BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Cullen and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-142

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Christine Cullen
One News
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Lead item on One News – investigative report into alleged pornographer in Gisborne – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency

Standard 1 (Good taste and decency) – item was genuinely newsworthy – strong warning given – news by very nature will often deal with distasteful material – content not offensive – images discreet – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1]The lead item on One News on 1 August 2004 was a report from Television New Zealand’s investigative team concerning an alleged pornographer in Gisborne. The item alleged that the man was involved in procuring under-age girls for sex and the making of pornography, including through the use of stupefying drugs, and that he lured women into pornography by making false promises and statements.

[2] The item commenced with the following warning:

But first, a serious warning: some of what you are about to see could disturb or offend. Discretionary viewing is strongly advised.


[3] Christine Cullen complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the broadcast breached Standard 1 (good taste and decency) of the Free-to-Air Code of Television Practice. Ms Cullen noted:

Foremost, ten minutes of paedophilia and sex at the beginning of peak news hour is, in my opinion, very bad taste. It is the time factor as much as the degree of unnecessary content in the first item which shocked. A paedophile is caught. … That takes only a few seconds to report. I question the necessity of all the other minutes. How a paedophile went about his business is not something that will make NZ a better place to live and is better left in the court room for those who do have such an interest. And, certainly, although children’s programmes are already of questionable standards, an item on the details of someone indulging in pornography and paedophilia, is, in my opinion totally unsuitable for prime time viewing.

[4] Ms Cullen also complained under Standards 4 and 5 of the Free-to-Air Code of Television Practice, but did not refer these aspects of her complaints to the Authority.


[5] The following Standard of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice is relevant to the determination of this complaint:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency
In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.


1b  Broadcasters should consider – and if appropriate require – the use of on-air visual and verbal warnings when programmes contain violent material, material of a sexual nature, coarse language or other content likely to disturb children or offend a significant number of adult viewers. Warnings should be specific in nature, while avoiding detail which may itself distress or offend viewers.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[6] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. It said:

[The Complaints Committee] noted that in a democracy, which values freedom of the press, and the individual’s “right to know”, it is important that news reports do not seek to sanitise an unpleasant subject to the point where it no longer seems so distasteful. To do so would be to deceive and misinform the audience, which under the Bill of Rights Act (s14) has a statutory right to receive information. It seemed also important to the committee that if a news organisation has significant information it should pass it on. …

It was observed by the committee that the programme code … acknowledges that news programmes are in a different category from other programmes and therefore do not have a censorship classification.

[7] TVNZ referred to Appendix 1 to the Free-to-Air Television Code, which states:

News and Current Affairs programmes, which may be scheduled at any time and may, on occasion, pre-empt other scheduled broadcasts, are not, because of their distinct nature, subject to censorship or to the strictures of the classification system. However, producers are required to be mindful that young people may be among viewers of news and current affairs programmes during morning, daytime and early evening hours and should give consideration to including warnings where appropriate.

[8] TVNZ also referred to Guideline 10g to Standard 10 (violence), which states that broadcasters should not falsify, by omission, a world in which much violence and brutality occurs. It contended that while this was not in the guidelines to Standard 1, it applied equally to the present case.

[9] TVNZ noted that the imagery in the item was:

…fleeting and inexplicit, serving to accurately reflect the sordid nature of what was being revealed in the story without going to the excess of showing any pornographic material in detail.

[10] TVNZ then referred to Guideline 1b, relating to the use of warnings, and noted that the item was preceded by a “strong and specific warning” after the subject matter was indicated in the introduction. It concluded:

The committee believed that the provision of the warning, combined with the phrases which clearly indicated the subject matter, showed that One News had complied fully with the requirement of guideline 1b.

The committee acknowledged that the behaviour being reported was inherently indecent and offensive, but it did not follow that the reporting of such behaviour in the public interest was itself indecent or offensive. In the view of the committee, this was not a matter that should be concealed from the New Zealand public.

Referral to the Authority

[11] Ms Cullen was dissatisfied with this response and referred the matter to the Authority.

[12] In her referral Ms Cullen noted the following points:

  • the warning was a tacit acknowledgement that this was not appropriate viewing and the need for it should have signalled to the newsmakers that a “repackaging” was necessary
  • the length of the item underlined the lack of good taste and decency
  • a story of this nature and duration was out of place as the lead story, as the lead story gets the maximum attention and impact
  • a warning did not absolve the broadcaster of all responsibility for what followed
  • she was not actually watching the item, and wondered whether it was in fact a news programme.

[13] Ms Cullen concluded by noting that she felt newsmakers should put more emphasis on the things that help make New Zealanders better people and New Zealand a better place to live.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[14] In its response to the Authority, TVNZ stated:

We simply wish to re-emphasise the fact that it is inevitable that news bulletins, if they are to serve their purpose, must from time to time contain material which is disturbing and/or distressing. TVNZ is committed to providing a news service which delivers uncensored news in accordance with the freedom of information provisions in the Bill of Rights Act, and in a form which does not sanitise an event or an issue to the point where it does not reflect the reality of the event or issue being described.

Authority's Determination

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

[16] The Authority does not uphold the complaint. The Authority accepts that the complainant found the subject matter of the item offensive, although it notes that she was not actively watching the item. It is, however, an unfortunate fact that genuinely newsworthy issues often concern matters that are inherently distasteful. It is largely for this reason, to protect the considerable public interest in genuinely newsworthy issues being reported, that news and current affairs programmes are not subject to programme classification. The Authority notes that this is also broadly consistent with TVNZ’s submission that television news should not falsify by omission a world in which distasteful things occur. The issue for determination in this case is not therefore whether the subject matter was distasteful, but instead whether the way in which the broadcaster dealt with it was appropriate.

[17] The Authority does not consider that the content of the item was inappropriate or offensive. The subject matter was genuinely newsworthy, concerning as it did well-supported allegations of a man exploiting women in a calculated and at times allegedly criminal manner. The Authority considers that there was a public interest in the broadcast of this news. There was no gratuitous use of sexually-related imagery, and the pictorial content used was clearly designed to support the issues being discussed and provide evidence of the activities of the alleged pornographer. The images that were used were discreet, fleeting and largely inexplicit, and the item focussed more on the fact and nature of the exploitation than on explaining or portraying explicit details of the way in which this took place. The Authority does not consider that this content was inappropriate.

[18] The complainant was also concerned at the length of the item (around seven minutes) and its placing as lead item on One News, which she thought served only to highlight the offensive nature of the item. The Authority does not agree. As it has noted, it considers the issue raised by the item to be one of public interest, and the length and placement of the item was a reflection of this perceived public interest, as well as the fact that the item was a breaking story, uncovered by TVNZ’s investigative journalists. For these reasons, and in light of its view that the content was not offensive, the Authority does not consider that either the length or placement of the item is relevant to the issue of whether it breached Standard 1 of the Code.

[19] The Authority also notes that the Free-to-Air Television Code requires broadcasters to be mindful of the fact that children might be watching news programmes, and to consider the use of warnings. In the present case, having foreshadowed the subject matter of the item, the presenter gave a strong warning, and advised viewer discretion. The Authority considers that the introduction to the piece, in conjunction with the strong warning, served as effective notice to viewers as to the subject matter of the item and that some may consider the item to be offensive. It considers that this met the requirements of the Code.


For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
4 November 2004


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

  1. Christine Cullen’s complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 3 August 2004
  2. TVNZ’s acknowledgement of formal complaint – 9 August 2004
  3. Letter from Ms Cullen to TVNZ clarifying original complaint – 13 August 2004
  4. TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 20 August 2004
  5. Ms Cullen’s formal referral to the Authority – 28 August 2004
  6. TVNZ’s response to the referral – 14 September 2004