Ministry for Social Development and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2006-076
- Joanne Morris (Chair)
- Diane Musgrave
- Tapu Misa
- Paul France
- Ministry of Social Development
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item about the 211 Helpline – said Opposition MPs were questioning whether service was too expensive and duplicated the service run by the Citizens Advice Bureau – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair
Standard 4 (balance) – controversial issue discussed – item did not need to include details about what the 211 service might cost if rolled out nationally – majority considers item should have explained that 211 service was operating more extensive hours than the CAB – majority uphold
Standard 5 (accuracy) – subsumed under Standard 4
Standard 6 (fairness) – subsumed under Standard 4
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 On TV One at 6pm on 23 May 2006, an item on One News discussed the 211 Helpline, a community helpline run by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD). The item looked into suggestions made by Opposition MPs that the service was too expensive and duplicated an established service run by the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).
 The item reported that the equivalent of 12 full-time staff at the helpline were receiving an average of 36 calls a day, at a value of $50 a call. The following excerpts from an exchange between National MP Judith Collins and the Hon David Benson-Pope (Minister of Social Development) at Parliamentary Question Time were broadcast:
Judith Collins: …and can he assure the House that this wastage won’t be
continued or extended again when it comes up for evaluation in
June this year.
David Benson-Pope: Madam Speaker…I don’t believe providing good assistance and
advice for families is a wasteful expense Madam Speaker…
 The item also included brief quotes from Kerry Dalton from the CAB and Bryan Wilshire who supervised the call centre.
 Peter Hughes, Chief Executive of MSD, made a formal complaint on behalf of MSD to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster. The complainant noted that a One News reporter had cancelled a scheduled interview with the Deputy Chief Executive of MSD’s Family and Community Services at the last minute.
 The complainant acknowledged that One News had included comments from the political spectrum, but it contended that it had failed to present facts from the Ministry. It said:
While it is true, the average cost of calls is currently more than $50 per call, what your reporter failed to report was that this cost would reduce to $5 per call if rolled out nationally. You will be aware from your own experience that any new service incurs high unit costs in set up stages.
 The complainant stated that it had been in talks with CAB to reassure them that the 211 Helpline was aimed at complementing their work, not competing with them. An understanding had been reached with the previous CAB chief executive, it explained, but new management had chosen to campaign against the 211 service in the media.
 MSD asserted that there were also significant differences between the 211 Helpline and the service operated by the CAB. The 211 Helpline was a seven day a week, 13 hours a day, family-focussed professional service using trained staff. That level of service was not available from the CAB, it said, because it had limited hours and only operated five days per week. Most calls to the CAB, it said, would result in an answer-phone message.
 In the complainant’s view, the item should have presented these facts in order to let viewers draw their own conclusions based on objective reporting of all the facts. It maintained that the item was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair.
 TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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 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.
Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant
 In its response to the complainant, TVNZ pointed out that the item was essentially a political story built around allegations from the National Party. In terms of Standard 4 (balance), it asserted that Mr Benson-Pope and Bryan Wilshire had spoken in favour of the 211 Helpline, and that Kerry Dalton and Judith Collins had criticised the service. In addition, the reporter had quoted from material that had been supplied by the Ministry’s media liaison officer and Ms Collins.
 TVNZ maintained that the item was even-handed and balanced, and had not “taken sides”. Rather, One News had investigated a claim made by Opposition MPs and set out arguments for and against the 211 Helpline. While it understood that the Ministry would have preferred a more in-depth item, TVNZ contended that the reality of the electronic media was that “space is always at a premium”. Viewers had learnt that there was some controversy over the 211 Helpline and that there were arguments both for and against the service, it said.
 Looking at Standard 5 (accuracy), the broadcaster noted that the complainant’s letter had “hinted at error by omission”, but had not identified any statement as being inaccurate. TVNZ reiterated that space was “simply not available” for the “detailed exposition” desired by the complainant. It contended that in making editorial judgments about what is included in news items, the overall impression left with the viewer was important.
 With respect to Standard 6 (fairness), TVNZ was of the view that it was not unfair to publicly scrutinise an issue raised in Parliament by the Opposition. It asserted that the item had dealt with a matter of genuine public interest involving the spending of taxpayers’ money.
 TVNZ apologised to the complainant that the Deputy Chief Executive had been left waiting for a One News reporter. Nevertheless, it found that no breach of programme standards had occurred.
Referral to the Authority
 Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Hughes referred MSD’s complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The complainant reiterated its view that the item was unbalanced, unfair and misleading.
 The complainant maintained that, as the organisation responsible for the decision to fund the 211 Helpline, it should have been interviewed as a priority, regardless of the fact that One News had limited space to cover issues. It added:
It is also a critical professional skill of any broadcasting journalist to convey the full story within a short time frame, and it is disingenuous for TVNZ to use limited space as a defence.
 Further, the complainant contended that the comment from Bryan Wilshire in the item had referred only to the environment of the call centre, and had not added to viewers’ understanding of whether the service was useful, or whether funding the service was justified.
 In the complainant’s view, crucial facts had been omitted from the item. Viewers should have been told that the cost of the service would reduce to $5 per call if it was rolled out nationally, it said. In addition, the item had implied that the service was duplicating the work of the CAB, without pointing out that the CAB operated much more limited hours than the 211 Helpline.
 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.
 The complainant has argued that, in order to provide balance, the item should have included the following information:
- the cost of the helpline would reduce from $50 per call to $5 per call if it was rolled out nationally
- the 211 service operated 13 hours a day, seven days per week in contrast to the much more limited hours of the CAB, and therefore it was providing a service when the CAB was not operating.
 Because the complainant is arguing that the broadcaster failed to present significant perspectives, the Authority considers that its concerns are most appropriately dealt with under Standard 4 (balance). Therefore it subsumes the Standard 5 and 6 complaints into its consideration of the balance standard.
 Standard 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed. In the Authority’s view, the item discussed whether a government-funded family services helpline was too expensive, and whether it duplicated a service already provided by the Citizens Advice Bureau. Because it involved the use of taxpayer funds, the Authority considers this to be an issue to which Standard 4 applies.
 With respect to the complainant’s first point, the Authority considers that the broadcaster was not obliged to include any information about what the service might cost if it became a national operation. The concerns raised in Parliament that day centred on the current cost of the 211 service. In the context of a short news item which reported these concerns, it was not necessary for the broadcaster to speculate on the possible future cost of the service. Accordingly, the Authority finds that Standard 4 was not breached in this respect.
 However, a majority of the Authority finds that the broadcaster did not meet its obligation to present significant points of view in respect of the complainant's second point. The Authority considers that, having introduced the CAB's claim about the 211 service duplicating and threatening its own service, the item needed to provide the other significant perspective on that claim. That is, as MSD points out in its complaint, that the 211 service was aimed at complementing the CAB's work, and that it had more extensive operating hours and was therefore providing a service when the CAB was not. The Authority acknowledges that the item included a short comment from the head of the 211 service, but agrees with MSD that the comment was not germane to the controversial issue under discussion, and therefore did not provide the significant viewpoint required to balance the item under the standard. While accepting the limitations of a brief news item, the Authority notes that a "detailed exposition" was not required to effect balance. Accordingly, the majority upholds this aspect of the complaint.
 A minority (Paul France) disagrees. The minority considers the item merely noted the debate about the cost of the trial service and that the use of the words "duplicate" and "replicate" would not have been taken by the reasonable viewer to mean the services were similar in all respects. The minority also agrees with the position of TVNZ that the complainant seemed to want a "detailed exposition" that was not achievable in the context of a short news item. The minority notes that opportunity was given to the head of the 211 service to respond.
Bill of Rights
 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 this determination. 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.
For the above reasons, a majority of the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast of an item on One News by Television New Zealand Ltd on 23 May 2006 breached Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. Having considered all the circumstances of the complaint, and taking into account that the decision to uphold the complaint was not unanimous, the Authority concludes that an order is not appropriate. It considers that the publication of its decision is sufficient on this occasion.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
19 October 2006
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
- Ministry of Social Development’s formal complaint – 31 May 2006
- TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 27 June 2006
- Ministry of Social Development’s referral to the Authority – 13 July 2006
- TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 7 August 2006