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Minister of Health (Hon Annette King) and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-156

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Minister of Health (Hon Annette King)
Number
2004-156
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item reported that Plunketline telephone service to be replaced by broader Healthline service – Minister of Health questioned on whether her support for Healthline was consistent with election pledge in 1999 to support Plunketline – allegedly unbalanced and interview edited unfairly

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – item omitted Minister’s explanation for the change of her political point of view – unbalanced – upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – item omitted Minister’s comment on central issue – unfair – upheld

Order
Broadcast of a statement

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] The replacement of Plunketline, a telephone service for caregivers, with a broader Healthline telephone service was dealt with in an item broadcast on One News beginning at 6.00pm on TV One on 7 July 2004. It was reported that, in 1999, the Labour Party had promised to save Plunketline but now, as the Government, it was putting its support into a new service called Healthline, into which Plunketline would be absorbed.

[2] The item included a comment from the Minister of Health, as well as comments from an ACT MP and a Plunket nurse who was involved in establishing Plunketline, both of whom were critical of the Government’s actions. The item reported that Plunket had declined to comment.

Complaint

[3] The Minister of Health (Hon. Annette King) complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was unbalanced in that the item omitted Plunket’s response to Healthline, which was outlined in a press release that she had shown the reporter during an interview in her office.

[4] The Minister explained that Plunket’s support for Healthline was “crucial” in her support for the new service. She noted that when she had first complained about the omission of Plunket’s response, TVNZ stated that Plunket’s media release only arrived at about 4.23pm on 7 July. However, she said, the reporter was well aware of the media release before then because she had shown it to him when he was interviewing her before 4.00pm that day. The release, she added, not only recorded Plunket’s support for the new service “but also Plunket’s enthusiasm at the prospect of ‘new levels’ of service that a standalone Plunketline had been unable to provide”.

[5] The item, she stated, breached the standard by portraying an image of the Government abandoning a service that it had campaigned to save. Contending that the reporter had made up his mind about the item’s focus before the interview, the Minister wrote:

The press release from Plunket was an unwelcome intrusion on that story, and so he simply said on air that he had received no comment. That was simply not true.

[6] The Minister also argued that the inclusion in the item of a brief extract from the interview when she said, “why would I be putting more money into one line when we can put it into Healthline and still have the same service”, did not acknowledge her commitment to Plunketline since she had been the Minister. She stated:

I made that continuing commitment quite clear in my interview, and also made clear the fact that I have moved toward the new Healthline service on the urging of Plunket, not against Plunket’s wishes. I have fulfilled my campaign pledge to save Plunketline, and the Government is now to fund a new line that Plunket believes can deliver even stronger services in the future.

Standards

[7] TVNZ assessed the complaints under the standards relating to balance and fairness in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They 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.

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

[8] TVNZ advised that Plunketline had refused, in several conversations with TVNZ’s reporter, to comment on the Healthline merger while negotiations were proceeding. It added:

It was not surprising, then, that the reporter did not expect the subsequent press release and so failed close to deadline to notice its arrival and report its contents.

[9] Moreover, TVNZ said, Plunketline acknowledged that, in view of its previous attitude, it should have advised TVNZ’s reporter of the release. In addition, TVNZ stated that, at 5.30pm, NZPA had been told that no statement was forthcoming.

[10] TVNZ maintained that the reporter had not been shown a copy of the press release during the interview. It said that the reporter was adamant that the material he was shown was a copy of a written question from a Member of Parliament and an “unsourced” comment about the value of the Healthline arrangement. As such, TVNZ said, it was faced with a conflict of information that it was unable to reconcile.

[11] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint. It said reasonable efforts had been made to obtain Plunketline’s comments, and it did not accept that the reporter’s comment had “belittled” the complainant’s commitment to Plunketline.

Referral to the Authority

[12] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, the Minister referred her complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. She included a transcript of the item and a copy of the Plunket Society’s press release in which it supported the expanded service that it was expected that Healthline would provide.

[13] Dealing first with the material she had shown the reporter in her office, the Minister acknowledged that it included an MP’s written question, adding “but I also showed the reporter the written response from Plunket”. TVNZ’s reference to irreconcilable information, she added, suggested that she was a liar. Noting that the press release had been sent to her at 2.42 pm, she said:

It beggars belief that I would not show [the reporter] a media release that completely backed up all I was telling him about Plunket wanting to join the Healthline service.

[14] The Minister then pointed to TVNZ’s acknowledgement that it had received a press release at about 4.23pm, and added:

Given the fact that TVNZ’s political reporters often go straight to air with information coming directly from ministers’ offices, or other political offices, by telephone, [the reporter’s] apparent inability to handle a deadline so far out stretches a reasonable person’s sense of belief.

[15] Describing as “unacceptable” TVNZ’s suggestion that the Plunket spokesperson was somewhat “derelict” in his actions when he did not inform the reporter personally of the release, the Minister said she was “astonished” that the reporter had not checked for media releases. Commenting that the reference to NZPA was anecdotal and irrelevant, the Minister wrote:

It is also extraordinary that [TVNZ’s Complaints] committee seems to be inferring that the requirement on [the reporter] to deal with me fairly and justly can somehow be reduced by his sloppiness as a journalist. In addition to the unfairness, which is compounded by TVNZ’s implication that I am dishonest, it is nonsensical to try to find other people to blame for [the reporter’s] failure to make use of a media release that was, after all, delivered to him in plenty of time to be used.

[16] In view of what was seen as the “unfairness intrinsic” in the item, the Minister said it was also unbalanced. It was unbalanced in that:

  • the reporter had a predetermined position
  • the interview was edited to indicate that she was “insincere and exasperated”
  • it omitted Plunket’s press release.

[17] The Minister added:

I am at a loss to understand how TVNZ’s committee considers there has been no breach when [the reporter’s] story fails to acknowledge that the new helpline approach has been taken at Plunket’s instigation, and when I explained that to him repeatedly in the lengthy interview.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[18] TVNZ insisted that there was a conflict of information, advising that the reporter held firmly to the view that he was not shown the Plunket news release when he was in the Minister’s Office.

[19] Turning to the procedure for dealing with press releases, TVNZ said it was unusual for statements delivered close to deadline to arrive by email, especially without notification to the reporter.

[20] TVNZ also rejected the complaint that the reporter had determined in advance the outcome of the interview. The questions, based on the research undertaken, were asked in a “devil’s advocate” context. It concluded:

Noting [the Minister’s] complaint that she was shown to be “angry and exasperated” we suggest that that is her subjective view. In any case it is the role of a news programme to reflect interview subjects as they are during the interview. She would not, I imagine, believe that TVNZ should reflect only the positive mannerisms of government ministers?

Complainant’s Final Comment

[21] The Minister made five points in her final comment.

[22] First, she said that two members of her staff who were in her office had witnessed the reporter being shown the Plunket news release. Further, as TVNZ filmed the entire exchange, its field tape would also record the event. As for the reporter, the Minister commented:

I cannot understand his insistence that he did not see the media release.

[23] Secondly, she had not been implying a lack of professionalism on behalf of TVNZ’s journalists in her reference to the use of information coming directly from a minister’s office. She had been making the point that journalists accepted information at the last minute to ensure the accuracy of a story. She noted:

It remains somewhat bizarre and certainly hard to believe, that TVNZ claims its news service is so highly dependent on faxed information close to deadline.

[24] Thirdly, the NZPA comment, she reiterated, was “completely anecdotal”.

[25] Fourthly, the Minister was not convinced by TVNZ’s argument that the reporter had not been predetermined in his attitude. She listed the reporter’s inquiries in making the item that, she said, were evidence of bias.

[26] Fifthly, and pointing out that she was the target of much critical journalism, she said she regretted that TVNZ had not adopted a “self-reflective approach” in determining her complaint.

Authority's Determination

[27] 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.

[28] The correspondence recorded a dispute between the Minister of Health and the One News’ reporter as to whether the Minister had shown the reporter a copy of the Plunket Society’s press release in which it supported the service that Healthline would provide. The Minister said members of her staff who were in her office during the interview would confirm that she had shown the reporter the press release, as would the field tape. TVNZ maintained that it had not been shown a copy of the press release during the interview. The papers available at the time, it continued, were a question to the Minister from a Member of Parliament and an “unsourced” comment about the value of the Healthline service.

[29] The Minister provided the Authority with a copy of Plunket’s press release and the Authority is of the opinion that its structure is the cause of the dispute. The press release is not on Plunket headed paper and the first sentence refers to a named Member’s parliamentary question. On close examination, nevertheless, it is apparent that the statement in support of Healthline has been faxed from Plunket, and while not attributed to a named person, is an unambiguous statement of Plunket’s response to the new telephone service.

[30] The Authority does not doubt that this is the “unsourced” statement that was shown to the reporter by the Minister. However, in view of the fact that the press release did not look like a standard press release, and the reporter’s earlier unsuccessful attempts to get a comment from Plunket, the Authority is prepared to accept that there may have been some confusion in the reporter’s mind regarding the press release. It is also prepared to accept that the arrival of the press release by email and without prior notification at 4.23pm on the day of broadcast led to its being overlooked and therefore not included in the item.

[31] Despite the misunderstanding regarding the press release, the Authority considers that it has sufficient information to conclude that the item was unfair to the Minister and, as a consequence, unbalanced.

[32] The item gave the impression that the Minister of Health had gone back on a political undertaking made in 1999 to support a dedicated Plunketline telephone service. The impression was given by the interviews in which criticism was voiced by an opposition MP and a woman who had been involved in Plunketline at the outset.

[33] However, the Minister explained in her correspondence to TVNZ and to the Authority that she had agreed to the new Healthline service because of Plunket’s support for it. She said that she had explained this to the reporter, repeatedly, during the lengthy interview, and had shown him Plunket’s press release to confirm it. TVNZ does not dispute that that the Minister made comments to that effect during the interview.

[34] However, none of these comments was included in the item that was broadcast. Instead, the Minister was shown saying:

Why should I be putting more money into one line when we can put it into Healthline and still have the same service?

[35] Accordingly, the Authority concludes that, regardless of the confusion over the press release and its subsequent omission, the item was unfair to the Minister as it did not report the reasons for her decision, which were apparently made forcefully to the reporter in view of the perception that she had reneged on a political undertaking. Further, having concluded that the item was unfair to the Minister by not including her comment regarding Plunket’s strong input and support for the new service, the Authority finds that this omission resulted in a broadcast of an item that was unbalanced as it omitted a significant point of view on a matter of public importance.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item on One News on 7 July 2004 breached Standards 4 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[36] Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose orders under ss.13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It invited submissions from the parties

[37] The Minister said that she would accept whatever orders the Authority considered appropriate, and TVNZ said it was prepared to broadcast an approved statement summarising the decision.

[38] As the Authority decided that the item on One News which was broadcast was unfair to the Minister and as a consequence unbalanced, it considers that the broadcast of an approved statement is the appropriate order to impose on this occasion and that the statement should represent a full summary of its decision.

Bill of Rights

[39] 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 and to impose this order. 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.

Order

Pursuant to s.13(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders Television New Zealand Ltd to broadcast, within two months of the date of this decision, a full statement, summarising the Authority’s decision, that explains why the complaint was upheld as a breach of Standards 4 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The statement shall be approved by the Authority and broadcast at a date and time approved by the Authority

The Authority draws the broadcaster’s attention to the requirement in s.13(3)(b) of the Act for the broadcaster to give notice to the Authority of the manner in which the above order has been complied with.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
21 December 2004

Appendix

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

  1. The Minister of Health’s (Hon Annette King) complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 8 July 2004
  2. TVNZ’s response to the Minister – 4 August 2004
  3. The Minister of Health’s referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 24 August 2004
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 4 October 2004
  5. The Minister of Health’s final comment – 20 October 2004
  6. TVNZ’s submissions on orders – 2 and 3 December 2004
  7. The Minister of Health’s submissions on orders – 6 and 7 December 2004