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Grieve and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-003

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Robin Grieve
Number
2009-003
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item reported that Winston Peters and NZ First had been cleared by the Electoral Commission following allegations they had failed to declare donations – also reported that ACT Leader Rodney Hide had been found by the Commission to have broken the electoral rules by failing to declare rent-free office space – allegedly unbalanced and inaccurate

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item reported Electoral Commission’s findings – no discussion of a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – previous media coverage meant most viewers would have known about the $80,000 donation – broadcaster entitled to make editorial decision to focus on that aspect of the Commission’s decision – contrast between decisions about NZ First and ACT was overstated but Rodney Hide’s comments adequately explained the situation – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  An item on One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm on 24 October 2008, reported that “The electoral watchdog’s cleared NZ First over the secret donations affair... The Electoral Commission has cleared NZ First of breaking the rules and not declaring an eighty-thousand-dollar donation”.

[2]   The One News reporter later stated that:

In an ironic twist, the man who brought the charges against NZ First, Rodney Hide, has himself been found guilty of breaking the electoral rules. He’s in trouble for not declaring office space in this Wellington building that he got rent-free, valued at around twenty-thousand dollars a year.

[3]   Mr Hide was shown commenting that “We were told we didn’t need to declare it. They’ve now ruled that we should’ve and we will. So it’s no big deal. I’m not at all embarrassed”. The report went on to say that, “Rodney Hide says the Electoral Commission ruling doesn’t leave Winston Peters blameless”, and Mr Hide was shown saying “Winston Peters’ sins in this are multiple”. The reporter stated that Mr Peters had faced multiple inquiries, which resulted in his being censured by the Privileges Committee, but cleared by the Serious Fraud Office and the Electoral Commission.

[4]   The reporter concluded by saying that, “The last hurdle in the secret donations saga is the police inquiry, and [Winston Peters is] confident of declaring victory there too”, and the One News political editor provided an update about the inquiry.

Complaint

[5]   Robin Grieve made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was unbalanced and inaccurate.

[6]   Mr Grieve argued that the item had clearly breached Standard 5 (accuracy) because the Commission’s report on its website stated that:

Donations to NZ First in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 years were not included in NZ First’s annual returns of donations for the relevant years... NZ First is required to file amended returns and accompanying auditor’s reports for the 2005 and 2006 years.

[7]   This demonstrated that the Commission concluded NZ First had broken the rules, Mr Grieve said, because otherwise it would not be required to file new returns. He considered this was inconsistent with the statements in the item that NZ First had been cleared.

[8]   Mr Grieve went on to note that the item also stated that the ACT Party had been found guilty of breaking the electoral rules. The relevant report from the Commission said that:

Free office space to the value of $20,000 per year provided to ACT NZ up until 2005 was a party donation and was not included in ACT NZ’s annual returns of donations for the relevant years. ACT NZ is required to file amended returns for the relevant years.

[9]   The offence committed by ACT and that committed by NZ First were described by the Commission in almost identical terms, Mr Grieve said. Yet One News reported “one party as cleared and the other party as guilty”. Therefore, the complainant contended, only one of the descriptions of the Commission’s findings could be accurate, making the other inaccurate in breach of Standard 5. Further, Mr Grieve considered that:

...by using two descriptions of opposing meaning for a similar offence TV One has breached Standard 4 in that they have not demonstrated impartiality because the report claims ACT is guilty while NZ First is cleared... The news report is clearly biased in favour of NZ First.

[10]   The complainant argued that, as the item was broadcast not long before the general election, “favouring of a party in this manner is at the least unfair and at the most it is quite sinister”. He said the only possible “confusing” explanation of the angle taken by One News was if it had focused on the Commission’s finding that NZ First had not committed an offence in respect of the 2007 annual return, discounting the 2005 and 2006 returns. He noted the report said that “The determination is in respect of the actions of the Party Secretary for NZ First only, as considered under Part 6 of the Electoral Act”. While this may explain the misinterpretation of the Commission’s finding, Mr Grieve said, it did not excuse or mitigate TVNZ’s breaches of Standards 4 and 5.

Standards

[11]   TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4 and 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[12]   TVNZ stated that the item had reported on two Electoral Commission decisions, one for NZ First and one for ACT. It was not reporting the full findings regarding NZ First, because the Electoral Commission had not released them in order to avoid prejudicing the ongoing police investigation into the 2007 returns. TVNZ maintained that the decision released on the day of the item concluded that NZ First secretary Anne Martin had not committed an offence by failing to declare $80,000 the party had received from the Spencer Trust in 2007. The decision stated that its findings related to Ms Martin’s actions only. The Commission’s ruling about ACT stated that ACT should have declared the free office space as a donation.

[13]   The broadcaster maintained that the item was balanced. Views of both political parties were sought, it said, and both Mr Hide and Mr Peters were given ample opportunity to present their points of view. TVNZ disagreed with the complainant that the reporting was in any way partial. It argued that the use of the term “cleared” was an accurate description of the finding that Ms Martin had not committed an offence by failing to declare the $80,000 donation. Similarly, use of the term “guilty” accurately described the ruling against ACT stating that the party should have declared the free office space as a donation. The broadcaster concluded that the use of these two terms was accurate and impartial, and declined to uphold the balance complaint.

[14]   Turning to accuracy, TVNZ was of the view that the item was truthful and accurate on all points of fact. It said that the reporter made it clear at the beginning of the item that the story related only to the findings regarding the $80,000 donation. Further, as mentioned under its consideration of the balance standard, the full findings relating to different years of returns were not released on the day of the item to avoid prejudicing ongoing police investigations into the 2007 returns. TVNZ reiterated that the terms “cleared” and “guilty” accurately described the Commission’s findings concerning NZ First and ACT. The broadcaster declined to uphold the accuracy complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[15]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Grieve referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He attached the two decisions of the Electoral Commission that were reported in the item.

[16]   Referring to the NZ First decision, Mr Grieve argued that the statements in the item that NZ First had been “cleared” were inconsistent with statements in the decision. For example, the decision stated that, “Donations made to NZ First in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 years were not included in NZ First’s annual returns of donations for the relevant years”.

[17]   The complainant objected to TVNZ’s explanation that the item referred only to the actions of the NZ First party secretary. The item described NZ First as “cleared” he said, not the secretary, and the finding of “no offence committed” was in respect of the actions of the party secretary. He considered it was also misleading to ignore the first section of the Commission’s decision which clearly stated that NZ First had failed to declare donations.

[18]   Turning to Standard 5 (accuracy), Mr Grieve reiterated that the item was inaccurate in stating that “NZ First has been cleared of not declaring an $80,000 donation”, and of “breaking the rules”.

[19]   The complainant maintained that the item was inaccurate in reporting that “Rodney Hide has himself been found guilty of breaking the electoral rules”. The Commission’s decision did not mention Mr Hide, he said; it was ACT that did not declare its free office space. The term “guilty” was also misleading, Mr Grieve wrote, because the decision spoke only of a “potential offence”.

[20]   The complainant emphasised that the Commission’s decisions found that both NZ First and ACT had not declared donations. These were identical offences, he said, yet One News described one party as “guilty” and the other as “cleared”. Therefore either one or both of those descriptions must be inaccurate, Mr Grieve said.

[21]   This also breached Standard 4, Mr Grieve argued, because One News had dealt with the two parties differently even though both had been found by the Commission to have failed to declare donations. He considered that providing the parties with an opportunity to comment did not excuse the broadcaster from the responsibility of reporting in an impartial manner.

[22]   The complainant objected to TVNZ’s argument that the item did not report the full findings regarding NZ First so as to avoid prejudicing a police investigation. He said the ruling that NZ First had not declared donations for three years was released on the same day as the item. It was immaterial that the full decision was withheld by the Commission. By ignoring that part of the decision TVNZ created widespread misunderstanding that NZ First had not broken any rules. This may have influenced voting in the election, Mr Grieve argued.

Authority's Determination

[23]   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 5 (accuracy)

[24]   Standard 5 requires broadcasters to ensure that news programmes are truthful and accurate on points of fact. Mr Grieve argued that the report on the Commission’s findings was inaccurate and misleading because, first, it omitted details from the decision about NZ First’s party secretary, and second, it presented two similar decisions as having very different outcomes, one as “cleared” and the other “guilty”.

[25]   In the Authority’s view, it was clear from the introduction for the item, referring to “the secret donations affair”, that One News assumed some prior knowledge on the part of its audience. It was widely known at the time of the broadcast that NZ First had failed to declare donations; the new development was that the Electoral Commission had found that the party secretary did not commit an offence in 2007 by failing to declare the $80,000 donation which had been the focus of media scrutiny. The Authority finds that viewers would not have been misled by the broadcaster focusing on the newsworthy part of the decision, without reporting that the Commission had required NZ First to amend its returns for 2005 and 2006.

[26]   The Authority also considers that the broadcaster did not mislead viewers by failing to specify that it was the party secretary who had been “cleared” by the Commission. In viewers’ minds it was Winston Peters and the NZ First party who had been at the forefront of, and were responsible for, the donations saga.

[27]   The Authority acknowledges that the Commission’s decisions found both parties had contravened the electoral rules by failing to declare donations. The item overstated the contrast between the two by using the terms “cleared” and “guilty”, without explaining that the decisions were not directly comparable. However, in the Authority’s view, the decisions were linked in the item to highlight the irony that Rodney Hide’s party, who had accused NZ First of breaking electoral rules, had also failed to declare donations.

[28]   Further, the Authority considers that the overstatement was corrected by the inclusion of Rodney Hide’s comments. He clearly put forward the view that ACT had proceeded on advice that it did not need to declare the office space, and that he was not fazed, or in any way embarrassed, by the Commission’s decision. It was also reported that Mr Hide did not believe Mr Peters was “blameless”, and that the ACT donation amounted to $20,000 compared to NZ First’s $80,000.

[29]   Taking into account public knowledge at the time of the broadcast, and finding that the broadcaster was entitled to focus on the aspects of the Commission’s findings that would be of most interest to the public, the Authority concludes that the item was not inaccurate, misleading, or partial. It declines to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Standard 4 (balance)

[30]   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.

[31]   In the Authority’s view, the item that is the subject of this complaint did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance as envisaged by the balance standard. The item simply reported the findings made in two decisions released by the Electoral Commission; it contained no debate or discussion about the validity of those findings. Accordingly, the standard does not apply and the Authority declines to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
26 March 2009

Appendix

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

1.         Robin Grieve’s formal complaint – 26 October 2008
2.         TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 5 December 2008
3.         Mr Grieve’s referral to the Authority – 20 December 2008
4.         TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 28 January 2009