Townsend and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-094
- P Cartwright (Chair)
- J H McGregor
- R Bryant
- Belle Townsend
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
One News – car accident in which complainant’s son killed – reference to speed and alcohol – driver had not been drinking – poor taste – inaccurate – unfair – discriminatory
Standard G1 – expression of opinion – no uphold
Standards G2 and G13 – comments acceptable and did not encourage denigration – no uphold
Standard G4 – a number of implications – implication about alcohol involvement no stronger than others – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 A news item about road safety following 15 road deaths in five days over the Christmas holiday period, focused on one of the more recent deaths. A couple whose truck had been struck by a car which was airborne after striking the kerb, and in which one young man was killed, spoke about being extremely angry on seeing beer in the car. The item was broadcast on One News on 29 December 2001 beginning at 6.00pm.
 Belle Townsend, whose son was killed in the accident, complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was in poor taste and inaccurate as it was assumed, incorrectly, that alcohol was involved in the accident.
 In response, TVNZ said the couple had responded to seeing the beer in the car and they were not to know that the driver, when breath tested later, had returned a negative reading. TVNZ said that the item was a cautionary piece in the context of a plea to stop the carnage, and the complainant’s son’s death was illustrative of a sad and horrifying period on the roads. The complaint was not upheld.
 Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mrs Townsend referred her complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
 The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and a tape of the news item on Late Edition on the previous evening. They have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 A crash near Christchurch of a car containing three young men, one of whom was killed, was dealt with in an item broadcast on Late Edition on 28 December 2001. A police officer was quoted who said that “speed was a factor”.
 An item on One News the following evening, 29 December 2001, carried more extensive coverage and included an interview with a couple travelling in a truck which was struck by the car. It was reported that the car, in which the three young men were travelling, had hit the kerb, became airborne and crashed into the truck. The couple were voluntary fire officers and the woman in the truck voiced her reaction when she approached the wrecked car, stating:
That was when I noticed all the riggers of beer in the back of the car which made me extremely angry. Until then I was totally focused on helping the people in the car, but as soon as I saw the beer, and I got extremely angry and thought, nah.
 Belle Townsend, the mother of the young man killed in the accident, complained to TVNZ about that comment. That comment, she wrote:
… left the impression that alcohol was a contributing factor to the accident when this has not been confirmed… .
 People were entitled to buy alcohol and carry it home, she wrote. As there had been no subsequent correction, she complained that the item was inaccurate and unfair.
 Mrs Townsend noted that she had not seen the item but had been told about it many times. She asked TVNZ to accept her complaint although it was outside the statutory time frame when complaints had to be accepted.
 TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 1, Standard 5, and Standard 6, Guideline 6g of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They provide:
Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency
In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
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.
6g Broadcasters should avoid portraying persons in programmes in a manner that encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, sections of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, or occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual, or
ii) the expression of genuinely held opinion in news, current affairs or other factual programmes, or
iii) in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work,
The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complaint
 TVNZ accepted the complaint, and pointed out to Mrs Townsend that whereas she complained about the item on Late Edition, the specific comment with which she was concerned was broadcast only on One News on 29 December. TVNZ expressed its condolences to Mrs Townsend.
 TVNZ explained that the item on One News was “a more reflective piece” after “a terrible period on New Zealand roads”. It noted that the couple in the truck “had genuinely feared for their lives”.
 TVNZ noted that the woman in the truck was jumping to conclusions, but that her comment:
… illustrated well the widespread community concern about those factors which seem repeatedly to crop up in road accidents – alcohol and speed.
 On the basis that the police investigation was then incomplete, TVNZ described the comment as a “genuinely-held opinion”. It added that the item was not so much a report on the accident, but “a cautionary piece” made stronger by the comments from the couple who had been there when the accident occurred.
 TVNZ said that there was nothing in the item which was inconsistent with good taste and decency, and declined to uphold the Standard 1 aspect of the complaint. In regard to Standard 5, it wrote:
… the committee noted that nothing in the script of the item linked your son’s tragic death with alcohol. [The woman] told of the chilling effect of seeing beer in the back of the crashed vehicle, but did not say that your son or his friends had been consuming it. Her comment rather reflected the link in her mind between seeing the beer, and the circumstances of the accident (in which she herself had felt her life threatened). As far as the committee could see the item was accurate, and ended by reinforcing the view that speed was a factor in the crash.
 In view of the exception for a genuinely-held opinion in guideline 6g, TVNZ stated that standard 6 had not been transgressed. It declined to uphold the complaint.
The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority
 When she referred her complaint to the Authority, Mrs Townsend continued to focus on the comment about alcohol. She wrote:
This left the impression that alcohol was a contributing factor to the accident when this had not been confirmed at the time, and since then, the police records confirm a nil alcohol reading (her emphasis).
 Mrs Townsend expressed the opinion that it was “unreasonable and irresponsible” to broadcast those comments, adding that the interviewee had been in shock.
 The couple who were interviewed were volunteer fire fighters, and Mrs Townsend expressed the opinion that the woman’s comments could be taken to mean that volunteer fire fighters would not assist in car accidents when alcohol was involved.
 Mrs Townsend said that the easy purchase by youth of high performance vehicles with low deposits was an issue which she hoped TVNZ would investigate. With regard to the complaint, she sought the broadcast of an apology.
TVNZ’s Response to the Authority
 TVNZ explained that the item complained about arose because 15 people had died in road accidents in five days. The couple had been interviewed as their truck was in collision with the vehicle in which Mrs Townsend’s son was killed. TVNZ said:
[The woman’s] remark was included, not to imply any specifics about that particular accident, but as a reflection of the reaction of people when they see alcohol in a vehicle that has been involved in a bad crash. It should be remembered that [the couple] were themselves volunteer firefighters who had attended many road accidents in the past.
The item did not say that alcohol was a contributing factor in this crash; it simply made use of [the woman’s] reaction to seeing beer in the car during a weekend in which nationwide concern was being expressed about the dangers of speed and alcohol in road accidents.
We can understand why Mrs Townsend has not seen the item, nor wants to. However, in not seeing it, we submit that she has missed the broader context in which the crash was placed.
The Complainant’s Final Comment
 Mrs Townsend emphasised that her complaint focused on the woman’s comment which, she maintained, left the impression that alcohol was a contributing factor. Mrs Townsend said her complaint was not related to the reflective piece, but to the remark about declining to assist those carrying alcohol. She wrote:
The news item did not say alcohol was involved, the news item left the assumption that alcohol was involved and that no assistance was offered and recorded as such on national TV, this is my complaint. I agree that alcohol can be factors of road accidents however not this one, speed is a factor but this is another area I am currently pursuing (her emphases).
The Authority’s Determination
 The item complained about was broadcast by TVNZ on 28 December 2001, but as it was not considered by TVNZ until March 2002, the broadcaster assessed the complaint under the revised Free-To-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice which came into effect on 1 January 2002.
 The revised Television Code was approved by the Authority on 13 August 2001 to come into effect on 1 January 2002. The Authority’s intention was the revised Television Code would be applied to broadcasts after 1 January 2002. Accordingly, the Authority assesses Mrs Townsend’s complaint under the standards which applied at the time of the broadcast of the matters Mrs Townsend complained about.
 These standards require broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of programmes:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G2 To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.
G4 To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.
G13 To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual, or
ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs programme, or
iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.
 TVNZ and Mrs Townsend were advised of the standards under which the Authority intended to assess the complaint, and were given the opportunity to comment. Neither responded.
 Having viewed the item, the Authority notes that it stated that alcohol and speed contributed to road accidents, and clearly implied that these matters had contributed to the road accident which was featured in the news item broadcast on 29 December 2001. The implication was reinforced by the general warnings in the item about the dangers inherent in drinking and driving.
 However, the Authority does not accept that the item suggested that drinking drivers should not receive assistance. Although it was apparent that the interviewee, a voluntary fire officer, seemed to lose heart in being expected to give aid in the particular instance after she had seen the beer in the car, her reaction seemed to the Authority to be specific to the accident in which her vehicle had been involved.
 In view of its findings about the apparently limited scope of the woman’s comments, the Authority does not consider that the item breached the standards relating to good taste and decency (standard G2) or encouraging discrimination (standard G13).
 As for the aspect of the complaint that the comment was factually inaccurate, the Authority notes that the item contained a number of implications. One such implication was that alcohol was involved in the accident. This was the basis upon which Mrs Townsend complained. The Authority notes that the assumption was not unreasonable given the high level of public awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving, and speed, and the reference by the woman to “the riggers of beer in the back of the car”.
 TVNZ advised the Authority that the item was broadcast about a day after the accident in a “reflective piece” which included an interview with the couple who “had genuinely feared for their lives”. However, the complainant, the mother of the young man who was killed as a passenger in the car, advises that the police recorded a “nil alcohol reading” for the driver.
 Standard G1 requires broadcasters “to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.” Although the item contained the implication that alcohol was involved in the accident, this implication was based principally on the opinion expressed by the woman when she saw the beer in the wrecked car. Although the assumption was reasonable, she did not state explicitly that alcohol was involved in the particular accident. Furthermore, it is also reasonable to take a different interpretation which does not involve the consumption of alcohol as a factor in the accident. The Authority considers that the expression of a genuinely-held opinion, which was reasonable in the circumstances, does not amount to a breach of requirement for factual accuracy on this occasion given that the factual implication taken was one interpretation among a number. The Authority declines to uphold the complaint under standard G1.
 Mrs Townsend also complained that the item was unfair. In view of the matters raised by the complainant, the Authority regards this as a complaint that the item was unfair to the driver of the car.
 The Authority has already acknowledged that the item contained an implication that alcohol was involved in the accident. However, the Authority observes that this was not the only implication. It is a fact that there was beer in the car, but it was also a justifiable implication that it had been bought for consumption later. As the implication that the driver was affected by alcohol was no stronger than a number of other implications, the Authority concludes that standard G4 was not contravened. It accepts as valid the broadcaster’s point that the item simply made use of the sighting of beer in a vehicle involved in an accident during a holiday period when nationwide concern was being expressed about the dangers of speed and alcohol.
 The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
25 July 2002
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
- Belle Townsend’s Complaint to TVNZ Ltd – 28 February 2002
- Mrs Townsend’s further letter to TVNZ – 7 March 2001
- TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 27 March 2002
- Mrs Townsend’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 18 April 2002
- TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 2 May 2002
- Mrs Townsend’s Final Comment – 9 May 2002
- Mrs Townsend’s Further Final Comment – 9 July 2002