BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Viewers for Television Excellence Inc and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2006-033

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Viewers for Television Excellence Inc (VoTE)
One News
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq – included pictures of tortured and humiliated prisoners – allegedly excessively violent and unsuitable for children

Standard 9 and guidelines 9a, 9e, 9f (children’s interests) – major news item – sombre introduction included warning – children’s interests considered – not upheld

Standard 10 and guideline 10g (violence) – care and discretion exercised – warning included – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Previously unseen pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were screened in an item on One News broadcast on TV One beginning at 6.00pm on 16 February 2006. The item reported the way the American guards had allegedly tortured and humiliated the Iraqi prisoners. It dealt with events which had taken place in 2003 and which had been publicly disclosed in 2004. The item also reported the response by American officials to the release of the new pictures, and Muslim outrage.


[2] Glenyss Barker, secretary of Viewers for Television Excellence Inc (VoTE), complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item breached the standards relating to programme classification and information (Standards 7 and 8), children’s interests (Standard 9), and violence (Standard 10). She noted that a warning had been broadcast but argued that it was insufficient.

[3] Pointing to the pictures of naked prisoners and the close-ups of their injuries and a “pool of blood”, Mrs Barker contended that such material was unsuitable for broadcasting at a time when children might be watching. She referred to a statement from the chair of the Authority in the Authority’s 2005 Annual Report that broadcasters “must pay particular regard to children’s interests in the early evening”.


[4] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They provide:

Standard 7 Programme Classification

Broadcasters are responsible for ensuring that programmes are appropriately classified; adequately display programme classification information; and adhere to time-bands in accordance with Appendix 1.

Standard 8 Programme Information

Broadcasters are responsible for ensuring that programme information and structure does not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.

Standard 9 Children’s Interests

During children’s normally accepted viewing times (see Appendix1), broadcasters are required, in the preparation and presentation of programmes, to consider the interests of child viewers.


9a   Broadcasters should be mindful of the effect any programme or promo may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times – usually up to 8.30pm – and avoid screening material which would disturb or alarm them.

9e   Scenes and themes dealing with disturbing social and domestic friction or sequences in which people – especially children – or animals may be humiliated or badly treated, should be handled with care and sensitivity. All gratuitous material of this nature must be avoided and any scenes which are shown must pass the test of relevancy within the context of the programme. If thought likely to disturb children, the programme should be scheduled later in the evening.

9f   "Scary" themes are not necessarily unsuitable for older children, but care should be taken to ensure that realistically menacing or horrifying imagery is not included.

Standard 10 Violence

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.

Guideline 10g

News, current affairs and factual programmes will, by their nature, often contain violent, disturbing or alarming material. Broadcasters should not falsify, by omission, a world in which much violence and brutality occurs. When such scenes are necessarily included to serve the public interest, the fact that violence has painful and bloody consequences should be made clear. However, editors and producers must use judgement and discretion in deciding the degree of graphic detail to be included in news programmes when children are likely to be watching. Warnings within news programmes must be used as appropriate.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[5] TVNZ said that the release of the previously unseen pictures of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse was a major story worldwide. It had added to the anger in Islamic countries aroused by the United States presence in Iraq and the publication of the Danish cartoons containing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Noting that television was a visual medium, TVNZ argued that a credible account of such major developments could not omit the pictures.

[6] TVNZ did not accept that some of the pictures were gratuitous as the complainant had contended. The first part of the story allowed viewers to see the new evidence and the second part explored Muslim outrage.

[7] As for the standards nominated, TVNZ declined to uphold the Standard 7 (programme classification) complaint and considered that Standard 8 (programme information) was not relevant. Turning to Standard 9 (children’s interests), TVNZ said that it had considered the interests of children in the following ways:

  • the material was broadcast during a news programme
  • the item was preceded with a warning
  • the nature of the material shown was signposted by the sombre introduction
  • the material had been referred to in radio broadcasts during the day and adult viewers would be aware of the material likely to be broadcast
  • some imagery was held until the late evening broadcast and some had been omitted entirely.

[8] Regarding Standard 10 (violence), TVNZ said that guideline 10g acknowledged that the news might, in the public interest, include violence and brutality when the consequences of such behaviour was made clear. Moreover, TVNZ considered that care and discretion had been exercised in deciding on the material to be shown and, as required by guideline 10g in appropriate cases, a warning had been included.

Referral to the Authority

[9] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, VoTE referred the Standard 9 and 10 complaints to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[10] On behalf of VoTE, Mrs Barker emphasised that 6.00pm was a time at which children were likely to be watching television. Further, she wrote, many children would be watching the news either in the company of their parents or because of encouragement from their teachers. As for the item complained about, she said:

It would be perfectly acceptable for the presenter to talk about it briefly but there was absolutely no need to show graphic pictures and have a session on it, especially when these could so easily have been kept for the “Late News” when most children are asleep in bed.

[11] Referring to research which showed that the type of item screened could lead to nightmares for young children, Mrs Barker said that the item breached Standard 9 (children’s interests). Moreover, she contended, the broadcaster had displayed inadequate judgment in broadcasting such violence at that hour, contrary to guideline 10g of Standard 10 (violence).

[12] Mrs Barker argued that warnings were insufficient as there was not enough time to turn the television off. Moreover, she suggested, warnings were used by broadcasters to avoid their responsibilities.

[13] In conclusion, Mrs Barker stressed that broadcasters, as well as parents, had to take some responsibility for what children viewed during news programmes broadcast during children’s normal viewing times.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[14] TVNZ noted that the item had been shown during the day by all the overseas news channels screened in New Zealand. TVNZ also noted that, unlike pictures in news magazines and newspapers, the swift-moving television presentation did not allow viewers the opportunity to linger over the pictures.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[15] In response to TVNZ’s point that the item had been screened on the overseas news channels available in New Zealand, Mrs Barker on behalf of VoTE noted that these channels were subject to the Pay Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, not the Free-to-Air Code. The comments about the newspapers and news magazines were also irrelevant, she said, as they were not subject to any broadcasting codes.

[16] Referring to the powerful effects of television, Mrs Barker maintained that the broadcast of the material complained about, before 8.30pm, breached the nominated standards.

Authority's Determination

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

[18] VoTE complained that the broadcast contravened Standard 9 (children’s interests). The Authority agrees that the broadcast – during the 6pm news hour – was during children’s normally accepted viewing times, and that TVNZ was therefore required to consider the interests of child viewers. The Authority, however, agrees with the approach taken by TVNZ in its response to the complaint, and reiterates the following points:

  • the images were broadcast in an unclassified news programme that unsupervised children were unlikely to be watching
  • the images were at the centre of a story of international importance and interest and their broadcast was neither gratuitous nor sensationalist
  • the broadcast of the images was preceded by an introduction foreshadowing the content of the item, and a warning that some viewers might find the pictures disturbing
  • the progression of images was relatively swift, and did not linger on the abuse portrayed
  • the images were not graphic, and showed the aftermath of the abuse rather than the abuse itself; while some blood was evident, it could not fairly be described as the “pool of blood” alleged by the complainant.

[19] TVNZ advised that the broadcast of more challenging images was deferred until the late evening news, and some images were not broadcast at all.

[20] The Authority observes that the children’s interests standard does not prohibit the broadcast of potentially disturbing material during the 6pm news hour. As stated in previous decisions, genuinely newsworthy issues often deal with matters that are inherently distasteful; it is for this reason that news programmes are not subject to the classification system. To comply with the interests of child viewers, broadcasters must simply take appropriate care in the way in which this material is presented. For the above reasons, the Authority considers that the care TVNZ took in the present case was appropriate.

[21] In response to the violence (Standard 10) complaint, the Authority repeats its observations made regarding children’s interests, above, and concludes, for these same reasons, that TVNZ exercised care and discretion in presenting the images.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
28 June 2006


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

  1. Viewers for Television Excellence Inc’s (Glenyss Barker, National Secretary) formal complaint – undated
  2. TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 29 March 2006
  3. VoTE’s referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 19 April 2006
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 29 May 2006
  5. VoTE’s final comment – 7 June 2006