BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Easte and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2014-093

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Graeme Easte
Number
2014-093
Broadcaster
MediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/Station
TV3 # 4

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

The host of The Paul Henry Show and a TV3 reporter briefly discussed the future of Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter tram service, in a new segment titled ‘Council Watch’, and summarised the cost of the project to rate-payers. The Authority did not uphold the complaint that the segment was one-sided and misled viewers about the reason the trams were not currently operating. It is legitimate and important for the expenditure of public money to be scrutinized and subject to robust criticism, and the focus of the item was the cost of the project; other reasons why the tram service was not running were peripheral to that focus, so viewers would not have been misled by omitting reference to those reasons.

Not Upheld: Controversial Issues, Accuracy, Fairness, Responsible Programming


Introduction

[1]  The host of The Paul Henry Show and a TV3 reporter briefly discussed the future of Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter tram service, in a new segment titled ‘Council Watch’. The item was broadcast on TV3 on 8 May 2014.

[2]  Graeme Easte complained that the coverage of the issue was ‘extremely one-sided’ and ‘predicated on the trams being a waste of public money’. He said the audience were ‘invited to be angered about the situation’ and no attempt was made to seek balancing comment on the issue. He was concerned that the item contained inaccurate information about the reason the trams were not currently operating.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the balance, accuracy, fairness, and responsible programming standards, as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The nature of the programme and freedom of expression

[5]  The Paul Henry Show is a late-night news and entertainment programme. The programme departs from the orthodox news and current affairs model in that it sometimes applies comedy and entertainment techniques to serious issues. Its late-night timeslot means its content is often more edgy and challenging than would be usually expected of a news programme. This type of programming raises questions about the application of broadcasting standards which only apply to ‘news and current affairs’, including the balance and accuracy standards, which have been raised in the present complaint.

[6]  The segment subject to complaint, ‘Council Watch’, was a new segment which made its debut in this episode of The Paul Henry Show. Introducing the segment, Mr Henry said:

If you’re a rate-payer in Auckland we have some news that may depress you –probably not for the first time. It’s time for Council Watch – our very first Council Watch. We’re keeping an eye on them, you see. People queued up to say that a tram circuit in Wynyard Quarter in Auckland was a bad idea. It just wouldn’t work, people said. Why would people pay to ride a tram around in a circle, these people said. But the council pressed ahead – after all, they were spending our money. The nay-sayers were proved right, which is why you used to see trams, and now you don’t see them so much. Let’s look at the haunting facts with [TV3 reporter] Rebecca Wright…

[7]  The reporter started by saying the trams were a ‘gold-plated’ project which cost rate-payers $8 million, though the trams were now ‘gathering dust’ in a purpose-built shed. She went on to describe the cost of various aspects of the tram project, including an upcoming extension of the tram track, saying, ‘they still have grand plans for the tram’. Referring to ‘those bastards at the council’, Mr Henry outlined an itemised bill for the trams depicted in an onscreen graphic, which totaled more than $14 million, and included satirical references to ‘time wasted’ being ‘priceless’, and ‘thank you for your servitude’.

[8]  The mode of presentation, which was a lively discussion between the host and the reporter, and which included graphic depictions and satire, was intended to be humorous and engaging, to pique the audience’s interest. It is the editorial right of broadcasters to convey information on issues in novel and entertaining ways.

[9]  This item, in our view, carried high value. It is legitimate and important for the expenditure of public money to be scrutinized and subject to robust criticism. This type of speech promotes accountability and transparency, and is in the public interest and welcomed in our democratic society. A strong justification, in terms of the harm caused by the broadcast, is required to restrict the broadcaster’s right to have these types of discussions, and the audience’s right to be exposed to critique on how rate-payers’ money is being spent by councils.

Did the item discuss a controversial issue of public importance?

[10]  The balance standard (Standard 4) 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 arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.1

[11]  Mr Easte argued that the coverage was ‘extremely one-sided’, and specifically he considered that TV3 should be made to broadcast information examining ‘the purpose of the trams and why it is important that the tramway is extended to service the whole of the public waterfront’.

[12]  MediaWorks described the item as ‘an opinion piece containing factual information designed to provoke debate in areas of public spending by a region’s council.’ It stated, ‘while we agree that the piece had the objective of discussing an issue of public importance it was also clearly defined as an authorial segment within the programme.’ The purpose of the segment was to ‘critique the actions of a particular council, in this case, the Auckland Council’, it said. In any event, the broadcaster noted that an invitation to comment was extended to Waterfront Auckland (the government funded agency responsible for managing the trams), but it declined.

[13]  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’.2

[14]  As we have said, the focus of the item was the questionable expenditure of public money on Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter tram service. We accept that the expenditure of significant public funds by a local body on a contentious project was a controversial issue of public importance.

[15]  The next question is whether the item contained a ‘discussion’ of this issue. While a controversial issue of public importance may be touched on during a programme, this will not necessarily amount to a ‘discussion’ for the purposes of the standard, unless the programme goes on to discuss the issue in more depth.3

[16]  In our view, the programme did not purport to be a serious and even-handed examination of the issue. Rather, the purpose of the new segment ‘Council Watch’ was transparently to scrutinise the actions of local councils, here the Auckland City Council, and its expenditure of rate-payer money. The format of this segment departed from traditional news in that its purpose was to critique the council in an interesting and engaging way by offering authorial commentary, rather than presenting information in a balanced way with the primary purpose of informing the audience. In other words, the item was transparently presented from a perspective which was critical of the council and how it had chosen to spend $14 million. Viewers would have interpreted and understood the information conveyed about the tram service in this light, and we do not think they would have expected to be presented with other views in support of the trams. The focus of the item was the sheer cost of the project, and it did not go into any detail about arguments for or against having a tram service, or extending the tram service.

[17]  In any event, the controversial issues standard only requires that ‘reasonable efforts’ are made to obtain alternative viewpoints. Here, the broadcaster sought comment from Waterfront Auckland, which declined this request. We also note that the extension of the tram service is an ongoing matter that is likely to attract other coverage and commentary as it develops, and viewers could access information from other sources if they wanted to know more.

[18]  For these reasons, we decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Was the item inaccurate or misleading?

[19]  The accuracy standard (Standard 5) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.4

[20]  Mr Easte argued that the programme inaccurately identified ‘loss of money’ as the reason the trams were not currently running. He said ‘the actual reason [the trams are not running] is that the streets along which the tracks pass have been dug up for substantial upgrading over the last couple of years.’

[21]  MediaWorks provided comment from the reporter, as follows:

In the financial year ending March 31st 2013 (the last full financial year in which the tram was running) the Wynyard Tram lost $277,000. This project… was sold to Aucklanders by Mayor [name] and councillors on the basis that it would be cost neutral. It clearly is not.

[22]  The broadcaster asserted that the ‘interview style format of this opinion piece contextualised this information as analysis’ meaning the accuracy standard did not apply, in accordance with guideline 5a.

[23]  The comments subject to complaint occurred in the context of a discussion about the cost of the trams to rate-payers, including the cost of the shed used to house the trams and a proposed extension to the tram tracks, as follows:

Reporter:         The [trams] are hidden away right now while the council decides what they are going to do next… they are tucked up in this $629,000 shed…

Henry:             Alright, so they were taken off because they were losing a huge amount of money.

Reporter:         That’s right, and the council was having to prop them up…

[24]  We accept that this dialogue suggested that the trams were not currently running because the council was ‘losing a huge amount of money’, which added to the perceived absurdity of the council’s plans to extend the tram tracks. However, we do not consider that the omission of any reference to the road upgrade as one reason the service had been stopped, would have materially altered viewers’ understanding of the item. The key point being highlighted and questioned by the segment was the significant expenditure of public money on the trams overall, and whether that and the proposed upgrade represented value for money. The itemised ‘bill’ outlined by Mr Henry demonstrated just how much money had been spent on various aspects of running the trams, despite, as he said in the introduction, people saying it was a bad idea, partly because of the minimal distance covered by the service, and despite the venture running at a loss. In the context of a provocative critique of local body expenditure, it was not materially inaccurate or misleading to refer to the trams ‘losing money’.

[25]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the accuracy complaint.

Was the item unfair to any organisations or individuals it referred to?

[26]  The fairness standard (Standard 6) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. 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.5

[27]  While Mr Easte did not specify whom he considered had been treated unfairly, we assume his fairness complaint relates to the Auckland Council, as the organisation criticised in the report. MediaWorks reiterated that it offered Waterfront Auckland the opportunity to appear on the programme but it declined.

[28]  We are satisfied that the Auckland Council was not treated unfairly. Local authorities can expect to be the subject of rigorous discussion and criticism, especially in relation to decisions about the expenditure of rate-payers’ money, and they must be prepared to publicly defend such decisions, or face the consequences of not fronting. As discussed above, the purpose of this segment ‘Council Watch’ was transparently to scrutinise the actions of local councils, which was legitimate and valuable (see paragraph [9]).

[29]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the fairness complaint.

Did the breach the responsible programming standard?

[30]  The responsible programming standard (Standard 8) requires that programmes are correctly classified, and not presented in such a way as to deceive or disadvantage viewers, or cause panic, unwarranted alarm or undue distress. The complainant argued that the programme deceived viewers.

[31]  The Paul Henry Show is an unclassified news programme broadcast during the AO time-band and targeted at adults. The content would not have deceived or disadvantaged viewers in this context, for the reasons we have already outlined.

[32]  We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 8 complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

Peter Radich
Chair

31 October 2014

Appendix

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

1            Graeme Easte’s formal complaint – 8 May 2014

2            MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 30 June 2014

3            Mr Easte’s referral to the Authority – 28 July 2014

4            MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 27 August 2014


1Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

2For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010)

3For example, see Saxe and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2009-165

4Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036

5Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014