BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Hager and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-148

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainants
  • Nicky Hager
  • Wellington
Number
2004-148
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item about NZ Army engineers in Iraq – reference to an article written by the complainant and published in the “Sunday Star-Times” – item’s focus was engineers’ reaction to the article’s claims that their achievements had been exaggerated – complainant alleged that item unfairly represented article, and was inaccurate and unbalanced

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item’s focus was reporting reaction to the article’s claims of exaggerating the achievements of engineers and did not require further balance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – item inaccurately reported that newspaper article said that the engineers were exaggerating their achievements – not otherwise inaccurate – upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – article ambiguous in parts – unfair to complainant to misreport the exaggeration claims as being made by the engineers – not otherwise unfair – upheld

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] A One News item, filmed in Iraq and broadcast on TV One at 6.00pm on 16 May 2004, dealt with the work of the New Zealand Army engineers in Iraq and referred to a newspaper article which questioned their achievements. The article had been written by Nicky Hager and published in the “Sunday Star Times” on 25 April 2004. The article was headed “More to NZ’s Tour of Duty than meets the Eye” and subheaded “As the risks of participating in Iraq have grown the engineers’ achievements have been exaggerated”.

[2] The One News item reported the response of the engineers to the claims that their achievements in Iraq had been exaggerated.

Complaint

[3] Nicky Hager complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the One News item was unfair to him, and was unbalanced and inaccurate.

[4] Appending his “Sunday Star Times” article to his complaint, Mr Hager stated that it contained three main points based on leaked government documents:

  • That only a small fraction of the anticipated work on humanitarian and reconstruction projects had occurred.
  • That while the trades staff had been involved in humanitarian work, the engineers had been carrying out other tasks.
  • That, based on a British report, the British Army had arranged “quick win humanitarian projects” for the NZ engineers.

[5] However, he wrote, the One News item said that the article reported:

  • That NZ engineers in Iraq were exaggerating their achievements in order to stay there.
  • That they were spending only a fraction of their time on civilian projects.
  • That they were exceeding their UN mandate by working with the British coalition forces.

[6] Mr Hager contended that the One News item misrepresented what he had written and had trivialised the issues. Expressing particular concern that the item suggested that he had criticised the engineers, he maintained that the item “in no way does justice” to what he had written. Mr Hager stated that the reference to exaggeration was directed at the Prime Minister’s description of the engineers’ achievements, not at the engineers themselves. His article, he argued, had been misrepresented by TVNZ.

[7] Pointing out that his article distinguished between the work undertaken by the trades people and the engineers, Mr Hager contended that this distinction was blurred in the One News item.

[8] In regard to the item’s suggestion that the NZ engineers were responsible for reverse osmosis plants and for bringing water to “hundreds of thousands” of people, Mr Hager said the engineers had worked on only one reverse osmosis plant, not plants, that the engineers had helped manage and install the plant after it had been planned and organised by the British forces, and had contributed only 15% of the cost. In other words, he wrote, “our engineers played a helpful but reasonably minor part in one osmosis plant”, and it was only one of several plants installed in Basra. Mr Hager concluded:

In conclusion, it is good journalism for information like that I wrote about to be queried and checked. But this item misrepresented (or simply ignored) what I had written, didn’t bother asking the engineers about the documentary evidence I had published and took what the engineers said about themselves as fact without any evidence of independent checking to ensure accuracy. Needless to say, he didn’t contact me. Given that the item was structured as a personal criticism of my work for another news organisation, I think it was wrong to broadcast this unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate item.

Standards

[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 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 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] TVNZ acknowledged that the complainant’s article was the catalyst for the item and dealt first with Mr Hager’s point that it could have been presented without any reference to him. TVNZ argued that it was entitled to take the approach adopted as the complainant had a reputation as an “advocacy” writer.

[11] Furthermore, TVNZ did not accept that it should have asked the engineers what was in the newspaper article, as it had been widely circulated among them. TVNZ also did not agree that the item should have presented to viewers “all the detail of your article” and, as the sources on which the article’s conclusions were based were not identified in the article, it was entitled to refer to its “claims”.

Fairness

[12] TVNZ cited the piece to camera in the item when the reporter said:

On Anzac Day here a month ago troops read researcher Nicky Hager’s claims Kiwi engineers were exaggerating their achievements in Iraq in order to stay on. That they were spending but a fraction of their time on civilian projects and that they were exceeding their UN mandate by working in with British Coalition forces.

[13] Dealing first with the “exaggeration” comment, TVNZ pointed out that the reference to exaggeration in the article was not attributed and, accordingly, advised the complainant that “it must be assumed that it is your opinion”. The item had reported that the engineers in Basra had rejected it “outright”.

[14] As for the reference to the UN mandate, TVNZ referred to some of the comments in the article and argued that it contained a “clear inference” that the NZ Defence Force was exceeding its UN mandate. TVNZ also noted that the engineers had seen the article as an attack on them and they had taken the opportunity to respond. Comments in the article about the seriousness of the conflict, TVNZ added, were clearly the complainant’s opinion.

[15] TVNZ said that the fairness requirement in Standard 6 had not been transgressed.

Accuracy

[16] TVNZ did not accept the complainant’s contention that the item implied that the whole contingent was involved in humanitarian and reconstruction work. While there were other duties to be carried out, TVNZ said that the New Zealanders “all regard themselves as ‘engineers’, playing a part in the reconstruction of Iraq”. The item, TVNZ wrote, was not inaccurate on this point.

[17] As for the reference to reverse osmosis plants TVNZ said the New Zealanders’ input was vital to keep the water supply flowing. It did not accept that the item was inaccurate, and the Standard 5 complaint was not upheld.

Balance

[18] On the basis that the item was clearly a response to the article which the New Zealand troops in Iraq had read, TVNZ said there was no need to seek further comment from the complainant. That aspect was also not upheld.

Referral to the Authority

[19] As he was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Hager referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Accuracy

[20] Attaching part of a transcript of the item to the referral and noting that the item was presented as the reaction of the Army engineers in Iraq to his article, Mr Hager wrote:

First, as you will see from the article, I did not write or suggest that the Kiwi engineers were exaggerating their achievements or that they were doing this because they wanted to stay on in Iraq. Instead my whole article was structured around contrasting Government statements about the Iraq deployment with a leaked official progress report on how much humanitarian work the Army engineers had actually completed (at the time I wrote the article, no information had been released to the public on the engineers’ work).

[21] In response to TVNZ’s comment that the engineers had taken the article personally, Mr Hager acknowledged that their reaction was “only human”, but the question was whether TVNZ had represented his article fairly. He contended that TVNZ had not done so.

[22] Mr Hager maintained his complaint that TVNZ had misrepresented his article when it failed to provide an accurate summary of the article’s claims, as outlined in paragraph [4]. Moreover, Mr Hager wrote, the TVNZ item failed to acknowledge the time which had elapsed between the date of the leaked report and the One News item. A period of some 10 weeks had elapsed and the hospital work shown in the item had not started at the time when the leaked report had been written.

[23] Mr Hager repeated his complaint that the item exaggerated the work carried out by the unit on the reverse osmosis plants. As for the comment in the item that 75% of the troops’ time was spent on projects, Mr Hager also repeated his contention that this applied to the trades section only, and that the trade section staff made up only about one quarter of total staff.

[24] In response to TVNZ’s observation that all the troops regarded themselves as “engineers”, Mr Hager described it as “disingenuous”. The item, he argued, suggested that the 75/25 percent division of the time applied to all the troops. He provided information which outlined the range of work undertaken and argued that it was inaccurate for the item to suggest that “most” of the contingent spent 75% of their time repairing hospitals.

[25] As the final alleged inaccuracy, Mr Hager said that the item lacked impartiality in view of its consistent tone of criticism towards him. TVNZ, he wrote, should have been as equally sceptical of the claims from the troops, as it had been to his claims.

Balance

[26] Mr Hager maintained that the item was unbalanced and lacked impartiality in:

  • failing to report the article’s specific claims
  • failing to question the troops in a critical way
  • suggesting that he had been attacking the engineers.

Fairness

[27] Noting that the item had specifically responded to an article which had been published three weeks earlier, Mr Hager considered that his article should have been represented fairly. It was insufficient in the interests of fairness for TVNZ to argue that the troops had read the article. While they had responded to some of the comments in the article as if it was an attack on them, the item had not explained to viewers that the article was not an attack on them. Moreover, TVNZ had been unfair in reinforcing that impression.

[28] Mr Hager contended that the lack of scepticism apparent in the item’s approach to the comments made by the troops was unfair to him, as well as being unbalanced. He also argued that the prominence given by TVNZ to him was unfair given the relative obscurity of the article and the lack of response it evoked at the time. In support of this contention he cited past decisions from the Authority when complaints were upheld as the broadcaster had treated people from different sides of the dispute unfairly.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[29] TVNZ said that the item stated explicitly that it contained the reaction of the NZ troops in Iraq to the assertions in Mr Hager’s article in the “Sunday Star Times”. The article, which the troops had seen, contained the comment:

… as the risks of participating in Iraq have grown, the engineers’ achievements have been exaggerated to justify the continued deployment.

[30] TVNZ commented:

This statement came without attribution. It is a closed sentence that is not attributed to either the Prime Minister or the Government. Therefore, it is Mr Hager’s opinion, and TVNZ’s reading of it is fair and reasonable.

[31] Moreover, in response to Mr Hager’s argument that the item contained inaccuracies, TVNZ wrote:

Mr Hager’s sources were not identified in his article and therefore his assertions could fairly be described as claims. We submit that Mr Hager’s failure to validate his documentation in the article left One News with no choice but to describe his assertions as claims.

[32] As for the reverse osmosis plants, TVNZ said neither the troops nor the item claimed that they were built by the New Zealand troops. They were, however, the “centre pieces” of the New Zealand effort.

[33] TVNZ said, in response to Mr Hager’s point about the time spent by all troops on humanitarian and reconstruction work, that the unit was under the auspices of the United Nations and was engaged in fulfilling the UN mission.

[34] TVNZ submitted that Mr Hager’s references to the Authority’s previous decisions were “mischievous and misleading” and it did not see the relevance of the decisions cited.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[35] Dealing first with the sentence quoted by TVNZ (paragraph [29]), Mr Hager said its meaning was “abundantly” clear from the context.

The article is all about contrasting Government statements with the leaked report on humanitarian projects completed. There is nothing in the article to support the TVNZ contention that I was making a comment about the engineers themselves (which I wasn’t and wouldn’t want to do). This is not a fair and reasonable representation of my writing.

[36] While the item had said that the engineers rejected any suggestion that they had exaggerated their achievements, TVNZ now said that the item reported that the engineers rejected any suggestion that their achievements had been exaggerated. The latter response, he observed, interpreted his article correctly.

[37] Mr Hager emphasised that this point was central to his complaint as the item’s theme, incorrectly, inaccurately and unfairly, assumed that he had criticised the engineers directly.

[38] Maintaining that TVNZ’s response did not deal with his complaint about the way the item had dealt with the unit’s humanitarian and reconstructive work, Mr Hager did not deny that the efforts were carried out in dangerous conditions and were gratefully received by the recipients. However, he argued, the work done was not as extensive as the public was told. The engineers, he continued, not the trades people, should have been asked about the work that had been accomplished.

[39] Repeating his contentions made in the complaint and the referral, Mr Hager noted that his work was often criticised publicly but, unlike the previous occasions, he had complained as:

… the TVNZ item seemed so one-sided – presenting Army statements as fact while misrepresenting and pooh-poohing what I had written. It was like a PR job against me on behalf of [the reporter’s] annoyed New Zealand Defence Force hosts. People in New Zealand should be able to write an article without being attacked on national television news in such a partial matter.

Further Correspondence

[40] In a response, TVNZ referred to the final sentence above (paragraph [39]), and observed that all members of the public were entitled to challenge the work of columnists. It added:

We hold to the view that it was entirely appropriate for TVNZ’s reporter visiting Iraq to reflect the impact of Mr Hager’s newspaper column had on the troops based in Basra and to report the situation among the New Zealand troops as he saw it.

Authority's Determination

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

[42] A relatively brief One News item reported on the work of the NZ Army Engineers’ unit in Iraq. It included interviews with some members of the unit who described the work on a number of humanitarian and reconstruction projects which they were undertaking. The item included the following remarks from the reporter made to camera:

On Anzac Day here a month ago, troops read researcher Nicky Hager’s claims that Kiwi engineers were exaggerating their achievements here in Iraq in order to stay on; that they were spending but a fraction of their time on civilian projects and that they were exceeding their UN mandate by working with British coalition forces.

[43] Mr Hager complained that the item breached the standards relating to balance (Standard 4), accuracy (Standard 5) and fairness (Standard 6).

Accuracy

[44] As noted, the news item stated specifically that Mr Hager had claimed that the “Kiwi engineers were exaggerating their achievements.” Mr Hager provided the Authority with a copy of the newspaper article on which that comment was based. The article contained the following passage with regard to exaggeration:

In the same week as the report was dated, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced a second six-month deployment of engineers to Iraq. She said the engineers had “made important contributions to restoring and establishing core services” including bringing “clean water to 200,000 people for the first time in a generation”. But $52,000 doesn’t bring clean water to a population the size of Wellington. As the risks of participating in Iraq have grown, the engineers’ achievements have been exaggerated to justify the continued deployment.

[45] The Authority considers that the article was ambiguous as to who exactly had been exaggerating the achievements of the engineers. Interpreted in one way, the article could have been referring to the Prime Minister and her government; read another way, to the Armed Forces. The Authority agrees with Mr Hager, nevertheless, that the article did not directly assert that the engineers in Iraq were responsible for the exaggeration as stated unequivocally in the item.

[46] Accordingly, the Authority upholds the aspect of the complaint that the statement in the item that Mr Hager claimed Kiwi engineers in Iraq “were exaggerating their achievements” misrepresented Mr Hager’s article and, accordingly, breached the standard relating to accuracy (Standard 5).

[47] Mr Hager claimed that the item contained a number of other inaccuracies. Specifically, he contended that the item had blurred the distinction between the work being carried out by the trades staff, as opposed to the engineers, and had exaggerated the work of the engineers in respect of the reverse osmosis plants.

[48] Despite the coverage given to these matters by Mr Hager in the newspaper article, they were incidental to the news item. The item presented the NZ troops’ on-the-ground experience and work in Iraq from their perspective. The item’s focus was essentially a human interest story which included the unit’s reaction to the overall thrust of the newspaper article, especially the comment about exaggeration.

[49] In respect of the alleged omission of an explanation about the proportion of work being performed by the trades people and engineers respectively, the Authority finds that this does not give rise to any inaccuracy. The entire New Zealand unit, while consisting of trades people and other support staff as well as engineers, was widely referred to as “the engineering contingent”, even by Mr Hager, and clearly regarded themselves as such. In the Authority’s view, the item did not misrepresent their respective roles by not detailing which work was being carried out by which component of that unit.

[50] The Authority reaches the same conclusion in relation to the allegation that the item exaggerated the work being carried out on the reverse osmosis plants. The Authority notes that the item recounting the unit’s experiences in fact made no specific claims as to the nature or extent of the New Zealanders’ involvement in the construction of the plants referred to in the article.

[51] For the above reasons, the Authority does not uphold the aspects of the complainant’s accuracy complaint except in relation to the statement that the engineers were exaggerating their achievements.

Fairness

[52] In view of its finding that the item was inaccurate when it stated that Mr Hager claimed that the troops themselves were exaggerating their achievements, the Authority concludes that the item was also unfair to him in this regard. He was referred to explicitly in the item and, in the words of Standard 6, was not dealt with “justly and fairly.” In incorrectly reporting his article, the item exposed Mr Hager to unwarranted criticism – both from the troops in Iraq and also from the viewing public – and this created unfairness.

[53] The Authority accordingly upholds this aspect of the complaint.

Balance

[54] Mr Hager complained that the news item lacked balance in that it was a “specific refutation of his article”, yet it failed to report his claims, it failed to probe the army engineers when they claimed that his article was wrong, and it did not offer him an opportunity to respond to the criticism.

[55] The Authority does not agree that the item was unbalanced. First, the Authority does not agree that the item was either a specific refutation or personal criticism of Mr Hager or his article. The item was essentially a human interest story about the work being done by New Zealand’s Iraq contingent, triggered by troops’ reaction to what they had perceived as criticism of their efforts. While Mr Hager’s article may well have been the catalyst for the item, the item did not focus on the detail of the article.

[56] Second, Mr Hager’s claim of imbalance rests on his view that the news item misrepresented his article and then failed to offer him the opportunity to respond to what he perceived to be unchallenged criticisms of him and his work. These issues, in the view of the Authority, are more appropriately considered as matters of accuracy and fairness, and have been dealt with accordingly.

[57] Finally, the Authority notes that in any event viewers were left in no doubt as to the nature of the diverging views, ranging from the position expressed in Mr Hager's article, to the alternative view expressed by the engineers in Iraq and reported by TVNZ.

[58] For the above reasons, the Authority does not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Bill of Rights

[59] For the avoidance of doubt, the Authority records that it has given full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and taken into account all the circumstances of the complaint in reaching its determinations to uphold the complaint. For the reasons given above, the Authority considers that its exercise of powers on this occasion is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the reasons above, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item on One News 16 May 2004, breached standards 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[60] Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under ss.13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The Authority acknowledges that the complainant had some justification in feeling aggrieved when one of the main points he had made in the article was presented in a misleading way in the item which was broadcast. However, the Authority does not consider that the breach was sufficiently serious as to justify the use of its powers. It finds that the public release of its decision as required by s.15 of the Act is sufficient in itself.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
4 February 2005

Appendix

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

  1. Nicky Hager’s formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – undated
  2. TVNZ’s response to Mr Hager – 12 July 2004
  3. Mr Hager’s referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 8 August 2004
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 26 August 2004
  5. Mr Hager’s final comment – 15 September 2004
  6. TVNZ’s response to Mr Hager’s final comment – 21 September 2004