BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Withey and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2012-126

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Moala Withey
Number
2012-126
Programme
Fair Go
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Fair Go – item focused on couple who received verbal estimate for plumbing work that was significantly less than the final bill – included interview with the couple and the plumber –advised viewers on how to avoid unanticipated costs by obtaining written quotes – allegedly unfair to plumber

Findings
Standard 6 (fairness) – plumber provided with a fair and reasonable opportunity to comment and his viewpoint was adequately reflected in the item – item did not create unfairly negative representation of plumber’s character or conduct – high level of public interest in advice provided to tradespeople and consumers – plumber treated fairly – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  An item on Fair Go focused on one couple and their experience of obtaining a verbal estimate for plumbing work that was significantly less than the final bill. The item was broadcast on TV One on 1 August and repeated on 5 August 2012.

[2]  Moala Withey made a formal complaint on behalf of her father, who carried out the plumbing work, to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was unfair, and had impacted negatively on her father’s reputation and commercial interests.

[3]  The issue is whether the item breached the fairness standard (Standard 6) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Nature of the programme and freedom of expression

[5]  Fair Go is a locally produced consumer affairs programme which investigates various products and services, and provides information and consumer advice. It operates with the legitimate intention of providing an examination of, and advice on, consumer issues in the New Zealand context.

[6]  The item subject to complaint focused on one couple and their experience of obtaining a verbal estimate of $2,000 for plumbing work, and their dismay at receiving a final invoice for “a little over” $7,000. The item contained an interview with the plumber who acknowledged that he could have better communicated with his clients, but maintained that the bill was an accurate reflection of the work done and the costs involved. The story was told in the wider context of the importance of obtaining written agreements when entering into contractual arrangements for work not yet completed. It provided a lesson to consumers and tradespeople about best practice and how to avoid unanticipated costs. At the end of the item a building disputes expert stated, “We are constantly trying to hammer home the fact that these people must have a written contract, a written agreement that sets out exactly what it is that the contractors are going to do”.

[7]  We recognise that the Fair Go series, and this particular item, carried a high level of public interest, and were valuable in terms of freedom of expression.

[8]  This value must be balanced against the potential harm that is likely to result from allowing the unfettered dissemination of the broadcast.1 We may only limit the right to freedom of expression to an extent that is reasonable, and with proper justification. Here, the alleged harm, in terms of the underlying objectives of the fairness standard, was said to derive from the creation of an unfairly negative representation of the plumber’s character and conduct, resulting in unwarranted damage to his reputation and commercial interests.

Was the plumber treated unfairly?

[9]  The fairness standard (Standard 6) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme.

[10]  One of the purposes of the fairness standard is to protect individuals and organisations from broadcasts which provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.2

[11]  Ms Withey argued that the overall impression created by the item was that her father was untrustworthy and the couple had been “ripped off”. She said that the initial estimate of $2,000 was for an “entirely different” job because the customers had changed the job description after obtaining the estimate, but this was not properly reflected in the item. The complainant requested that the Authority give special consideration to the nature of the programme – that is, one focused on giving people a “fair go” – in determining whether the broadcast was unfair.

[12]  We have summarised the complainant’s fairness complaint as follows:

  • Fair Go made no attempt to contact the plumber before the reporter and camera crew turned up at his property.
  • The item failed to reflect that the customers requested additional work, after obtaining the estimate, and without questioning the costs involved.
  • The full extent of the work completed was not properly presented to viewers, despite Fair Go being informed of all aspects of the work and the costs involved.
  • It was unfair to include a second opinion from a man described as a “plumbing expert” without disclosing that he was a competitor and therefore not independent.
  • The item was unfairly edited in a way that questioned the plumber’s integrity.

[13]  TVNZ responded that there was no requirement to approach programme participants by telephone or writing before personal contact is made. It said that the plumber freely agreed to be interviewed and was not pressured to appear on camera. The broadcaster considered that his perspective was fairly presented in the story, including the fact he took on extra work not accounted for by the initial verbal estimate.

[14]  We understand the complainant’s concerns in having her father put on national television and used as an example of the risks involved with verbal pricing, where this had the potential to impact on his small business.

[15]  However, we are satisfied that overall, the plumber was treated fairly because he was given an adequate opportunity to comment, his perspective was fairly reflected in the item, and there was a high level of public interest in the story in terms of the advice provided to tradespeople and consumers.

[16]  The plumber was a voluntary participant and could have declined to be interviewed. His comments were dispersed throughout the item, and he came across well, as a genuine and honest man. During the interview, he said he did not know the job was going to be so expensive, and that he was required to complete the work under pressure, within strict time constraints.

[17]  It was made clear that the customers requested extra work and so the nature of the initial job description had changed. For example, the item included the following comments:

  • “[the plumber] was asked to take on extra work, including installation of a water pump, but those costs weren’t properly discussed.” (reporter)
  • “When we need the pump, obviously we need [an] electrician, so we have to get [an] electrician. Then we run another line from the tank to the house to pump the water from the tank to the house.” (plumber)
  • “What should people do if the nature of the job changes as it goes along?” (reporter)

[18]  The key elements of the extra work undertaken were referred to; it was not necessary, in the interests of fairness, to list every aspect of that work. We agree with TVNZ that there was no suggestion in the item that the additional work was “inconsequential”.

[19]  It was also made clear that the customers wanted the work done quickly, for example, the item included the following statements:

  • “There also wasn’t a lot of time to get a plumber in. We needed to try and get someone to come in and say ‘yes I can do that within a couple of weeks’.” (client)
  • “He admits he should’ve priced up the work in advance… but the [clients] wanted everything done quick-smart for the wedding.” (reporter)
  • “Everything was rush, rush, rush… I should [have priced up the work] I suppose, I just never [thought] of it, we’re just going to get the job done.” (plumber)

[20]  At the end of the item, the presenter gave a comprehensive summary of a statement written by the plumber’s lawyer. The summary covered the following points:

  • The figure of $2,000 was an estimate, not a quote.
  • No quote was sought for the extra work and it was done on a charge-up basis as an urgent job.
  • The plumber sent an itemised account to the customers.
  • He was under pressure to do the job within a narrow time-frame
  • It was the customers’ responsibility to ask for a quote in writing.

[21]  We are satisfied that viewers were provided with enough information to make up their minds about the plumber and what transpired between the parties. In our view, the overall impression created by the item was that there had been a lack of communication between the parties as the work progressed, leading to confusion and surprise on the part of the customers when they received the final invoice. The impression was not that the plumber had deliberately overcharged them, or had otherwise acted unprofessionally. Reasonable viewers would understand that there may be a premium on work required to be done urgently.

[22]   The complainant also objected to the item including a second opinion from a “plumbing expert” about what he considered was a reasonable price for the work. We are satisfied that it was made clear in the item that his opinion was based on “guess work”, as opposed to a comparative quote using details from the actual invoice. While it would have been useful to explicitly acknowledge that he was a competitor, this was not necessary, given that the overall impression created about the plumber was not unfairly negative.

[23]   The story served the public interest by illustrating the importance of getting costing or quotes in writing, and of ensuring ongoing communication between the parties, especially where the nature of the job changes. The concluding messages in the programme were not directed at the complainant’s father or his work, but were general cautions to both consumers and tradesmen involved in these types of transactions.

[24]  For these reasons, we find that the plumber was treated fairly, and we decline to uphold the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
2 April 2013

Appendix

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

1           Moala Withey’s formal complaint – 27 August 2012

2          TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 23 October 2012

3          Ms Withey’s referral to the Authority – 19 November 2012

4          Ms Withey’s further comments in support of referral – 5 December 2012

5          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 23 January 2013


1See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

2Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014