BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Sheerin and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2017-018 (26 May 2017)

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose
Dated
Complainant
  • Bronwyn Sheerin
Number
2017-018
Programme
Newshub
Broadcaster
MediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary

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

Four items on Newshub featured stories related to the United Kingdom and/or the British Royal Family. The Authority did not uphold complaints that the Newshub items and the reporters’ comments were biased, unfair and derogatory towards the United Kingdom and/or members of the British Royal Family. The Authority found that the news reports did not contain any material which discriminated against or denigrated any section of the community, or which could be said to be unfair to members of the British Royal Family. The items also did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance which triggered the requirement for balancing perspectives to be given, and did not raise accuracy or programme information issues.

Not Upheld: Discrimination and Denigration, Fairness, Balance, Accuracy, Programme Information


Introduction

[1]  Four items on Newshub featured stories related to the United Kingdom and/or the British Royal Family:

  • Item One, broadcast on Three on 22 February 2017, reported on an English football goalkeeper who was shown onscreen eating a pasty during a game. The reporter referred to the pasty as ‘Britain’s inferior pie substitute’.
  • Item Two, broadcast on Three on 14 March 2017, was about calls for a second Scottish independence referendum in light of Britain’s upcoming Brexit negotiations. The reporter referred to the day of broadcast being Commonwealth Day,1 and stated, ‘Happy Commonwealth Day. An occasion you’ve probably never heard of. The Queen loves it though...’
  • Item Three, broadcast on Three on 10 March 2017, featured footage of the behaviour of a toddler who presented flowers to the Queen at the unveiling of a war memorial. The newsreader referred to the Queen as the ‘Queen of England’.
  • Item Four, broadcast on Three on 20 March 2017, reported on the auction of letters written by Princess Diana. The newsreader described the letters as ‘notable for the fact [Princess Diana] writes to a friend that the honeymoon has been perfect for catching up on her sleep’. The newsreader then commented, ‘Jeez, that’s rough’.

[2]  Bronwyn Sheerin made four separate complaints about the above items, in essence arguing that the Newshub coverage and the reporters’ comments were biased, unfair and derogatory towards the United Kingdom and/or members of the British Royal Family. As Ms Sheerin’s complaints raise similar issues, we have addressed them together.

[3]  The issues raised in Ms Sheerin’s complaints are whether the items breached the discrimination and denigration, fairness, balance, programme information and accuracy standards as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The members of the Authority have viewed recordings of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Did the broadcasts encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community?

[5]  The objective of the discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 6) is to protect sections of the community from verbal and other attacks. The standard protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

[6]  ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment. ‘Denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community.2

The parties’ submissions

[7]  Ms Sheerin submitted:

  • The reporter’s comment that the pasty was ‘Britain’s inferior pie substitute’ was racist, and argued that if a similar comment were made about a New Zealand cultural group, it would not be acceptable (Item One).
  • The reporter’s comment ‘Happy Commonwealth Day. An occasion you’ve probably never heard of. The Queen loves it though...’ was ‘an attack on [New Zealand’s] cultural heritage’ (Item Two).
  • The newsreader’s reference to the ‘Queen of England’ discriminated against New Zealanders by ‘refusing to acknowledge our Queen as our own’ (Item Three).
  • Item Four denigrated Prince Charles.

[8]  MediaWorks submitted:

  • The reporter’s comment in Item One was intended to be humorous, in keeping with the light-hearted nature of the item, and therefore did not carry the high level of condemnation required to breach this standard.
  • The focus of Item Two was not Commonwealth Day, and it did not set out to offend those who celebrate it. Rather, the reporter used the UK celebrations of Commonwealth Day as an entry point to a story about Brexit and calls for a second Scottish independence referendum.
  • While recognising that Queen Elizabeth II is New Zealand’s monarch and head of state, ‘it would have been confusing, unhelpful and unorthodox for the broadcast to have described the Queen as the “Queen of New Zealand”, particularly as it is uncommon for her to be described that way in this country’. The broadcaster considered that viewers would have easily understood to whom the phrase ‘Queen of England’ referred, and there was no issue with the newsreader’s use of that title.
  • The discrimination and denigration standard only relates to sections of the community, and so could not be applied to Princess Diana or Prince Charles as individuals.

Our analysis

[9]  The discrimination and denigration standard applies only to recognised sections of the community, which are consistent with the grounds for discrimination set out in the Human Rights Act 1993.3 The standard does not apply to individuals, therefore we cannot consider it in relation to Ms Sheerin’s complaint about Item Four.

[10]  In relation to Ms Sheerin’s complaints about the other three items, we do not consider the comments identified could be said to encourage the different treatment of, or devalue the reputation of, any section of the community such as New Zealanders or British people. It is well established that in light of the importance of freedom of expression, a high level of condemnation (often with an element of malice or nastiness) is required to breach this standard.4

[11]  We acknowledge that use of proper titles for heads of state is important to some viewers, including the complainant. Nevertheless, we are satisfied that the three items were straightforward news reports that were free from any malice or ill will. In our view, the various comments subject to complaint were simply light-hearted remarks used as a segue into other matters, and could not be said to have encouraged discrimination or denigration as envisaged by this standard.

[12]  For the above reasons, we do not uphold the complaints under Standard 6.

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

[13]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. One of the purposes of the fairness standard is to protect individuals and organisations from broadcasts which provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.5

The parties’ submissions

[14]  Ms Sheerin submitted:

  • The reporter’s comment, ‘Happy Commonwealth Day. An occasion you’ve probably never heard of. The Queen loves it though...’ implied that the Queen likes Commonwealth Day out of self-interest, which was derogatory and unfair (Item Two).
  • The inclusion of footage of a toddler’s misbehaviour (when presenting flowers to the Queen at the unveiling of a war memorial) was for the purpose of humiliating the Queen and making her look foolish (Item Three).
  • Item Four, which was about letters written by Princess Diana during her honeymoon, was ‘contemptuous’ and denigrating towards Prince Charles, as ‘the newsreaders sniggered over the insinuation that there was no or little sex during the honeymoon’. She considered that ‘no news media should get away with showing only bad publicity about a country’s head of state and his or her family’.

[15]  MediaWorks submitted in response:

  • The reporter’s ‘tongue-in-cheek remark [in Item Two] was intended to highlight the relative solidarity enjoyed by the Commonwealth of Nations, by comparison to the UK’s failed union with Europe and its own internal threats’. It was confident that the reporter’s suggestion that the Queen ‘loves’ Commonwealth Day was neither derogatory nor unfair.
  • Item Three was about the ‘amusing, wriggly behaviour of a toddler who was given the honour of presenting flowers to [the Queen] at the unveiling of a war memorial in London, England’, and did not breach any of the standards nominated.
  • The British Royal Family is an extremely high profile group and the activities of its members attract a significant amount of public interest. It considered that the public auction sale of Princess Diana’s honeymoon letters was newsworthy and of significant public interest. MediaWorks argued that while the item may have cast some doubt over the level of physical intimacy between Princess Diana and Prince Charles on their honeymoon, this was not unfair in the context of a human-interest piece about two very high profile public figures.

Our analysis

[16]  The Authority has consistently found that the threshold for finding a breach of the fairness standard in relation to public figures is higher than for a layperson or someone unfamiliar with dealing with the media.6 Members of the British Royal Family are high profile public figures and are accustomed to a high level of media attention and scrutiny in relation to their public roles.

[17]  In this context, we do not consider the statements identified in the complaints were unfair to the Queen or Prince Charles. We do not think an aside comment that the Queen ‘loves’ Commonwealth Day could be said to reflect negatively on her reputation (as the head of the Commonwealth). Nor do we think it reflected any commentary or criticism of the Queen’s reasons for enjoying the celebrations.

[18]  Item Three simply included footage of what occurred at the unveiling of a war memorial. The toddler’s behaviour when presenting flowers to the Queen lent a light-hearted tone to the news item, but did not in our view humiliate the Queen or portray her unfavourably.

[19]  Item Four was very brief, approximately 20 seconds in length, and did not in our view criticise or personally attack Prince Charles. While we acknowledge that some viewers may have found the newsreader’s reaction to Princess Diana’s letters unprofessional or unnecessary, we agree with the broadcaster that the auction of the letters was newsworthy, and did not result in any unfairness to Prince Charles.

[20]  For these reasons, we do not uphold the fairness complaints.

Did the items discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints?

[21]  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 viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

The parties’ submissions

[22]  Ms Sheerin submitted that:

  • Newshub has never promoted Commonwealth Day nor provided information about this day to the public, but instead promotes United States holidays. She considered that Commonwealth Day was an important part of our New Zealand cultural heritage, and that the item amounted to biased and unbalanced reporting (Item Two).
  • Item Four was biased and an example of the ‘anti-Royal material’ screened on Newshub, which could be contrasted with what she considered was a ‘sheer overload of positive material’ regarding the US and US celebrities.

[23]  MediaWorks re-iterated that Item Two was not principally about Commonwealth Day, and noted that it was not obliged to ‘promote’ Commonwealth Day or any other day of celebration. It did not consider that Item Four amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance which triggered the requirements of the balance standard.

Our analysis

[24]  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’.7

[25]  We do not consider either item discussed a controversial issue of public importance. Both were brief news reports that only touched on issues related to the British Royal Family or the Commonwealth, therefore did not trigger the requirement for balancing perspectives to be provided.

[26]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the balance complaints.

Did the items breach any other broadcasting standards?

[27]  Ms Sheerin also complained under the programme information and accuracy standards. In summary, these standards were either not applicable or not breached because:

  • The items did not raise any issues under the programme information standard, which typically relates to classifications and warnings (Standard 2).
  • The complainant did not identify any statements of fact which she considered were inaccurate, and we are satisfied that overall the items would not have misled viewers (Standard 9).

[28]  We therefore do not uphold these aspects of the complaints.

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

 

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich
Chair
26 May 2017

 

Appendix

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

Item One: Newshub (22 February 2017)

1      Ms Sheerin’s formal complaint – 26 February 2017
2      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 16 March 2017
3      Ms Sheerin’s referral to the Authority – 16 March 2017
4      MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 28 March 2017

Item Two: Newshub (14 March 2017)

5      Ms Sheerin’s formal complaint – 14 March 2017
6      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 31 March 2017
7      Ms Sheerin’s referral to the Authority – 1 April 2017
8      MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 11 April 2017

Item Three: Newshub (10 March 2017)

9        Ms Sheerin’s formal complaint – 10 March 2017
10      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 3 April 2017
11      Ms Sheerin’s referral to the Authority – 4 April 2017
12      MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 11 April 2017

Item Four: Newshub (20 March 2017)

13      Ms Sheerin’s formal complaint – 20 March 2017
14      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 12 April 2017
15      Ms Sheerin’s referral to the Authority – 13 April 2017
16      MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comment – 20 April 2017

 


1  In 2017, Commonwealth Day was celebrated on 13 March.
2  Guideline 6a.
3  Section 21.
4  Guideline 6b.
5Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014
6 See, for example, Craig and SKY Network Television Ltd, Decision No. 2015-096 at [27].
7  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)