BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Yeldon and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2004-029

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Diane Yeldon
Number
2004-029
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
Documentary New Zealand – Mental Breakdown – three people suffering from serious mental illness – released into community – tragic results – documentary said to be unbalanced and inaccurate, and to have denigrated the mentally ill

Findings
Standard 4 – item’s focus on three cases where the mental health system had failed – balanced in view of narrow focus – not upheld

Standard 5 – accurate in view of item’s focus – not upheld

Standard 6 and Guideline 6g – no discrimination against or denigration of mentally ill in view of item’s focus – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision


Summary

[1] Three cases involving people suffering from serious mental illness who were released into the community with tragic results were examined in a documentary broadcast on TV One. The programme Documentary New Zealand – Mental Breakdown was screened at 8.30pm on 20 October 2003.

[2] Diane Yeldon complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was inaccurate, unbalanced and denigrated people suffering from mental illness by perpetuating the myth that they were essentially violent and, in the interests of public safety, needed to be locked up.

[3] In response, TVNZ said that the programme explained that it was confined to three specific cases. It was not, TVNZ stated, a review of mental health services and it declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision Ms Yeldon 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.

Decision

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

Programme

[6] Three cases involving people suffering from serious mental illness who were released into the community with tragic results were examined in a documentary broadcast on TV One. The programme Documentary New Zealand – Mental Breakdown was screened at 8.30pm on 20 October 2003. TVNZ stated that each case raised the question whether the health personnel responsible for the release decision were sufficiently accountable when the decision resulted in a tragedy.

Complaint

[7] Diane Yeldon complained to TVNZ that the programme was inaccurate, encouraged the denigration of the mentally ill and was unbalanced.

[8] In regard to accuracy, Ms Yeldon pointed out that the programme gave no information about the incidence of what she described as “mentally-abnormal homicide”, the number of people receiving mental health services, and the number of mentally-abnormal homicides committed by people with no previous contact with the mental health services. The item, she said, suggested that the negligent discharge of dangerous people was the norm and that mentally-abnormal homicide was a relatively common occurrence. She enclosed data that showed there were about two to three such homicides a year, and that their incidence had decreased during the period of deinstitutionalisation. Moreover, she contended, it was inaccurate to suggest that the mental health services refused to be accountable.

[9] Ms Yeldon also argued that the programme perpetuated the myth that mentally ill people were violent and needed to be locked away in the public interest. In regard to balance, she complained that the programme included neither the views of people who had experienced mental illness nor their representative organisations.

[10] She enclosed a news release from the New Zealand Health Research Council dated 16 August 2003 reporting that during the years 1970 to 2000 homicides committed by people with serious mental illness fell as a proportion of total homicides.

Standards

[11] TVNZ assessed the complaint under the following Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They provide:

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.

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.

Guideline

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.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[12] TVNZ explained that the programme examined three cases in which people suffering from serious mental illness were released into the community with tragic results. Each case, it continued, questioned whether sufficient consideration had been given to the potential dangers and whether the health personnel responsible for the decisions were sufficiently accountable for those decisions which resulted in tragedy.

[13] TVNZ wrote that the programme’s introduction made clear that the broadcast was confined to an investigation of three specific cases. It was not a “wide-ranging review of the state of the mental health services”. TVNZ insisted that there was a genuine public interest and the narrow focus did not imply that the mental health services generally were breaking down.

[14] With regard to the balance complaint, TVNZ said that the statistics referred to by the complainant were irrelevant in view of the item’s focus. It also contended that it was not suggested that the mental health services did not regard themselves as accountable. Moreover, it included the views of people with experience in mental health. It pointed out that Dr Sandy Simpson, Head of the Mason Clinic in Auckland, had been provided with a tape of the programme 10 days before its broadcast and had been invited to correct any inaccuracies and to point out matters which were unbalanced or unfair.

[15] As for the complaint about inaccuracies, TVNZ said it could not locate any aspects that were incorrect. Further, the scripts had recorded accurately the genuinely-held opinions advanced. It added:

The [complaints] committee disagreed with your assertion that the programme gave an “impression” that the release of dangerously ill patients into the community was the “norm”. While the focus was on what went wrong in the three cases featured, it was noted that the programme took care to point out that the majority of people suffering mental illness are treated with great success in the community.

[16] Turning to denigration, TVNZ argued that the item made clear that the cases examined represented only a small percentage of people with serious mental illness. It denied the complainant’s claim that the broadcast perpetuated the myth that mentally-ill people were essentially violent.

[17] Accordingly, TVNZ declined to uphold any aspect of the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[18] In her referral, Ms Yeldon maintained that viewers would consider that the programme was concerned with the mental health system “in general”. “The rarity of mentally-abnormal homicide was not sufficiently emphasised”, she wrote.

[19] She pointed out that TVNZ’s reference to Dr Simpson did not respond to her complaint that the item did not advance the views of those who had experienced mental illness.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[20] Repeating its contention that the programme focused on three specific cases and was not a wide-ranging review of mental health services, TVNZ pointed out that the father of one of the patients featured in the programme had stated that the issues raised by the programme were relevant to a “very, very small number” of the mentally ill. The statistics provided by the complainant, TVNZ added, were not relevant to the circumstances dealt with in the programme.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[21] Ms Yeldon wrote:

The only additional comment that I wish to make is as follows. There is still a public debate in this country, particularly carried on by lobby groups like “Caring Communities Inc”, regarding whether community care of people deemed mentally ill is a good thing, whether de-institutionalisation has gone ‘too far’ and whether mentally-abnormal homicide is completely preventable. I can sum up my concern about the programme by saying that if it entered into this debate in any way, it should have done it accurately, fairly and in a balanced way.

[22] In a second letter, she enclosed a letter from a group called “Mind-out” based in Taupo which said it consisted of people with experience in mental health. Ms Yeldon stated that this group should have been consulted for the broadcast.

Authority’s Determination

[23] The documentary Mental Breakdown focused almost exclusively on three cases where the mental health system had apparently failed. The broadcast did not blame the three individuals involved: rather, some degree of sympathy was expressed for them. The Authority agrees with TVNZ that the word “breakdown” in the title referred to “either apparent or acknowledged failings in the mental health system”.

[24] While acknowledging that Ms Yeldon has raised a number of interesting points in regard to the mental health system overall, the Authority has confined its consideration of her complaint to the issues dealt with in the documentary. Ms Yeldon referred specifically to the group Caring Communities and its opposition to community care of the mentally ill. Patricia Perkins of that organisation appeared briefly and while she expressed the view that “we’ve gone too far”, her comment was related to the three specific cases examined in the programme.

[25] Ms Yeldon contended that the programme was inaccurate (Standard 5), unbalanced (Standard 4), and encouraged the denigration of the mentally ill (Standard 6 and Guideline 6g) in that it did not deal with the incidence and characteristics of mentally-abnormal homicide, and in that it did include the views of people who had experienced mental illness.

[26] In view of the item’s focus, the Authority concurs with TVNZ that these were not issues which were addressed by, or were relevant to, the programme. While that material might well be appropriate for another programme, it was not relevant to Mental Breakdown in view of the documentary’s narrow focus on particular systemic failures. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
1 April 2004

Appendix

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

1. Diane Yeldon’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 21 October 2003

2. TVNZ’s Response to the Complainant – 13 November 2003

3. Ms Yeldon’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 15 November 2003

4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 27 November 2003

5. Ms Yeldon’s Final Comment – 8 December 2003

6. Ms Yeldon’s Second Final Comment – 11 December 2003