BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Kiddle and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2017-008 (26 April 2017)

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose
Dated
Complainant
  • Ian Kiddle
Number
2017-008
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
TVNZ 1

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

An item on 1 News reported on the humanitarian crisis in Damascus following disruption of water supplies, caused by fighting between the Syrian army and rebel forces. During the item, the reporter said, ‘The outage came after the government attacked rebels holding the city’s main water source’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that this item was biased and misleading by allegedly attributing blame for the water outages to President Bashar al-Assad, rather than the rebel forces. In the context of a brief item focused on the humanitarian impact of the conflict, the statement made by the reporter was a reasonable description of what occurred, and the omission of further information or different sources would not have left viewers misled or uninformed about the events covered by the item.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance


Introduction

[1]  An item on 1 News reported on the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Damascus following disruption of water supplies, caused by fighting between the Syrian army and rebel forces. During the item, the reporter said:

The outage came after the government attacked rebels holding the city’s main water source.

[2]  Ian Kiddle complained that this item was inaccurate because the broadcaster attributed blame to President Bashar al-Assad for the water outages, when responsibility in fact lay with the rebel forces. He also complained that the broadcaster did not address the overall bias against Assad and the Syrian government, in its response to his complaint.

[3]  The issues raised in Mr Kiddle’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The item was broadcast during the 6pm news on 4 January 2017 on TVNZ 1. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[5]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that 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 does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[6]  Mr Kiddle submitted that the Syrian rebels controlled and blocked the main source of water to Damascus, creating the humanitarian crisis. The item, however, wrongly blamed President Assad for this crisis.

[7]  TVNZ submitted that the dialogue at issue indicated that the government had ‘attacked’ what the rebels were ‘holding’. The word ‘holding’, as opposed to ‘defending’, implied a strategic action. The reporter’s statement therefore did not apportion greater liability or blame to one party over another and did not result in the item being inaccurate or misleading, it said.

Our analysis

[8]  We understand that, on 22 December 2016, Syrian government forces launched an offensive on the rebel-held Wadi Barada valley, near Damascus.1 The area had three water springs and provided most of the water supply to the surrounding area and the city of Damascus. We understand that this water supply was cut off as a result of clashes between rebels and the Syrian government in Wadi Barada, leaving 5.5 million people without access to water. It has been reported internationally that both sides blamed each other for the cut-off water supply, with claims that the al-Feijeh spring was attacked by an aircraft, and that the water supply was contaminated with fuel.2

[9]  The primary focus of this item was the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the clashes and the UN’s response to the issue. The item informed viewers that residents of Damascus had been without a regular water supply for two weeks and reiterated the UN’s warning that it could supply only a third of the city’s daily water needs.

[10]  In the context of a brief item (just over thirty seconds long), and based on the information we have before us, we consider that the statement made by the reporter was a reasonable description of what occurred and would not have resulted in viewers being materially misled about the events. Our understanding is that an offensive was launched by the Syrian government, in an area held by rebel forces, and that this conflict resulted in the water supply to Damascus being cut off. We consider this understanding was accurately reflected in the reporter’s statement and the item did not explicitly apportion blame for the cut-off water supply to either party.

[11]  We note that a United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry has since found that Syria’s air force bombed the al Feijeh spring. This bombing inflicted extensive damage to the spring and resulted in the loss of water to the city.3

[12]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the accuracy complaint.

Did the item breach the balance standard?

[13]  The balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. The standard exists to ensure that competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

The parties’ submissions

[14]  Mr Kiddle submitted that the broadcaster repeatedly presented a biased view of the Syrian war. He argued that this item in particular represented the New Zealand media’s overall bias against President Assad, and recommended the broadcaster refer to other sources to substantiate its claims.

[15]  TVNZ submitted that this was a brief news story which aimed to alert viewers to the effects of war, not its causes or its political background. While the Syrian war ‘in its broadest sense’ was a controversial issue of public importance, this particular story was narrowly focused on the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Damascus, and the balance standard therefore did not apply.

Our analysis

[16]  Mr Kiddle is primarily concerned with the media’s coverage of the Syrian conflict generally, which he considers to be biased against the Syrian government and its President. This item in particular demonstrated that bias, he said. Mr Kiddle argued that TVNZ could no longer rely on sources such as the BBC or CNN for its information, and that the alternative views of other independent sources should have been relied on.

[17]  As we have said above in relation to Standard 9, we consider the item accurately reported the situation as it unfolded. Based on the information before us, our view is that the reporter’s brief statement about how the water supply was cut off was a reasonable description of the events leading to the water crisis and was not misleading. In the context of a brief item focused on the humanitarian issues (ie, the impact of the cut-off water supply), we do not consider that the item was biased, or that the omission of further information or different sources would have left viewers misled or uninformed about the events.

[18]  We therefore do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich
Chair
26 April 2017

 

 

Appendix

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

1      Ian Kiddle’s formal complaint – 4 January 2017
2      TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 10 February 2017
3      Mr Kiddle’s referral to the Authority – 17 February 2017
4      TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 24 March 2017

 

 


1 Human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations in the Syrian Arab Republic, 21 July 2016 – 28 February 2017, Conference room paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 13 March 2017, at [32]-[33] 

2 See: A new casualty of Syria's war: drinking water in Damascus (New York Times, 4 January 2017); UN warns of war crimes over disruption to water supply north of Damascus (The Guardian, 5 January 2017); UN: Wadi Barada water-supply sabotage is a war crime (Al Jazeera, 6 January 2017) 

3 A copy of the report, released on 13 March 2017, is available here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx, at [36]-[37].  See also: Syrian military, not rebels, severed Damascus water supply, UN finds (New York Times, 14 March 2017); Syria committed war crime by bombing Damascus water supply: UN (Reuters, 14 March 2017); UN: Syria jets deliberately hit Damascus water supply (Al Jazeera, 15 March 2017)