Timberlands West Coast Ltd and Sheaf and TV3 Network Services Ltd - 2000-029
- S R Maling (Chair)
- J Withers
- R McLeod
- L M Loates
- Stephen Sheaf
- Timberlands West Coast Ltd
Programme20/20: "Unsustainable PR?"
BroadcasterTV3 Network Services Ltd
Allegations that Timberlands West Coast Ltd had lobbied the government to ensure that it could continue to harvest native forests were put to the company’s Chief Executive in an item on 20/20 titled "Unsustainable PR?" broadcast on 22 August 1999, beginning at 7.30pm.
Mr D L Hilliard, the Chief Executive of Timberlands, and Mr Stephen Sheaf each complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd that the broadcast lacked balance, was biased and unfair, and was intended to mislead viewers. Mr Hilliard, who was interviewed for the programme, also said that he had been misled as to its intention, and had consequently been treated unfairly.
In its response, TV3 emphasised that the focus of the story had been Timberlands’ lobbying of the government, and noted that documents it had received indicated there was ample evidence of its having done so. Its PR campaign, TV3 argued, had been developed to influence government officials and, as a State-Owned Enterprise, Timberlands could reasonably expect those activities to be scrutinised by the public. Furthermore, TV3 noted that Timberlands had denied that it had engaged in any lobbying and that this denial was inconsistent with the facts. TV3 declined to uphold the complaints.
Dissatisfied with TV3’s decision, Timberlands and Mr Sheaf each referred their complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape and read a transcript of the item complained about, and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
An item on 20/20, broadcast by TV3 on 22 August 1999, examined Timberlands’ use of "taxpayer money" to lobby the government in relation to its plans for sustainable logging of native forests on the West Coast. A book entitled Secrets and Lies, which had been released that week had, according to the item, shown how Timberlands had employed a Wellington public relations company to "influence the minds of the public" and the government. The book claimed that Timberlands had hired the company "to neutralise its opponents, attack its critics, lobby MPs, and seek highly-placed informants to brief them on the inner workings of government." Both the government and Timberlands denied that any such lobbying had occurred. However, the report continued, confidential papers detailing Timberlands’ lobbying campaign had been leaked to the book’s author and revealed "a radically different story". The item then outlined examples of Timberlands’ contacts with government which it said showed that lobbyists were part of the political process.
Timberlands, through its Chief Executive, complained to TVNZ that the programme lacked balance and objectivity, was biased and unfair, and was intended to mislead and alarm viewers. The Chief Executive (Mr Hilliard) also complained that he had been misled as to the intended focus of the item. When he agreed to be interviewed, he said TV3 had assured him that the item was to be about the Forests Amendment Bill, and to include some content on how an SOE operated in a controversial environment, and the effect on Timberlands of the conservation lobby and action group Native Forest Action.
Mr Hilliard noted that in fact the interview was about conspiracy, lobbying, and the role of the PR company which had advised Timberlands. He wrote that "the tone of the interview was confrontational and the context was that Timberlands had engaged in illegal and amoral, if not immoral, undertakings." In the context of the interview which he had been led to believe was going to be conducted, ie concerning Timberlands’ perspective on the proposed Bill, Mr Hilliard said he had denied any such accusation. He said he continued to stand by his statements in that context.
Mr Hilliard reported that at no time did the interviewer provide him with factual documents supporting the allegations made, or give him an opportunity to provide explanations. He said that had he been presented with evidence of the purported transgressions, he would have been able to inform viewers of Timberlands’ side of the story.
Next, he complained that the interviewer had been privy to the contents of the book which contained the allegations in advance of both the publication and the interview, but had not revealed that information to him for response. In Mr Hilliard’s view, that amounted to dishonest and unprofessional journalism, as he considered he had been deliberately misled. He advised that Timberlands had sought to discuss the issue with the producer of the programme following the publication of the book, but that she had responded that its information came from the Victoria University student newspaper. Mr Hilliard said that he then asked if the programme was still to be about the Forests Amendment Bill and the producer told him it was to be about the book which had just been released. On that basis, Mr Hilliard said, he made it clear that for the programme to use the interview material on the change to the legislation in that context would mislead the public, as he had not had the opportunity to answer the specific allegations made in the book. He said he declined the producer’s offer to be interviewed further by telephone because by then it was clear to him that the programme had a bias against Timberlands and, in his view, any further comment would not be treated fairly or justly.
Mr Hilliard then cited matters which he maintained called into question the integrity of TV3’s staff, including the interviewer’s denial that its camera crew had visited the forests prior to the interview with him, and what he called the emotive language used in the item.
He also objected to footage which showed a small child beating a Timberlands-sponsored corner post at a children’s rugby match. He said Timberlands had received complaints from parents upset at the manner in which their children were filmed playing sport.
In summary, he advised, Timberlands was of the firm conviction that TV3 had sought "to construct news and damage the reputation" of the company and its staff, and had denied it the opportunity to confront the source of the allegations. The company believed the producer:
…was not only aware of the book’s existence and its content but had fabricated the entire interview process, about the Forest Amendment Act, in collusion with [the interviewer] to deliberately embarrass Timberlands and [its Chief Executive].
In Timberlands’ view, the 20/20 team was dishonest and failed to demonstrate ethical, professional journalism. It suggested that there was a close association between the interviewer and the book’s author and, for that reason, TV3 would have had access to the book in its entirety long before its publication.
As a final point, Mr Hilliard wrote:
It is also my impression that TV3’s trust has been abused with John Campbell [the interviewer] misusing his public image as a news anchorman to promote his personal beliefs and those of his acquaintances.
He requested that the complaint be considered under standards G4, G6, G11(i), G14, G15, G16 and G20 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Timberlands sought a public retraction of the programme and a public apology from the interviewer.
Mr Sheaf also complained about what he called the programme’s lack of partiality and fairness which he said breached standards G6, G7, G14 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. He pointed to what he called the "consistently negative and often emotional" descriptions (taxpayer’s money, and trees bleeding), negative and liberal interpretation of events, and the selection of images such as a child kicking a Timberlands sign and the use of "bag camera" images to imply a highly conspiratorial atmosphere. Additionally, he said, the interviewer had failed to point out that many items of evidence which had been quoted in the book were merely discussion documents, and not evidence of action.
Secondly, Mr Sheaf asked why the situation had not been put in perspective. For example, he observed, DOC had control of 80% of the West Coast land and was not attempting to control possum numbers, with the result that some species in that area would become extinct. On the other hand, the area controlled by Timberlands represented just 5% of the West Coast. Next, he questioned why the author’s conclusions had been accepted so readily when there were major errors in the conclusions. He also asked whether it had been ethical to have interviewed the Chief Executive of Timberlands when only TV3 knew the content of the book, and no attempt had been made to convey this to him. In his view, the term "entrapment" was appropriate.
Referring to some of the film footage, Mr Sheaf asked why TV3 had used footage of a log hauling machine. In his view, that was not relevant to the programme and appeared to be designed to mislead, as such a machine was only used in clear felling operations and not in the selective logging of indigenous species.
As a further point, Mr Sheaf asked why the friendship he believed existed between the interviewer and the author was not revealed in the programme. Finally he questioned the item’s implication that lobbying was not an acceptable activity and was undemocratic. He suggested this point was particularly important as the book’s author was seen to be upholding democratic principles yet, he contended, the author was himself party to receiving stolen goods, and had used politicians to ask questions in parliament to assist in the writing of his book.
Mr Sheaf sought a public apology.
TV3’s Responses to the Complaints
TV3 assessed the complaints under the nominated standards. Standards G4, G6, G7 and G11(i) require broadcasters:
G4 To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
G7 To avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting.
G11 To refrain from broadcasting any programme which, when considered as a whole: Simulates news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm viewers.
The other standards read:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
G15 The standards of integrity and reliability of news sources should be kept under constant review.
G16 News should not be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress.
G19 Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed.
G20 No set formula can be advanced for the allocation of time to interested parties on controversial public issues. Broadcasters should aim to present all significant sides in as fair a way as possible, and this can only be done by judging every case on its merits.
Standards G4 and G6 – fairness, balance and impartiality
In its response to Timberlands, TV3 advised that it had considered the standard G4 and G6 aspects together, since there was some overlap of the issues.
First it noted that a considerable portion of the complaint related to the Chief Executive’s allegation that he had been "ambushed" as he did not have any warning as to the true nature of the interview or the issues which would be raised. It rejected his contention that he "had been led to believe" the interview would be confined to certain issues, stating that contained a pejorative inference and furthermore that it was not the recollection of either the producer or the interviewer. TV3 pointed to particular extracts from the interview which it said demonstrated that he was offered the opportunity to respond to the issues addressed in the programme.
Secondly, TV3 suggested that what the Chief Executive had in effect said was that had he known about the documents referred to in the book, or about the book’s existence, he would not have denied that Timberlands engaged in lobbying. TV3 responded:
[TV3] considers this position is untenable. Having been asked a direct question about Timberlands’ actions in this regard, you chose to deny. You did not have to. You chose that course. It is not the responsibility of 20/20 if there are adverse consequences for you or Timberlands as a result of adopting that course.
TV3 identified points in the complaint which it said were contradictory, noting first that Mr Hilliard had said he was asked about the Forests Amendment Act, and secondly that he said he was asked about conspiracy, lobbying and the role of the PR company.
In TV3’s view, the interview was specific and explicit. It was about the company’s alleged lobbying. It contended that Mr Hilliard’s point that he had not had an opportunity to answer specific allegations was inconsistent with the interview segments shown in the programme.
TV3 pointed out that Mr Hilliard had, in the interview, denied that lobbying took place. He had been given an opportunity to answer the specific allegations, it wrote.
As for the contention that he had been misled as to the intention of the interview, TV3 advised that the reporter denied that allegation and confirmed that during the pre-interview discussion, he had explained that he wanted to ask about lobbying. To Mr Hilliard’s point that he had been unaware of the book or its contents, TV3 asked whether, had he known about it, he would have given a different answer to the question as to whether Timberlands engaged in lobbying.
With respect to the complaint that Mr Hilliard had not had an opportunity to comment on the book’s allegations, TV3 noted that the producer had made a number of approaches to him (prior to the broadcast, but after the book was published) requesting another interview, but he declined to be interviewed again.
TV3’s responses to Mr Sheaf’s complaint focused on the particular issues he raised. To the complaint under standard G6 that the language used had been emotive, TV3 responded that it did not believe the words constituted unfair or partial journalism. It maintained that there was sufficient evidence of contact and pressure exercised by Timberlands and its PR company to justify the use of the term lobbying. As for the visual effects shown, TV3 contended that images such as the footage of the child by the Timberlands sign, were well within the parameters of New Zealand current affairs reporting. The so called "bag camera" shots, it said, were pictures taken by an unconcealed Beta camera. It wrote:
They showed corridors, lifts and lobby areas, in a "cinema verite" style to indicate that these were the "Corridors of Power". [TV3] does not believe they were used unreasonably, given the context – that secret, subsequently denied, government lobbying took place.
The second point which it declined to uphold under this standard was the lack of any mention of Timberlands’ work on pest control. In TV3’s view, that was not relevant to the story.
It also rejected Mr Sheaf’s contention that it had accepted the book’s conclusions, and that there were errors in those conclusions. TV3 noted that Mr Sheaf had not stated precisely what those errors were, nor had he identified which of the book’s conclusions he believed had been accepted uncritically.
Standard G7 – use of deceptive programme practice
TV3 advised that it could find no evidence of a deceptive programme practice in the programme and declined to uphold this aspect.
Standard G11 (i) – refrain from broadcast which simulates news
TV3 explained that this standard related to the manufacturing of an event to appear as if it were the actual event being discussed. It maintained that this did not arise in the programme, and therefore it declined to uphold this aspect.
Standard G14 – news must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially
TV3 noted that Timberlands’ complaint alleged that the programme was biased. Such an allegation, it said, was a serious one and appeared to be based on the suggestion that the reporter had a close relationship with the author of the book. TV3 denied the allegation of bias and that there was a close association between the two men. It noted that they had both been involved in one other story which had been produced in 1996, but had had no other dealings with each other at any time. It provided a similar response to Mr Sheaf.
To the complaint that there was something sinister about John Campbell, a newsreader, fronting the story, TV3 responded that he had been assigned to the story because of his experience of political reporting and other reasons including that the broadcaster was keen to re-establish Mr Campbell’s reputation as a journalist as well as a newsreader.
In response to the allegations that filming in the forests had taken place prior to the interviews, TV3 gave an assurance that it had not filmed in the Timberlands forests, either before or after the interview.
Responding to Mr Sheaf’s complaint about the use of footage showing a ground based hauler, TV3 responded that no such image was shown.
To the argument that the interviewer was not impartial because he referred to Mr Hilliard having denied lobbying, TV3 responded that that was precisely what he had done in the programme and its reference was therefore fair and accurate.
With respect to the argument that it was ironic that Timberlands was accused by lobbyists of itself lobbying, TV3 responded that the points made in the programme made it clear that the position here was different because Timberlands was a publicly owned company and further, that its Chief Executive denied any such lobbying.
Standard G15 – integrity and reliability of information sources to be monitored regularly
TV3 expressed a view that this standard was aimed at a management breach rather than a breach by documentary makers. Its view was that there was no basis for the allegation as a matter of fact or of law.
Standard G16 – News not to be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress
The two matters complained about under this standard were the close-up of dripping sap and the voice-over stating: "Nature felled and bleeding", and the filming of children playing Saturday sport sponsored by Timberlands. TV3 noted that no evidence had been advanced by Timberlands to support a breach of this standard. Even so, it said, its view was that the close-up of dripping sap coupled with the voiceover was not sufficiently serious to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress. With respect to the footage of children playing Saturday sport, TV3 said it was unable to discern what aspect would have upset parents. It noted first that none appeared to be upset at the time by the filming itself, secondly that the filming occurred in a public place, and thirdly that no concerns had been made known to the camera crew.
Standard G19 – Care to be taken to ensure that extracts used are a true reflection
To Mr Sheaf’s complaint that the Chief Executive of Timberlands had not been aware of the publication of the book at the time he was interviewed, TV3 confirmed that its reporters knew of the book’s existence but had not specifically disclosed the fact to Mr Hilliard. However, it argued, that did not constitute a breach of standards. The book had been provided under a strict embargo two weeks before its publication, it noted, and the conditions of the embargo had to be observed.
The Referrals to the Authority
Both Timberlands and Mr Sheaf referred their complaints to the Authority, citing dissatisfaction with TV3’s response to their formal complaints.
Timberlands complained that TV3’s response had failed to take account of the actual context of the item. It emphasised that the approach to Mr Hilliard for an interview had been made in the context of discussing the proposed provisions of the Forests Amendment Bill which was currently before a Select Committee. While Mr Hilliard acknowledged that the subject of lobbying had arisen in a pre-interview discussion, he maintained that it had only been raised in the context of influencing political decisions about the proposed law changes. What transpired in the interview had been completely different to the assurances given by the producer and the interviewer, he said. According to Mr Hilliard, the day after the interview the book was publicly released. He said he contacted the producer, who denied having prior knowledge of the book, but admitted she knew of the allegations it contained. He said he did not accept that TV3 had no prior knowledge of it as she had claimed.
The item as broadcast did not contain any reference to the Forests Amendment Bill, nor to Timberlands’ position in respect of that Bill, Mr Hilliard observed. Instead, it was exclusively devoted to the allegations which had been made in the book.
Mr Hilliard reported that when in the interview he was asked about lobbying, he had believed that question to be directly related to the Forests Amendment Bill. He had answered that Timberlands had not lobbied government on that Bill. He emphasised that he had gone into the interview believing it to be about the Bill and issues of lobbying surrounding indigenous forestry. Had it been put to him specifically that the book was to be released immediately after the screening of the interview, and would contain more widespread allegations, he said he would have sought to clarify what was meant by the question as to whether Timberlands had lobbied government. Timberlands did not deny supplying factual information to government agencies, the public and various political parties, there being an obligation for it to do so, but in its opinion, that was not lobbying, he added.
While not retracting the other aspects of its complaint, Timberlands identified its principal concerns as relating to breaches of standards G4 and G6. It maintained that it had not been dealt with fairly in the item because it had not been given information about the contents of the book and its imminent release. It also complained that the item was clearly slanted against Timberlands, and no effort had been made to question representatives of the environmental movement as to their lobbying activities. As an example, it noted that the footage relating to Timberlands’ sponsorship of sport implied that it had an ulterior motive. It emphasised that it had acted as any other large corporate with a social conscience would in making a contribution to the community, a large proportion of which was directly or indirectly dependent on the company. In particular it objected to the footage of a young child beating down a sideline marker with Timberlands advertising on it.
In conclusion, Mr Hilliard complained that the item had been unfair both to him and to the company. He contended that it was biased and had misled the public, and had damaged both his and the company’s honest reputation. He asked the Authority to impose severe penalties against TV3, as he said it had not been the first time the programme had been guilty of misrepresenting the facts.
Mr Sheaf’s referral emphasised what he considered to be the lack of impartiality in the presentation as a whole. He noted the apparent assumption by TV3 that not only did lobbying take place, but that it was unethical for a company to lobby the government. He made the point that contact was not the same as lobbying, and noted that no evidence had been presented which showed that Timberlands had exercised unreasonable pressure on politicians.
Mr Sheaf repeated his complaint that the book’s conclusions had not been challenged. In his view, any good journalist would have been able to raise doubts about the reliability of the book. Mr Sheaf also repeated that it was unfair that the Chief Executive of Timberlands had not been aware of the contents of the book prior to his interview, or that it was about to be released at the time of the interview. In his view, Mr Hilliard should have had the opportunity to read the book and then answer the charges.
To TV3’s point that there was no footage of a log hauler, Mr Sheaf described the shot in the item in which he said a log hauler was shown, and repeated that such equipment was not used in the type of logging done on the West Coast. He also rejected TV3’s assurance that there was no special friendship between the interviewer and the author of the book.
He sought a public apology from TV3.
TV3’s Responses to the Authority
TV3 noted the explanation provided by Mr Hilliard as to his understanding of the circumstances under which he was interviewed. It said it found it difficult to see how he could possibly have been under the impression that the questions he was asked about lobbying were exclusively about the Forests Amendment Bill. It pointed to excerpts from the interview which were broadcast, where he had categorically denied that Timberlands had lobbied government.
TV3 reported that 20/20 had taken the view, having read the documents obtained for the book, that there was sufficient evidence that Timberlands had indeed lobbied the government. Some of that evidence was presented in the wider item, it noted, and included the fact that Timberlands had engaged a public relations company which intended to influence all kinds of people, including West Coast children, journalists, lobbyists and government.
TV3 advised that the 20/20 team admitted that when the interview had been arranged initially, Mr Hilliard had been given the wrong impression of its focus. It wrote:
It had never been intended that the interview be about the Forests Amendment Bill. As has already been explained, 20/20 felt it could not reveal to Mr Hilliard the fact that it had obtained information about Timberlands’ lobbying activities from the co-author of a book which was about to be published. It had obtained the information confidentially, on a strictly embargoed basis, and felt a duty to protect its source. The authors of the book feared a gagging writ, and did not want Timberlands alerted to the imminent publication.
After the book was published, TV3 reported that its staff asked on several occasions if they could return and re-interview Mr Hilliard, but that he declined. It advised that the producer of the item had conceded that she had told Mr Hilliard that she had not seen the book before it came out, when in fact she had seen substantial parts of the manuscript. Insofar as Mr Hilliard was misled on this point, TV3 apologised. However, it argued, the matter had no bearing on either the way Timberlands was treated or on the way in which the item was compiled.
To Mr Hilliard’s point that the item should also have examined the role of the environmental groups in lobbying, TV3 responded that as lobbying was their stated aim, there was nothing newsworthy in reporting it. On the other hand, it argued, the issue of an SOE such as Timberlands lobbying, and doing so without admitting it, was a matter of public importance.
As for the filming of Timberlands-sponsored sports events, TV3 advised that none of the footage was contrived, and that its crew simply filmed what they saw.
In response to the claim that it had misrepresented the facts, TV3 responded that Mr Hilliard had not identified any factual errors. It concluded that the programme was neither biased nor unfair and declined to uphold the complaint.
In response to Mr Sheaf’s complaint, TV3 repeated its view that the documents obtained had provided ample evidence of lobbying by Timberlands. Next it made the point that the intention of the programme had not been to critique the book, but to scrutinise Timberlands’ public relations activities. It denied that the interview with Mr Hilliard had been rushed and not prepared properly. After the book’s publication, it noted that he was invited to be re-interviewed, but had declined. With reference to the shot of the log hauler, TV3 said that having reviewed the item again it could not identify any such shot. It then repeated that it was convinced there was no friendship between the author and the interviewer.
While TV3 said it accepted that Timberlands traded in a commercial manner, it observed that, in its view, it had social obligations over and above those of an ordinary private business and it was reasonable to point out that the company was owned by the public of New Zealand.
In conclusion, it maintained that it was worthy of interest to present the evidence that Timberlands lobbied government, and to emphasise that this was denied. It concluded that no broadcasting standards were breached.
The Final Comments
Mr Hilliard, for Timberlands, made further comments on TV3’s response. First, he disagreed with TV3’s assessment of the thrust of his complaint, emphasising that his concern was not so much that viewers were misled about the context in which the questions had been put to him, as that he was himself misled into believing that the interview was to be about the Forests Amendment Act.
He reiterated that when he had been asked about "conspiracy and lobbying" he had answered in the belief that the questions related to the Bill. He also pointed out that the interviewer had known that he was unaware of the true intention of the interview.
Referring to TV3’s admission that it had intended to deceive him as to the purpose of the interview, Mr Hilliard wrote that at the least TV3 should have waited until after the book had been published before seeking to interview him about the allegations it contained. He wrote:
The only motive that can be ascribed to TV3 conducting the interview when and how it did was to seek to entrap, misrepresent and ridicule Timberlands and me. John Campbell and TV3 have clearly demonstrated they did not intend to present a balanced, impartial, just or fair programme.
Mr Hilliard repeated that neither he nor the company had been dealt with fairly, and that the interview had not been balanced, fair or impartial. He submitted that it had caused significant damage to his reputation and was likely to cause financial loss to the company.
Mr Sheaf made no further comment.
The Authority’s Findings
The programme, the Authority notes, focused on allegations made in the book Secrets and Lies relating to Timberlands and its relationship to the government. According to the book, Timberlands engaged the services of a PR firm to lobby government ministers and officials to ensure that it could continue logging the native forests on the West Coast. The reporter described it as a case of:
A government-owned company spending government money to lobby government through a foreign-owned PR company.
When Mr Hilliard was approached by TV3 for an interview, he said he was led to believe it would focus on the Forests Amendment Bill and sustainable management of the West Coast native forests. This was confirmed prior to the start of the interview, he said, when he was also advised that the discussion would include how an SOE operated in a controversial environment and the effect on it of lobbying by the Native Forest Action group.
This was the background against which Mr Hilliard said he had denied that a PR company had lobbied government on behalf of Timberlands.
The Authority notes that Timberlands identified its principal concerns as relating to breaches of standards G4 and G6. While it notes the matters raised by both complainants under other standards, and takes them into account where appropriate, it confines its determination to standards G4 and G6.
Standard G4 – dealing justly and fairly
The first question for the Authority is whether Mr Hilliard was treated unfairly by TV3 because he was not pre-warned that the interview would be based on the allegations contained in the book, or that it would extend beyond the agreed topics.
The Authority notes that when Mr Hilliard was asked why Timberlands employed a PR firm in Wellington, he responded that it was important to have a contact there to understand what was going on and because there was a lot of lobbying going on. The reporter then asked:
So there is a lot lobbying going on, but it’s not by you, and it’s not by you through Shandwicks? [the PR company]
To this, Mr Hilliard responded:
Absolutely not. Shandwicks are employed to listen, and Shandwicks often help us with working out the likes of marketing strategies for our products, but they don’t actually lobby on our behalf or do any of that sort of thing.
The reporter continued:
Can you give me your word on that Dave?
And Mr Hilliard replied:
I certainly can. Yeah.
It is the Authority’s view that the question as put to Mr Hilliard was quite unambiguous. Mr Hilliard had said that there was a lot of lobbying going on in Wellington. That, to the Authority, appears to have been a general comment about the political scene there. Then he was asked whether his company engaged in lobbying and gave his word that it did not. Even though Mr Hilliard was expecting to be asked specific questions about the Forests Amendment Bill, he concedes that he had been warned that the topics would include lobbying and the operation of an SOE in a controversial environment. It is in that context that the Authority considers whether he was treated unfairly in being asked a general question about Timberlands’ use of lobbyists.
In reaching its decision on this point, the Authority also takes into account that Mr Hilliard was the Chief Executive of a large company and could reasonably be expected to deal with media enquiries about its operations. Notwithstanding that the purpose of the question was not obvious to Mr Hilliard and that TV3 withheld from him its knowledge of the allegations made in the book Secrets and Lies, which it said provided ample evidence of Timberlands lobbying government, Mr Hilliard’s denial was unequivocal, the Authority notes. He said that the PR company did not "lobby on [Timberlands’] behalf". The question for the Authority is whether he was treated fairly, or whether, to use his term, this was a case of entrapment.
On balance, the Authority concludes that although it would have been preferable for Mr Hilliard to have known about the book’s specific allegations, it was not unfair for the reporter to ask him in general terms about how Timberlands conducted its government business. It notes that Mr Hilliard was given the opportunity to respond in general terms to that question, and later, after the book had been published, he was offered a further opportunity to answer its allegations. He declined the offer. In those circumstances, the Authority finds no breach of standard G4 in relation to this aspect of the complaint.
Next, the Authority turns to the complaint that the company was treated unfairly in the programme. This included, according to Mr Sheaf: "a consistently negative and often emotional description of items (eg Taxpayer’s money, trees bleeding), [and] the negative and liberal interpretation of events (eg two contacts equals lobbying)…".
The Authority accepts that the programme was critical of the methods employed by Timberlands in its efforts to influence decision-makers and the public of the West Coast. It notes TV3’s argument that even though Timberlands operated in a commercial manner, as an SOE it had social obligations which were not shared by other private businesses, and that it was reasonable to point out to viewers that it was a company owned by the public of New Zealand.
The Authority is not persuaded that TV3’s revelations about Timberlands’ public relations activities were unfair to Timberlands. In spite of the possible negative inferences which could be drawn by the manner in which this information was presented, in the Authority’s view, there is nothing sinister in itself in Timberlands having a presence in Wellington, or in its sponsorship of community activities. The company argued that because it did not know of the allegations made against it, it was not in a position to counter those negative inferences. The Authority’s view is that this was a valid matter for investigation, not only because of the revelations made in the book, but because of the highly-charged political context and the issues surrounding the logging of native forests. Mr Hilliard was asked in general terms about Timberlands’ lobbying, but gave a flat denial that it engaged in any such activities. In the circumstances, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the programme was unfair to the company.
Standard G6 – balance, impartiality and fairness
Both Timberlands and Mr Sheaf complained that the item was clearly biased against the company, Timberlands citing in particular the reference to its sponsorship activities. It argued that there was an implication that it was thus attempting to influence local opinion and that this was deemed – by TV3 – to be entirely inappropriate.
The Authority is not persuaded that this was the only inference to be drawn and notes that Timberlands, despite being an SOE, is still required to operate on a commercial basis. If that includes operating as a good corporate citizen which supports local activities then it is entirely defensible. Far more damaging for Timberlands, in the Authority’s view, was the denial that it lobbied government, particularly as there was persuasive evidence presented that it did so. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
Next, it turns to the complainants’ allegations that the reporter and the author of Secrets and Lies had been closely associated for some time. TV3 noted that no evidence was produced to substantiate this claim apart from a newspaper item which reported that they had worked together on a previous story some three years previously. TV3 advised that apart from filming of two 20/20 stories at that time, the pair had had no dealings of any sort with each other.
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary from the complainants, the Authority accepts TV3’s assurance that there was no prior relationship or connection between the two which justified the allegations that they had colluded on this story. It therefore declines to uphold this aspect of the complaints.
Turning to Mr Sheaf’s complaint that the item included footage of a log hauler which was not of the type used on the West Coast, the Authority advises that it was unable to discern such an image.
The Authority then turns to Timberlands’ complaint that the footage of a small child kicking a goal post with its logo on demonstrated the programme’s bias. It notes that the image was fleeting, and was not specifically referred to in the commentary. In the circumstances, it finds no breach.
The complaints have raised a number of other issues relating to the conduct of the broadcaster in the preparation and presentation of the item to which the Authority now turns.
The first was, as TV3 eventually conceded, that there had never been any intention to discuss with Mr Hilliard matters relating to the Forests Amendment Bill, and its reporters therefore knowingly misled him when they misrepresented the true intent of the interview. Secondly, the questions relating to lobbying were framed in the context of TV3’s knowledge of the allegations contained in a book which Mr Hilliard did not know about, and which he had not seen. In addition, although she later recanted, the programme’s producer misled Mr Hilliard about her prior knowledge of that book.
On the face of it, the Authority has some misgivings about the methods used by those involved in compiling this story. It observes that the preparation of the programme was problematic. The broadcaster was obviously at pains to secure an interview with a subject who could well have proved uncooperative had he known its true purpose. The broadcaster also felt it was bound by its agreement to keep the book’s imminent publication secret.
It seems unfortunate to the Authority that Mr Hilliard was knowingly deceived as a result of that agreement, and it sympathises with his view that a degree of entrapment was thus involved.
However, as it has indicated above, the Authority accepts that this was a story with a high degree of public interest. Misled though he was, Mr Hilliard was furnished with the opportunity to contribute the company’s perspective, and freely gave the categorical assurance which he subsequently wished to qualify. Further, he was given another opportunity for an interview in order to set the record straight if he felt the need to do so. This he rejected. Bearing this in mind, the Authority finds no breach of broadcasting standards.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
2 March 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Timberlands West Coast Ltd’s Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd
– 6 September 1999
2. TV3’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 13 October 1999
3. Timberlands’ Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority
– 5 November 1999
4. Timberlands’ Substantive Referral – received 12 November 1999
5. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 10 December 1999
6. Timberlands’ Final Comment – 24 December 1999
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Stephen Sheaf’s Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd – 16 September 1999
2. TV3’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 18 October 1999
3. Mr Sheaf’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 10 November 1999
4. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 10 December 1999