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Ministry of Social Development Te Manatu Whakahiato Ora and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-067

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Ministry of Social Development
Number
2004-067
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item about Work and Income computer error leading to disclosure of information about some Work and Income clients, and ramifications for beneficiaries – allegedly sensationalist, unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 2 (law and order) – subsumed under Standard 6

Standard 4 (balance) – Ministry’s position not adequately presented – upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – item contained many inaccuracies – upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – item unfair to Ministry and its chief executive – upheld

Order
Broadcast of a statement

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

{1} An item on One News, broadcast on TV One on 27 November 2003, reported on a computer error made by Work and Income, a division of the Ministry of Social Development, which had caused some information about some Work and Income clients to be sent to other clients. The Ministry’s chief executive, Peter Hughes, was featured in the item after being interviewed by TVNZ. The item also reported on the reactions of beneficiaries to the error. One of these people, “Fay”, was interviewed in the item. The reporter was seen to telephone Work and Income with Fay, and reported on how TVNZ had been able to access Fay’s client information. The item also reported that, following the error, another beneficiary had been telephoned on her unlisted number by someone she did not know.

Complaint

[2] The Ministry of Social Development complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item breached a number of broadcasting standards.

[3] The Ministry explained that the error which had been reported on had caused 2,716 Work and Income clients to receive letters containing up to three pieces of information (name, address and client number) about another client. It stated that no other information was disclosed. The chief executive of the Ministry said he had advised TVNZ in his interview that the Ministry would secure a client’s record, issue a new client number or a password (or do all three of these things) if a client felt the error had resulted in harm to them.

Standards

[4] The standards which the Ministry considered had been breached were Standards 2, 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They read:

Standard 2 Law and Order

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.

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.

Guidelines

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.

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.

Ministry’s Submissions

Standard 2

[5] The Ministry submitted that the chief executive had not been given sufficient opportunity to respond on camera to allegations about access to client information made in the item. It considered that this alleged breach of natural justice contravened Standard 2.

Standard 4

[6] The Ministry complained that the item was unbalanced as TVNZ only used a short clip from the chief executive’s interview and that clip was taken out of context. In the Ministry’s view, the item implied that Work and Income considered its clients ought to have been grateful that the matter had been drawn to their attention. The extract broadcast was:

That is our mistake. It should not have happened. I chose to personally advise all of the people affected. If I hadn’t done that they would have been none the wiser.

[7] The Ministry also complained that:

  • significant information which had been provided during the interview had not been used, including information about the fact that the Ministry takes privacy concerns seriously, the commitment of the Ministry to fixing, rather than hiding, problems, and the steps that the Ministry had been prepared to take to address the error
  • there was a significant disproportion between the time allocated to Fay and the reporter’s side of the story, compared with the Ministry’s.

Standards 5 and 6

[8] The Ministry alleged:

  • It was inaccurate and unfair to suggest the Ministry had disclosed unlisted telephone numbers/the ability to access such numbers.
  • It was inaccurate and unfair for presenter to report that “the most personal details are now in the hands of complete strangers after a new bungle by Work and Income”.
  • It was unfair not to give the Ministry a chance to respond to information about the journalist accessing “Fay’s” information.
  • It was inaccurate and unfair to imply that more information was disclosed than the name, address and client number of an affected client.
  • It was inaccurate and unfair not to report the steps the Ministry had offered to take in response to the error.
  • It was inaccurate and unfair to suggest that Ministry safeguards on beneficiary information (the use of three “identifying questions”) were not in place and not working.
  • It was inaccurate and unfair not to advise that the reporter had accessed “Fay’s” details by giving her birth date (information not disclosed in the incorrectly addressed letters).
  • The selection of the extract from Mr Hughes’s interview was unfair and inaccurately implied that he felt that Work and Income clients should have been grateful that he had publicised the error.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[9] TVNZ submitted:

Standard 2

  • There was no evidence that the item breached Standard 2 and the issues raised were also best dealt with under Standard 6.

Standard 4

  • Many of the points raised by Mr Hughes in his interview were included in the report in the commentary.
  • The extract of the interview was chosen because it indicated the Ministry’s “pro-active” efforts, Mr Hughes’s personal commitment and the Ministry’s appreciation of the seriousness of the error.
  • It was unreasonable to expect that all the detailed information given by Mr Hughes could be included in a short news item.
  • Sufficient information was included on the Work and Income perspective to ensure balance in the item.

Standard 5

  • There were no inaccuracies.
  • TVNZ did not accept that the item implied that the information disclosed had included telephone numbers (the implication instead being that anxieties were caused by the error).
  • The information was correctly described as the “most personal” and the incident was indeed a “new bungle”, referring to many other mistakes that had been reported in newspapers.

Standard 6

  • The item was not unfair to the Ministry’s chief executive and there was no evidence that he had been “ambushed”.
  • The Ministry’s chief executive had been advised that TVNZ had made what it considered were legitimate telephone checks to see whether Work and Income security measures were working and had discussed off-camera his disappointment about the fact that only one “identifying question” had been asked.
  • Neither the selection of the interview extract, nor the representation of Work and Income’s position, was unfair.

Referral to the Authority

[10] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, the Ministry referred its complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Act for investigation and review.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[11] In its response to the Authority, TVNZ denied that the item was sensationalist, lacked balance or was unfair.

Authority's Determination

[12] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 2 (maintenance of law and order)

[13] The Ministry contended that TVNZ had failed to afford its chief executive the benefit of natural justice, as it did not give him the opportunity to respond on camera to allegations about the ease of accessing Work and Income client information.

[14] Standard 2 requires that broadcasters maintain standards consistent with the maintenance of law and order. The Authority considers that the allegations about procedural unfairness are best dealt with under Standard 6, which is concerned specifically with whether broadcasters have acted fairly to interviewees and others referred to in broadcasts. Therefore, the Authority subsumes this aspect of the complaint under its consideration of whether Standard 6 is breached.

Standard 4 (balance)

[15] The Work and Income computer error and the ramifications for beneficiaries was, at the time of the broadcast, a controversial issue. Accordingly, the Authority considers that TVNZ’s treatment was required to be balanced and impartial.

[16] The Authority considers that the item did not adequately represent the Ministry’s side of the story. It omitted to inform viewers of the measures that the Ministry had said it would take in response to the error. As a result of this, the extract of the interview with the Ministry’s chief executive led to the incorrect inference that the Ministry considered Work and Income clients ought to be grateful that it had publicised the error, when in fact it had pro-actively sought to fix the error and respond to its clients’ concerns.

[17] The Authority therefore concludes that Standard 4 was breached.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[18] The Authority considers that the item contained a number of significant inaccuracies.

[19] The Ministry submitted that the item had inaccurately suggested that the information disclosed in error was more than a name, address and client number. In particular, it considered that the item implied that unlisted telephone numbers or the ability to access such numbers and benefit types had been disclosed. The Authority agrees that these implications were made, and that they were inaccurate.

[20] In addition, the Authority considers that the item misreported the way the Ministry had said it would deal with the error, by suggesting that promised safeguards had not been put in place. The Ministry advised that TVNZ’s checks on those safeguards had been made before the time TVNZ had been told they would be effective.

[21] Furthermore, the item reported that “the most personal” details about beneficiaries had been disclosed in what had been described as a “new bungle” by Work and Income. At most, three pieces of information were disclosed, and the Authority considers that there are many details which would be considered more personal than a WINZ client’s name, address and client number. In addition, TVNZ provided newspaper articles to support its claim that it was not misleading to describe the error as a “new bungle”. The Authority notes that these articles did not provide any evidence of errors by Work and Income in the recent past. The Authority considers that these exaggerations contributed to the misleading nature of the item.

[22] Overall, the item was sensationalised and exaggerated, and so significantly misleading that it breached Standard 5.

Standard 6

[23] The item’s inaccuracy and imbalance also led the Authority to conclude that the broadcaster had treated the Ministry and its chief executive unfairly. Accordingly, the Authority finds Standard 6 was breached.

General

[24] 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 the Authority upholds the complaint that an item broadcast on One News on 27 November 2003 breached Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

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

[26] The complainant sought an order that the broadcaster read a correction on air and apologise for its failure to report properly on the measures taken by the Ministry and the limited extent of the personal information involved. It considered that the statement should be made somewhere near the beginning of One News.

[27] TVNZ advised that it did not wish to make any submission on orders.

[28] The Authority is of the opinion that the breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion was sufficiently serious to warrant the broadcast of an approved statement. The Authority has not specifically ordered that an apology be included in the statement, although it encourages the broadcaster to consider this action. Accordingly it imposes the following order:

Order

Pursuant to section 13(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders Television New Zealand Ltd to broadcast, within one month of the date of this decision, a statement explaining why the complaint was upheld. The statement shall be approved by the Authority and shall be broadcast at a time and date to be approved by the Authority.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
17 June 2004

Appendix

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

  1.  Ministry of Social Development’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 12 December 2003
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 15 January 2004
  3. The Ministry’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 30 January 2004
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 20 February 2004
  5. The Ministry’s Final Comment – 3 March 2004
  6. The Ministry’s submission on orders – 27 May 2004
  7. TVNZ’s response to the Authority’s request for submissions on orders – 31 May 2004