BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Webb and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-168

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Hugh Webb
Number
2002-168
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
Holmes Election Special; Prime Ministerial Debate – unbalanced – unfair to leader of opposition

Findings
Standards 4 and 6 – live debate – robust discussion – similar allocation of time to present views – not unfair – not unbalanced – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] A Holmes Election Special; Prime Ministerial Debate programme was broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on 22 July 2002. It featured Ms Helen Clark and Mr Bill English, the leaders of the two main political parties. It was a general election programme, broadcast live with a studio audience, and the leaders were questioned on their party policies.

[2] Mr Hugh Webb complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was unbalanced and that Mr English was treated unfairly.

[3] In declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ said that, in the context of a current affairs debate, both parties were challenged and were able to present their views.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, Mr Webb referred his 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.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the programme complained about, and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.

[6] The video seen by the Authority included the programme as broadcast and the audio and video clips of the studio interchange in commercial breaks that were not seen by the viewing public.

The Broadcast

[7] A Holmes Election Special; Prime Ministerial Debate programme was broadcast on TV One at 7.00pm on 22 July 2002. It featured Ms Helen Clark and Mr Bill English, the leaders of the two main political parties. It was a general election programme, broadcast live with a studio audience, and the leaders were questioned on their party policies.

The Complaint

[8] Mr Hugh Webb complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was unbalanced and that Mr English was treated unfairly.

[9] In Mr Webb’s view, Mr Holmes’ behaviour was "unethical" in the first segment of the programme and he considered that Mr Holmes was subsequently told to "tone it down". He wrote:

… at the beginning of the programme he [Mr Holmes] used a barrage of assertions and emotive language against Bill English and the National Party. This removed all semblance of balance from this ‘debate’.

[10] Specifically, Mr Webb noted as unfair the comments referring to the relevance of Mr English and the National Party, and the particular question "why anyone would vote for a party that needed to be rebuilt?"

[11] Mr Webb contended that Mr Holmes’ style and conduct was "badgering", "repetitive" and "dishonest".

[12] In conclusion, Mr Webb requested that his complaint be determined before the election, as he considered:

To leave it unresolved until after the election would be a blow to democracy in that a major news organisation would have been allowed to give an unbalanced view of candidates critical to this election.

The Standards

[13] TVNZ assessed the complaint against Standard 4, Guideline 4a, and Standard 6 of the Free-To-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standards and relevant Guideline read:

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.

Guideline

4a  Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[14] In declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ sought to explain and distinguish between a party political broadcast and a news or current affairs investigation. It considered that the programme complained about was an example of a current affairs debate and noted that its purpose was to:

Challenge and probe what is being said, and to test arguments by offering counter arguments (the ‘devil’s advocate’ approach). The object is to contribute to a better informed level of public opinion.

[15] TVNZ claimed that Mr Holmes’ style, to question the leaders on the public’s behalf in "the tradition of public debate", was serving this purpose.

[16] In dealing with Mr Webb’s complaint regarding Mr Holmes’ comments "over the relevancy of the party, given that it was to be rebuilt", TVNZ pointed out that the re-building comment had been made by Mr English. TVNZ maintained that it was in the public interest that Mr English be provided with an opportunity to explain an issue which he had raised.

[17] TVNZ reiterated its earlier view on the role of a current affairs investigation, and in particular the requirement that robust argument is provided for and allowed. It wrote:

The good current affairs interview tests argument by offering counter argument. If the argument stands up to such scrutiny then it is strengthened; if it doesn’t then the public is served by being shown where possible weaknesses lie.

[18] In TVNZ’s opinion there was no difference in the way Mr Holmes approached the two leaders. It stated that both leaders were "tested with probing questions and both were given full opportunities to respond". Nor did it consider that Mr Holmes had conducted himself unethically. It wrote:

Certainly, there were times when the interviewer (quite properly) brought one or other back onto the topic being discussed or threw in a question which arose from the answer being given. But the committee did not identify any point in the programme which either leader was denied the opportunity to make a point or have their views heard.

[19] TVNZ advised that it had reviewed a copy of the programme that showed what had occurred in the studio while the commercials were being played. It found that, contrary to Mr Webb’s contention, there was no evidence that Mr Holmes was instructed to "tone down" his comments after the first segment.

[20] Turning to Standard 4, TVNZ concluded that it had not been breached. It wrote:

This was a live studio debate conducted in the context of a general election campaign, and balance was achieved through the campaign by inviting all political leaders with a realistic chance of election to the new parliament to participate in debate on television with TVNZ’s various presenters and interviewers.

[21] TVNZ also found that Standard 6 had not been contravened. On this occasion, it wrote:

Both leaders were given a fair hearing and neither faced questioning which could be considered unfair or unjust. Viewers of the programme were not denied the opportunity to hear the two leaders discuss, freely and frankly, the issues put before them by the interviewer.

The Referral to the Authority

[22] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Webb referred his complaint to the Authority. He detailed a sequence of items in the programme which he maintained amounted to bias and unfairness against Mr English. Referring to a general concern as to balance, Mr Webb wrote:

I am pointing at the lack of balance, and an apparent agenda through which Holmes appeared to want to make himself look important at Bill English’s expense while ingratiating himself with the Prime Minister.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[23] In response to TVNZ’s statement that Mr Holmes was not instructed to "tone down" his comments, Mr Webb said while not pertinent to his complaint it did support his view of the programme’s lack of balance and unfairness aspects. He said:

The fact that no such instruction was issued does not detract from the fact that the atmosphere in the programme changed after Mr English had been hammered and ridiculed. It was this change in emphasis, together with the extremity of the initial attack, which made the programme so unbalanced and unfair.

The Authority’s Determination

[24] Mr Webb complained that the Holmes Election Special; Prime Ministerial Debate broadcast by TVNZ breached broadcasting standards relating to balance and fairness because of the interviewer’s (Mr Holmes) conduct on the programme. Ms Helen Clark and Mr Bill English participated in a live studio debate on party politics. Mr Webb claimed that Mr English was subject to a "barrage of assertions", "ridiculed" and generally dealt with unfairly which resulted in an unbalanced programme.

[25] In the context of an election campaign, the Authority notes that the leaders’ debate featured a number of controversial contemporary topics including leadership, economic growth, and education. The programme was essentially a contest between Ms Clark and Mr English as would be expected in an election campaign, and the interviewer’s role was to challenge what was said on the respective issues. The Authority found no evidence to suggest that the interviewer was asked to "tone down" his comments as alleged by Mr Webb. It notes that the interviewer did ask the studio audience, on his own initiative, to tone down the volume and appealed, to the audience, for fairness to both politicians.

[26] The Authority considers that given the nature of the programme and the interviewer’s role, both participants were given an opportunity to present their views on the issues canvassed. The Authority did not consider that Mr English was denied any opportunity to respond, or have his views heard. It notes that balance and impartiality were displayed by a number of factors, including the time allocated to each party to speak, that both parties alternated in leading off the debate on issues, and that the interviewer provided encouragement to both parties, as well as warning them both against speaking over the top of each other. In addition, the Authority notes the presence of a live studio audience, which vocally supported both leaders.

[27] The Authority does not agree that Mr English was "badgered" or "attacked in an egoistic, hectoring manner" by the interviewer as alleged by the complainant. The Authority considers that Mr English was questioned robustly and persistently asked to answer questions as to why voters should vote for a party that was rebuilding. In the Authority’s view, Mr English’s demeanour and credibility stemmed from his own answers on the night, as did that of Ms Clark’s. It notes that there was nothing in the interviewer’s behaviour, or questioning that detracted from the opportunity provided to both leaders.

[28] In reaching a conclusion on the matters of balance and fairness, the Authority concludes that because Mr English was dealt with fairly and given a reasonable opportunity to respond to the issues, the standards relating to fairness and balance were not contravened.

[29] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply 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 and applies them in a manner which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the reason given above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
17 October 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Hugh Webb’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 22 July 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 August 2002
  3. Mr Webb’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 21 August 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 30 August 2002
  5. Mr Webb’s Final Comment – 5 September 2002