BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Prendergast and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-118

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Kerry Prendergast
Number
2009-118
Programme
Close Up
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Close Up – item discussed “all-out war” between the Wellington Mayor and a city councillor – allegedly inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – item was not inaccurate or misleading – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – use of psychologist trivialised the situation but viewers unlikely to have taken her comments seriously – Mayor given adequate opportunity to comment – not unfair to Ms Prendergast or to the Council – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on Close Up, broadcast on TV One at 7pm on 16 July 2009, was introduced by the presenter as follows:

What on earth is going on at Wellington City Council? Every week there’s another volley fired in what seems to be an all-out war between Councillor Rob Goulden and the Mayor of our capital city, Kerry Prendergast. Now there have been supposedly death threats, police called to Council meetings and questions over Councillor Goulden’s mental health. [Our reporter] talks to both camps.

[2]   The item began with footage from the Council Chamber in Wellington. The reporter said, “It’s Groundhog Day at the Wellington City Council with the Mayor once again chastising the naughtiest boy in class.” Ms Prendergast was shown saying, “he’s disruptive, he’s aggressive, he’s abusive”. The reporter then asked Mr Goulden, “Do you like her?” to which he responded, “Not particularly,” and the reporter said, “Do you think she likes you?” to which he answered, “No.”

[3]   It was reported that “Just weeks ago, the Council called police to remove one of its own from a meeting. Soon after that the Mayor was given protection after police took seriously a phone call threatening to ‘sort her out’.” An audio clip of the phone call, lasting 28 seconds, was broadcast.

[4]   The reporter was shown asking Ms Prendergast, “So how have matters in our capital city come to this?” to which she replied, “This is not news. Councillor Goulden’s been thrown out of meetings from when Mayor Blumsky was the mayor.” Councillor Goulden was shown commenting, “The worst thing I’ve done in the last three weeks is use a four-letter word inappropriately. I’ve publicly apologised for that.”

[5]   The reporter stated, “In the last few weeks, Mayor Prendergast has publicly called Councillor Goulden aggressive, abusive, erratic, and a bully”. Mr Goulden’s response to these comments was shown: “I think her remarks are extremely unfortunate and very hurtful to me personally, and very hurtful to my family”. The reporter asked him if he thought he was a bully or aggressive, or whether he thought he needed help and if he had ever had any mental problems. He responded “no” to all of those.

[6]   When asked what issues the councillor needed help with, Ms Prendergast responded that “he clearly needs help with his communication”. Against footage of the Council Chamber, the reporter stated that “The Mayor and other councillors have become increasingly exasperated with Rob Goulden’s constant interruptions to points of order and the way he walks in and out of meetings, but those in his ward elected him to Council four times”. Vox pops from three people on the street were shown, followed by comment from another Wellington councillor who said “I think at heart he’s a good man, very prepared to work hard for his community... around the Council table I think he gets very frustrated.”

[7]   The reporter then said:

Four other councillors have told Close Up Rob Goulden is a good person and has valid concerns about the way things are run at the Council. However, at least three other councillors can’t stand him. One was so keen to comment on camera he contacted a Close Up producer four times over the space of three days.

[8]   A councillor was shown saying, “He yells and screams, he disregards common courtesies and then when he doesn’t get his own way he either stomps out or cry-babies to the media like he’s doing to you now.” Ms Prendergast was shown saying that, unfortunately, Mr Goulden’s behaviour meant that he did not achieve much and was inefficient because he did not have the support of his colleagues. The reporter suggested that this was “just the nature of politics” and that the Council should “toughen up”.

[9]   The reporter asked Mr Goulden why he thought his supporters were saying “it’s got to stop”. He responded that people were reading too much into things, and insisted that he had no involvement with the threatening phone call. The reporter said that Mr Goulden thought the level of security given to the Mayor was an “overreaction”. A segment of the phone call was replayed and the reporter discussed it with the Mayor. The reporter commented that Mr Goulden considered there had been an overreaction, and that another councillor “thought it sounded like someone trying to do a Fred Dagg impersonation”.

[10]   The reporter then described Mr Goulden’s life outside of work, including his family, and his love for sport. The reporter stated that the family received abusive calls at home, and a man Mr Goulden knew through rugby was shown commenting, “He was a hard man, a police officer, a territorial, he served overseas – he had to be hard, he had to be aggressive. I mean that’s just Rob, that’s his make-up. He doesn’t let go. He’s like a dog with a bone. When he thinks he’s right, that’s it, there’s no letting go but that’s Rob.”

[11]   The segment concluded with cartoon characters, with the faces of Ms Prendergast and Mr Goulden, punching each other in a boxing ring accompanied by the theme music from the movie Rocky.

[12]   Back in the Close Up studio, the presenter interviewed a registered psychologist and relationship expert who offered her opinions on the situation. These included that “there are gender issues”, that “it may just be a case of people stepping back, looking at their agenda, looking at what needs to be done, not sweating the small stuff and getting on with the job” and that “they’re letting themselves and their people down”.

Complaint

[13]   The Mayor of Wellington, Kerry Prendergast, made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item breached standards of accuracy and fairness.

[14]   Ms Prendergast argued that the item contained a number of inaccurate and misleading statements, including the phrases “Council at war”, “the Mayor vs a Councillor”, “an all-out war” and “every week there is another volley fired”. She considered that the item implied that there was a “personality clash” between her and Mr Goulden when there was not. She maintained that the situation was in fact a result of the councillor’s behaviour at meetings and the consequences of that under the meeting standing orders. Accordingly, while it may have appeared that there was some conflict between them, that was because she chaired the Council meetings, she said.

[15]   The complainant noted that no staff from Close Up had actually attended a Council meeting and witnessed the councillor’s behaviour, resulting in viewers being misled as the item presented him as “a reasonable, even-tempered person”. She argued that Close Up had not included her comments that she had made many offers to meet with Mr Goulden to work through any issues. She considered it was unfair to report that the councillor had received abusive phone calls without mentioning that she and other councillors also received abusive calls and emails.

[16]   Ms Prendergast stated, “Close Up’s use of caricatures in a boxing ring with the Rocky soundtrack was juvenile, insulting and unfairly trivialised serious issues.” She said she was also disappointed with the programme’s treatment of the tape of the threatening phone call she had received, as only parts of it were broadcast.

[17]   Further, the complainant considered it was unfair and wrong to interview a clinical psychologist who had never met her or Mr Goulden and had not been to a Council meeting. She said that the psychologist made “uninformed and inaccurate comments that were insulting to all concerned”. The issues had nothing to do with “gender issues” or a “personality clash”, she said, but only to do with the councillor’s conduct at Council meetings. She said the psychologist also had no basis to criticise them for “‘personality politics’ rather than ‘working for the greater good’”, or to state that they were “letting themselves and their people down”. Ms Prendergast considered that the psychologist was also wrong in stating that the supposed conflict had escalated to “a level where they are using bodyguards”. She said the increased security measures were in relation to the threatening phone call and nothing to do with Mr Goulden’s behaviour.

[18]   The complainant argued that the item was misleading and unfair because it had led viewers to believe that the entire City Council was “dysfunctional” and “at war”. She considered that the programme had brought the Council’s reputation into disrepute. Ms Prendergast emphasised that she had told the reporter several times that the issues were not between her and the councillor but with the full Council because of his behaviour at meetings. “Yet she still chose to present it as a him vs me ongoing feud based on a personality clash,” she said.

Standards

[19]   Standards 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice are relevant to the determination of this complaint. They 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

[20]   With regard to Standard 5 (accuracy), TVNZ maintained that the item was accurate. It said, “From the evidence it would not be unreasonable for an observer to think this was a ‘council at war’,” and that the statement “every week there is another volley fired” was backed up in many reports in the Dominion Post since April 2009. It said that in those articles Ms Prendergast was quoted making personal comments about Mr Goulden which did not relate to his professional behaviour. TVNZ noted that the councillor had admitted to not liking Ms Prendergast. It considered that in these circumstances the suggestion that there was a personality clash between them was reasonable.

[21]   TVNZ argued that the story was legitimate as it followed unprecedented incidents in local body politics, including a councillor being ejected from the Chamber by police, threatening phone calls against the Mayor, and the consequent use of bodyguards.

[22]   The broadcaster disagreed that the reporting of the threatening phone call was misleading. It said that 28 seconds of the 30-second tape of the call was broadcast, and the only part omitted was of the operator asking who was calling. It maintained that the reporter had not trivialised the content, but simply reported that the councillor thought that the Council had overreacted and that another councillor “thought it sounded like someone trying to do a Fred Dagg impersonation”. Further, Ms Prendergast was given an opportunity to respond to this point.

[23]   TVNZ also disagreed that Mr Goulden was presented as a “reasonable, even-tempered person”. It said that footage of him outside of work was included to give viewers some sense of the man allegedly causing problems at the Council. The broadcaster considered that not all of the footage presented him as reasonable and even-tempered, noting that at the beginning of the item he was described as “the naughtiest boy in class”. Throughout the item, several other factors contributed to him not being portrayed as reasonable, including:

  • footage of him leaving a Council meeting “in clear defiance of protocol and Mayor Prendergast”

  • a vox pop from a rugby mate saying that “he had to be hard, he had to be aggressive... that’s his make-up. He doesn’t let go, he’s like a dog with a bone when he thinks he’s right...”

  • the statement that “three councillors can’t stand him”

  • a vox pop from a councillor who described his behaviour “in less than flattering terms” saying, “he yells and screams, he disregards common courtesies and then when he doesn’t get his own way he either stomps out or cry-babies to the media like he’s doing to you now”

  • the reporter asking Mr Goulden if he thought he was aggressive or a bully, or whether he thought he needed help, and whether he had ever had any mental problems.

[24]   TVNZ concluded that the overall impression of Mr Goulden created by the item was not that he was “a reasonable, even-tempered man”, and therefore the audience was not misled.

[25]   The broadcaster also noted that the item stated that the councillor’s behaviour was a contributing factor to the issues raised. For example, the reporter stated that “the Mayor and the other councillors have become increasingly exasperated with Rob Goulden’s constant interruptions to points of order and the way he walks in and out of meetings but those in his ward elected him to Council four times”. Comments from Ms Prendergast reiterated this, saying, “because of Councillor Goulden’s behaviour, he doesn’t achieve. I mean you can’t be an efficient councillor if you don’t get the support of your colleagues”.

[26]   With regard to the interview with a psychologist, TVNZ considered that the material included was clearly distinguishable as her opinion. It noted that Close Up routinely sought analysis of current affairs items by such experts and considered that viewers would have understood that the psychologist was offering her opinion.

[27]   TVNZ declined to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

[28]   Turning to Standard 6 (fairness), TVNZ noted that the item had focused on the threatening phone call received by the Mayor and broadcast it in full, so the item had acknowledged that the Mayor was the subject of abuse.

[29]   With regard to the complainant’s reference to the caricatures used, the broadcaster maintained that satirical cartoons had an established place in the history of politics and that viewers recognised them as vehicles for political comment. It concluded that no unfairness was created through the programme’s use of comedic satire on the issue, and that the Mayor and Mr Goulden were treated the same in this respect.

[30]   The broadcaster considered it was fair that the item focused on the relationship between the Mayor and Mr Goulden given that the conflict was arising between them in their roles on the Council. It emphasised that the item had referred to the councillor’s behaviour as a contributing factor in that conflict through the comments made by the Mayor and other councillors.

[31]   On the issue of the interview with the psychologist, the broadcaster referred to guideline 6d to the fairness standard which required broadcasters to respect the right of individuals to express their opinions. It considered that the psychologist was entitled to express her opinion and that viewers would have understood it was her opinion.

[32]   Finally, TVNZ maintained that Ms Prendergast was provided with ample opportunity to present her perspective on the issues raised and that her perspective was fairly portrayed in the item. It declined to uphold the fairness complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[33]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Ms Prendergast referred her complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[34]   The complainant maintained that the item was inaccurate in depicting a “war”, because “there certainly isn’t any kind of conflict that could remotely be described as a war”. She considered that the clashes that occurred at Council meetings would occur regardless of who chaired them, and were not related to individuals but to the councillor’s behaviour. She noted that his disagreements with other councillors were not presented in the item as “a personality clash or ongoing feud”, as they were with her. Ms Prendergast therefore maintained that the item was misleading.

[35]   The complainant disagreed that the item followed “unprecedented events”. She said that clashes about meeting process at the Council were commonplace at many Councils, and that Mr Goulden was not the only one to have been ejected for bad behaviour. Similarly, threats to mayors were not unprecedented, she said, and it was incorrect to state that bodyguards had been used, as in fact it was only she who had increased security until the threatening caller was located by police.

[36]   Ms Prendergast considered that the reporter was wrong to connect the threatening phone call with Mr Goulden’s meeting ban. She said that at no time had she or the Council said that the two incidents were linked.

[37]   The complainant reiterated the points made in her original complaint with respect to the portrayal of the threatening phone call. She maintained that viewers had been misled.

[38]   Ms Prendergast argued that TVNZ had excluded mention of other incidents involving Mr Goulden, which would have created a different impression for viewers and supported the comments made by her and others about his aggressive behaviour.

[39]   The complainant reiterated the view that interviewing a psychologist about her professional opinion on two people she had never met was inaccurate and misleading. She accepted that the psychologist was offering her opinion, but considered that she had not qualified that it was based only on what she had seen in the news item. Ms Prendergast considered that viewers would have accepted the psychologist’s opinion as fact.

[40]   The complainant disagreed that it was fair for the item to focus on her relationship with Mr Goulden because of the conflict “arising between these two people in their roles on the Council”. She said that the councillor was banned from the meeting following three unanimous votes by all councillors supporting her rulings against him.

[41]   The complainant maintained that the item was inaccurate, misleading and unfair.

Authority's Determination

[42]   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)

[43]   Standard 5 requires that broadcasters make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and other factual programmes are truthful and accurate on material points of fact, and do not mislead. Ms Prendergast considered that a number of aspects of the item were inaccurate or misleading. The Authority deals with each issue below.

References to “Council at war”, “all-out war”, “every week there is another volley fired”

[44]   Ms Prendergast argued that the item contained a number of inaccurate and misleading statements, including the phrases “Council at war”, “the Mayor vs a Councillor”, “an all-out war” and “every week there is another volley fired”.

[45]   In the Authority’s view, these were not statements of fact, but rather hyperbolic, colourful terms that were used at the beginning of the item to set the scene. Further, it notes that the situation at the Council had been escalating and reported on for at least three weeks prior to the broadcast, as referred to in the item on several occasions:

Reporter:
Just weeks ago, the Council called police to remove one of its own from a meeting. Soon after that the Mayor was given protection after police took seriously a phone call threatening to “sort her out”.

Councillor:
The worst thing I’ve done in the last three weeks is use a four-letter word inappropriately.

Reporter:
In the last few weeks, Mayor Prendergast has publicly called Councillor Goulden aggressive, abusive, erratic, and a bully.

[46]   In these circumstances, the Authority concludes that the presenter’s comment that “every week there is another volley fired” was reasonable, and that the phrases complained about were not misleading or inaccurate in breach of Standard 5. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Personality clash” between the Mayor and Mr Goulden

[47]   The complainant argued that the item was inaccurate in implying that there was an ongoing “personality clash” between her and the councillor.

[48]   While the psychologist interviewed by Close Up and the presenter did offer the opinion that the situation at the Council was due to a “personality clash”, the Authority is of the view that those comments cannot be looked at in isolation from the rest of the item, which presented an overview of the situation at the Council, including the events that had received media attention in previous weeks, and Mr Goulden’s behaviour at Council meetings. The Authority considers that it was left open to viewers to interpret the situation for themselves, and that therefore the item was not misleading or inaccurate in this respect.

Portrayal of Mr Goulden in the item

[49]   Ms Prendergast argued that Mr Goulden was presented as a “reasonable, even-tempered person,” which was misleading. The Authority disagrees. It notes that the following comments were made in the item:

Reporter:
It’s Groundhog Day at the Wellington City Council with the Mayor once again chastising the naughtiest boy in class.

Prendergast:
He’s disruptive, he’s aggressive, he’s abusive.

Reporter:
The Mayor and other councillors have become increasingly exasperated with Rob Goulden’s constant interruptions to points of order and the way he walks in and out of meetings...

Reporter:
Four other councillors have told Close Up Rob Goulden is a good person and has valid concerns about the way things are run at the Council. However, at least three other councillors can’t stand him. One was so keen to comment on camera he contacted a Close Up producer four times over the space of three days.

Councillor:
He yells and screams, he disregards common courtesies and then when he doesn’t get his own way he either stomps out or cry-babies to the media like he’s doing to you now.

Friend:
... I mean that’s just Rob. That’s his make-up. He doesn’t let go. He’s like a dog with a bone. When he thinks he’s right, that’s it, there’s no letting go but that’s Rob.

[50]   The Authority considers that, combined with references to the fact that Mr Goulden was well-liked by some and had been elected four times, the item left it to viewers to judge the councillor’s character for themselves. It declines to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 5 in this respect.

Omission of fact that the Mayor had offered to meet with Mr Goulden and resolve any issues

[51]   Ms Prendergast noted that the reporter had not included comments from her that she had offered many times to meet with the councillor to resolve any issues. She considered that the omission of this fact was misleading.

[52]   In the Authority’s view, including this in the item would have been helpful to viewers, particularly as it would have put the psychologist’s comments into context, for example that “it may just be a case of... looking at what needs to be done, not sweating the small stuff and getting on with the job”. However, the Authority considers that overall, the omission of the Mayor’s comments did not lead to the item being misleading or inaccurate, and that upholding this part of the complaint would unjustifiably restrict the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.

Interview with psychologist and psychologist’s comment that the situation had escalated to the point where bodyguards were needed

[53]   The complainant argued that the psychologist made inaccurate and uninformed comments. In particular, she considered that the psychologist was wrong in stating that the supposed conflict had escalated to “a level where they are using bodyguards”. She said the increased security measures were in relation to the threatening phone call and nothing to do with Mr Goulden’s behaviour.

[54]   In the Authority’s view, it would have been clear to viewers that the psychologist was offering her opinion about the situation, based only on one viewing of the item. The Authority therefore considers that viewers would not have been misled in that respect.

[55]   With regard to the psychologist’s statement that the situation had escalated to “a level where they are using bodyguards”, the Authority considers that the item made it clear that the increased security was in response to the phone call and unrelated to Mr Goulden’s behaviour. It notes that the reporter expressly stated that Mr Goulden had denied that he was in any way connected with the phone call. Regardless, as already stated above, the Authority is of the view that the Close Up audience would have realised that the psychologist was simply offering her interpretation of what she had seen in the story.

[56]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the interview with the psychologist was inaccurate or misleading.

Portrayal of Council as dysfunctional and “at war”

[57]   The complainant maintained that the item implied that the entire Council was dysfunctional and at war, which was inaccurate.

[58]   The Authority notes that the item included footage from Council meetings in which councillors were shown maintaining a level of professionalism and order. While some comments by interviewees supported Mr Goulden, the Authority is of the view that the item clearly created the impression that it was he who was disruptive rather than the Council as a whole.

[59]   The Authority therefore declines to uphold this part of the complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[60]   Standard 6 requires broadcasters to deal justly and fairly with individuals and organisations taking part or referred to in a programme. Ms Prendergast considered that a number of aspects of the item were unfair to her and/or the Council.

Use of cartoon characters in boxing ring

[61]   Ms Prendergast considered that “Close Up’s use of caricatures in a boxing ring with the Rocky soundtrack was juvenile, insulting and unfairly trivialised serious issues”. TVNZ argued that the use of comedic satire was a legitimate vehicle for political comment.

[62]   The Authority acknowledges Ms Prendergast’s view that the cartoon trivialised the issues under discussion. However, it is of the view that it was a legitimate use of satire by the broadcaster to visually represent the situation.

[63]   The Authority therefore concludes that the use of the boxing ring cartoon was not unfair to the complainant, and declines to uphold this part of the fairness complaint.

Treatment of the threatening phone call

[64]   The complainant argued that the reporter’s treatment of the threatening phone call was unfair and trivialised a serious matter. She also considered that it was unfair to focus on Mr Goulden receiving abusive phone calls at home without mentioning that she and other councillors also received abusive calls.

[65]   The Authority notes that almost all of the phone call was broadcast in the item. It considers that viewers would have appreciated that the threat was taken seriously, given the references to increased security measures and Ms Prendergast’s response to a question from the reporter about the seriousness of the threat. Further, reasonable viewers would have realised that the mayor and other councillors would likely receive abusive phone calls.

[66]   Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the complaint that Ms Prendergast was treated unfairly in this respect.

Interview with psychologist

[67]   The complainant considered that it was unfair to interview a clinical psychologist who had never met her or Mr Goulden and had not been to a Council meeting. TVNZ contended that it was common for Close Up to interview experts about current events.

[68]   In the Authority’s view, the interview with the psychologist was frivolous and in the nature of a gossip segment. However, it considers that Close Up viewers would have interpreted it as such. It was clear that the psychologist had not met the individuals involved and was offering a broad opinion based only on one viewing of the item. For that reason, the Authority considers that viewers would not have taken her comments seriously and, therefore, the interview did not result in the complainant being treated unfairly.

Item overall

[69]   The Authority is of the view that the unusual nature of the events involving the Council which led up to the item – for example an ex-policeman being escorted out of a meeting by police, the threatening phone call, and the Mayor’s use of bodyguards – were undoubtedly newsworthy, and it was reasonable for TVNZ to expect the Mayor to provide a response as the Chair of the Council. Further, Close Up was entitled to make the editorial decision to take a human interest, tabloid-type approach to the story.

[70]   The Authority considers that the complainant was given sufficient opportunity to comment in the programme, and to put forward her side of the story. It therefore finds that Ms Prendergast was not treated unfairly by the broadcaster.

Fairness to Council

[71]   Ms Prendergast argued that the item was unfair because it brought the entire Council’s reputation into disrepute.

[72]   As outlined above in paragraph [58], the Authority considers that the Council as a whole was presented fairly because the item focused on the disruptive behaviour of Mr Goulden. Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the complaint that TVNZ treated the Council unfairly.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
25 November 2009

Appendix

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

1.           Kerry Prendergast’s formal complaint – 22 July 2009

2.          TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 25 August 2009

3.          Ms Prendergast’s referral to the Authority – 8 September 2009

4.          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 8 and 16 October 2009