BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Orion New Zealand Ltd and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-022

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Orion New Zealand Ltd
Number
2003-022
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One
Standards Breached

Complaint
One News Item on electricity pricing to large irrigation customers – aspects confusing and inaccurate

Findings
Standard 5 – inaccurate – uphold

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] "Some farmers could see their bills rise more than a thousand percent" was a comment made in the introduction to an item about electricity price rises for large irrigation users in Canterbury. The item was included in One News broadcast on TV One between 6.00–7.00pm on Sunday 29 September 2002.

[2] Orion New Zealand Ltd, through its General Manager, Commercial (Roger Sutton) complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the comment, among others, was inaccurate. The actual price increase in electricity charges, it said, was about 25%.

[3] In response, TVNZ said the item explained that the increases were made by both Orion and Transpower, and that the costs would bring Canterbury prices into line with those in the rest of the country. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Orion referred its complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video and read a transcript 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

[6] The substantial increase in power bills for farmers operating large irrigation schemes in Canterbury was reported in an item broadcast on One News on 29 September 2002. One News is broadcast daily on TV One between 6.00–7.00pm.

The Complaint

[7] Through its General Manager, Commercial (Roger Sutton), Orion New Zealand Ltd complained to TVNZ that the item was inaccurate. The most glaring inaccuracy, it wrote, was the report that some farmers would be faced with a rise in their bills of more than 1000%. The actual price increase in electricity charges since 1999, it continued, was around 25%. The item also omitted to report that some irrigators had seen significant price decreases.

[8] Pointing to its "very open policy" towards the media, Orion expressed concern about the inaccurate item, noting that some other aspects were wrong or confused.

The Standard

[9] In view of the matters raised, TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. It reads:

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] TVNZ contended that the complaint overlooked the fact that the item was not confined to electricity charges, but about the bills faced by farmers as a result of the combined increases by Orion, the local distributor, and Transpower, the national distributor of electricity. The item included comment from representatives from both Orion and Transpower and the Transpower spokesperson had observed that the increases could range up to 1200%. It was also reported that the increases would bring Canterbury prices into line with those in the rest of New Zealand where, the spokesperson stated, "billing is now targeted more accurately at the user".

[11] TVNZ acknowledged that small users had experienced a decline in their bills but "the item was not about small users". It maintained that Orion had been treated fairly in the item when it was noted that nearly $8m had been spent on upgrading in recent years, and farmers had been warned that a price increase was coming. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[12] Orion insisted that the item was incorrect, pointing out that no electricity bills paid by farmers were, as the item reported, increasing by 1000%.

[13] Orion explained that electricity bills were made up by the costs of generation, the costs of transmission, and the costs of distribution. It continued:

Transmission and distribution are transport functions. Electricity retailers buy the power and then pay the transport companies to transport the power.

Irrigators cannot buy transmission alone, they buy electricity that includes a transmission component.

The electricity bills they receive do not even separate out transmission charges. As a farmer you cannot buy transmission without also buying electricity.

The transmission component of electricity bills of some irrigators have risen by 1200 percent. However the transmission component has previously made up only 2-3% of average power accounts of irrigators.

Therefore, by simple mathematics this equates to a total increase for the irrigator of around 25%, not more than a thousand percent.

[14] Orion maintained that the item was also incorrect in describing it as the company providing the power. Electricity retailers, it pointed out, supplied power to irrigators and "pay us to transport the power".

[15] With reference to TVNZ’s response to the complaint, Orion stated that it was explained to the reporter, and to various stakeholders, that transmission "makes up only a small part of total electricity bills". Under the heading "Why are we going to this trouble to complain", Orion concluded:

Because we think the standard of journalism around technical and scientific issues is often poor. We want the quality to improve.

We don’t want an on air apology. We don’t want money. We just want a letter saying "sorry, our story was factually incorrect. In the future we will work harder to ensure the accuracy of complex stories. We apologise".

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[16] Noting that the focus of the complaint was the comment in the item that some farmers could face a rise in their bills of 1000%, TVNZ argued that the information had been provided by reliable sources. It wrote:

We point out that the statement reflects a point of view taken by the farmers. It says in effect that, as the farmers see it, some of them could have their bills rise more than a thousand per cent.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[17] Orion repeated its main complaint that the item was factually incorrect when it reported that the electricity bills for some farmers would rise by 1000%. It reiterated that the transmission component could increase by 1200%, but as the transmission component made up only 2–3% of the average power accounts of irrigators, "by simple mathematics 1200% times 2–3% equals 25%, not more than 1000%". Orion advised that it had spoken to the farmer interviewed for the item and he was adamant that he had not stated that electricity prices were rising by 1000%. Moreover, it noted that none of the other journalists who had covered the same story had reported that prices were increasing by 1000–1200%.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] A One News item broadcast on 29 September 2002 referred to increases in electricity prices in mid-Canterbury and reported "some farmers could see their bills rise more than one thousand percent".

[19] Orion pointed out electricity bills comprise:

Energy (the cost of generating the power);

Transmission (the cost of transmitting it from power stations to towns and cities); and

Distribution (the cost of distributing it around towns and cities.

[20] Orion also pointed out that an increase in cost in one sector did not necessarily mean that the account to the consumer would increase by the percentage of that increase.

[21] In regard to the situation covered in the news item, Orion explained that while the transmission component of the electricity bills of some irrigators had risen by 1200%, the transmission component had previously made up only 2–3% of the average power account of irrigators. It stated:

Therefore by simple mathematics 1200% times 2–3% equals 25% – not more than 1000%.

[22] In its report to the Authority, TVNZ advised that the news item was based on comments from two reliable sources, which it declined to name. Orion said that it had been unable to locate any farmers who had advised TVNZ that their electricity bills had increased by 1000%. It also advised that it had explained the increase in a letter to customers, and TVNZ confirmed that its reporter had seen a copy of that letter.

[23] The introduction to the news item used the comment complained about as a précis, and the statement was presented as a fact. TVNZ has been unable to substantiate the statement. Orion explained that it was incorrect as presented and that it had outlined an accurate explanation of the increase in its letter to customers. In view of these matters, the Authority concludes that the broadcast breached the requirement for accuracy in news programmes contained in Standard 5 of the Television Code.

[24] The social objective of regulating broadcasting standards is to guard against broadcasters behaving unfairly, offensively, or otherwise excessively. The Broadcasting Act clearly limits freedom of expression. Section 5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act provides that the right to freedom of expression may be limited by "such reasonable limits which are prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". For the reasons given in Decision No. 2002-071/072, the Authority is firmly of the opinion that the limits in the Broadcasting Act are reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. The Authority records that it has given full weight of the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 when exercising its powers under the Broadcasting Act on this occasion. For the reasons given in this decision, the Authority considers that the exercise of its powers on this occasion is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act In reaching this conclusion, the authority has taken into account all the circumstances of this complaint, including the nature of the complaint and the written explanation of the increase provided by the complainant to irrigators.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority upholds the complaint that a statement on One News, broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd on 29 September 2002, breached Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[25] Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may impose an order under ss13 or 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[26] Orion noted in its formal complaint that it sought neither an on-air apology nor costs. Rather, it sought an acknowledgement from TVNZ that the story was incorrect and it would work harder in the future on complex stories to ensure their accuracy. The Authority does not have the power to make such an order. However, it considers it a reasonable requirement which it trusts TVNZ will respond to appropriately.

[27] In view of the complainant’s express comment about subsequent action, the Authority does not consider that an order is necessary on this occasion.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
20 March 2003

Appendix

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

  1. Orion New Zealand Ltd’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 3 October 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 30 October 2002
  3. Orion’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (plus attachments) – 26 November 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 19 December 2002
  5. Orion’s Final Comment (plus attachments) – 21 January 2003