BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Evison and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-033

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Harry Evison
Number
2009-033
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Victoria’s Empire – presenter made statements about the use of the drug opium by Chinese people in the early nineteenth century – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – presenter did not state that the Chinese as a people were addicted to opium in 1839 – reasonable viewers would have understood that the presenter’s comments were included in an historical context to explain the onset of the Opium Wars – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – complainant misinterpreted the presenter’s statement – presenter’s comments did not denigrate Chinese people – Chinese people treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An episode of Victoria’s Empire was broadcast on TV One at 7.30pm on Sunday 25 January 2009. The programme was the first in a three-part travelogue presented by comedian and actress Victoria Wood. In the series, Ms Wood travelled the world in search of the history, cultural impact and customs of the British Empire, specifically visiting places named after Queen Victoria.

[2]   During the programme, Ms Wood talked about trade between Britain and China in the early nineteenth century. She said: 

While all that lovely tea was headed West to Great Britain, where the kettle was always on and only a nice cuppa would kick-start the day, an even more addictive and less costly substance was leaving India and heading East to the opium dens of China.

And that’s how we got Hong Kong, or as I thought of it as a child, “Made in Hong Kong”. We won this little island in a fight, and not really a fair fight either. You know I said we didn’t arrive in India with guns blazing; in Hong Kong we did.

Britain had a problem trying to trade with China, because there was nothing of ours they wanted. But the climate that was so good for growing tea was perfect for growing opium and that was something the Chinese couldn’t get enough of. There were so many addicts and it is such a socially damaging habit, that the Emperor of China banned trading in opium altogether – it was illegal. But it was too profitable for the British to give up and they ignored the ban.

A small stand-off escalated into a war when Britain sent the warships that China didn’t have. The Navy took Hong Kong and it was given to the British a year later to be possessed, in perpetuity, by her Britannic Majesty. 

Complaint

[3]   Harry Evison made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging the programme was unbalanced, inaccurate and discriminated against Chinese people.

[4]   Mr Evison argued that Ms Wood’s remarks that the Chinese could not get enough opium and were addicted to it gave the impression that the Chinese, as a people, were addicted to opium and that opium addiction was a Chinese trait.

[5]   The complainant referred to an article dated 28 January 2009 from The Star newspaper in Christchurch that reviewed the programme. The reviewer had written, “She’d been to India to trace the British addiction to tea, and to Hong Kong to trace the Chinese addiction to opium”. Mr Evison argued that the article showed that Ms Wood’s remark could be taken to mean “that the addiction had been a continuing characteristic of the Chinese, just as tea drinking has been for the British”.

[6]   The complainant believed that the programme was unbalanced because it suggested that “in 1839 opium addiction was a Chinese trait, without pointing out that the addiction was tolerated in England”.  

[7]   With respect to accuracy, Mr Evison argued that there was no reliable historical evidence that the Chinese, as an ethnic group, were addicted to opium or that opium addiction was a Chinese trait. He said that the use of opium was widespread since ancient times and he supplied supporting material for this argument.

[8]   Mr Evison considered that the programme had discriminated against Chinese people by saying they were addicted to opium and “couldn’t get enough of it”, without making it clear to viewers that the British aggressively pushed opium on to China for commercial reasons.  

Standards

[9]   TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:

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.

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.

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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[10]   The broadcaster said that Ms Wood was a well-known comedian and her irreverent pilgrimage recorded “her adventure, tracing a nation’s colourful history – blending outrage and eccentricity with a celebration of the ordinary”. It argued that the audience would have understood that the programme was not an historical documentary for educational purposes, but rather a light-hearted look at the world through the eyes of Ms Wood.

[11]   TVNZ noted that Standard 4 related to discussions of controversial issues of public importance. It declined to determine this aspect of Mr Evison’s complaint, arguing that the issue of whether or not the Chinese were addicted to opium in the early nineteenth century was not a controversial issue of public importance.

[12]   With respect to accuracy, the broadcaster contended that Ms Wood’s comments would have been understood by the majority of viewers to have been included in an historical context to explain the onset of the Opium Wars. It noted that at no point had Ms Wood categorically stated that the “Chinese are addicted to opium”, but said that there “were so many addicts and it is such a socially damaging habit, that the Emperor of China banned trading in opium altogether – it was illegal”.  TVNZ argued that the presenter did not make any comment that opium use in China had continued beyond the historical period of the Opium Wars.

[13]   TVNZ said that “there is much published research that provides information stating that opium addiction was a significant social problem in China at that time – to the extent that more than one Chinese Emperor felt the need to ban opium and its trade”. It declined to uphold the accuracy complaint.

[14]   Turning to fairness, the broadcaster considered that all persons and organisations referred to in the programme had been treated fairly. It contended that Ms Wood’s comment was not intended to discriminate against Chinese people; it was included to provide background to an historical British trading scenario that led to war with China. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 6.    

Referral to the Authority

[15]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Evison referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He argued that the issue of whether the Chinese were addicted to opium in the early nineteenth century was a controversial issue of public importance to Chinese New Zealanders and Chinese people visiting New Zealand.

[16]   The complainant contended that TVNZ had provided no evidence to support its contention that a majority of viewers would have understood the presenter’s comment as merely explaining the onset of the Opium Wars. He reiterated his belief that the comment was inaccurate.

[17]   Mr Evison argued that even if a minority of viewers understood the comment in the way the reviewer had from The Star newspaper, this would still infringe the fairness standard.He argued that “for all we know, she did intend to cast a slur on the Chinese or perhaps make a joke about opium addiction at their expense”.  

Authority's Determination

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

Standard 4 (balance)

[19]   Standard 4 only applies to programmes which discuss controversial issues of public importance. In the Authority’s view, this programme was a light-hearted look at the cultural history of the British Empire told from the perspective of a comedian and actress. The Authority considers that the issue identified by the complainant – whether, in 1839, the Chinese as a people were addicted to opium – was not discussed in the programme. The presenter’s reference was a throw-away line that was not dwelt or expanded on. Further, the matter was purely historical and not a controversial issue of public importance as envisaged by the balance standard.

[20]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 4.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[21]   Standard 5 requires news, current affairs and other factual programmes to be accurate and truthful on points of fact. The Authority considers that Victoria’s Empire was a factual magazine-style documentary and, as such, any statements of fact needed to be accurate.

[22]   However, the Authority notes that the presenter did not state that the Chinese, as a people, were addicted to opium in 1839, or that opium addiction was a Chinese trait, as asserted by the complainant. She merely referred to the fact that, as there were many addicts and it was such a socially damaging habit, the Chinese Emperor banned trading in opium. The Authority considers that reasonable viewers would have understood that the presenter’s comments were included in an historical context to explain the onset of the Opium Wars.

[23]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 5.    

Standard 6 (fairness)

[24]   The fairness standard requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. Mr Evison considered that the programme had discriminated against Chinese people by saying they were addicted to opium, without making it clear to viewers that the British aggressively pushed opium on to China for commercial reasons.

[25]   In Decision No. 2008-050, the Authority found that encouraging discrimination means to encourage the different treatment of the members of a particular group, to their detriment. It considers that, in light of the right to free expression contained in s14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, a high threshold must be crossed before a broadcast will be found to have encouraged discrimination in breach of Standard 6.

[26]   In the Authority’s view, the presenter’s comments did not encourage denigration of, or discrimination against, Chinese people. They merely alluded to a historical fact – opium addiction among the Chinese – to explain the background to the British acquisition of Hong Kong.

[27]   For the record, the Authority notes that the presenter specifically mentioned that Britain had ignored the Chinese Emperor’s ban on trading opium and that it had sent warships to ensure its opium trade in China continued. These details made it clear to viewers that Britain was pushing the drug on the Chinese regardless of the ban.

[28]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 6.       

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
10 June 2009

Appendix

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

1.         Harry Evison’s formal complaint – 10 February 2009
2.         TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 11 March 2009
3.         Mr Evison’s referral to the Authority – 26 March 2009
4.         TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 17 April 2009