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Robertson and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2016-038 (22 August 2016)

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose
  • Niall Robertson
ONE News Tonight
TV One


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

An item on ONE News Tonight reported on a pro-rail rally in Whangarei, which occurred in reaction to KiwiRail’s decision to discontinue part of the North Rail Link. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the item was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair. The item included a variety of significant viewpoints on KiwiRail’s decision, and it did not imply that the Government’s or KiwiRail’s views on the issue were more valid than other views. In the context of a brief news report, the pro-rail rally was accurately conveyed, and no individual or organisation was identified by the complainant as being treated unfairly.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy, Fairness


[1]  An item on ONE News Tonight reported on a pro-rail rally in Whangarei, which occurred in reaction to KiwiRail’s decision to discontinue part of the North Rail Link.

[2]  Niall Robertson complained that the item was unbalanced as it ‘gave too much authority’ to the Government’s and KiwiRail’s views, and was also inaccurate and unfair.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the balance, accuracy and fairness standards, as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.1

[4]  The item was broadcast on TV ONE on 4 April 2016. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was the item sufficiently balanced?

[5]  The balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. The standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.2

Submissions from the parties

[6]  Mr Robertson argued that the item provided no balance to the views of the Government (presented by National MP Shane Reti and a KiwiRail manager) that the Northland railway is uneconomic. Mr Robertson considered the ‘case for why rail should die was given, but the case for why rail should flourish was not’.

[7]  The complainant submitted that the item should have included comment from representatives of the Labour Party and the Green Party, Northland businesspeople and the Campaign for Better Transport, who also spoke at the pro-rail rally. He considered comments included in the item from Winston Peters were ‘just expressions of frustration’, and that the Northland residents’ comments were ‘just opinions, both without the authority to challenge the statements from Mr Reti and [the manager of KiwiRail]’.

[8]  TVNZ acknowledged that the pro-rail rally in support of the North Rail Link was a controversial issue of public importance. However, it maintained that balance cannot be measured by a stopwatch (ie, by giving exactly equal time to all views), and it is sufficient that alternative viewpoints are adequately acknowledged. TVNZ considered this occurred during the item, which included comment from a range of relevant parties and individuals with differing opinions on the issue.

[9]  TVNZ argued that an alternative political perspective was represented by Mr Peters, who had previously signalled that infrastructure such as rail would be a priority for him in the electorate. TVNZ considered the complainant’s concerns were in effect matters of personal preference and editorial discretion, in other words, Mr Robertson would have preferred that different politicians featured in the report.

Our analysis

[10]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.3

[11]  The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.4 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.5

[12]  We agree with both parties that KiwiRail’s decision to discontinue part of the North Rail Link was a controversial issue of public importance. The closure attracted heated public debate and was understandably a significant issue for residents in the region.

[13]  We are also satisfied that significant points of view on this issue were presented within the item. The item included a variety of perspectives on KiwiRail’s decision to discontinue part of the line and we do not think the item suggested that the Government’s or KiwiRail’s views were more valid than anyone else’s. To the contrary, the comments included made it clear to viewers that the Government and KiwiRail had been subject to significant criticism as a result of the decision to cease activity on the Whangarei-Otiria line. The introduction to the item first signalled this:

Stop neglecting the regions – that is the message that hundreds of Northlanders gave to the Government at a pro-rail rally in Whangarei tonight. KiwiRail is looking to pull out of its mid-North Rail Link and tonight it was forced to listen to outraged residents.

[14]  Numerous comments were then presented from the perspective of those who were against the closure:

  • ‘I want to tell KiwiRail, their performance has been an abject disgrace.’ (Mr Peters)
  • ‘Well, it was two fifths of FA. These apologists get up here and think that they can flim-flam some country folk.’ (Mr Peters, in response to the reporter’s question, ‘What did you think about what Shane Reti said tonight?’)
  • ‘I’m passionate about the rail growing. I think it’s really important for our economy.’ (Northland resident)
  • ‘We’re looking for the growth of Northland. As I say, it’s been neglected and we’ve got to future-proof.’ (Northland resident)
  • ‘My message to you, sir, is, you might have got away with it down there – I hope you don’t – but you’re not going to get away with it up here. There will be an election soon, and some of us are coming for that sort of incompetence.’ (Mr Peters)

[15]  We do not consider that it was necessary for the item to include, in addition to these comments, the views of Labour Party and Green Party representatives in support of the railway. The standard does not prescribe how balance is to be achieved or who should give comment on a given issue – that is an editorial decision for the broadcaster. Here views were given which opposed the closure and that was sufficient to meet the requirements of the standard.

[16]  Accordingly we do not uphold the balance complaint.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[17]  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 receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.6

Submissions from the parties

[18]  Mr Robertson argued that ‘the report did not reflect the information and positivity of the meeting accurately’.

[19]  TVNZ submitted that Mr Robertson did not identify a material point of fact which he considered was inaccurate. It did not consider the item was misleading, as significant viewpoints on the issue were presented and viewers were accurately informed of the scope of the arguments. TVNZ noted the rally event occurred over a considerable period of time and that reporting on it necessarily had to be condensed for the purposes of a brief news item; it was not possible, or reasonable, to report all of the discussion which occurred, nor this was not expected by the viewer, it said.

Our analysis

[20]  In our view, ‘the information and positivity’ of the meeting generally did not amount to a material point of fact in the item, to which the standard applied. The question then is whether the item was misleading in this respect, and we do not agree that it was. In the context of a brief news report, which canvassed a variety of views on what was obviously a long-running, complicated and controversial issue, we consider the pro-rail rally was accurately conveyed. We agree with the broadcaster that, due to the variety of viewpoints presented during the item, viewers would not have been misled as to the information and perspectives presented at the rally.

[21]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under Standard 9.

Was any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[22]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme.

[23]  Mr Robertson argued that the item ‘gave an unfair view that the [G]overnment’s and KiwiRail’s management’s views were more valid than the alternative views’.

[24]  The fairness standard applies only to individuals or organisations ‘taking part or referred to’ in a broadcast. Mr Robertson’s concerns appear to relate to the presentation of viewpoints, rather than the treatment of a particular person or organisation. We have addressed these concerns as a matter of balance. Accordingly, we do not uphold this part of the complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Radich
22 August 2016



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

1      Niall Robertson’s formal complaint – 5 April 2016
2      TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 4 May 2016
3      Mr Robertson’s referral to the Authority – 6 May 2016 (received 11 May 2016)
4      TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 12 July 2016
5      Mr Robertson’s final comments – 12 July 2016


1 This complaint was determined under the new Free-to-Air Television Code, which took effect on 1 April 2016 and applies to any programmes broadcast on or after that date:

Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

3 For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010) and Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Radio (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2009)

4 Powell and CanWest TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2005-125

5 See, for example, Dewe and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-076

6 Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036