BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Carr and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2008-136

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Malcolm Carr
Number
2008-136
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1C) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item reviewed political career of Helen Clark – allegedly unbalanced

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item offered limited historical review of Helen Clark's time in Parliament – no discussion of a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  An item on One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm on 9 November 2008, reviewed the political career of the then leader of the Labour Party, Helen Clark, who was defeated in the New Zealand general election held the previous day. The One News presenter introduced the item by saying:

So let's take a look at how Helen Clark's career stacks up. She is Labour's longest serving leader and the only one to win three terms as Prime Minister. Only Sir Keith Holyoake, William Massey and Richard Seddon have done more years as Prime Minister. But this is only part of the Helen Clark story...

[2]  The reporter then briefly summarised Ms Clark's political career since she first entered Parliament in 1981. The item included excerpts of interviews with Nigel Roberts (political scientist), Mike Moore (former Prime Minister) and Don Brash (former National Party leader), who made the following comments, among others:

Roberts:    On election night, 1999, significantly Jim Bolger rang her from Washington and
                 congratulated her on becoming New Zealand’s first elected female Prime
                 Minister. I think that really resonated.

Moore:      She makes Margaret Thatcher look like Mary Poppins in terms of organisation,
                and makes Hilary Clinton look like Mother Theresa.

Moore:      I think her weakness is that she surrounds herself and enjoys colleagues who
                are weak. Everyone agrees with the boss, and she’s the boss... I mean that in a
                stunning way.

Moore:      She may well be the most effective Labour leader ever in terms of control of the
                movement.

Brash:       I mean I think that flagrant disregard for the law - indeed we talk about
                Speedgate, we talk about Paintergate - but the most serious thing of all, I think,
                was her breach of the Electoral Funding Act, which I think was a scandal.

Brash:       I think she's been a very disappointing Prime Minister. She's obviously intelligent,
                but what she’s achieved, I think, leaves me very cold indeed.

Moore:      Seldom does Helen think of politics for more than 20 hours a day, and is
                stunningly good at it.

Complaint

[3]  Dr Malcolm Carr made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was biased and unbalanced.

[4]  Referring to guidelines 4a and 4b to the balance standard, Dr Carr argued that the comments made in the item about Helen Clark were "disgracefully unfair to her record of public service". He considered that One News had "obtained biased comments from people who had no interest in praising [Helen Clark]", such as Don Brash and Mike Moore.

[5]  The tone of the report "in no way addressed the high regard internationally and within New Zealand in which Helen Clark is held", Dr Carr wrote. He maintained that the item only included references to Ms Clark as a "control freak and Nanny or Aunty Helen", and omitted "any reference to people who reflect the strong view that she is someone this country should be proud of".

Standards

[6]  TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Dr Carr also nominated guidelines 4a and 4b. 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.

Guidelines

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

4b    No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial public issues. Broadcasters should aim to present all significant sides in as fair a way as possible, it being acknowledged that this can be done only by judging each case on its merits.

Referral to the Authority

[7]  Having received no response from TVNZ within the 20 working day time limit, Dr Carr referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1C) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[8]  Dr Carr considered that, rather than an intelligent and balanced commentary on Helen Clark’s career, the item narrowly focused on her control. He argued that presenting the perspectives of Mike Moore and Don Brash as two of three commentators resulted in "completely biased coverage", as they both had "very obvious reasons to be negative about Helen Clark". Looking at the third interviewee, Nigel Roberts, Dr Carr was of the view that as the only "unbiased commentator", Mr Roberts could have made a more balanced contribution; however, he referred primarily to a cartoon that portrayed Ms Clark as a control freak, Dr Carr said.

[9]  The complainant considered that the item should have made reference to Ms Clark's international reputation, her role in opening trade with China, and her many other achievements which made many New Zealanders proud to have her as Prime Minister. The item was biased, Dr Carr argued, due to the use of the "some people say" approach and a sequence of negative comments about control.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[10]  TVNZ argued that, in reviewing the lengthy political career of Ms Clark, the item included comments both in support, and critical of, the former Prime Minister. Further, the various comments offered by Mr Roberts, Mr Moore, and Mr Brash were their opinions, and at times praised Ms Clark, for example Mr Moore stated that "she may well have been the most effective Labour leader ever".

[11]  TVNZ considered that at the end of the item the reporter attempted to put Labour’s election defeat into context by saying:

But in the final few months there've been grumblings of a "Nanny State". In the end the public grew sick of Labour's meddling, there was a substantial backlash over the Government’s plan to tell us how much water we could use in the shower, and a wider mood that Helen Clark was a leader out of touch with ordinary New Zealanders.

[12]  TVNZ noted that this was immediately followed by a comment from Mr Moore who said "Helen seldom thinks of politics for more than 20 hours a day and is stunningly good at it". Further, the reporter concluded the item by saying, "People are now bidding farewell to a Prime Minister many people privately called Aunty Helen, the stern family matriarch". This comment was made affectionately, TVNZ wrote.

[13]  The broadcaster concluded that significant points of view were appropriately presented in the item, and declined to uphold the balance complaint.

Complainant's Final Comment

[14]  Dr Carr reiterated his view that the item "concentrated on the notion of control and summarised a vibrant and complex career almost entirely in those terms". The positive comments made by Mr Moore and Mr Roberts were in the context of the discussion about control, he said. Dr Carr also emphasised his concern that Mr Moore and Mr Brash were two people likely to have an unbalanced view of Helen Clark.

[15]  The complainant noted that TVNZ had neglected to mention Don Brash's statement in the item that "[Helen Clark] was a very disappointing Prime Minister. What she has achieved leaves me very cold indeed". He disagreed with the broadcaster that the reporter's final comment - that "People are now bidding farewell to a Prime Minister many people privately called Aunty Helen, the stern family matriarch" - was "made in affection". Dr Carr considered this statement to be "unbalanced and certainly in no way affectionate".

Authority's Determination

[16]  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.

[17]  Standard 4 requires broadcasters to present significant points of view when a controversial issue of public importance is discussed in a programme. The item which is the subject of this complaint was a very limited historical review of Helen Clark's career, focusing particularly on her record as the leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of New Zealand. The Authority acknowledges that Ms Clark's record as Prime Minister may have been a controversial issue of public importance in the lead-up to the 2008 general election, when it might have affected public opinion and influenced the outcome of the election. However, while Ms Clark's record will continue to be the subject of much debate for some time to come, once the election was over and Ms Clark was no longer the Prime Minister, it could no longer be considered controversial or an issue of public importance as envisaged by the balance standard.

[18]  As an aside, the Authority observes that the choice of two of the interviewees, Mike Moore and Don Brash, neither of whom could have been expected to give positive reviews of Ms Clark's career, did result in the overall tone of the item being unfavourable to Ms Clark. However, in the Authority's view, most viewers would have been able to appreciate for themselves the history behind the interviewees’ comments and the context in which they were made.

[19]  Accordingly, having determined that the item did not discuss an issue that was controversial or of public importance, the Authority finds that Standard 4 does not apply. It declines to uphold the complaint.

 

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

 Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
3 March 2009

Appendix

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

1.          Dr Malcolm Carr's formal complaint – 10 November 2008
2.         Dr Carr's referral to the Authority – 17 December 2008
3.         TVNZ's response to the Authority – 17 December 2008
4.         Dr Carr's final comments – 5 January 2009