BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Fitchett and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-150

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Stan Fitchett
Number
2002-150
Programme
Holmes
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
Holmes interview with man about unproven sexual abuse when a child in the Order of St John of God – man paid $30,000 by Order on condition of confidentiality – unbalanced – unfair to Order

Findings
Standards 4 and 6 – item made clear that the man’s views had been contested by Brother and there was no court case – Church spokesperson given reasonable opportunity to challenge his account – did not do so – man’s credibility left to viewer to assess – not unfair – not unbalanced – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

 

[1] "Patrick" was interviewed in an item on Holmes broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on 19 June 2002. "Patrick" described how, as a child, he had been sexually abused by a brother with the Order of St John of God and, although the brother denied the charge and it was not taken to Court, he had been paid $30,000 by the Order and had signed an agreement that the settlement would remain confidential.

[2] Stan Fitchett complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that an interview with an anonymous man about unproven abuse, who had accepted payment to keep the matter confidential, was unbalanced and unfair.

[3] In response, TVNZ said that the man had been persuaded to appear on the basis that he would be anonymous. As sexual abuse in the Catholic Church had been dealt with in other programmes, and as the Church, which participated in the item, was aware of "Patrick’s" identity, TVNZ did not accept that the standards had been breached.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Fitchett 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 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] An interview on Holmes involved a man, who was not identified, who advised that he had been paid $30,000 by the Order of St John of God after alleging that, as a child, he had been sexually abused by a brother. He also said that he had signed a confidentiality agreement and expressed concern that the Order would expect the money back.

The Complaint

[7] Stan Fitchett complained to TVNZ that the item was unbalanced and unfair. It breached the standards as the man was granted anonymity to repeat his unproven allegations about the Order. Mr Fitchett wrote:

And instead of making this "Patrick" appear as a victim, he should have really been treated as a proper rat for accepting a confidential payment and then running to the media.

The Standards

[8] As Mr Fitchett did not nominate any standards, TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They 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.

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] TVNZ acknowledged that the item involved an interview with a man whose allegations that he had been sexually abused as a child by a brother of the Order were unproven. It continued:

The item was set in the context of international revelations about Catholic priests being accused either of sexual deviancy, or of covering up sexual misconduct in others. During the item a spokesperson for the church made it clear that the money paid to ‘Patrick’ was to help him with counselling and to get rehabilitation – but was not ‘hush money’. The brother accused had denied the charge, and the matter had never been proven in court.

[10] Dealing with the matter of anonymity, TVNZ observed that any person who suffered abuse was "automatically" entitled to have their identity protected. Further, it wrote, "Patrick" was unwilling to appear on the programme unless his identity was concealed, TVNZ added:

While the [complaints] committee accepted – and the item reported – that the case was not proven, it seemed from the research undertaken by the Holmes team that this man had clearly undergone something deeply traumatic in his childhood. Couple this with his detailed and credible account of the alleged abuse, and the church’s decision to pay $30,000 and the committee believed there was grounds for providing the anonymity ‘Patrick’ requested.

[11] Furthermore, TVNZ stated, the Order was not placed at a disadvantage as it would have been aware of "Patrick’s" identity.

[12] Denying that "Patrick" had "run to the media", TVNZ said that it had been necessary to persuade "Patrick" to appear. In addition, a representative of the Catholic Church had stated during the item that the Order would not seek reimbursement. TVNZ said as well that, as a matter of policy, it did not pay for interviews.

[13] TVNZ maintained that the item was balanced and impartial, and pointed out that the broader issue of sex abuse in the Church had been canvassed in other programmes. It did not consider that the item had been unfair to the Order, noting that it included comment from a representative of the Order and it declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[14] In the referral, Mr Fitchett stressed that "Patrick’s" case was unproven. The brother had denied the charge, and the matter had not gone to Court and, Mr Fitchett observed:

But did Holmes worry about letting a little thing like lack of proof spoil a salacious story about paedophile priests?

[15] Mr Fitchett argued that, in view of the lack of proof, the item should not have been screened. What he described as the "sex abuse industry" was, he wrote, a "bonanza for unscrupulous claimants".

[16] Voicing his doubt that "Patrick" had not approached the media, Mr Fitchett maintained that the item suggested to viewers that the allegations were "true beyond doubt". That, he added, was unbalanced and unfair.

[17] Mr Fitchett expressed the view that confidentiality agreements were common in the commercial world, and people who breached such agreements were regarded as a "rat". In a second letter, he enclosed an article from "The Press" of 22 July which reported that a man who signed, and breached, a confidentiality agreement in Australia had been sued for libel.

[18] Mr Fitchett concluded:

The Holmes story of 19 June was not the first time that it has dug the dirt on a juicy story about a "soft" target like St John of God. But how often has it taken on crafty accountants or crooked corporate executives?

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[19] While having nothing further to say about the specific complaint, TVNZ enclosed an article from "The Listener" of 3 August which dealt with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and which gave some background to "Patrick’s" case. It noted a comment from the Manager of a Sexual Abuse Centre which "Patrick" attended, that "Patrick" was "terrified" about the impact of the confidentiality clause.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[20] The complainant stated that "The Listener" article disclosed some investigative journalism, "which is exactly what the Holmes crew failed to do". "Patrick’s" allegations, he wrote, were not proved. In view of what he described as the dubious claims advanced in the item, he questioned whether it should have been broadcast.

The Authority’s Determination

[21] Mr Fitchett complained that an item on Holmes breached the broadcasting standards relating to balance and fairness when it featured unproven allegations from a man who said that, as a child, he had been sexually abused by a brother with the Order of St. John of God. Mr Fitchett pointed out that not only had the matter not gone to Court, but first, the brother had denied the charge, and second, the man interviewed had breached the confidentiality clause of his settlement with the Order.

[22] The item complained about dealt with a controversial contemporary topic and presented a first person account from a man who said that he had, as a child, been sexually abused. The Authority notes that the item made it clear that his account had been contested earlier and that the allegations had not been tested in Court. It was left to viewers to decide whether "Patrick", the man interviewed, was a credible source. When deciding on the validity of "Patrick’s" account, viewers were able to assess the impact of the remarks from a Church spokesperson who was interviewed.

[23] In reaching a conclusion on the matters of balance and fairness, the Authority records that the item disclosed to viewers that "Patrick’s" account was not challenged by the spokesperson for the Catholic Church who was interviewed at length. The spokesperson for the Church also noted that "Patrick’s" claim had not been tested in Court. She was given a reasonable opportunity to challenge "Patrick’s" credibility, but did not in any way impugn his statements. She said as well that the Church would not be taking action about the confidentiality clause.

[24] Because the item included both "Patrick’s" and the Church’s comments, and as the Church’s spokesperson had every opportunity to respond to the unproven aspects of the account which was broadcast, the Authority concludes that the standards relating to fairness and balance were not transgressed.

[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
26 September 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Stan Fitchett’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 20 June 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 5 July 2002
  3. Mr Fitchett’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 16 July 2002
  4. Mr Fitchett’s Letter to the Authority Containing Further Material – 22 July 2002
  5. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority (plus attachment) – 30 July 2002
  6. Mr Fitchett’s Final Comment – received 14 August 2002