BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Morton and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-126

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
Dated
Complainant
  • R B Morton
Number
2001-126
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
Documentary New Zealand: 1951 – waterfront dispute – focused on experiences of watersiders – unbalanced

Findings
Standard G6 – approach taken outlined at outset of programme – authorial documentary – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

Documentary New Zealand: 1951 examined aspects of the major waterfront dispute which occurred in that year. The programme comprised mainly personal recollections of some people involved. It was broadcast at 8.30pm on 16 July 2001 on TV One.

R B Morton complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme lacked balance. While it looked at the plight of the watersiders’ families, he said, it did not examine the irresponsible working practices of the watersiders and their effect on New Zealand.

In response, TVNZ said that the programme had referred to the way the dispute developed. However, it added, rather than offering a political or economic analysis, the programme dealt in human stories. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Morton referred the 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.

Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed a tape 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.

The Programme

Aspects of the major waterfront dispute in 1951 were dealt with in the programme Documentary New Zealand: 1951, broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on 16 July. It consisted mostly of a series of personal recollections from some people involved.

The Complaint

R B Morton complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme had made him "very angry". He said he objected to the way the event was portrayed. Arguing that an appreciation of the events in the years leading up to the strike was necessary to understand the issues, he stated that the programme focused on portraying the poor working conditions of watersiders, and the plight of their families. He acknowledged that there were "faults on both sides", but insisted that the waterside union at the time was damaging both the country’s economy and the union movement. Mr Morton believed some family members of the politicians in power in 1951 should have been interviewed as well.

The Production Company’s Response to the Complaint

Mr Morton’s letter of complaint was forwarded by TVNZ to the production company which had made the documentary. In its reply to him, the company explained:

To us, the major point was not the public perception of watersiders, or even whether they were good guys or bad guys, but the fact that the political climate led to an all-out assault by the government on a section of its own population. We put this within the context of the Cold War because the whole affair was predicated on the idea that communists were running the waterside workers union.

Mr Morton’s Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

As he was dissatisfied with this response, Mr Morton referred his complaint to the Authority. He observed:

Briefly my complaint is that only people aged from their late 60s onwards were old enough to have experienced the trauma, bitterness and near anarchy this event engendered. Because over half of the audience for this programme would not be in this age group, there was a need for extreme objectivity and balance to convey the true situation. This programme was not objective or balanced. It was subjective.

Mr Morton noted that he was 21 years of age in 1951, intensively interested in politics, and had friends on both sides of the dispute. "All these people", he wrote, "had their lives greatly affected by the events of 1951". The complaint was forwarded to TVNZ.

The Standard

TVNZ assessed the complaint under standard G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which requires broadcasters:

G6  To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

TVNZ said that the programme featured a number of people involved in the dispute and they were seen to describe what they saw and experienced. In addition, TVNZ said, the programme referred to the way the dispute had started and had developed. TVNZ wrote:

It appeared to the [complaints] committee that the documentary made no judgement about whether the watersiders were justified in either their wage demands, or in refusing to work overtime as a result of the breakdown in negotiations. Rather than offering political or economic analysis, this programme dealt in human stories - descriptions of poverty, anger and frustration. It seemed to the committee that in highlighting these stories, the programme did in fact indicate the ‘catastrophic effect’ you referred to in your letter.

The committee noted that four times during the documentary it was mentioned that public opinion was against the watersiders. As well, the waterfront dispute was carefully placed in a wider historical context, with the Cold War being identified as the probable reason why events unfolded as they did.

TVNZ contended that it was not appropriate to deal with public attitudes towards the watersiders as that would have detracted from the human experiences being recollected. Moreover, it said, the facts of the events in 1951 were well-known and:

… it was quite valid to produce a documentary which essentially was a social history with an emphasis on human experience.

In dealing with standard G6, TVNZ referred to the acknowledgment in s.4(1)(d) of the Act (on which standard G6 was based), which accepted that balance could be achieved "over the period of current interest". The programme complained about, TVNZ wrote, added another perspective to the 1951 dispute and it declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Authority

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Morton referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Mr Morton maintained that the programme was unbalanced as various statements put the responsibility for the dispute on the then Prime Minister, Sidney Holland, and the then Vice-President of the Federation of Labour, Fintan Patrick Walsh. Mr Morton defended the right of the participants to make their criticisms. He maintained, however, a response was also necessary in the interests of balance. "This did not happen", he wrote, "so the programme failed to be objective". Mr Morton said he could supply many authoritative sources in support of his contention that the programme was unbalanced.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

TVNZ contended that the programme provided another perspective to the views about the 1951 dispute which had been published over the years. The programme had not, it asserted, generally examined the causes of the waterfront dispute, adding:

It was rather a documentary built around the personal recollections of those who took part in the waterfront dispute and those who felt the effects of the Emergency Regulations. The programme properly acknowledged that the public at large was not in sympathy with the watersiders, but that fact does not mean that the views of those watersiders and the families should not be heard.

The Authority’s Determination

The Authority agrees with Mr Morton that the programme did not carry out an objective examination of the causes of the strike, or about the actions of the parties during the strike. However, it notes, the programme did not advise viewers that it intended to conduct an objective examination. Rather, the programme explained from the outset, against the background of the 50th anniversary of the strike and the passions that it still arouses, that its aim was to tell the story of the reasons for the strike, its progress and the result from the viewpoint of Union Leader Jock Barnes and his fellow union members.

Mr Barnes was the leader of the Watersiders Union in 1951 and the programme included many personal recollections from his friends and family, and from a range of friends and of family members of the Watersiders Union. The Authority regards the programme as a social and historical narrative of the unionists involved. It considers that such programmes do not contravene the requirement for balance, provided it is clear that a particular editorial approach has been adopted, as occurred on this occasion. Accordingly, it concludes that the balance requirement in standard G6 was not breached.

The Authority also observes that to find a breach of standard G6 would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster’s statutory right to freedom of expression contained in s.14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990, and prefers to adopt an interpretation of the standard which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
25 October 2001

Appendix

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

  1. B Morton’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 30 July 2001
  2. Bates Productions Ltd’s Response to R B Morton – 8 August 2001
  3. Mr Morton’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – received 13 August 2001
  4. TVNZ’s Response to R B Morton – 22 August 2001
  5. Mr Morton’s Referral to the Authority – 29 August 2001
  6. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 6 September 2001