BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Kenny and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-024

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • N Kenny
Number
2009-024
Programme
Breakfast
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Breakfast – segments concerning police shooting of innocent bystander – allegedly unbalanced

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – programme discussed a controversial issue of public importance – views of the police were put forward by interviewees and viewer feedback – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  At approximately 6.50am during Breakfast, broadcast on TV One on Monday 26 January 2009, one of the hosts interviewed the New Zealand Police Association President, Greg O’Connor, following a fatal shooting by the Armed Offenders Squad of an innocent man the previous Friday. The host asked Mr O’Connor whether it was reasonable at this time to question the actions of the police officers involved. Mr O’Connor responded:

...it’s an absolute tragedy and we have got nothing but sympathy for that family. ... But on the broader picture, yes, I would ask New Zealanders to back this police officer. He had no choice but to be where he was. We had a drug-crazed, we had a violent, armed offender who was in charge of the situation – the worst situation you can get in policing, which is, you know, an armed offender on the loose, mobile, and this police officer had no choice but to go there. He had no choice but to try and stop this person who clearly was dangerous and he took the action he did...

[2]   The host asked Mr O’Connor again whether it was reasonable to question the actions of the police officer responsible for the shooting. Mr O’Connor emphasised that questions would be asked in the form of four separate inquiries into the incident, and that “in the past, these things have become, you know, public debates which have led police officers to have their lives disrupted. So it’s important that people wait for the facts”. The host then considered whether members of the Armed Offenders Squad were adequately trained. Mr O’Connor responded that they were highly trained, but that unfortunately we did not live in “an ideal world”, and “these things do happen”.

[3]   The host commented that “a lot of people watching this will also remember, not so many months ago, looking at the Armed Offenders Squad trying repeatedly to shoot a dog, and the dog evaded them”. Mr O’Connor immediately corrected the host, saying, “No, it wasn’t the Armed Offenders Squad”.

[4]   Mr O’Connor reiterated that “things happen, we don’t have full control”, and considered that the actions of police would be similarly questioned if the offender had been allowed to escape. The host responded, “Absolutely, no questions about that”. Mr O’Connor commented that it was good that the public understood the circumstances surrounding the offender before it became apparent that a police officer had been responsible for the fatal shot. The host concluded the interview by saying, “I think most members of the public know just how dangerous that situation was, and potentially how much worse it could’ve been”.

[5]   Later in the programme at around 7.20am, the host interviewed Prime Minister John Key. He asked Mr Key for comment on the police incident, and Mr Key responded by offering his condolences to the victim’s family, also saying that “our hearts go out to the police officer as well. He was out there trying to protect the New Zealand public”. The host questioned the level of training of the police officers involved. Mr Key stated that it was too early to jump to conclusions, and emphasised that this was the first instance of an innocent member of the public being shot and killed by police.

[6]   At approximately 7.38am, the Breakfast presenters read out and responded to viewer feedback and emails about the actions of police.

Complaint

[7]   N Kenny made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that three aspects of the programme were unbalanced.

[8]   With reference to guideline 4a to the balance standard, N Kenny argued that the programme lacked balance and impartiality in its coverage of the shooting. N Kenny considered that, during his interview with the Police Association President, Greg O’Connor, the programme’s host had “repeatedly denigrated the actions of the police”, even though Mr O’Connor had stated the incident was the subject of four separate inquiries which had yet to be completed.

[9]   N Kenny said that there was compassion shown to the victim’s family but none towards the police officer responsible for the shooting, who was doing his job and upholding the safety of the New Zealand public. N Kenny said, “this officer must be under intense pressure but there was no consideration of this on [the host’s] part”.

[10]   N Kenny also considered that the host had disregarded the events and the person who triggered the incident, that is, the fact that he had shot at police, hijacked several vehicles, and was in possession of a sawn-off rifle and clearly a danger to the public. While the man was still to come before the courts, his actions should have been emphasised because without him the situation would not have eventuated. N Kenny said that with the host, “the police are damned if they do and damned if they don’t”, and the host would have commented if the police had allowed the man to go unchallenged and harm members of the public.

[11]   N Kenny noted that in relation to the training of the Armed Offenders Squad, the host stated they had not been able to shoot a dog in a previous incident. This was incorrect, N Kenny said, as the squad was not involved in that incident. Once these incorrect facts were aired, the situation “could only be viewed as inflammatory”, N Kenny argued, and so the programme was unbalanced and partial.

[12]   The complainant considered that, in his later interview with Mr Key, the host had again implied that the police were at fault and that the training of the Armed Offenders Squad was inadequate. The host should have refrained “from making such insinuations until the outcome of the inquiries is made public”, N Kenny said, and so this part of the programme lacked balance and impartiality.

[13]   The complainant maintained that the host was again critical of the police when discussing a fatal accident which had occurred earlier the same day near the Auckland Harbour Bridge; the host stated that police should not have closed all of its south-bound lanes while investigating the accident. N Kenny wrote that the police had a job to do and would have been mindful of inconveniencing the public, and that “as with the whole atmosphere of his show this morning I believe that this was just another case of [the host] displaying a lack of balance and impartiality towards the police”.

Standards

[14]   N Kenny nominated Standard 4 and guideline 4a of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice in the complaint. 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.

Guideline 4a           

Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[15]   TVNZ stated that Breakfast was “a mixture of news, serious interviews, magazine segments, review and often frequent good-natured ribbing at the expense of almost anyone in the headlines or visiting the set”. It said that participants and viewers appreciated this, and in particular the host’s “‘shoot from the lip’ hyperbolic comments” [were] an accepted style and integral part of the daily morning fare for the programme’s growing audience”.

[16]   The broadcaster disagreed with the complainant that the programme’s host displayed a lack of balance and impartiality. It considered the questions he put to Mr O’Connor were “appropriate considering the gravity of the topic under question”, and that Mr O’Connor was given reasonable and ample opportunity to respond to each question. The focus of the interview, TVNZ said, was to establish whether the actions of the police were reasonable on the day. The host’s line of questioning sought answers to questions likely to be in the minds of viewers after such a serious incident had occurred, the broadcaster said.

[17]   TVNZ maintained that the host had not denigrated the police, and that his questions about police training were appropriate in the context of the discussion taking place. With regard to the complainant’s objection to the host’s reference to an earlier incident involving the failure of the Armed Offenders Squad to shoot a dog, TVNZ pointed out that Mr O’Connor had quickly corrected the host’s error stating “no, that wasn’t the Armed Offenders Squad”.

[18]   The broadcaster considered that the victim’s family were shown compassion throughout the interview and that Mr O’Connor was given the opportunity to display similar compassion for the police officer involved in the incident. It noted that, at the beginning of the interview, Mr O’Connor urged the public to “back this police officer”.

[19]   TVNZ concluded that, as Mr O’Connor was asked appropriate questions and given ample and reasonable opportunity to respond, Standard 4 was not breached.

Referral to the Authority

[20]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, N Kenny referred the complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The complainant noted that three segments on Breakfast had been raised in the original complaint, but that TVNZ had responded only to one aspect of the complaint, which was the interview with Greg O’Connor. It had not addressed the complaints about the interview with Prime Minister John Key, or the host’s comment about an accident on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

[21]   N Kenny reiterated the argument that the host’s attitude towards the police over a half-hour period was “one of complete negativity” and therefore lacked balance and impartiality. The complainant expressed concern that TVNZ considered it was acceptable for the host to “shoot from the lip with hyperbolic comments” regardless of the consequences or accuracy of such comments.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[22]   TVNZ stated that, in hindsight, the further points raised by the complainant should have been addressed in its earlier response.

[23]   With regard to the interview with Prime Minister John Key, the broadcaster noted that the host had asked Mr Key for comment on the recent police shooting, and then placed the incident in a wider context of concern over police training. TVNZ considered that Mr Key was given ample opportunity to respond, and that the host’s line of questioning was appropriate considering the gravity of the topic under discussion. “Both Mr Key and viewers would expect robust questioning around such a topical and emotive topic”, it said. TVNZ concluded that this part of the programme was not unbalanced or partial.

[24]   The broadcaster noted that at around 7.38am, the presenters had read out feedback from viewers concerning the police shooting and responded to that feedback. It pointed out that the host had commented, “but we’re not condemning them [the police], we’re questioning them, that is the job of the media”. TVNZ concluded that this segment did not breach Standard 4, stating that the host “was reading viewer feedback and responding to that feedback and occasionally offering his personal opinion, which he is entitled to do”.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[25]   N Kenny pointed out that TVNZ had still only addressed two of the three segments raised in the original formal complaint; it had not responded about the host’s comments regarding the closure of the Auckland Harbour Bridge during an accident investigation. The complainant argued the segments needed to be viewed as a whole because “it was a half-hour period of negativity towards the police that was of concern”.

[26]   The complainant noted that TVNZ had gone beyond the scope of the original complaint and discussed the “viewer feedback” segment. N Kenny considered that “resultant from the negative response that had been received, [the host] on instructions or otherwise, realised that he had earlier overstepped the mark and was attempting to cover his back”. The complainant believed there would have been many New Zealanders “annoyed, angered or incensed by [the host’s] attitude”, as indicated by the number and content of the majority of the responses read out by the presenters.

Authority’s Request for Further Submissions

[27]   The Authority noted N Kenny’s argument that TVNZ had only responded to two out of three of the points raised in the original complaint. It requested a response from TVNZ to the host’s comment that police should not have closed south-bound lanes of the Auckland Harbour Bridge during an accident investigation, and also asked for a recording of this segment as it was not on the tape that was initially provided by the broadcaster.

[28]   TVNZ stated it regretted the omission of a response to the final point in the complainant’s original letter. It said it had focused on the time period between 7am and 7.30am which was cited by N Kenny in the original complaint. TVNZ maintained that in the viewer feedback segment broadcast at 7.38am, the host had explained, referring to the police, that “no one was crucified this morning, no one was being crucified”, before stating that the media were “not condemning police, they’re questioning [police]. That is the job of the media”.

[29]   The broadcaster argued that in the wake of a widely-publicised incident involving the fatal police shooting of an innocent bystander, it was reasonable to expect that police would be the subject of media scrutiny. Breakfast included some robust discussions on this topic that morning, it said, and while the host did discuss the behaviour of the police in relation to a separate incident, he did not explicitly state that police should not have closed the south-bound lanes of the Harbour Bridge.

Authority's Determination

[30]   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.

[31]   Standard 4 requires broadcasters to make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in a programme. The segment of Breakfast complained about discussed whether the actions of the police and the Armed Offenders Squad were reasonable on the day of a fatal shooting. In the Authority’s view, this amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applied.

[32]   N Kenny’s concern was that the host had portrayed the police negatively during the programme. The Authority notes that the following comments were made by Greg O’Connor, John Key and viewers:

O’Connor:      ...I would ask New Zealanders to back this police officer. ...He had no choice
                    but to try and stop this person who clearly was dangerous and he took the
                    action he did...

O’Connor:      ...it’ll be questioned in four inquiries. ...of course it must be questioned. What
                    we’re saying though, is that it’s important that the public wait for the
                    answers. ...in the past, these things have become, you know, public debates
                    which have led police officers to have their lives disrupted. So it’s important
                    that people wait for the facts.

Key:              In terms of the police officer in question I think yeah you have to say our
                    hearts go out to the police officer as well. He was out there trying to protect
                    the New Zealand public. Now I don’t know if he’s followed the right    
                    procedures, that’s something that will have to be considered. I understand
                    there are three investigations taking place. ...you really do have to feel for the
                    guy who was only trying to protect the public.

Key:              I think it’s far too early to jump to conclusions in that regard, I mean, the
                    Armed Offenders Squad are extremely well trained... this is the first member
                    of the New Zealand public that’s actually been shot and killed by the police 
                    who was essentially an innocent bystander. ...so this is a very unusual event...

Viewer:         I hope that the police officer that accidentally shot him is allowed to go
                   through all the relevant inquiries before the media start to crucify him... police
                   are doing these jobs which most people don’t want to do but which are
                   necessary for society.

[33]   Taking into account the above comments, the Authority considers that the views of the police, and those supportive of the police, were clearly put forward in the programme to balance the host’s questioning of police actions. In fact, by raising reasonable questions, the host created the opportunities necessary for Mr O’Connor and Mr Key to respond to public concerns. The interviewees clearly stated that the shooting was a terrible tragedy, and that there was an investigation taking place so conclusions could not yet be made about the actions of the police involved. Mr O’Connor also corrected the host’s assertion that the Armed Offenders Squad had tried “repeatedly to shoot a dog, and the dog evaded them”.

[34]   As the Authority has been unable to view the third segment of concern to N Kenny, in which the host commented on an accident on the Auckland Harbour Bridge, it cannot determine whether that segment in itself was balanced. However, N Kenny’s primary concern was that the host had negatively portrayed police throughout the programme. As outlined above, the Authority considers that alternative views supporting the police were put forward so that the programme, as a whole, was not unbalanced.

[35]   Accordingly, the Authority finds that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view within the programme. It declines to uphold the balance complaint.

 

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.          N Kenny’s formal complaint – 28 January 2009
2.         TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 25 February 2009
3.         N Kenny’s referral to the Authority – 14 March 2009
4.         TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 9 April 2009
5.         N Kenny’s final comment – 24 April 2009
6.         TVNZ’s response to Authority’s request for further submissions – 12 May 2009