BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Dewar and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2005-085

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Allan Dewar
One News
TV One
Standards Breached

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item about improving the safety of the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster – reported thousands had died during and after the event – allegedly inaccurate

Standard 5 (accuracy) – although a human and environmental catastrophe, UN and WHO sources suggest deaths of less than 100 – upheld

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Fresh concerns about improving the safety of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in the Ukraine were covered in an item on One News broadcast on TV One at 6.00pm on 13 May 2005. It was reported that “thousands of people died during and after the disaster”.


[2] Allan Dewar complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was inaccurate. He referred to a number of independent studies which disclosed that about 30 power plant workers and firemen had died during the accident and in the following three months. An article in 1994 in the British Medical Journal had placed the final death toll at 31, he said.

[3] Mr Dewar also referred to a UN study published in 2000 which had examined the long-term effects of radiation exposure on human health at Chernobyl:

The UN report made similar reference to 30 persons having died and concluded that there was no scientific evidence of any significant radiation-related health effects to most people exposed, in particular, no evidence of increases in birth defects as a result of the accident, nor in the cancer incidence or mortality. It is particularly significant that the leukaemia risk was not found to be elevated in exposed groups, even among the recovery workers who received some of the highest exposures to acute levels of ionising radiation.

[4] While the UN report recorded a small number of deaths, Mr Dewar continued, it noted that there were widespread psychological reactions to the accident. He also noted an article about the disaster in the British Medical Journal which had also referred to “excessive fears” and had said that exposure to a dose up to ten times the “maximum permissible dose” appeared to have caused less distress than an excessive evacuation exercise.


[5] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the following provisions in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice:

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.


5a   Significant errors of fact should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

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.

5d   Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, should be clearly distinguishable.

5e   Broadcasters must take all reasonable steps to ensure at all times that the information sources for news, current affairs and documentaries are reliable.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[6] TVNZ advised that the item did not state a specific figure when it referred to the deaths arising from Chernobyl as it treated official statistics and official pronouncements with caution.

[7] It referred to a named Ukrainian Minister with responsibilities in the health area who, in 1998, had said that more than 12,500 of those involved in the clean-up of Chernobyl had died as a result of their involvement. TVNZ accepted that the figure could have been exaggerated, but even if the exaggeration had been five-fold, the reference to “thousands” was not inaccurate. It also referred to the high number of thyroid cancer cases among children (up to 8000 together with a projection of 50,000) published in another UN report. Declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ concluded:

TVNZ acknowledges that the death toll from radiation sickness during the first three months after the nuclear accident numbered only 31, but [TVNZ’s Complaints Committee] noted that in the One News item the word “thousands” was used to include the numbers who have died subsequently as a result of exposure to radiation.

Referral to the Authority

[8] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Dewar referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[9] Mr Dewar added to the information earlier provided by pointing out that the UN report earlier referred to, in addition to 28 deaths, had documented only 134 staff members and emergency workers with confirmed diagnoses of acute radiation sickness from the accident. The accident, he added, was not a nuclear explosion accompanied by a mushroom cloud (as portrayed on TVNZ’s website dealing with Chernobyl) but a “conventional steam reactor explosion”.

[10] Mr Dewar then dealt with the figure of 12,500 deaths advanced by TVNZ which, he said, was refuted at the time by the French Institute for Nuclear Safety based in the Ukraine. He also pointed out that some sources reported that the Minister had claimed that 125,000 people had died. That figure had also been refuted by WHO which, in 1995, had said that the total number of deaths was 28. The complainant contended that the Health Minister’s figures were motivated by a call for international aid.

[11] Mr Dewar also pointed out that in 2000, TVNZ’s web site, quoting scientific reports, had contained the following information:

Three people were killed in the explosion in April 26, 1986, and 28 emergency workers died within the first three months, the report said.

It gave no later death toll but noted that 106 of the other emergency workers that were first on the scene also were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome.

[12] Mr Dewar provided copies of the extensive documents he had cited in his complaint. After referring to a range of other sources dealing with the effect of the accident, Mr Dewar asked that the broadcaster be required to publish a statement reporting that under 40, or perhaps fewer than 50, deaths had occurred as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

Authority's Determination

[13] 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.

[14] As an unintended consequence, the Chernobyl disaster provided an opportunity to study the impact of an accident in a nuclear reactor, and its impact has been monitored by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

[15] The complainant provided a range of sources, principally from the United Nations, that recorded the relatively small number of deaths which can be attributed to the Chernobyl disaster. These sources also record the high incidence of thyroid cancer found subsequently among young people near the site. However, thyroid cancer has a low mortality rate when compared with other cancers and these people at present are being treated. They do not feature in the mortality statistics. The Authority records that it considers the reports from the United Nations to be considerably more reliable than that from the Ukrainian Health Minister.

[16] The Authority acknowledges that the conventional public wisdom about Chernobyl is that it was a major human tragedy in which there was a large loss of life at the time and subsequently. From the material it has read, the Authority agrees that it was a major tragedy. The dislocation of hundreds of thousands in what is now the Ukraine and Belarus and the effect on their lives has been dramatic. The environmental damage has been enormous. However, from the available papers, total deaths appear to be below 100.

[17] Accordingly, the Authority upholds the complaint that the item was inaccurate when it said that “thousands of people died during and after the disaster”.

[18] For the avoidance of doubt, the Authority records that it has given full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and taken into account all the circumstances of the complaint in reaching this determination. For the reasons given above, the Authority considers that its exercise of powers on this occasion is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act


For the reasons above, the Authority upholds the complaint that a broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item on One News on 13 May 2005 breached Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[19] Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose an order under ss.13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It does not intend to impose an order on this occasion. The Chernobyl disaster is an on-going story and the Authority expects TVNZ to use more credible sources of information when it next reports on the consequences of the accident in the Chernobyl reactor.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
20 September 2005


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

  1. Allan Dewar’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd (plus attachments) – 2 June 2005
  2. TVNZ’s initial response to Mr Dewar – 21 June 2005
  3. Mr Dewar’s referral to the Authority (plus attachments) – 16 July 2005
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 21 July 2005