BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Renwick and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1998-128

Members
  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • J Withers
Dated
Complainant
  • Lindsay Renwick
Number
1998-128
Channel/Station
TV One


Summary

An item broadcast on One Network News and Tonight on TV One on 8 June 1998 showed amateur video footage of four fishermen in rough seas in New South Wales after their boat had capsized. Two of the men drowned in the incident.

Ms Renwick complained to the broadcaster, Television New Zealand Limited, that the loss of the two men would not have been newsworthy had their deaths not been captured on "amcam". The broadcast capitalised on the horror of the drowning, she wrote, and that was callous and unwarranted.

TVNZ responded that the footage was relevant because it provided a stark reminder for boaties everywhere of the dangers of the sea. The men went out in dangerous conditions and without lifejackets, it wrote. This was a television new story, it continued, where graphic images were available to tell of a genuine tragedy. Declining to uphold the complaint, it contended that the footage did not show explicit material. Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Ms Renwick 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

The members of the Authority have watched a tape of the item complained about, and have read the correspondence (which is summarised in the Appendix). On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Amateur video footage, which showed a group of fishermen struggling in the water after their boat had capsized, was broadcast during One Network News and Tonight on TV One on 8 June 1998. Two of the men died in the incident.

Ms Renwick complained to TVNZ about the use of the footage. She said she doubted whether the loss of two Australian fishermen would have rated a mention on New Zealand news had their death throes not been "captured on amcam". She suggested that the item was screened simply to capitalise on the horror of the drowning. She concluded that the screening of the item was callous and unwarranted.

Responding, TVNZ expressed some difficulty in testing the complaint against the standards set out in the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. It determined to consider the complaint in the context of standards V2 and V12 of the Code. These provide:

V2 When obviously designed for gratuitous use to achieve heightened impact, realistic violence – as distinct from farcial violence – must be avoided.

V12 The treatment in news, current affairs and documentary programmes of violent and distressing material calls for careful editorial discernment as to the extent of graphic material carried. Should the use of violent and distressing material be considered relevant and essential to the proper understanding of the incident or event being portrayed, an appropriate prior warning must be considered.

Particular care must be taken with graphic material which portrays especially disturbing images, such as:

ill-treatment of people or animals

close-ups of dead or mutilated bodies of people or animals

views of people in extreme pain or distress, or at the moment of death

violence directed at children or children in distress

Material shown in late evening may be more graphic than that shown during general viewing times.

Writing that television was primarily a visual medium, so that picture content was very important, TVNZ said that the sort of fishing boat tragedy depicted in the footage had relevance in New Zealand. Many similar accidents had occurred locally, it wrote, in which "men went out in dangerous conditions and without lifejackets". The pictures, the broadcaster continued, provided a stark reminder for boaties everywhere of the dangers the sea could pose.

Denying that it had capitalised on the death of the two men, TVNZ questioned the difference between showing an item in which two men had died, and one (such as the Hindenberg airship disaster) in which scores had died. In both, it contended, lives were lost in front of a camera.

Declining to uphold the complaint, the broadcaster emphasised that the item was not reported in other media because, with its graphic images, it was essentially a television news story. A definition of news included "unusual" and "abnormal", and both words described this item which was worthy of inclusion in its news programmes, TVNZ concluded.

In her referral to the Authority, Ms Renwick expressed satisfaction that the broadcaster had recognised that the pictures were horrifying, but rejected its justification that they were screened "as a sort of community service message". Broadcasting footage of people struggling for their lives amounted to explicit material indicating distress, and thus breached standards V2 or V12, she maintained.

The Authority turns first to standard V2. This requires the avoidance of realistic violence in programmes when designed for gratuitous use to achieve heightened impact. In this instance, the Authority considers the material did not depict any violence, which is required to invoke the application of the standard. It therefore declines to uphold the complaint under this standard.

In turning next to standard V12, the Authority notes that this is directed at violent and distressing material in news, current affairs and documentary programmes. It calls for careful editorial discernment as to the extent of graphic detail carried. The intent of the standard, the Authority appreciates, is to provide a limit to the portrayal of disturbing images. Here, the issue is whether the material was sufficiently distressing so as to attract the standard. In the end, the matter is one of judgment, and the Authority must try to adopt the objective view of the reasonable viewer. Having considered the matter, the Authority notes that the reality of the footage perhaps heightened its impact but on balance it does not consider that the material breached the standard. In so doing, it points out that the film shown was of such poor quality that the figures of the fishermen were barely visible throughout much of the footage and, indeed, without the accompanying voiceover it would not have been possible to ascertain exactly what was happening.

The Authority acknowledges the reference in the complaint to "amcam" footage. The footage, it suggests, raises valid issues for broadcasters because of its increasing use and the difficulties which could arise with its unconsidered use. Research available to the Authority shows that real violence – and by implication, distressing material – broadcast in news and similar programmes has a greater impact on compounding children’s fears than similarly-portrayed material in programmes which viewers can identify as fiction. The Authority reminds broadcasters that the display of such material does require judicious use and discretion at all times.

Acknowledging the essence of Ms Renwick’s complaint was that she did not consider the matter was newsworthy, the Authority notes that was an editoral decision for TVNZ and as such was outside its jurisdiction.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Sam Maling
Chairperson
22 October 1998

Appendix

Lindsay Renwick’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 10 June 1998

Ms Renwick of Wellington complained to Television New Zealand Limited about an item which was broadcast during the 6.00 pm and late evening news services on TV One on 8 June 1998. Parts of the same item were also screened during TV One’s news updates, both before and after 6.00 pm on that night, she said.

The item had included amateur video footage which showed a group of fishermen struggling in the water off the coast of New South Wales, she said, after their boat had capsized. Two of them had died.

Ms Renwick wrote:

I doubt that the loss of two Australian fishermen would have rated a mention on New Zealand news if it were not that their death throes were "captured on amcam". It seems that TVNZ chose to screen the item simply to capitalise on the horror of drowning. The screening of the item was callous and unwarranted.

TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 23 June 1998

TVNZ considered the complaint under standards V2 and V12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

It noted that television, alone among news media outlets, was primarily a visual medium, and picture content was very important. The sort of fishing boat tragedy which had occurred in Australia was all too common in New Zealand, the broadcaster wrote. The pictures did have relevance, it continued, because the fishermen in the footage:

…went out in very dangerous conditions and without lifejackets. One of the onlookers was heard to say that their behaviour was "suicidal". We believe that the horrifying pictures provided a stark reminder for boaties everywhere of the dangers the sea can pose.

TVNZ denied that screening the footage amounted to capitalising on the death of the two men. What, it wrote:

…is the fundamental difference between showing an item in which two men die, and one in which scores might die (the world-famous footage of the Hindenberg airship disaster springs to mind) ? In both cases lives are lost in front of a camera.

It noted that the story was not covered in newspapers or on radio because it was essentially a television news story, with graphic images available "to tell the story of a genuine tragedy which had implications for many New Zealand boat owners and fishermen".

Here, the broadcaster continued, the event was "unusual" and "abnormal" (words, it wrote, both included in any definition of news), and was worthy of inclusion in its news programmes.

Standards V2 or V12, TVNZ considered, seemed intended to deal with extremes of violence. They were therefore inapplicable, it said, to an item which was graphic but did not show explicit material indicating pain or distress. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Ms Renwick’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 July 1998

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Ms Renwick referred her complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

The complainant reiterated her concern that the news item breached the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice by portraying the disturbing image of people in extreme distress struggling for their lives after their boat had capsized.

Referring to TVNZ’s comment that the horrifying pictures provided a reminder for boaties of the dangers of the sea, she wrote:

I am pleased that TVNZ recognises that the pictures were horrifying. I do not accept TVNZ’s purported justification that it screened the material as a sort of community service message. Car accidents are "all too common in this country", but I do not think this would justify screening footage of crash victims dying in the wreckage.

Ms Renwick emphasised that her objection was to TVNZ’s decision to broadcast images of people in extreme distress and close to death. TVNZ’s analogy with the Hindenberg airship disaster was inappropriate, she wrote, for that did not show people "dying in front of the camera". Rather, she wrote, it showed the dirigible crashing and burning. Similarly, she continued, the footage of the Challenger disaster showed the shuttle exploding, but did not show people actually dying.

Referring to TVNZ’s statement that the footage "showed no explicit material indicating pain and distress", Ms Renwick replied that footage of people struggling for their lives amounted to "explicit material indicating distress".

TVNZ’s Comments to the Authority – 28 July 1998

The broadcaster advised that it had no further comment to make.