BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Sanders and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2005-104

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Jason Sanders
Number
2005-104
Programme
Close Up
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Close Up – episode devoted to controversy about Meningococcal B vaccine and immunisation campaign – allegedly unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – a range of significant views advanced about a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccuracies and not misleading – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – taking into account the format of programme, panel member Ron Law treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] The controversy about the Meningococcal B vaccine and the current immunisation campaign was dealt with during an entire episode of Close Up, broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on 14 July 2005. The item included interviews undertaken in Norway at the laboratory that developed the vaccine on which the New Zealand vaccine was based. Questions and critical comments were put to a Ministry of Health spokesperson (Dr Jane O’Hallahan), an expert in immunisation (Dr Nikki Turner), and a risk and policy analyst who was opposed to the immunisation campaign (Mr Ron Law).

[2] In the item’s introduction, the presenter noted that some parents felt “railroaded” into having their children immunised. In addition to the viewers’ questions put to the panel by the presenter, the item included a clip from the co-leader of the Māori Party (Hon Tariana Turia) advising that she was opposed to the vaccination of her grandchildren, and a live interview with the parents of a young child who had experienced a bad reaction to the first dose of the vaccine. They were watching the discussion and expressed scepticism with some of the answers given by the proponents of the vaccination campaign.

[3] The issues raised included concerns about the origin of the vaccine, how long immunisation protection would last, and the various tests to which the vaccine had been subjected. The controversy about the test results was also aired. Mr Law commented that the laboratory in Norway had been closed recently. The presenter was unaware of that fact at the time, but confirmed it at the end of the programme and was able to give the reason for the closure.

Complaint

[4] Jason Sanders complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item breached the standards requiring balance, accuracy and fairness.

[5] Mr Sanders complained that although Mr Law was invited to participate as a leading critic of the campaign, he was “shut out” by the presenter. Noting that Mr Law was asked three questions and was allowed less than three minutes in total to present his case, Mr Sanders said that during that time Mr Law also had to outline his relevant experience and deal with a question which was not directly relevant. The two other interviewees, however, spoke for over seven minutes. Because Mr Law was given insufficient time to develop his arguments, Mr Sanders contended that the item was unbalanced.

[6] The item was misleading and inaccurate, Mr Sanders continued, as a 10-minute “panegyric” about the Institute of Public Health in Norway omitted to advise viewers that the laboratory had recently been closed by the Norwegian government. Further, the item should have referred to the laboratory in Italy which made the vaccine actually used in New Zealand, and the manufacturer’s safety record.

[7] Mr Sanders considered that the item was unfair as Mr Law was “cut short”. Specifically, Mr Sanders complained, that had occurred with Dr Turner’s “emotional outburst” at the end of the programme, to which the presenter responded with sympathy.

[8] Overall, Mr Sanders argued that the intention of the programme was to “bolster” the Ministry of Health’s view that the vaccine was “entirely safe and effective”. He believed that TVNZ should repeat the programme with a “neutral” presenter who would allow Mr Law to present his views fully, given the “highly complex” nature of the immunisation campaign.

Standards

[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the standards nominated by Mr Sanders. They provide:

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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[10] TVNZ explained that the question line adopted during the broadcast was guided by the questions which had been submitted by members of the public. As the questions were mainly concerned with policy and medicinal matters, they were put to the people who were best able to respond to them.

[11] TVNZ also noted that criticism of the immunisation campaign was advanced by others during the broadcast. This included comment from the co-leader of the Māori Party, and remarks from an Auckland family who did not seem convinced by an answer given by Dr O’Hallahan. Further, the questions asked, both by the presenter and during the Norwegian segment, challenged the people spoken to. TVNZ wrote:

The [complaints] committee felt that the overall impression left with the viewer may well have been that uncertainties still surround the vaccine programme – and that feeling of uncertainty arose from what, at times, seemed unconvincing responses from all of the studio guests.

[12] As for the standards, TVNZ said that the Meningococcal B vaccine debate was a controversial issue of public importance and the views opposing the immunisation campaign were advanced. Balance, it observed, could not be satisfactorily achieved through the use of a stopwatch.

[13] Mr Law had first advanced the information about the closure of the laboratory in Norway during the item and, at the end of the broadcast, Close Up confirmed that had occurred and gave the reason for it. The item was neither inaccurate nor misleading, said TVNZ.

[14] As for fairness, TVNZ observed that Mr Sanders might not be satisfied with the way Mr Law had used the opportunities he had been given. However, TVNZ added, the broadcast had achieved its objective of setting out to answer questions submitted by interested members of the public.

[15] TVNZ did not uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

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

[17] Mr Sanders initially referred to the arrangements made between TVNZ and Mr Law before the broadcast. Mr Law, he said, had been told that the item would be a debate about questions from the public and he would be sent selected questions before the broadcast. However, he did not receive any questions and a debate did not take place. Rather, he was asked three questions. Further, 10 minutes were spent discussing a laboratory in Norway and nothing was advanced about the vaccine manufacturing plant in Italy, the owner of which had a poor safety record.

[18] Repeating his complaint about the limited time Mr Law had been allowed when compared with the time given to the other two interviewees, Mr Sanders considered that the item was unbalanced and unfair to Mr Law in this regard.

[19] In response to TVNZ’s point that the item included other critics, Mr Sanders contended that they, too, were not allowed an opportunity to develop their arguments. He added:

… no analysis, or rigorous, scientifically informed argument, facts of significance were given to back these viewpoints.

[20] Mr Sanders reiterated his contention that Mr Law was “shut out”, and described TVNZ’s response to this point as “hypocritical sophistry”. It was to Mr Law’s credit, he stated, that he did not lose his temper with the presenter.

[21] Mr Sanders maintained that the item was inaccurate as it suggested that the laboratory in Norway was safe and clean and produced the vaccine used in New Zealand. He accepted that the vaccine produced in Norway was the forerunner to the vaccine used in New Zealand, but the actual vaccine was produced by a transnational biotechnology company which had a plant in Liverpool closed by health inspectors. This was in breach of the accuracy standard, he wrote, as it was “a lie by omission”.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[22] TVNZ did not accept Mr Sanders' description of the broadcast as a “debate”. It was, it wrote, a forum in which questions submitted by viewers and selected editorially “were answered by experts”. The information about the Norwegian laboratory in the item, it said, was based on an independent assessment. It did not agree that a trip to Italy would have been more productive.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[23] Pointing out that TVNZ had promoted the episode of Close Up as a debate, or at least a panel discussion, Mr Sanders maintained that it was not a free flow of ideas. Mr Law, the principal critic of the Ministry of Health’s campaign, was “constantly cut-off”. He had made a close assessment of the time allowed each speaker which disclosed that the two proponents had over 6 minutes while Mr Law received two minutes and six seconds. Further, the other critical speakers had made only brief comments.

[24] Mr Sanders reiterated his points about the matters that he alleged were either not dealt with, or dealt with inadequately, during the broadcast. Specifically, these were the closure of the Norwegian laboratory and the safety record of the company which made the vaccine. Acknowledging an earlier mistake, Mr Sanders said that Mr Law had now advised him that he had been sent six or seven questions before the broadcast, but had been asked only three. Moreover, the first question which would have allowed him an opportunity to outline his argument was put in a meaningless way.

[25] Finally, Mr Sanders said TVNZ was “appallingly biased” to allow Dr Turner an “uninterrupted vilification” of Mr Law at the end of the programme, and to deny him a right of reply.

Authority's Determination

[26] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 4 (balance)

[27] The Authority agrees that the programme dealt with a controversial issue of public importance. The Meningococcal B vaccination campaign run by the Ministry of Health is undoubtedly an issue of public importance, given that New Zealand is currently experiencing an epidemic of the disease. The issue is also controversial, as the campaign has been publicly criticised on a number of fronts. The Authority agrees, therefore, that this programme, which aimed to address public concerns about the vaccine and the vaccination campaign, required balance.

[28] The programme contained a range of views about both the vaccine and the immunisation campaign. Participants advanced various views. These included a sceptical view from Hon Tariana Turia, co-leader of the Māori Party, criticisms of both the vaccine and vaccination programme from Mr Law, and concern from parents whose child had already had one dose of the vaccine and had experienced a reaction. Support for the vaccine and campaign was put by the two medically qualified interviewees.

[29] Given the range of views advanced, the Authority finds that viewers would have been left with the clear understanding that there was both support for and opposition to the vaccine and the immunisation campaign. The Authority agrees with TVNZ that the use of a stopwatch to measure participants’ contributions is not usually a satisfactory measure of balance, and that in this instance the presentation of the range of views meant that the broadcast complied with Standard 4.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[30] Mr Sanders considered that the item was inaccurate and misleading in the way it covered the closure of the laboratory in Norway, and in its failure to either name the manufacturer of the New Zealand vaccine or refer to the manufacturer’s safety record.

[31] The Authority is of the view that the broadcast met the requirement in Standard 5 for accuracy. The laboratory closure was raised by Mr Law and later dealt with by the presenter.

[32] In relation to the omission of the information about the manufacturer, the Authority observes that as with all current affairs items on television, there is always available considerably more information than is contained in the broadcast. A programme cannot hope to contain every fact relevant to the issue under discussion.

[33] The issue for the Authority is whether the omission or omissions result in a misleading or inaccurate report. In the Authority’s view, that is not the case here. The failure to mention the name of the manufacturer and that the vaccine was made in Italy, and questions about the manufacturer’s safety records in a plant elsewhere, were not central to the issues under discussion. Those issues were the efficacy of the vaccine, whether or not there had been enough trials, and whether a nationwide vaccination programme was necessary.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[34] The Authority considers that Mr Law was treated fairly. He was given the opportunity to state his qualifications, and to explain his concerns about the vaccine and the vaccination campaign. These included the information about the closure of the laboratory in Norway and the point that the vaccine it produced was never licensed. He also referred to an article in the medical literature about the vaccine. While he was given less time to put his views than the two medical experts, the Authority considers that this was understandable. Given the programme’s format and the focus on answering viewers’ questions and concerns, it was to be expected that most of the questions posed by viewers would be aimed at the two medical experts who were defending the vaccination campaign.

[35] Further, although Mr Law was not given the opportunity to reply to Dr Turner’s critical comments at the end of the programme because of the lack of time, he nevertheless made plain his strong disagreement with her.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
28 November 2005

Appendix

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

  1. Jason Sanders’ formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 18 July 2005
  2. TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 23 August 2005
  3. Mr Sanders’ referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 7 September 2005
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 19 September 2005
  5. Mr Sanders’ final comment – 4 October 2005