BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Powell and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-153

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Roger H Powell
Number
2002-153
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
One News item reported Government to pay defence bill for depositions hearing of private prosecution of police officer charged with murder – featured as unusual event whereas complainant claimed that it was standard practice – not consistent with legal principles – unbalanced – inaccurate – unfair

Findings
Standards 2, 4, 5, and 6 – news selection issue – not broadcasting standards matter – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] The Government’s decision to pay the defence costs at the depositions hearing of the private prosecution of Constable Abbott for the murder of Stephen Wallace was reported as a "bolt from the blue" in an item on One News on Saturday 15 June 2002. One News is broadcast daily on TV One between 6.00–7.00pm.

[2] Roger Powell complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item’s tone of surprise suggested that the Government’s action was unusual. Expressing the opinion that it would have been unusual had the Government not met Constable Abbott’s defence costs, Mr Powell said that the item breached the standards relating to law and order, balance, fairness and accuracy.

[3] In response, TVNZ maintained that the announcement with regard to the unprecedented case was, initially, a surprise. Other aspects were developed over succeeding days but, it maintained, the "first draft" of history did not breach the standards.

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

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

Decision

[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] The lead item on One News on 15 June 2002 announced that the legal costs of Police Constable Abbott, for the depositions hearing during the private prosecution for the charge of murder of Steven Wallace, were to be paid by the Government.

The Complaint

[7] Roger Powell complained to TVNZ that the item presented the Government’s decision "as unusual and something that would be a surprise to most people". The item, he wrote, "conveyed a sense of surprise that the Government would do what they did". Mr Powell noted that an item on One News the following evening included an interview with a legal expert who said that the Government "had no choice" as the Constable was "carrying out his duties".

[8] As the Constable was innocent until proven guilty, Mr Powell wrote, it was to be expected that his employer would provide for his defence. To suggest otherwise, he continued, was in breach of Standard 2 of the Television Code which requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the principles of law which sustain society.

[9] Because of the emphasis given to the fact that the Government was going to support the Constable’s defence, rather than merely reporting the payment, Mr Powell considered that the item was not impartial and thus transgressed the requirement for balance. Moreover, Mr Powell argued, the requirement for accuracy was also breached given the suggestion that the Government’s support was unexpected.

[10] Finally, Mr Powell considered that the item contravened the fairness standard as it demonstrated unfairness to a police officer "who was on duty acting on behalf of the community at large."

The Standards

[11] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the standards in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice nominated by the complainant. They read:

Standard 2 Law and Order

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.

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.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[12] TVNZ said it was relevant first to note that news had been described as "the first draft of history", and that not everything might be known about an event when it first came to light. To substantiate this point, TVNZ noted that Mr Powell had included an editorial from the New Zealand Herald in support of his complaint that the Government’s actions were not surprising. That editorial, TVNZ observed, was dated 18 June and thus was written at least two days after the One News item complained about. At the time of broadcast, TVNZ explained, the reporter had ascertained only an hour before that the Government had approved "the reimbursement of Police Association funds" covering the Constable’s defence at depositions.

[13] TVNZ wrote:

Central to your complaint, it seemed, was your assertion that the broadcast reflected surprise at the announcement. The [complaints] committee conceded that the phrase ‘bolt from the blue’ does reflect surprise. But is that unreasonable in a news item, revealing for the first time that the Government, without making any public announcement, had decided to fund the constable’s defence? On initial hearing (and that was what the news item at 6pm on 15th June was) it was a surprise. The whole case is unprecedented – and it was only with contemplation and reflection over time that questions were raised about whether in fact the Government as the employer was obliged to pay defence costs. Focus on that issue represented a later development as occurs in many news stories as that ‘first draft’ is examined from different perspectives and expanded over succeeding days.

[14] Turning to the standards, TVNZ said that the item had not suggested, in contravention of Standard 2, that full support should not be given to the Constable’s defence. As for Standard 4, TVNZ pointed out that it requires that balance be achieved "within the period of current interest". Maintaining that the item did not lack impartiality, TVNZ said the item reported the events which were uncovered only 60 minutes before the broadcast.

[15] On the basis that the item was not inaccurate and did not mislead viewers, TVNZ said that Standard 5 was not breached. It did not consider that it breached the requirement for fairness in Standard 6. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[16] When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Powell maintained that the announcement was reported in the item as something unusual, adding:

The defence put forward by TVNZ appears to be that the news item did portray the Government announcement as unusual and something that would be a surprise to most people but that because they had only one hour between discovering the story and the scheduled news this was acceptable.

[17] Expressing the opinion that the journalist "seized upon the story as something unusual", Mr Powell contended that the suggestion that the Government would not pay for the defence of police officers acting in the course of their duty amounted to a breach of the standard relating to law and order, and undermined the integrity of the police service.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] The Authority agrees that the presentation of the item complained about suggested that the Government’s actions were not the usual practice and that the tone of the item and the words "bolt from the blue" constitutes surprise. However, the item did not, in the Authority’s opinion, suggest that full support should not be given to Constable Abbott’s defence, and therefore Standard 2 was not breached.

[19] The coverage included Cabinet’s approval of reimbursing Police Association funds covering the Constable’s defence costs at depositions, and the fact that Cabinet had not previously released the information publicly. The item also included an interview with the Wallace family that included their reaction to the Government’s approval of the reimbursement. Subsequent coverage provided different perspectives including the expectation that a government had "no choice" but to support employees who were carrying out their duties. The Authority agrees with the broadcaster that Standard 4 was not b reached as it requires that balance be achieved "within the period of current interest", even while noting the somewhat ingenuous nature of the broadcast on Saturday 15 June.

[20] While the item suggested that the Government’s support was a "bolt from the blue", the Authority does not consider that this "surprise" element amounts to a breach of Standard 5. It reaches this finding because no factual inaccuracy was referred to and because there had not been apparently any previous reports of the reimbursement. Furthermore, it was a surprise to the Wallace family. The Authority does not believe that the item demonstrated unfairness to Constable Abbott by the reportage of the reimbursement and the reaction of the Wallace family to it. The Authority concluders that there was no breach of Standard 6.

[21] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply 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 and applies them in a manner 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
Chair
26 September 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Roger Powell’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd (plus attachment) – 19 June 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 4 July 2002
  3. Mr Powell’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 11 July 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 19 July 2002
  5. Mr Powell’s Final Comment – 7 August 2002