BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Lawson and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-027

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • John Lawson
One News
TV One

One News – item reported public street marches opposing lifting of GE moratorium – unbalanced as it suggested opponents were militant and irrational and lacked scientific and economic sense

Standard 4 – item focused on depth of demonstrators’ concerns and Government’s response to those concerns – not unbalanced – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision


[1] Marches in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch protesting the forthcoming lifting of the moratorium on GE field experiments were dealt with in an item on One News, broadcast on TV One on 11 October 2003 beginning at 6.00pm. The item focused on events in Auckland.

[2] John Lawson complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster that the item was unbalanced as it suggested the anti GE movement consisted of militants and irrational people who had no scientific or economic sense.

[3] In response, TVNZ maintained that the item reported the day’s events in a straightforward manner and included comment from both sides of the argument. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision Mr Lawson referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.


[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.


[6] Street marches in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch opposing the forthcoming lifting of the GE moratorium on field experiments were reported in an item on One News broadcast on TV One on 11 October 2003. The focus of the report was the largest march, in Auckland.


[7] John Lawson complained informally to TVNZ about the item. In view of the visuals and commentary, he contended that the item left the impression that the marchers were militants and irrational with no scientific or economic sense. He argued that there were no adequate responses to the sound bites from the few pro GE demonstrators or from the Minister speaking for the Government. Moreover, the item reported the number of marchers as 15,000 and there was no mention of the organiser’s claim of 40,000.

[8] After TVNZ responded to the complaint informally, Mr Lawson made a formal complaint about the item and said that it was in breach of the standard requiring balance. It was in breach, he wrote, as while it included “rallying cries” from the marchers, the only significant points of view about the GE debate were advanced by the pro GE speakers.


[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the standard nominated by the complainant. Standard 4 and the relevant Guidelines 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.


4a  Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.

4b  No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial public issues. Broadcasters should aim to present all significant sides in as fair a way as possible, it being acknowledged that this can be done only by judging each case on its merits.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] TVNZ did not accept that the item was biased in favour of the pro GE lobby. It had focused, it said, on the large numbers who had turned out to indicate their opposition to the end of the moratorium.

[11] Explaining that the item was a news report of the day’s events – not a debate about the pros and cons in the GE argument – TVNZ listed seven matters which the report had covered in what it described as “a straightforward and unambiguous” manner. Comments from both sides had been included while the GE debate had been dealt with fully in other items broadcast at other times. In view of the balanced and impartial approach it had taken at all times, TVNZ said, a neutral position had been properly demonstrated and the Standard had not been contravened.

[12] As for the issue of the crowd size, TVNZ said it followed international practice and had opted for a cautious approach while accurately reporting the police estimate.

Referral to the Authority

[13] Mr Lawson stated that TVNZ had not addressed the nub of his complaint. He accepted that TVNZ had covered the GE debate in other programmes but, noting that he had not seen the programmes cited and attaching a critical response about on of those other programmes which had been sent to him, Mr Lawson considered that coverage in news items themselves should be balanced. He submitted that the news item broadcast on 11 October “perpetuated the myth that the anti GE protest movement is based on emotional and unscientific reasoning”.

[14] The item, he argued, should have included some of the scientific facts made by speakers at the rally. He also complained about the extent and content of the coverage given to the pro GE point of view during the item, writing:

A significant point of view of the anti GE movement is that the science of GE is indeed an unsound science based on a flawed scientific theory. That this is a ‘significant point of view’ could easily be verified by speaking to any member of the movement or by listening to the speakers at the end of the protest. Not only did TVNZ fail to present this point of view but their news item would lead a viewer to believe that the movement and the protestors knew nothing about the science behind GE. A rallying cry, while very telegenic, could hardly be described a ‘point of view’, not even an ‘insignificant point of view’.

Authority’s Determination

[15] The item complained about did not examine the arguments for or against the ending of the moratorium. Rather, it showed the intensity of the feelings of those who marched in support of maintaining the moratorium, and it included some comments from a woman demonstrator who supported that position and a man who opposed that position. The item included some remarks from an interview with the Minister for the Environment in which she gave the Government’s response to the protestors.

[16] Mr Lawson complained that the item was unbalanced in that it suggested the anti GE movement consisted of militants and irrational people who had no scientific or economic sense.

[17] The Authority concludes that the item was not unbalanced. It agrees with Mr Lawson that the item, while it showed the depth of the feelings of the marchers, could possibly be interpreted as suggesting that their arguments were not necessarily rational or based on reason. However, the Minister did not advance pro GE arguments. Rather, she stated forcefully that the protestors’ actions would not lead to a change of the Government’s intention to end the moratorium.

[18] The Authority concludes that the issue dealt with in the item was not unbalanced and in breach of Standard 4.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
1 April 2004


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

1. John Lawson’s Informal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – undated

2. TVNZ’s Response to the Informal Complaint – 28 October 2003

3. Mr Lawson’s Formal Complaint – 30 October 2003

TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 10 December 2003

4. Mr Lawson’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 December 2003

5. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 20 January 2004

7. Mr Lawson’s Final Comment – 27 January 2004