BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Paul and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-186

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • R Bryant
  • Victor Paul
One News
TV One

One News – a United States armed forces unit described as "elite trained killers" – inaccurate and unbalanced to describe armed forces as "killers"

Standard 4 – not unbalanced – no uphold

Standard 5 – not inaccurate– no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Members of a unit of the US Armed Forces were described as "elite trained killers" in an item on One News broadcast at 6.00pm on 27 July 2002. The item reported a number of the wives of servicemen in the unit had been murdered.

[2] Victor Paul complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the use of the phrase amounted to editorialising and was inaccurate and unbalanced. In no country, he maintained, were the armed forces described as "killers".

[3] In response, TVNZ argued the term was acceptable given first the public’s perception of special forces, and second, a possible link between their specialised training and the violent deaths of a number of wives.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Paul 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.


[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video 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] A number of murders at Fort Bragg in the United States were reported in an item broadcast on One News at 6.00pm on 21 July. The victims were the wives of servicemen in a special unit based at Fort Bragg, and members of the unit were described by the broadcaster as "elite trained killers".

The Complaint

[7] Victor Paul complained to TVNZ that the description of the servicemen as "elite trained killers" amounted to editorial comment which was inaccurate and unbalanced. Mr Paul argued the phrase was used in the item to refer to all members of the US Special Forces.

The Standards

[8] TVNZ assessed the complaint against the Standards in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice nominated by the complainant. They read:

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.

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

[9] TVNZ considered that the phrase "elite trained killers" was used to differentiate the servicemen trained at Fort Bragg from the US Armed Forces in general. TVNZ denied that the phrase amounted to editorialising, writing:

To state that the solders concerned are ‘elite trained killers’ both accurately describes their role in combat, and hints in the context of this particular story at why concerns have arisen that the role the soldiers played in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan may have spilt over into the private lives of some of them.

[10] TVNZ considered that the item was neither unbalanced nor partial, as the term was not an adverse comment on the unit’s role or that of the United States. Further, it did not consider the item was inaccurate and it declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[11] Mr Paul maintained that the item was unbalanced as he had never heard the armed forces of any country being described as "killers". The word "killers", he argued was an editorial comment and was used in an unfair and unbalanced manner.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[12] On the basis that it had not explained adequately the use of the term "elite trained killers" in its response to Mr Paul, TVNZ wrote:

The story was about a rash of murders in the unit in which these ‘elite trained killers’ had been accused of killing their wives. The interest in the story lies in the implied link between what the men are trained to do, and the violent deaths of the women involved.

This was not ‘editorial’ comment on the role of the United States special forces. It was a factual description of their role, delivered in the context of an unexplained group of murders allegedly carried out by men who are specially trained to kill.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[13] In his final comment, Mr Paul reiterated that his complaint included not just the news item, but also the headline read at the beginning on the news.

Further Correspondence

[14] Noting that the original complaint referred to the "lead-in to the news item", TVNZ said it had taken that as a reference to the introduction. On the basis that the complaints process reviewed the original letter of complaint, TVNZ asked the Authority to decline to consider the complaint about the headline.

[15] For the record, TVNZ advised that the content of the headline was:

The killing comes home with America’s elite. Soldiers primed for war against terrorism – have they turned their families into targets?

The Authority’s Determination

[16] Mr Paul complained about an item on One News on 21 July, and the item’s "lead-in". TVNZ examined the item’s introduction when it reported to Mr Paul. However, when referring the complaint to the Authority, Mr Paul explained that he had complained about the "headline" at the start of the news broadcast. TVNZ then asked the Authority to focus on the specific item on the basis that the formal complaints process "is not designed to provide complainants with an opportunity to introduce new material".

[17] One of the functions of the Authority is to review and investigate a broadcaster’s decision, and the Authority agrees that a referral does not allow a complainant to introduce standards which were not explicit or implicit in the original complaint. However, that does not mean that a complainant is not able to expand upon or introduce new arguments as to why it is believed that a broadcast contravenes the standards which were nominated explicitly or raised implicitly in the original complaint.

[18] As for Mr Paul’s use of the term "lead-in", the Authority notes that it is not necessarily clear that the complaint referred to the headline. Nonetheless, on the basis that not all members of the public use technical or specific language such as "headlines", the Authority accepts that the item’s headline was an aspect of Mr Paul’s original complaint.

[19] Mr Paul’s complaint focused on the use of the phrase "elite trained killers" in the item, and the reference to the "elite’ in the headline, to describe members of a country’s armed forces.

[20] To the Authority, the phrase refers to a group in the armed forces who have been trained, as part of their duties, to fulfil a special role to take human life in war, or in some other exceptional circumstances. The Authority regards the term as descriptive and it does not accept that it involves editorialising in the accepted sense of imparting subjectivity. It considers that the phrase is accurate and not in breach of Standard 5.

[21] The item contrasted the professional role of the men with their domestic or private lives and questioned whether there was a link between what the men were trained to do and the violence against women displayed by some. The Authority considers that the matter was dealt with in a way, although brief, which did not contravene Standard 4.

[22] TVNZ advised that the headline was:

The killing comes home with America’s elite.  Soldiers primed for war against terrorism – have they turned their families into targets?

[23] As the headline was concerned with the same issues covered in the item, the Authority finds that it also does not breach the standards.

[24] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Cartwright
21 November 2002


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

  1. Victor Paul’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 28 July 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 August 2002
  3. Mr Paul’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 1 September 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 12 September 2002
  5. Mr Paul’s Final Comment – 23 September 2002
  6. TVNZ’s Response to the Final Comment – 30 September 2002