BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Cowan and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2017-058 (21 September 2017)

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
Dated
Complainant
  • William Cowan
Number
2017-058
Programme
Newshub
Broadcaster
MediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

An item on Newshub reported on the Government’s upcoming review of KiwiRail’s operational and funding models. The item featured interviews with Transport Minister, Simon Bridges, NZ First leader, Winston Peters, and Prime Minister Bill English. The reporter commented that KiwiRail had been a ‘black hole’ for tax payers and ‘a giant problem for this Government’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the item was unbalanced and unfair to KiwiRail. Given the nature of the item, which was a straightforward news report about the Government’s proposed review, viewers would not have expected to be provided with information about the historic benefits of rail or the history of KiwiRail. The Authority also found that, although the reporter’s use of language could be considered critical, the item did not result in KiwiRail being treated unfairly.

Not Upheld: Balance, Fairness


Introduction

[1]  An item on Newshub reported on the upcoming Government review of KiwiRail’s operational and funding models. The item featured interviews with Transport Minister, Simon Bridges, NZ First leader, Winston Peters, and Prime Minister Bill English. The reporter commented that KiwiRail had been a ‘black hole’ for tax payers, and at the end of the item concluded by saying:

KiwiRail’s been a giant problem for this Government, and simply chucking money at it isn’t working and isn’t sustainable. And whatever this review suggests has to be better than sinking billions of dollars into this bottomless KiwiRail pit.

[2]  William Cowan complained that the reporter’s comments were biased and gratuitous, and the item was unbalanced and unfair.

[3]  The issues raised in Mr Cowan’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the balance and fairness standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast on 30 May 2017 on Three. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Did the item amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints?

[5]  The balance standard (Standard 8) 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 standard exists to ensure that competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

The parties’ submissions

[6]  Mr Cowan submitted that:

  • While comments from the various Ministers were straightforward and informative, the reporter’s final comments were biased and gratuitous.
  • The reporter made no effort to place the situation ‘in the wider context of land transport options’.
  • The item should have pointed out that ‘in the development of this country the railways were generally regarded as providing a ‘social service’, whether they made a profit or not’.

[7]  MediaWorks submitted:

  • The item did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance that triggered the requirement for balance.
  • The report was largely, as submitted by the complainant, ‘straightforward and informative’. It reported that the Government was commencing a review of KiwiRail with the intention of overhauling the organisation. The report provided a broad summary of KiwiRail’s operational circumstances to contextualise the Government’s plans to review and overhaul the organisation.
  • The item was not intended to provide an in-depth appraisal of KiwiRail’s role in the freight sector or rail’s historical role in New Zealand.

Our analysis

[8]  The starting point for our determination is to recognise the importance of the right to freedom of expression, which includes the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information, and the audience’s right to receive that information. We also recognise the high value placed on news reporting as a vehicle for informing the public about the actions of Government and in this particular case the upcoming Government review of KiwiRail.

[9]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.1

[10]  The Authority has previously found that news items that simply report information about what may more broadly be controversial issues, for example, where there has been a newsworthy development, are not discussions which require balancing perspectives.2

[11]  This item was a straightforward news report which outlined the Government’s intention to review KiwiRail’s operations and funding models to ensure it was sustainable. This in our view did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance. The item did not purport to provide an in-depth or balanced discussion of the value or benefits of KiwiRail’s operations, or of rail transport generally.

[12]  Given the nature of the item, we do not consider that viewers would have expected to have been provided with information about the historic benefits of rail or the history of KiwiRail. These topics were outside the scope of the item, which focused on the Government’s upcoming review.

[13]  We also do not consider that the reporter’s concluding comments would have resulted in viewers being left uninformed. KiwiRail is a state-owned enterprise and perspectives were included in the item from the Transport Minister, as well as NZ First leader, Winston Peters, who was critical of the Government’s proposal.

[14]  We therefore do not uphold the balance complaint.

Was any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[15]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. 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.3

The parties’ submissions

[16]  Mr Cowan did not make specific submissions on why he considered the item was unfair. We understand his position to be that the item was unfair to KiwiRail.

[17]  MediaWorks submitted:

  • It agreed the reporter’s language was ‘florid in his characterisation of KiwiRail’s financial situation’, but this did not provide an unfairly negative representation of KiwiRail.
  • The report was a factual appraisal of KiwiRail’s operational circumstances, but also acknowledged KiwiRail’s importance to freight operations in New Zealand and confirmed that it would continue to receive Government support.

Our analysis

[18]  We acknowledge that the reporter, in his final comments, was critical in his analysis of the costs of KiwiRail’s operations, and that his language could be seen to be critical or disapproving. However, we do not consider these comments were overly negative in the context of the item as a whole, or that they resulted in KiwiRail being treated unfairly.

[19]  This was robust political commentary from one of Newshub’s resident political reporters. We consider the remarks were open to the reporter to make, given the costs outlined during the item and the questions raised as to the sustainability of KiwiRail. These were topics that were in the public interest for Newshub to report on.

[20]  Additionally, the item made it clear that KiwiRail remained important to the freight industry, with it moving ‘millions of tonnes of freight each year’. The item also outlined one of the options considered by Government, which was for KiwiRail’s infrastructure costs to be shared with the New Zealand Transport Agency’s Land Transport Fund. The item was therefore clear that KiwiRail would continue to receive Government support.

[21]  In this context we do not consider viewers would have been left with an unfairly negative impression of KiwiRail.

[22]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under Standard 11.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

Peter Radich
Chair
21 September 2017  

 

Appendix

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

1      William Cowan’s formal complaint – 31 May 2017
2      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 29 June 2017
3      Mr Cowan’s referral to the Authority – 20 July 2017
4      MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comment – 21 July 201

 


1 Guideline 8a to Standard 8 – Balance

2 See, for example, Wray and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2017-014 at [9]

3Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014