BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Palmer and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2019-005 (20 May 2019)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Susie Staley
Dated
Complainant
  • Stephen Palmer
Number
2019-005
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
Television New Zealand

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority did not uphold a complaint that an item on 1 News, which reported on the United States (US) government shutdown, breached the accuracy standard. The Authority found the statement: ‘The crisis began after Democrats refused to sign off on the President’s demands for eight and a half billion dollars to build a border wall with Mexico’, was unlikely to mislead or misinform viewers about the latest events in the US government shutdown, reported on during the item. The Authority noted that in the context of the item as a whole, the presenter’s comment was an acceptable shorthand introduction to the key issues reported on. Finally, in this case the Authority found that the broadcaster was not required, in the interests of accuracy, to specify that the amount sought for the border wall was reported in New Zealand dollars.

Not Upheld: Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]          An item on 1 News reported on the United States (US) government shutdown, with the presenter stating: ‘The crisis began after Democrats refused to sign off on the President’s demands for eight and a half billion dollars to build a border wall with Mexico’.

[2]          Later in the segment a BBC reporter stated: ‘Evoking emergency powers could end the shutdown because it would allow Congress to pass spending bills without funding for the wall the Democrats and Republicans could both support…’

[3]          The item was broadcast at 6pm on 12 January 2019 on TVNZ 1.

The complaint

[4]          Stephen Palmer complained that the broadcast breached the accuracy standard of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, for the following reasons:

  • The Democrats in Congress had proposed or passed expenditure bills that would reopen parts of government, but President Trump had said that he would not sign any bill that did not include $5.7 billion (USD) towards a border wall, while Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that he would not allow a vote in the Senate on any such bill.
  • It was therefore President Trump and Mitch McConnell who were refusing to sign off expenditure bills, and not the Democrats, as suggested in the broadcast.
  • If New Zealand dollars were being referred to during the item this should have been specified for viewers.

The broadcaster’s response

[5]          TVNZ responded:

  • The presenter’s statement was, in essence, correct.1 The statement was a ‘broad brushstrokes summary of a well-known situation’ and was described in a similar way in other media.2 The comment was not intended to be a criticism of the Democrats.
  • As the item was reported in New Zealand, it was not required to state that the currency was in New Zealand dollars. Where a figure is not in New Zealand dollars, this is stated.3

The accuracy standard

[6]          The accuracy standard (Standard 9) 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. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.4

Our findings

[7]          In New Zealand we value the right to freedom of expression. However, this is not an absolute right. When considering a complaint, the Authority will consider whether a broadcast has caused harm, and whether the broadcaster has appropriately balanced the right to freedom of expression with the obligation to avoid harm. Accordingly, when we consider a complaint that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards, we weigh the value of the programme and the importance of the expression against the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast.

[8]          Our role is to determine whether the accuracy standard applied to this broadcast and, if so, whether TVNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure that:

  • all material statements of fact were accurate; and
  • the segment did not mislead viewers.

[9]          The accuracy standard applies to news, current affairs and factual programming (which this item is). It does not apply to statements of comment, analysis or opinion.5 An opinion is someone’s view. It is contestable, and others may hold a different view.6 However, it is not always clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact or opinion. This will depend on the context and presentation of the statements and how a reasonable listener would perceive them.7

[10]        We consider the reasonable viewer is likely to perceive the presenter’s statement that ‘[t]he crisis began after Democrats refused to sign off on the President’s demands for eight and a half billion dollars to build a border wall with Mexico’ as a statement as fact, given:

  • the language used was definitive
  • the broadcast was a straightforward news report
  • the statement contains content (eg the amount demanded) that is capable of being proven ‘right or wrong’.

[11]        Accordingly, we find that the statement in question was a statement of fact for the purposes of the standard.

[12]        However, the standard is only concerned with material inaccuracy. Technical or unimportant points unlikely to significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the programme as a whole are not material.8 We find the statement did not amount to a material inaccuracy which would have affected the audience’s understanding of the item as a whole.

[13]        The item was focused on the latest developments in the crisis, reporting that the shutdown was now the longest in US history, the potential declaration of a national emergency and on the stories of various federal workers who were impacted by the shutdown.

[14]        In the context of the item as a whole, we consider that the presenter’s comment was an acceptable shorthand description, introducing the key issues of the item to viewers which were then expanded upon during the full report.

[15]        The presenter’s comment alluded to the impasse that led to the government shutdown, with Democrats refusing to ‘sign off’ on the President’s ‘demands’ for $5.7 billion (USD) for the border wall (implying the President’s refusal to consider any bills that did not include this funding). This ‘deadlock’ was more fully explained during the report, for example: ‘Evoking emergency powers could end the shutdown because it would allow Congress to pass spending bills without funding for the wall the Democrats and Republicans could both support…’

[16]        While the presenter’s language could have been more precise to highlight the Democrats’ exact role in the process, and while the complainant might have preferred more context and detail to be provided, we do not consider that, overall, viewers would have been significantly misled or left misinformed about the latest events in the government shutdown as a result of the presenter’s statement.

[17]        Finally, we do not consider that the broadcaster was required, in the interests of accuracy, to specify that the amount sought for the border wall was reported in New Zealand dollars. We consider audiences can reasonably expect that dollar amounts in most New Zealand news reports will be reported in New Zealand dollars, unless otherwise stated. We do not consider the context of this item justifies a different approach.

[18]        Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

 

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

20 May 2019   

 

Appendix

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

1.            Stephen Palmer’s formal complaint – 12 January 2019

2.            TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 7 February 2019

3.            Mr Palmer’s referral to the Authority – 10 February 2019

4.            TVNZ’s further comments – 8 March 2019

5.            Mr Palmer’s final comments – 12 March 2019     

 


1 Citing All 20 previous government shutdowns, explained (Vox, 12 January 2019), which explains: ‘The partial shutdown began on December 22, 2018, with President Donald Trump’s demand for (US) $5 billion to pay for his much-promised full-length border wall with Mexico, and while both parties in Congress had floated $1.6 billion as a compromise, Trump rejected it.’

2 For example: Trump blames Nancy Pelosi for shutdown that he called for (Huffington Post, 17 January 2019)

3 For example: Donald Trump reiterates his government shutdown threat over wall (TVNZ, 31 July 2018)

4 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18

5 Guideline 9a

6 Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 62

7 As above

8 Guideline 9b