blackaby complained to TVNZ about the manner in which the presenter conducted the interview. In his view, the presenter’s conduct was biased and unfair. He wrote:

Paul Holmes [the presenter] did not allow Katrina Casey [interviewee] fair and reasonable time to state her case regarding her department’s actions that were the subject of the interview.

Paul Holmes’ persistent interjections throughout his interview with Katrina Casey clouded any opportunity for viewers to determine in their own minds, the validity or otherwise of the response Katrina Casey was trying valiantly to express above a sustained onslaught of interjections from her interviewer.

[8] The complainant contended that given the significant public interest in the matter it necessitated a balanced and fair interview, rather than the "bully-boy" conduct displayed by the presenter. This included the "staccato style" questioning, the failure to allow the interviewee to respond, the presenter checking his watch and failing to concentrate on the interviewee, which reflected to viewers that "whatever Katrina Casey said on camera was meaningless", Mr Blackaby said.

The Standards

[9] In view of the matters raised in the complaint, TVNZ assessed it under Standards 4 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standards and relevant Guidelines read:

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.

Guideline

4a  Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.

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.

Guideline

6a  Care should be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the extracts used are a true reflection, and not a distortion, of the original event or the overall views expressed.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. It noted that it was a crucial aspect of journalism to question and probe matters of public interest, particularly in this instance, where a public entity had admitted serious operational failures. It also considered it a relevant contextual factor that the interview was "live" and had to be conducted within a set timeframe.

[11] TVNZ submitted that the Probation Service’s report, which had been released that day, contained substantial information that had to be canvassed in as much detail as possible in the time allocated. It argued that it was appropriate in those circumstances for the presenter to ask Ms Casey one question after another, and to ensure that she answered all his questions. TVNZ maintained that the presenter was appropriately "persistent in his questioning", but was not rude to Ms Casey. It advised that it found no evidence of the presenter checking his watch during the interview, as alleged by the complainant. It continued:

The [complaints] committee noted that Ms Casey, whether through nervousness or for any other reason, did not seem to be particularly forthcoming. The committee believed that had Paul Holmes not interrupted on some occasions viewers would have learnt less than they did.

[12] In regard to Standard 4, TVNZ contended that Ms Casey had expressed her views during the programme, which was balanced by the presenter challenging those views and the report’s findings. It concluded that the item was balanced in accordance with the Standard.

[13] As to Standard 6, TVNZ also declined to uphold this aspect. In its opinion, Ms Casey was afforded the opportunity to present her views on a number of issues arising from the report. While it acknowledged that the presenter "at times hastened on to the next question in an effort to make best use of the time available", TVNZ maintained that Ms Casey had been treated fairly during the interview.

The Complainant’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[14] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Blackaby maintained that Ms Casey was denied the opportunity to present her views concerning the Probation Service’s actions at issue. He cited a number of examples in support of his contention that the presenter’s conduct was biased and unfair. He reiterated that the presenter constantly interrupted Ms Casey, and he disputed TVNZ’s contention regarding her demeanour. Noting TVNZ’s focus on Ms Casey, he said that it was not Ms Casey that he was complaining about, and that TVNZ’s claim was unsubstantiated, "highly subjective, and is both gratuitous and spin."

[15] Mr Blackaby disagreed that the presenter was courteous to Ms Casey. In his opinion, this was clearly evident by the presenter’s constant failure to allow her to explain her views fully. He restated that this resulted in an unbalanced item because viewers were denied the opportunity to hear both sides of the story in order to make their own assessment of the situation. The complainant also maintained that the presenter had advanced his opinion as fact, and that this reflected the presenter’s partiality and had resulted in a lack of objectivity in the item.

[16] Mr Blackaby disputed TVNZ’s contention that the time allocated for the interview justified the presenter’s approach to direct questions at Ms Casey and seek responses in such a rapid manner. In his view, TVNZ should have recognised that a short interview with the Manager of the Probation Service was insufficient to canvass the significant issue of parolee management.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] TVNZ noted that Mr Blackaby had implied that some of the presenter’s questions were speculative, and that he had presented unsubstantiated facts. In its view, the complainant had failed to appreciate that the interview at issue was based on a report that had been released by the Probation Service that day. The presenter had identified various issues from that report and had appropriately questioned the Manager of the Probation Service about those matters, it submitted.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[18] In Mr Blackaby’s view, TVNZ had failed to address the key aspects of his complaint. He noted it had acknowledged that the interview was not "free-flowing", which he maintained illustrated that the presenter’s conduct had resulted in Ms Casey’s inability to present her views. This was evidenced by her request for the presenter to listen to her, he said.

The Authority’s Determination

[19] The complainant contended that the Holmes item breached standards relating to balance and fairness because of the presenter’s conduct on the programme. The item consisted of a live interview with Ms Casey, the Manager of the Probation Service, regarding its internal report into its management of a parolee.

[20] The Authority considers that the presenter was exercising an accepted journalistic role in attempting to elicit information about the Department’s accountability in relation to its internal report. It accepts TVNZ’s point that:

In the circumstances it became necessary for Mr Holmes to not only ask the questions, but also to challenge Ms Casey over her Department’s handling of the Bell affair. The Committee accepted that it is an important role of journalism that it questions and probes matters of public interest, especially where a public institution, as in this case, was admitting some serious flaws in the manner in which it had operated.

[21] In the Authority’s view, Ms Casey was given a reasonable opportunity to present her viewpoint on a number of issues arising from the report during the programme. The Authority notes the complainant’s view that Ms Casey was a "formidable, highly competent spokesperson". It notes further that the presenter’s role was one of "devil’s advocate", challenging the Department’s position, asking questions to extract relevant material and ensuring all questions were answered. It accepts that the presenter at times interrupted Ms Casey to ensure that the Department’s position on the issues raised remained the focus of the interview. However, in the Authority’s view this was not done in such a way as to constitute unfairness or partiality.

[22] The Authority considers that there was nothing in the presenter’s behaviour, or questioning, that detracted from the opportunity provided to Ms Casey to air the Department’s position regarding the issues arising from its report. The Authority finds that Ms Casey was neither denied the opportunity to respond, nor to have her views heard. Indeed, at an early point in the interview she took the initiative and, when interrupted in her response, requested the presenter listen to her.

[23] In reaching a conclusion on matters of balance and fairness, the Authority concludes that because Ms Casey was dealt with fairly and given a reasonable opportunity to respond to the issues, the standards relating to fairness and balance were not contravened.

[24] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards and applies them in a manner which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
19 June 2003

Appendix

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

  1. John Blackaby’s Letters of Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 16 and 21 February 2003
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 11 March 2003
  3. Mr Blackaby’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 March 2003
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 3 April 2003
  5. Mr Blackaby’s Final Comment – 13 April 2003