BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Williams and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1999-188

Members
  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • J Withers
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
Dated
Complainant
  • Rev R John and Mrs Beverley Williams
Number
1999-188
Programme
One Network News
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary

An item about the squalid living conditions of a Wanganui woman and her cats was broadcast on One Network News on TV One on 25 August 1999, between 6.00pm and 7.00pm. It included footage showing the interior of the house she lived in, which was filmed during a period when the woman was in hospital.

Rev and Mrs Williams complained direct to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.4(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, that the broadcast had breached the woman’s privacy. They considered that, in filming the interior of her house, the woman’s privacy had been grossly and blatantly violated by the broadcaster, Television New Zealand Ltd.

TVNZ recommended that the Authority should decline to uphold the complaint. It contended that there was a strong public interest in a story about a person living in New Zealand in such appalling conditions. It also pointed out that the woman was not identified to the general public, and that TVNZ had entered her property only after a warrant had been obtained by the SPCA and at its invitation.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. In this instance, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Rev and Mrs Williams complained directly to the Authority about an item broadcast on One Network News on 25 August. The item concerned the living conditions inside the house of a Wanganui woman who had a large number of cats. In the introduction to the item, the presenter reported that the SPCA had described the situation "as one of the worst cases of a person living in squalor with animals". The item itself contained footage of the inside of the property. It was in a state which, according to the item, required SPCA officers to wear masks and health officials to seal the house.

Rev and Mrs Williams considered that the filming of the interior of the woman’s home was a "gross invasion of her privacy – compounded by being broadcast to the nation". They considered that this filming ought not to have taken place. They also expressed doubts about whether the item was newsworthy. If it were newsworthy, they commented that "an interview with the SPCA officers, or other officials, would have sufficed".

TVNZ assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, which requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the privacy of the individual.

In its view, it was a matter of considerable public interest that a person "should in this day and age be living in New Zealand in such appalling conditions". Accordingly, TVNZ considered that the filming of the interior of the house was justified under Privacy Principle (vi), one of the seven Privacy Principles which the Authority applies when it determines privacy complaints. This Privacy Principle reads:

(vi) Discussing the matter in the "public interest", defined as a legitimate concern or interest to the public, is a defence to an individual’s claim for privacy.

TVNZ identified three issues of public interest in the story: public health, animal welfare, and the fact that officials had previously been called to the same house to deal with the conditions there.

TVNZ acknowledged that Privacy Principles (i), (ii) and (iii) might apply to the facts contained in the news item. However, TVNZ submitted that these principles were overridden by Privacy Principle (vi). Privacy Principles (i), (ii) and (iii) read:

The protection of privacy includes protection against the public disclosure of private facts where the facts disclosed are highly offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.

The protection of privacy also protects against the public disclosure of some kinds of public facts. The "public" facts contemplated concern events (such as criminal behaviour) which have, in effect, become private again, for example through the passage of time. Nevertheless, the public disclosure of public facts will have to be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

There is a separate ground for a complaint, in addition to a complaint for the public disclosure of public and private facts, in factual situations involving the intentional interference (in the nature of prying) with an individual’s interest in solitude or seclusion. The intrusion must be offensive to the ordinary person but an individual’s interest in solitude or seclusion does not provide the basis for a privacy action for an individual to complain about being observed or followed or photographed in a public place.

TVNZ also stressed that its camera crew did not enter the property until the SPCA had obtained a court warrant. It wrote that the SPCA had invited the camera crew to accompany it onto the property. Furthermore, TVNZ submitted that although the woman would be identifiable to neighbours, no clue was given to viewers about her identity, beyond the fact that her house was in Wanganui.

Finally, TVNZ contended that it had presented the story sympathetically, noting that it had ended the report with the presenter advising viewers of the woman’s condition in hospital.

Although invited to do so, Rev and Mrs Williams did not comment further.

The Authority’s Findings

Section 4(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act requires that broadcasters maintain standards consistent with individual privacy. Therefore, the Authority’s preliminary task is to determine whether, in this case, the woman was identifiable as an individual.

The item showed footage of an elderly woman’s house, including shots of its interior. Because of the footage of the exterior of the house, the Authority believes that those living nearby and the woman’s acquaintances would have readily identified her. The Authority notes too that TVNZ did not defend the complaint on the basis that the woman was not identifiable. Accordingly, the Authority finds that the woman was identified in the item.

The Authority’s next task is to determine whether there was a prima facie breach of the woman’s privacy. As noted above, TVNZ considered that Privacy Principles (i), (ii) and (iii) were overridden by Privacy Principle (vi). The Authority first considers the application of Privacy Principle (i).

The Authority finds that the filming of the woman’s house as described above and without her consent, contained private information which was publicly disclosed. Viewers of the item would, it finds, acquire an intimate knowledge of how that woman lived in her own home. The Authority also finds that filming in someone else’s home without permission and in such a way that discloses private information would likely be found offensive in ordinary circumstances.

Having determined that the requirements of Privacy Principle (i) are satisfied, the Authority then considers Privacy Principle (vi). This provides a defence if the matter discussed is in the public interest. In the Authority’s view, reasonable people would consider that the public has an interest in knowing that elderly persons in their community may be, for whatever reasons, living in substandard conditions. The Authority accepts that the areas of public interest advanced by TVNZ - public health, animal welfare and the previous occasions on which officials had been to the house – were matters of legitimate concern and interest to the public. The Authority therefore concludes that there was public interest in the story which, according to Privacy Principle (vi), justified the broadcast of the item.

In view of its conclusion about the application of Privacy Principle (i), the Authority notes that it was not necessary for it to consider whether Privacy Principles (ii) and (iii) applied on this occasion.

 

For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Sam Maling
Chairperson
28 October 1999

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered when determining this complaint.

1. Rev R John and Mrs Beverley Williams’ Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards
   Authority – 26 August 1999

2. Television New Zealand Ltd’s Report to the Authority – 10 September 1999