BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Gunasekara and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-148

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Tapu Misa
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Dr Sanji Gunasekara
Number
2009-148
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item on United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York – news correspondent reported that the New Zealand delegation had walked out of the meeting during a speech given by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – correspondent made remarks about the contents of Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech – allegedly inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – correspondent’s comments about the reasons for the walkout accurately reflected the situation – correspondent’s “mindless hate” comment was clearly opinion – viewers not misled – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – Mr Ahmadinejad is a controversial political figure – robust criticism should be expected – 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 Thursday 24 September 2009, reported on events that occurred at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The presenter introduced the item by saying:

It’s been a dramatic day at the UN General Assembly in New York with pleas for an end to nuclear arms and an allegation that Security Council members are terrorists. In the middle of all this, John Key met Barack Obama twice. US correspondent Tim Wilson is covering the meeting, he joins us now live.

[2]   The correspondent discussed speeches made by the American President and the leader of Libya, and went on to talk about the various leaders Mr Key had met while in New York. Towards the end of the report, the correspondent said:

...and in the UN, the New Zealand delegation walking out on the speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after he bashed Israel saying that it wanted to establish a new form of slavery. Also walking out was the US, England, Australia and France. Wendy, mindless hate deserves nothing less.

Complaint

[3]   Dr Sanji Gunasekara made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was inaccurate and unfair.

[4]   The complainant argued that the correspondent’s comments about Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech were inaccurate. He contended that, while the Iranian President criticised “what he labelled the Zionist regime over its policies in occupied Palestine”, he had not referred to or “bashed” Israel in his speech. Dr Gunasekara believed that the correspondent had transgressed journalistic objectivity with his closing statement “Wendy, mindless hate deserves nothing less”, as a correspondent’s job was to report the news and “not inflict his personal views” on the New Zealand public.

[5]   Dr Gunasekara considered that the correspondent’s report was a “skewed account of Ahmadinejad’s speech and the reason for the walkout by the New Zealand delegation”. He argued that the correspondent had failed to convey the overall nature of Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech, which he said was wide-ranging and covered topics including “calls for reform of the UN, reform of the prevailing global economic system and reform of political relations based on the elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons”.

Standards

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

Standard 5 Accuracy

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/or
  • does not mislead.

Guideline 5a

The accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion.

Guideline 5c

News must be impartial.

Standard 6 Fairness

Broadcasters should deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Guideline 6a

A consideration of what is fair will depend upon the genre of the programme (e.g. factual, dramatic, comedic or satirical programmes).

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[7]   With respect to accuracy, TVNZ argued that, while Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech did not explicitly use the word “Israel”, it was clear that the references to “Zionist” in the speech were directed at Israel. It provided extracts from Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech to support its claim.

[8]   Dealing with the correspondent’s final comment, “mindless hate deserves nothing less”, the broadcaster contended that viewers would have realised that the remark was the correspondent’s opinion, as opposed to a statement of fact. It declined to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 5.

[9]   Turning to fairness, TVNZ argued that Mr Ahmadinejad had been treated fairly and that his speech had not been misrepresented. It stated that the item was not intended to be an in-depth analysis of the contents of the Iranian President’s speech, but rather a brief summary of why several nations had walked out in response to aspects of the speech. The broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint that the item had breached Standard 6.

Referral to the Authority

[10]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Dr Gunasekara referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He reiterated his argument that the item had breached standards of accuracy and fairness.

[11]   The complainant also pointed out that the extracts used by TVNZ in its decision were from Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech to the UN General Assembly a year earlier in 2008. He argued that there was a “substantial difference in tenor” between the two speeches and that the correspondent had “grossly misrepresented” the tenor of Mr Ahmadinejad’s 2009 speech. He also provided copies of both speeches to the Authority.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[12]   TVNZ apologised for referring to the incorrect speech in its decision on Dr Gunasekara’s formal complaint and stated that the 2008 speech had not been supplied by the correspondent and was not the basis of his story.

[13]   The broadcaster maintained that the “basic points of our original response still hold true”. It contended that, while Mr Ahmadinejad’s 2009 speech was more conciliatory than his 2008 one, the Iranian President still linked the “Zionist regime in Gaza with murdering defenceless people”.

[14]   TVNZ considered that, while Mr Ahmadinejad has said that “he does not mean to refer to the people of Israel and Jewish people in particular with the term ‘Zionist regime’, this is not how the international community – in particular the Jewish community – understand his words”.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[15]   Dr Gunasekara reiterated his argument that the item was unfair to Mr Ahmadinejad and that the correspondent’s remarks were an inaccurate summation of the Iranian President’s speech.

Authority’s Request for Information

[16]   The Authority contacted the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) asking it to provide information about whether the reporter’s description of the reasons for the walkout by the New Zealand delegation was accurate.

[17]   MFAT noted the following paragraph from Mr Ahmadinejad’s 2009 speech:

It is no longer acceptable that a small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks, and establish a new form of slavery, and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the U.S., to attain its racist ambitions.

[18]   MFAT stated, “Taken in the wider context of his other speeches, in Iran and in international fora, and our commitment to UN resolutions and conventions on human rights and slavery, the comments were sufficient to trigger a walkout”.

Authority's Determination

[19]   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)

[20]   Standard 5 requires broadcasters to 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.

[21]   First, Dr Gunasekara considered that the correspondent’s report was a “skewed account of Ahmadinejad’s speech and the reason for the walkout by the New Zealand delegation”. Given MFAT’s response, we consider that the reason provided by the correspondent for the walkout staged by the New Zealand delegation was an accurate reflection and summary of the situation, and therefore it was not misleading.

[22]   Second, with respect to Dr Gunasekara’s concerns about the correspondent’s journalistic objectivity, we note that the practice of a news presenter seeking comment and analysis from a correspondent or reporter is becoming more commonplace. We note that there is debate around the blurring of the traditionally distinct roles of reporter and commentator. On this occasion we are satisfied that the New York correspondent’s reference to “mindless hate” was a throw-away line which did not affect the impartiality of the news item itself. Looking at guideline 5a, we consider that viewers would have had little difficulty in distinguishing the comment as the opinion of the correspondent, rather than fact or considered political analysis. This was obvious from the words themselves and the way in which they were delivered. Accordingly, the accuracy standard did not apply to that particular remark.

[23]   For the above reasons, we decline to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[24]   Dr Gunasekara argued that the correspondent’s comments were unfair to Mr Ahmadinejad, and that the correspondent had failed to convey the overall nature of Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech.

[25]   The complainant’s expectation that the news report should have conveyed the overall nature and subtleties of Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech is, in our view, unrealistic. In a short news item there is insufficient time to capture all of the nuances of foreign affairs. Furthermore, this item was not a report on Mr Ahmadinejad’s speech itself, but rather the fact that the New Zealand delegation had joined a walkout.

[26]   In Kiro and RadioWorks Ltd,1 regarding a complaint that a radio host unfairly scrutinised the actions of a public figure, the Authority observed that the fairness standard:

... does not prevent criticism of public figures. Indeed, it is an essential element of free speech that even the most trenchant criticism of public figures be allowed. ...The question for the Authority is whether that criticism overstepped the boundaries of fairness, that is, whether it strayed into abusively personal territory.

[27]   Politicians, particularly those who have taken controversial or unpopular stances on a number of issues, must expect to face robust criticism. In this case, we consider that there is no basis for finding that Mr Ahmadinejad was dealt with unfairly by the broadcaster. Accordingly, we decline to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 6.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
13 May 2010

Appendix

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

1.           Dr Sanji Gunasekara’s formal complaint – 25 September 2009
2.          TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 30 October 2009
3.          Dr Gunasekara’s referral to the Authority – 13 November 2009
4.          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 3 February 2010
5.          Dr Gunasekara’s final comment – 18 February 2010
6.          MFAT’s response to the Authority – 21 April 2010


1Decision No. 2008-108 at paragraph [78]