BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Currie and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-031

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • David Currie
Number
2003-031
Programme
One Late Edition
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
One Late Edition – news item regarding school students suspended for possession of cannabis – interview with Executive Director of WellTrust – discussed drug use by children – unbalanced – inaccurate – misleading

Findings

Standard 4 – period of current interest ongoing – no uphold

Standard 5 – mixture of fact and opinion – no uphold

Standard 6 – not relevant – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision


Summary

[1] An item about school students who were suspended for possessing bags of cannabis was broadcast on One Late Edition, shown on TV One at 10.35pm on 22 November 2002. The item included a live interview with the Executive Director of WellTrust (Pauline Gardiner), a Wellington drug education organisation, about drug use by children.

[2] David Currie complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced, and that Ms Gardiner’s comments were inaccurate and misleading. In his view, Ms Gardiner was not a qualified expert in this area, and he considered that her statements would have caused unnecessary alarm and distress to viewers.

[3] In response, TVNZ disagreed that the programme breached broadcasting standards. It argued that its coverage of the on-going cannabis debate had been fair and balanced. In the context of this item, TVNZ maintained that it was appropriate for Ms Gardiner’s views to be presented as an authority on the subject, and that her opinion had been accurately reported.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Currie 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 item 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] The suspension of six intermediate aged school students for cannabis possession was an item that featured on One Late Edition broadcast on TV One at 10.35pm on 22 November 2002. This item also included a live interview with the Executive Director of WellTrust (Pauline Gardiner), a Wellington drug education organisation, regarding the issue of drug use by children.

The Complaint

[7] Mr Currie complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was unbalanced, inaccurate and misleading. He wrote:

Gardiner made many claims about how dangerous cannabis was and how it just could not be tolerated in young school children. My concern is that most of the so-called bad properties of cannabis, stated by Gardiner, were incorrect and misleading. She clearly showed she knew nothing about cannabis and I thought the tone of her misleading utterances was designed to promote unwarranted hysteria and fear in viewers.

[8] While Mr Currie agreed that students should not take any drugs to school, he considered that Ms Gardiner was not a qualified expert on the issue, and expressed his concern that her portrayal as an expert meant that her views would have been regarded as being "highly reliable". The complainant specifically took issue with the following statements in the item:

that any tolerance for cannabis was unworkable but that alcohol tolerance was possible. In his view children should be discouraged from using either;

a small quantity of alcohol consumed at a dance was permissible for young people, but not for cannabis because it was retained in the body, was incorrect as after about two hours any "psychoactive effect from a joint ceases";

advocating zero tolerance for cannabis use by school students. In his view, children should be discouraged from cannabis use but not expelled;

it was incorrect to state that the cannabis used today was a different drug with different potency from that in earlier days;

that there were "10,000 scientific papers" stating that cannabis was a dangerous drug, but that this was not verified or substantiated;

that "smoking tobacco kills" was misleading;

it was misleading to state that one cannabis cigarette was equivalent to four tobacco cigarettes in causing harm; and

the numerous side effects allegedly relating to cannabis use were not substantiated.

[9] Mr Currie contended that TVNZ should have allowed a person with knowledge regarding cannabis use to counter the "misleading claims" made by Ms Gardiner as Executive Director of WellTrust. He argued that the views of, for example, himself, as spokesperson for the Drug Policy and Education Council, or the MP Nandor Tanczos on the issues raised by Ms Gardiner, would "redress the gross distortion" of information conveyed by Ms Gardiner. In his opinion, Ms Gardiner’s views would have "misled and alarmed many viewers into believing that cannabis is extremely dangerous". Mr Currie advised that medical assessments had not found cannabis to be "particularly harmful", and that it had been found to be "beneficial" for some people. He submitted that "there is widespread agreement that young children should not use cannabis or any other mind altering drugs."

[10] Mr Currie maintained that TVNZ had failed to present other points of view and argued that its handling of such issues amounted to "one-sided and misleading anti-cannabis propaganda". In his view "ardent prohibitionists of marijuana" were regularly interviewed, while those with an opposing viewpoint were denied the opportunity to express their views on issues such as the use of cannabis in schools.

The Standards

[11] In view of the matters raised in the complaint, TVNZ assessed it under Standards 4, 5 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.

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.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Guidelines

5b  Broadcasters should refrain from broadcasting material which is misleading or unnecessarily alarms viewers.

5c  Broadcasters must ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.

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

6d  Broadcasters should acknowledge the right of individuals to express their own opinions.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[12] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. In relation to Ms Gardiner’s contribution to the item, as Executive Director of WellTrust, TVNZ argued that "interviews with people qualified to share their expertise is an essential component of any news media organisation". Therefore in the context of a discussion regarding drug use by school children, TVNZ contended it was appropriate for it to seek the views of a "person whose working life involves dealing with this subject, and to report her views fully and accurately". It continued:

The question line employed by the presenter reflected what "ordinary viewers" might wish to know, and raised some of the questions you mention about the relative harm of cannabis in comparison, for example, with alcohol.

In broadcasting an interview of this nature, One Late Edition is not stating that everything Ms Gardiner says is true and not open to question. As with every interview, what is being claimed is that TVNZ is accurately presenting the views of a person qualified to speak in his or her area of expertise.

[13] In relation to Standard 4, TVNZ argued that in the on-going debate about cannabis, Mr Currie’s views had been canvassed. It rejected his suggestion that Nandor Tanczos had not been given an opportunity to express a contrary viewpoint on the subject. It stated that Mr Tanczos had appeared many times on television, and that viewers would be well aware of his views on the matter. It noted that the standard referred to balance being achieved over the period of current interest.

[14] TVNZ submitted that the interview with Ms Gardiner was presented in the context of a specific event that day concerning the suspension of six school children. While it accepted that Mr Currie disagreed with her comments, TVNZ’s view was that it was not appropriate to have conducted a general debate about the effects of cannabis. TVNZ concluded that the standard had not been contravened by interviewing Ms Gardiner and presenting her views, because over the "period of current interest", coverage of the cannabis debate had been fair and balanced.

[15] Turning to Standard 5, TVNZ maintained that Ms Gardiner’s comments, "clearly presented as her opinion, were accurately reported". In its view the item did not "unnecessarily alarm viewers", and any alarm among viewers was natural given that such young children had been suspended from school for drug possession. "It could be said that the story being told quite properly and necessarily caused a level of alarm among viewers", said TVNZ. It submitted that the interview with Ms Gardiner did not compromise the integrity of the programme.

[16] As to Standard 6, TVNZ concluded that Ms Gardiner was treated fairly, and that she was provided an opportunity to present her views on a subject that she could comment on with authority.

The Complainant’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[17] Mr Currie disagreed with TVNZ that Ms Gardiner, as Executive Director of WellTrust, was a qualified expert in this area. In his view, her inaccurate information demonstrated, in fact, her lack of expertise in this area. He reiterated his concerns regarding the "inaccurate and misleading" comments made by Ms Gardiner about cannabis use. While he accepted TVNZ’s comments that members of the "pro-democracy movement" had featured on TVNZ concerning the general cannabis debate, in his view Ms Gardiner’s comments were "so outrageous as to require immediate opposing views in the same programme". Mr Currie attached information in support of his submission.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] The suspension of school students for possession of cannabis was dealt with in a news item broadcast on One Late Edition. Ms Gardiner, the Executive Director of WellTrust, a Wellington drug education organisation, was interviewed. Mr Currie complained that the item was unbalanced and that it contained inaccurate information.

[19] Standard 4 requires broadcasters to maintain 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.

[20] The item concerned the use of drugs by school children and how to deal with the problem. In the Authority’s view, school children using cannabis is a controversial issue of public importance to which Standard 4 applies. While no views other than Ms Gardiner’s as Executive Director of Welltrust were aired during the item, the Authority notes the standard does allow that other significant points of view may be given "within the period of current interest". This enables broadcasters to refer to other programmes when a specific item does not in itself present all significant points of view on the issue under discussion. The arguments for and against cannabis use and its effects are advanced periodically in the media. The Authority considers that the period of current interest is ongoing. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that Standard 4 was not breached.

[21] In the Authority’s opinion, it was not necessary or appropriate in the context of the news item to explore the pro-cannabis viewpoint as contended by the complainant. The news item was about responses to school children’s use of cannabis and not a debate about the pros and cons of cannabis use or its effects. The Authority notes that one perspective was aired in the course of on-going societal debate about school children and drugs, and educational, agency and parental responses to the problem. In its view, the debate is complex and the Authority does not consider that Standard 4 is contravened if a news item touches on one aspect of the debate only.

[22] Standard 5 requires broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The complainant alleged that many of the statements made by Ms Gardiner about cannabis were inaccurate. These are detailed in paragraph [8]. Mr Currie maintained that the misleading content would have caused unnecessary alarm and distress to viewers.

[23] In the Authority’s view, the comments were a mixture of fact and opinion in the context of a late night studio interview. It acknowledges that both sides of the cannabis debate have fixed positions and the Authority considers that it is not qualified to determine those matters advanced as fact. However, the Authority does not agree that the item contained material which was likely to mislead or unnecessarily alarm viewers. In addition, the complainant referred to the "integrity of broadcasting" which he considered to be absent. In the Authority’s opinion, the programme in no way derogated from the principles of editorial independence and integrity. Consequently, the Authority also declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[24] The Authority does not consider that Standard 6 is relevant, as the complainant did not allege that any person or organisation had been treated unfairly or unjustly.

[25] 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
15 April 2003

Appendix

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

  1. David Currie’s Letters of Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 29 November and
    9 December 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 20 December 2002
  3. Mr Currie’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (plus attachments) – 9 January 2003
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 3 February 2003