BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Li and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2006-064

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Albert Li
3 News
CanWest TVWorks Ltd
TV3 # 2

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
3 News – item investigating “claims that China harvests the organs of executed prisoners for transplants at a price” – included secret footage from transplant centre where staff admitted the practice – reported concerns of British transplant surgeons about lack of consent from prisoners – allegedly inaccurate, unfair and in breach of programme information standard


Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccuracies – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – not unfair to any person or organisation taking part or referred to – not upheld

Standard 8 (programme information) – subsumed under Standards 5 and 6

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] On TV3 at 6pm on 20 April 2006, 3 News broadcast an item about organ harvesting in China. The introduction to the item said:

For years there have been claims that China harvests the organs of executed prisoners for transplants at a price – something China has consistently denied.

Now a British television crew has uncovered the strongest evidence yet that it does in fact happen.

[2] The item said that the reasons behind the “seemingly endless supply” of livers in China were “deeply sinister”, and showed footage from the Orient Organ Transplantation Centre in China. The reporter said they had obtained the film secretly – posing as relatives of someone needing a new liver – and said that a nurse and a doctor had admitted that they used livers that had been harvested from executed prisoners. The hospital, it said, had publicly admitted that it was linked to the para-military police.

[3] The reporter relayed the Chinese Government’s response to the allegations, which was that organs had only been taken from a few executed prisoners, and always with their prior consent. The item said that many people did not believe the Government’s response, and questioned “how voluntary any organ donation could be for a prisoner on China’s death row”.

[4] The item also relayed the concerns of “Britain’s leading group of transplant surgeons”. A representative said in the item that the group was concerned about lack of consent, the possible financial link, and also whether prisoners’ executions were being timed in order to coincide with transplants.

[5] Finally, the item showed footage from another “hospital in China’s capital” and said that staff at this hospital had also admitted taking livers from executed patients.


[6] Albert Li made a formal complaint about the item to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that it was inaccurate, unfair and in breach of the programme information standard.

[7] Looking at Standard 5 (accuracy), Mr Li stated that the programme had implied that organ transplants in China from executed prisoners occurred without consent. He contended that there was insufficient evidence to prove that this was true, and therefore it was inappropriate for the item to conclude that the practice should be condemned.

[8] Even if consent was not given, the complainant argued that the item had only shown one hospital which had breached medical ethics. There was no evidence to show that the practice was widespread throughout China, he said, but the item had suggested that this was the case. The way the programme had presented this issue was “sheer speculation and misleading” in Mr Li’s view.

[9] Turning to consider Standard 6 (fairness), Mr Li believed that the programme had “reached a conclusion through imagination”. It had shown scenes of a person undergoing surgery, and this had suggested that this person was receiving a liver from an executed prisoner. Mr Li asserted that there was no evidence to suggest where the organ had come from or whether it had in fact come from a prisoner.

[10] Further, the complainant argued that it was unfair to impute this practice to the whole of China. Even if one hospital was in breach of professional ethics, he said, this did not mean that all other hospitals were also guilty. The item had unfairly criticised China’s human rights record, Mr Li said.

[11] Finally, Mr Li submitted that the item had breached Standard 8 (programme information) because it had deceived viewers.


[12] The following standards in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice were nominated by the complainant:

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.

Standard 8 Programme Information

Broadcasters are responsible for ensuring that programme information and structure does not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[13] CanWest did not consider that Standard 8 was relevant to the complaint, and therefore it assessed the complaint under Standards 5 (accuracy) and 6 (fairness). It contended that the item had clearly focused on one hospital in China, and it did not consider that the item was inaccurate or unfair.

[14] CanWest noted that the item had included the official response from the Chinese Government that organs were only harvested with prisoners’ consent. The doubt as to the veracity of that response had been explicitly stated in the item, CanWest said, and it had pointed out that prisoners were unlikely to be in a position to provide informed consent. The item had also included the concerns of British transplant surgeons and, as a result, the broadcaster considered that “an adequate factual basis was laid for the allegations in the report”.

[15] CanWest concluded that the commentary in the report was neither unfair nor inaccurate. It did not uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[16] Dissatisfied with CanWest’s response, Mr Li referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He considered that by reporting the concerns of the British surgeons, CanWest had affirmed their view and condemned China’s human rights record without any evidence.

[17] The complainant was concerned that the item implied that the practice of taking organs from executed prisoners without consent was widespread in China. This would result in prejudice against the Chinese, he said. Mr Li reiterated his view that Standard 8 was relevant to his complaint as the report had misled and deceived viewers.

Authority's Determination

[18] 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)

[19] Mr Li’s complaint outlined two main concerns about accuracy. First, he argued that the item implied that hospitals all across China were taking livers from executed prisoners, when there was only evidence of this occurring at one hospital. Second, he believed that the item implied that this practice was occurring without the consent of the prisoners.

[20] In the first instance, the Authority is of the view that the item did not state or imply that the harvesting of executed prisoners' organs occurred at hospitals all across China. It merely stated that the evidence it had found at one hospital suggestedthat the practice did occur, despite previous denials from the Chinese government.On the second aspect, the item accurately reported both the position of the Chinese government that prisoners consented to donating their organs, and the concerns of a number of people that prisoners facing execution werenot in a position to give proper consent.

[21] Accordingly, the Authority finds that the broadcast was truthful and accurate on points of fact, and it does not uphold this part of the complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[22] Mr Li complained that the item breached Standard 6 (fairness) because footage in the item purported to show an illegal operation without actually giving any details about the surgery. However, Standard 6 requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with “any person or organisation taking part or referred to” in a broadcast. As Mr Li has not specified any person or organisation that he considers to have been treated unfairly by the footage, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[23] The complainant also argued that the item was unfair to China as a nation. However, the nation of China is not a “person or organisation taking part or referred to in the programme” as envisaged by Standard 6. Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the fairness complaint.

Standard 8 (programme information)

[24] Mr Li argued that CanWest had deceived viewers because of the alleged inaccuracies and unfairness in the programme. Because Mr Li’s complaint under Standard 8 is based entirely on the matters addressed under the Authority’s consideration of Standards 5 and 6 above, the Authority finds that his complaint has already dealt with been appropriately. Accordingly, it subsumes the Standard 8 complaint into its consideration of the standards above.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
19 September 2006


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

  1. Albert Li’s initial letter to CanWest – 21 April 2006
  2. CanWest’s response to Mr Li – 26 April 2006
  3. Mr Li’s formal complaint – 29 April 2006
  4. CanWest’s decision on the formal complaint – 30 May 2006
  5. Mr Li’s referral to the Authority – 23 June 2006