BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Robertson and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-164

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Colin Robertson
Number
2004-164
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News
– item on recent memorial to Māori Battalion in Gisborne – noted Maori Battalion had highest casualty rate of any New Zealand unit in the war – allegedly inaccurate

Findings
Principle 5 (accuracy) – ambiguity in words used – complainant and broadcaster took different meaning from words – unable to determine accuracy – declined to determine under s11(b) of Broadcasting Act 1989

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An item on One News on 11 July 2004 noted the unveiling of a memorial to the Māori Battalion which fought in the Second World War. The item included the statement:

By the time the Māori Battalion arrived home, they’d suffered the highest casualty rate of any unit in the war, 680 men killed.

Complaint

[2] Colin Robertson complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that this statement was incorrect, as New Zealand air crew losses were proportionately higher than those of the Māori Battalion, and that proportionately, the Māori Battalion suffered about the same casualty rates as the non-Māori battalions. Mr Robertson provided an article from the Dominion newspaper from August 2000 in support of his claims, and also stated that he had spoken to military historians.

Standards

[3] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which states:

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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[4] TVNZ did not uphold the complaint. It stated:

… the key word in the sentence quoted above was “unit” – a word which in a military context implies a single cohesive body under one command. The committee conceded it might have been preferable had the reporter been specific about the type of “unit” he was referring to – in this case, of course, a battalion. The committee imagined that the air crew losses you describe represented New Zealanders attached to a number of different air force “units” or squadrons.

[5] TVNZ noted that the information about the Māori Battalion had been sourced from historian Dr Monty Soutar, author of a soon-to-be-released book on the Māori Battalion. TVNZ noted that Dr Soutar was also the author of an entry in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History, which noted, in relation to the Māori Battalion:

Of the 3,600 who saw action with 28th (Māori) Battalion, 649 were killed or died on active service, and 1,712 were wounded. A further twenty-nine died after being discharged as a direct result of their service. Two men died while training as reinforcements in New Zealand. Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, 2NZEF’s commander, could well write later that no infantry battalion in his force “had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties as the Māori battalion”.

[6] TVNZ stated that while there was some ambiguity about the statement, heard in the context of the story overall, the impression it left with the viewer was truthful and accurate, and drawn from a reliable source.

Further Correspondence

[7] Mr Robertson wrote again to TVNZ, explaining that 75 Squadron (comprising air crews) in fact suffered the heaviest losses, sourcing his figures from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.

[8] Mr Robertson then wrote again, providing further information from a book, RNZAF; A Short History by Geoffrey Bentley, in which 75 Squadron was referred to as a “unit”, of which 31% of the 1,370 who served lost their lives. Mr Robertson noted that this compared with the 18% casualty rate TVNZ ascribed to the Māori Battalion.

[9] Mr Robertson also referred to figures from New Zealanders with the RAF and The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. He concluded with another statement from For Your Tomorrow: a Record of New Zealanders who have died while serving with the RNZAF and Allied Air Services since 1915, referring to the proportionately very high losses of the air crews compared to ground forces.

Referral to the Authority

[10] Mr Robertson then referred his complaint to the Authority, reiterating his view on the inaccuracy of the statement. He pointed out:

  • the proportion of 75 Squadron air crew losses
  • the fact that TVNZ had not proved that the casualties of the Māori Battalion were higher than those of the other battalions.

[11] Mr Robertson noted that he wished “in no way to denigrate the great contribution and sacrifices made in the Second World War by the Māori Battalion … However a TVNZ reporter made a claim that is simply not true and should be corrected”.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[12] In response to the referral, TVNZ noted that it “shared Mr Robertson’s distaste at quibbling over the casualty figures of war, but stands by the statement made in the programme, a respectful comment delivered concerning the particular servicemen being honoured at the Gisborne cemetery”.

[13] TVNZ acknowledged some ambiguity over the use of the word “unit” but did not think its use amounted to a breach of the standards.

[14] TVNZ concluded that the words “casualty rate” can also be extended beyond those killed, and Dr Soutar had been cited in a separate article in the Dominion Post in 2003 as saying that of the Māori Battalion, about 70% were killed, injured or taken prisoner, the “highest casualty rate” of any New Zealand battalion.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[15] In his final comment, the complainant noted that the words “casualty rate” could mean “only one thing in the context of the statement under dispute”, and that it was “illogical” for TVNZ to extend the meaning beyond those who died.

[16] Mr Robertson also noted that the meaning of the word “unit” was also key, and suggested that TVNZ was trying to divert its meaning away from the appropriate military definition.

Authority's Determination

[17] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[18] Under section 11 of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority has a wide discretion to decline to determine a complaint referred to it. Subsection 11(b) states that the Authority may so decline:

(b) if, in all the circumstances of the complaint the Authority considers it should not be determined.

[19] In the present case, the words complained of contain a significant degree of ambiguity. The ambiguity arises in respect of three aspects of the words used in the item.

[20] First, the use of the word “unit”. While the Authority accepts Mr Robertson’s view that the term has an accepted military meaning, this does not mean that it is this strict military meaning that ordinary viewers would have taken from the use of the word in the item.

[21] Second, the use of the words “casualty rate”. While Mr Robertson is firmly of the view that the context in which the phrase was used was such that it clearly meant “death rate”, TVNZ submits that the phrase extends to cover those injured or taken prisoner.

[22] The final ambiguity again concerns the words “casualty rate”. On the one hand these words could refer to the number of casualties in proportion to the number of men in the unit referred to; on the other hand they could mean the absolute number of casualties.

[23] What these ambiguities highlight is that there is no single clear interpretation to be given to the words used in the broadcast. Mr Robertson took one specific meaning from the words, and provided a substantial body of evidence suggesting that, based on his interpretation, the item was incorrect. The Authority acknowledges the submissions made by Mr Robertson in this regard and agrees that if his interpretation was correct, then on its face the item would appear to have been inaccurate.

[24] But TVNZ credibly argued that another meaning could have been taken from the words and as a result the Authority is not convinced that the ordinary viewer would have taken from the item the meaning taken by Mr Robertson.

[25] The result is that the Authority is unable to ascribe one clear meaning to the words used, due to their inherent ambiguities. It is thus unable to assess their accuracy or otherwise. Although it acknowledges the validity of Mr Robertson’s interpretation, and his supporting research, the Authority accepts that TVNZ’s interpretation is also valid. It therefore exercises its discretion under section 11(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 to decline to determine the matter.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to determine the complaint

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
4 November 2004

Appendix

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

  1. Colin Robertson’s formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 13 July 2004
  2. TVNZ’s letter acknowledging receipt of formal complaint – 16 July 2004
  3. TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 12 August 2004
  4. Mr Robertson’s further correspondence with TVNZ with supporting historical references –
    2 and 3 September 2004
  5. Mr Robertson’s formal referral to the Authority – 7 September 2004
  6. TVNZ’s response to the referral – 23 September 2004
  7. Mr Robertson’s final comment – 8 October 2004