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Browne and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2012-078

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Clare Browne
Number
2012-078
Programme
Last Chance Dogs
Channel/Station
TV2

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Last Chance Dogs – reality series about dogs with behavioural problems and their owners – resident dog trainer worked to retrain the dogs to be better behaved – dog training methods allegedly outdated and harmful – allegedly in breach of controversial issues, accuracy, responsible programming and violence standards

Findings
Standards 4 (controversial issues) – programmes did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance but focused on individual cases – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – programmes did not contain any material inaccuracies – commentary would have been interpreted by viewers as such – not upheld

Standard 8 (responsible programming) – programmes appropriately classified PGR – episodes contained clear disclaimer – not upheld

Standard 10 (violence) – display of dog training methods was not “violence” as envisaged by the standard – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  Episodes of Last Chance Dogs, a reality television series about dogs with behavioural problems and their owners, were broadcast on TV2 on 19 April, 3 May and 10 May 2012. The programme featured a resident dog trainer who worked with badly behaved dogs to try and restore their behaviour in an attempt to save them from being taken from their owners or euthanised.

[2]  Clare Browne made a formal complaint about the episodes to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, objecting to the training methods used by the trainer. She considered that the programme was “harmful because it compromises animal welfare and exposes members of the public to outdated and potentially dangerous training methods”.

[3]  The issue is whether the episodes breached Standards 4 (controversial issues), 5 (accuracy), 8 (responsible programming) and 10 (violence) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The members of the Authority have viewed recordings of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Nature of the programme and general comments

[5]  In assessing an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we must give proper consideration to the right to freedom of expression. Any restriction on the right to free speech must be prescribed by law, reasonable, and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.1 The starting point is to assess the value of the particular speech, and then to balance this against the potential harm that is alleged, in terms of the underlying objectives of the standards.

[6]  Last Chance Dogs is a locally produced reality series about dogs with behavioural problems and their owners. It follows the activities of dog control officers and trainers in relation to the animals, and shows their “last chance” attempts to restrain and train the animals so they are no longer at risk of being seized by authorities and/or euthanised. The series carries a level of public interest in that it informs and educates viewers about the importance of training animals as pets, and taking responsibility as dog owners (for example by registering or de-sexing the animals), and the possible consequences of failing to do so. The series also has entertainment value.

[7]  Typically, each episode focuses on one or more individual cases in which animal control officers seize someone’s pet, and the trainer’s efforts to re-train that pet. In the episodes subject to complaint, the programme followed three cases involving dogs that were seized because of various alleged behavioural issues, and/or because the owners were not complying with animal control laws.

[8]  It is evident from the complaint that Ms Browne comes from a background of knowledge and experience in the field of dog behaviour and training. That the complainant disagrees with the training techniques employed by the resident dog trainer on Last Chance Dogs is not an issue of broadcasting standards, and it is not our role to determine whether those methods are “harmful”, “dangerous”, or contrary to the Animal Welfare Act as alleged. Our task is to assess whether the programme breached broadcasting standards. In any case, each episode was concluded with a clear disclaimer displayed onscreen, which discouraged viewers from adopting the techniques shown without further advice from a professional, as follows:

Techniques used in this programme can be dangerous if misinterpreted. Please seek help from a professional if you have concerns about an aggressive dog.

[9]  We consider that this was a reasonable and appropriate step taken by the broadcaster, and that the adult target audience of the programme could reasonably be expected to form their own views about the methods demonstrated.

[10]  We therefore approach the complaint cautiously, keeping in mind that we may only limit the right to freedom of expression to an extent that is reasonable and with proper justification.

Did the episodes discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of significant viewpoints?

[11]  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. The balance standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

[12]  The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a “significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public”.2 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.3

[13]  TVNZ argued that, while the issue of dangerous dogs might be a controversial issue of public importance, the episodes focused on individual cases and how the owners’ attitudes exacerbated the dogs’ behaviour. It did not consider that the dog trainer’s techniques were a controversial issue of public importance, or that it was necessary to show other techniques.

[14]  In our view, the programme did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints. We agree that the episodes were clearly focused on individual cases as examples of problem behaviour (by both the dogs and their owners), and did not extend to a discussion of wider issues regarding dangerous dogs or how they are handled, or the validity or otherwise of particular dog training techniques.

[15]  We therefore decline to uphold this part of the complaint.

Were the episodes inaccurate or misleading?

[16]  Standard 5 (accuracy) 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. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.4

[17]  Ms Browne argued that the commentary in the episodes was “sensationalist, inconsistent, and inaccurate”, and that TVNZ should take care so the commentary did not cultivate “any fear or anti-dog sentiment amongst viewers”. She identified the following segments of the episodes:

  • particular dogs were described as Huntaway-crosses, but later it was said they were bred for fighting
  • particular dogs were described as “vicious”
  • a dog was described as “heading straight for [the] officer”
  • the statement that, “Undeserved treats and constant unwarranted praise have created two ticking time bombs”
  • the comment by an animal control officer that particular dogs “were just an accident waiting to happen”
  • the statement that, “Seizing the opportunity to escape, [the dog’s] instincts kick in. But [name]’s calming nature has her under control”.

[18]  In our view, none of these comments amounted to “material points of fact” as envisaged by the standard. Rather, they were covered by guideline 5a to the accuracy standard which states that comments which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, commentary or opinion are exempt from standards of accuracy. In the context of a factual entertainment series about dogs’ behavioural problems, viewers would have interpreted these statements as analysis and commentary on what was unfolding in the interactions with the dogs featured. In addition, footage of the dogs and of the events which accompanied the commentary meant that viewers were unlikely to be misled, and were able to form their own views.

[19]  We therefore decline to uphold the complaint under Standard 5.

Did the episodes breach the responsible programming standard?

[20]  Standard 8 is primarily aimed at ensuring that programmes are correctly classified and screened in appropriate timeslots. Broadcasters must also ensure that programmes do not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.

[21]  Ms Browne’s main concern was that the programme was “harmful because it compromises animal welfare and exposes members of the public to outdated and potentially dangerous training methods”.

[22]  The programme was appropriately classified PGR, meaning it was more suited for a mature audience, who would have the capability to form their own views about information gleaned from the programme. In addition, the programme contained a clear disclaimer, shown onscreen at the end of each episode, which discouraged people from adopting the techniques shown without additional advice (see paragraph [8]), so viewers would not have been deceived or disadvantaged in the manner alleged.

[23]  We therefore decline to uphold the complaint under Standard 8.

Did the broadcaster take adequate care and discretion in relation to the issue of violence?

[24]  Standard 10 states that broadcasters should exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.

[25]  Ms Browne did not make any specific arguments in relation to the violence standard, though her main concern was that the training techniques shown were harmful to the dogs and could cause them distress and injury.

[26]  We do not consider that the dog training techniques displayed in the programme could be characterised as “violence” as envisaged by the standard.5 In any event, the broadcaster took adequate care by classifying the programme PGR, indicating that it was more suited to a mature audience, and displaying the disclaimer at the end of the programme.

[27]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 10 complaint.

Conclusion

[28]  Ms Browne’s objections to the training techniques shown in the programme are a matter of opinion, and are not something that can be resolved by this complaints procedure. Any limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression in these circumstances would, in our view, be unreasonable and unwarranted.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
4 December 2012

Appendix

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

1           Clare Browne’s formal complaint – 11 May 2012

2          TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 12 June 2012

3          Ms Browne’s referral to the Authority – 9 July 2012

4          Further material from Ms Browne in support of her referral – 18 July 2012

5          TVNZ’s response to the referral – 20 September 2012

6          Ms Browne’s final comment – 4 October 2012

7          TVNZ’s final comment – 8 October 2012


1See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990

2Powell and CanWest TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2005-125

3See, for example, Dewe and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-076

4Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036

5For examples of what amounts to “violence” under Standard 10 see Practice Note: Exercising care and discretion in relation to the portrayal of violence (Broadcasting Standards Authority, April 2008)