O'Brien and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2010-024
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Tapu Misa
- Mary Anne Shanahan
- Diana O'Brien
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item reported that a homicide investigation was underway after the death of Rotorua high school principal Hawea Vercoe – presenter stated that Mr Vercoe had died after being punched to the ground during a fight – included details of a recent conviction – allegedly inaccurate and unfair
Standard 5 (accuracy) – reporters entitled to rely on information provided by police – broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the report was accurate – not upheld
Standard 6 (fairness) – standard does not apply to deceased persons – family did not take part and were not referred to – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 An item on One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm on Sunday 22 November 2009, reported on the death of high school principal Hawea Vercoe.
 The presenter stated:
A homicide investigation is underway following the death of a high-profile Rotorua man who was recently in trouble with the law for threatening behaviour.
TVNZ last spoke with 36-year-old Hawea Vercoe only a month ago. Police say the Environment Bay of Plenty councillor and former Destiny Party candidate died early this morning after being punched to the ground during a fight in Whakatane.
Mr Vercoe faced losing his job as principal of Te Kura Kaupapa o Rotoiti after he was found guilty of and fined for sending threatening texts to his ex-wife’s partner. He was the recipient of a threatening letter himself last year allegedly signed by white supremacists.
 The item contained various footage of Mr Vercoe, which included him talking to a group of school children and singing at church.
 Diana O’Brien made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was inaccurate and unfair.
 The complainant argued that Mr Vercoe had not died in a fight as reported in the item, but had “died from a blow from a seemingly unprovoked attack by a stranger”. She stated that Mr Vercoe’s family had been informed of the attack well before the item went to air, so One News had “plenty of time to get their facts straight”.
 Ms O’Brien considered that the item was a “very unbalanced and negative report” and that it had unfairly concentrated on a recent conviction Mr Vercoe had incurred for threatening behaviour. “This, along with the incorrect information that he had been killed in a fight left the impression of a violent man meeting a violent death,” she contended.
 The complainant argued that the “negativity continued by reporting he nearly lost his job as principal”. She contended that, apart from mentioning Mr Vercoe had been a Destiny Party candidate, the item contained no positive material about him including the fact that he was a “much loved and honoured principal”.
 Referring to guideline 6f of the fairness standard, Ms O’Brien argued that the broadcaster had not displayed the required discretion and sensitivity when dealing with grief and bereavement, as the item had caused Mr Vercoe’s family “considerable grief and distress”.
 The complainant said that she had called the broadcaster after the item and was “pleased to see the next news broadcast on Monday morning approached the subject in quite a different manner”.
 TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:
Standard 5 Accuracy
Broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming:
- is accurate in relation to all material points of fact; and/or
- does not mislead.
Standard 6 Fairness
Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.
Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant
 With respect to accuracy, TVNZ argued that the item’s phraseology was used to indicate that Mr Vercoe was injured and killed during a violent incident, and that there had been no intention to create a negative impression of him.
 The broadcaster contended that the report was a summary of the incident and that a more complex picture of Mr Vercoe’s life and the incident was given the following day. It declined to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.
 Turning to fairness, TVNZ maintained that the 22 November item was a brief summary of facts intended to report on the life of Mr Vercoe in the lead-up to his death.
 The broadcaster stated that on 23 November, One News ran a follow-up item providing more details about Mr Vercoe and comment from his family “describing a more complete picture” of his life. It considered that the material contained in the item was acceptable to include in the context of an item reporting on a death and that it was not the intention of the piece to “cause any upset”. It declined to uphold the complaint that Standard 6 had been breached.
Referral to the Authority
 Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Ms O’Brien referred her complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. She maintained that the item was inaccurate and unfair.
Authority’s Request for Further Information
 The Authority noted that the item had referred to what “police said” about the incident, and it asked TVNZ to provide details about the information it had received from police.
 TVNZ stated that “One News were told on the day by police in Whakatane that Mr Vercoe died after being punched during a fight”. It also provided media coverage of the incident from two other news organisations.
Complainant’s Final Comment
 Ms O’Brien stated that her complaint “hinged on the fact that TVNZ had plenty of time to verify the facts”. She said that Mr Vercoe’s family had been informed around 2.30pm that it was not a fight, but an unprovoked attack which had occurred. She stated that “this was well before we agreed to the name release”, and argued that TVNZ should have asked for an update from police prior to the report going to air at 6pm.
 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)
 Standard 5 states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact and does not mislead.
 At the outset, we acknowledge that Mr Vercoe was the victim of an unprovoked attack. However, the statement relating to the cause of his death was couched in the following terms:
 Police say the Environment Bay of Plenty councillor and former Destiny Party candidate died early this morning after being punched to the ground during a fight in Whakatane.
 We note that the statement was prefaced by the words “Police say”, rather than being an unqualified statement of fact. We accept TVNZ’s evidence that the reporter was advised by the Whakatane police that Mr Vercoe had died during a fight.
 The question posed by the complainant is whether the reporter should have sought an update from police before the broadcast at 6pm, given that the family had been informed by 2.30pm that day that Mr Vercoe had not been involved in a fight.
 Our task is to determine whether TVNZ made “reasonable efforts” to ensure that the material in the item was accurate.
 This was a standard news story in which the media relied on the police to provide information. When the full nature of the story was revealed by police, the media updated the story and the events leading to Mr Vercoe’s death were clarified in the following day’s bulletin.
 Taking this into account, and noting that TVNZ did accurately report what the reporter had been told by police, we consider that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the facts provided in the report were accurate.
 In these circumstances, we decline to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 5.
Standard 6 (fairness)
 The fairness standard states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.
 Ms O’Brien considered that the item had unfairly concentrated on a recent conviction Mr Vercoe had incurred and that this, coupled with the incorrect information that he had been killed in a fight, was unfair.
 In Kiro and TVNZ1, the Authority determined that Standard 6 did not apply to deceased individuals. Accordingly, we find that the standard does not apply to Mr Vercoe and we decline to uphold this aspect of the fairness complaint.
 Turning to Ms O’Brien’s reference to guideline 6f, we note that the fairness standard only applies to people taking part or referred to in an item. Due to the fact that Mr Vercoe’s family did not take part and were not referred to in the broadcast, we find that the standard does not apply to them and we decline to uphold this aspect of the fairness complaint.
 Accordingly, we decline to uphold the complaint that the broadcast breached Standard 6.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
1 June 2010
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Diana O’Brien’s formal complaint – 1 December 2009
2. TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 22 January 2010
3. Ms O’Brien’s referral to the Authority – 19 February 2010
4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 13 April 2010
5. TVNZ’s response to Authority’s request – 27 April 2010
6. Ms O’Brien’s final comment – 28 April 2010
1Decision No. 2007-111