BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Jeune and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1998-160

Members
  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • J Withers
Dated
Complainant
  • Margaret Jeune
Number
1998-160
Programme
One Network News
Channel/Station
TV One


Summary

One Network News, commencing at 6.00 pm on TV One on Saturday 12 September 1998, broadcast a lengthy item on the findings of the Starr Report, and its effect on the possibility of impeachment proceedings being taken against President Clinton of the United States.

Ms Jeune complained to Television New Zealand Limited, the broadcaster, that it was highly offensive for explicit sexual material to be discussed during children’s normal viewing time. The material screened could disturb younger children, or those who were not ready to discuss aspects of sexual behaviour, she maintained.

TVNZ responded that the threat of impeachment potentially weakened the President’s leadership, and thus had a worldwide impact. Perjury was the central issue of the impeachment proceedings, and arose from the sexual relationship denied by the President, it continued. Declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ wrote it was the news media’s role to provide sufficient information about the relationship to enable informed public debate to take place over the perjury charge.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Ms Jeune 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 viewed 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.

The main item on One Network News on Saturday 12 September, commencing at 6.00 pm, reported on the findings of the Starr Report, and the effect of its findings on possible impeachment proceedings against President Clinton of the United States. The item used reports from American news services, and referred in some detail to the alleged sexual relationship between the President and Ms Monica Lewinsky.

Ms Jeune complained to Television New Zealand Limited that she found it highly offensive that explicit sexual material was discussed during the normal viewing time of young children. Such material, she suggested, should be reserved for late-night news bulletins. As an adult, she wrote, she personally found the details of the sexual encounters sickening in prime viewing time.

TVNZ responded that, inevitably, news programmes from time to time included material which might alarm or disturb children. That required the broadcaster to balance the need to ensure that New Zealanders were informed about their world with the need to protect children, it wrote. Material was deleted on occasions, it continued, but only when it was essentially gratuitous.

The broadcaster noted that the Starr Report was a document of great importance. President Clinton occupied "the most powerful office on Earth" and, it wrote, the impact on his leadership of a threat of impeachment, arising from the allegations considered in the Starr Report, had a worldwide impact. It argued that there was a need to include the sexually explicit references in the reporting, as the Starr Report’s finding of perjury was the central issue of the possible impeachment proceedings against the President, and it arose from the sexual relationship with Ms Lewinsky. The news media’s role, which arose from the President’s denial of that relationship, was to give sufficient information from the Starr Report about the relationship, TVNZ observed, "for there to be informed public debate over the perjury charge".

TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standards G2, G8, G12 and V16 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, as well as under Privacy Principle (i) of the Authority’s Privacy Principles promulgated in 1996. The first three standards require broadcasters:

G2 To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.

G8 To abide by the classification codes and their appropriate time bands as outlined in the agreed criteria for programme classifications.

G12 To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times.

The fourth standard, which is concerned with the protection of children from the portrayal of violence, provides:

V16 Broadcasters must be mindful of the effect any programme, including trailers, may have on children during their generally accepted viewing periods, usually up to 8.30 pm, and avoid screening material which could unnecessarily disturb or alarm children.

Privacy Principle (i) reads:

i) 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 Authority deals first with standard G2. Ms Jeune argued that TVNZ had failed to observe the standard because it had assumed that details of the alleged sexual encounter between the President and Ms Lewinsky could be broadcast to prove that the President was "not legally correct" when he denied a sexual relationship with her. TVNZ denied, "in the context of a news broadcast about a major international event", that the sexual references had strayed over the boundaries of decency and taste. It reiterated that the nature of the sexual relationship was central to the issue of perjury, and to the impact of that charge on Mr Clinton, and on the office of the President.

The Authority notes that TVNZ dealt appropriately with the material which it broadcast. It observes that there had been overwhelming public interest in the findings of the Starr Report, and the publicity given to it would have alerted viewers to what the report would contain. It was, the Authority considers, a major news item which provided factual and responsible coverage, and contained nothing salacious. The Authority appreciates that there was a requirement on the broadcaster not to over-edit the material so that its meaning was affected. Furthermore, the Authority notes that the newsreader warned viewers of the content of the material before the item commenced. Taking into account all the contextual matters surrounding the broadcast, as it is required to do, the Authority is unable to find any breach of standard G2.

The Authority turns next to standard G8. In this instance, the broadcast occurred in "G" time. Ms Jeune argued that TVNZ did not abide by the appropriate time band in its broadcast. The broadcaster responded that news content cannot be judged solely by the requirements of the classification period in which the broadcast occurred. News editors, it wrote, also have to be aware of the need to present the news honestly and accurately, and in a manner reflecting the nature of the event being described. The Authority appreciates that this was the major news item of the day. There was substantial public interest in, and publicity about, the contents of the Starr Report. It could therefore be expected that viewers would have some foreknowledge of the content of the news reporting. The Authority, therefore, does not find any breach of this standard and notes, in addition, that while the news programme did not carry a specific classification, it did provide a warning about its reporting of the Starr Report.

In her complaint under standard G12, Ms Jeune noted that a warning was given but "parents have a right to assume that at 6 pm the television is safe for children to watch". TVNZ replied that the programme contained a specific warning about content, which demonstrated that the broadcaster was mindful of the programme’s effect on children. At the outset, the Authority observes that it is not unreasonable to expect parents or caregivers to monitor children’s viewing. This is so particularly with news programmes which are directed at adult audiences. The broadcaster, nevertheless, must keep in mind the point that a substantial number of children are watching television at that time. The Authority also acknowledges TVNZ’s comment that inevitably news programmes from time to time contain material which might alarm or disturb children. In this instance, the Authority finds that the complaint is answered by the warning given by the newsreader, first, that the report was highly reliant on overseas sources and, secondly, that it contained sexually graphic material. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

In considering the complaint under standard V16, the Authority notes that standard refers to the protection of children against the portrayal of violence. It is not relevant to this broadcast because there was no violence portrayed in the broadcast, and the Authority accordingly declines to uphold the complaint under this standard.

Finally, in turning to Privacy Principle (i), the Authority notes that the principle is directed to protecting a person referred to in material which has been broadcast, rather than – as the complainant assumes – to protecting a viewer from the content of such material. In the Authority’s view, the facts which were disclosed in the news item were not "private facts" and, even if they were, they were covered by the defence of "public interest" referred to in Privacy Principle (vi). For the reasons it has advanced earlier in this decision, the Authority considers there was substantial public interest in the findings of the Starr Report. It declines to uphold the complaint under this principle.

In the circumstances, the Authority is unable to agree that any aspect of the broadcast breached the nominated standards and it declines to uphold the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Sam Maling
Chairperson
26 November 1998

Appendix

Margaret Jeune’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 18 September 1998

Ms Jeune of Otaki complained to Television New Zealand Limited about an item broadcast on One Network News on 12 September 1998 commencing at 6.00 pm. She complained that, by screening the Starr Report at that time, the broadcaster had violated a number of programme standards, and she expressed disappointment that "TVNZ had chosen to buy into American sensationalism and to pollute our TV screens".

Ms Jeune wrote that, being the mother of pre-adolescent children, she found it highly offensive that explicit sexual material had been discussed during their normal viewing time. Such material, she continued, should have been kept for a late night bulletin. As an adult, she had found the details of the sexual encounter sickening in such a public viewing time, she observed.

She asserted that the broadcaster had failed to observe norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour by its broadcast. There had been an assumption, she wrote, that the details of the sexual encounter could be broadcast to prove that the President had not been legally correct in stating that he had no sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Claiming that TVNZ had failed to be mindful of the effect of the broadcast on children during their normal viewing time, Ms Jeune noted that a warning had been given during the item. But, she argued, parents had a right to assume that at 6.00 pm the television was safe for children to view. The broadcaster also had failed to abide by the appropriate time band in the agreed criteria for programme classifications, Ms Jeune wrote.

Material was screened, the complainant maintained, which could have unnecessarily disturbed children who were not sexually active, and who were not ready to discuss aspects of sexual behaviour.

Ms Jeune also wrote that, as a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities, she had found the facts disclosed in the broadcast to be highly offensive and objectionable.

TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 24 September 1998

TVNZ considered the complaint in the context of standards G2, G8, G12 and V16 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, and Privacy Principle i) of the Authority’s Privacy Principles promulgated in an Advisory Opinion in May 1996.

It was inevitable, TVNZ observed, that news programmes sometimes included material which alarmed or disturbed children. It wrote that:

We have to balance the need to ensure that New Zealanders are well informed about their world, with the need to protect children.

Deletions were made when the material was essentially gratuitous, TVNZ advised, but relevant material was always retained. The Starr Report was a document of great importance, it wrote. If the threat of impeachment arising from the allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Report weakened President Clinton’s leadership, TVNZ contended, then the impact was worldwide.

The reporting of the sexually explicit references in the Starr Report had been necessary because the central issue of perjury had been concerned with the President’s denial that he had sex with Ms Lewinsky, the broadcaster asserted. The President’s insistence that he had been "legally accurate" in denying having had sex with Ms Lewinsky made it, TVNZ wrote:

…the news media’s role to provide from the Starr Report sufficient information about the nature of the relationship for there to be informed public debate over the perjury charge.

…[In] selecting the various overseas items used to convey this story…, TVNZ exercised considerable restraint. Some detail had to be there if the perjury allegation was to make any sense, but it was delivered carefully and in the context of the eleven impeachable offences listed by Judge Starr.

In turning to standard G2, TVNZ declined to accept that, "in the context of a news broadcast about a major international event, the sexual references in the programme strayed over the boundaries" of decency and taste. It reiterated that the nature of the sexual relationship between the President and Ms Lewinsky had been central to the issue of perjury, and to the impact such a charge had on Mr Clinton and on the office of the American presidency.

Declining to accept that standard G8 had been breached, TVNZ wrote that news content could not be judged strictly according to the requirements of the classification period in which the broadcast had been made. News editors were required to be conscious of the time of the broadcast, but also had to be aware of the need to present news honestly and accurately, and in a manner reflecting the nature of the event being described, TVNZ maintained.

TVNZ declined to uphold breaches of standards G12 and V16, noting that the programme contained a specific warning about content. The warning demonstrated that it was mindful of the effect of the broadcast upon children, TVNZ emphasised, while it "retained the integrity of the reporting to ensure that viewers were well informed".

In considering Ms Jeune’s reference to Privacy Principle i), TVNZ wrote that it did not "fully understand" the reference. If, it wrote, the information broadcast had infringed Mr Clinton or Ms Lewinsky’s privacy, then that was a matter for the Judiciary Committee of the American House of Representatives which had voted to release the Starr Report. In any event, the broadcaster observed, Clause (vi) of the Privacy Principles was applicable, as the matter was clearly in the public interest, being of legitimate concern or interest to the public.

Ms Jeune’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 27 September 1998

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

Writing that she was not happy with the broadcaster’s decision to not uphold her complaint, Ms Jeune stated that she knew of many people who had left the room or turned the TV off when the broadcast had been shown. She enclosed a copy of correspondence published in the TV Guide on 25 September which expressed similar dissatisfaction with TVNZ’s broadcast.

TVNZ’s Comments to the Authority – 8 October 1998

TVNZ advised that it had nothing further to add to its letter to Ms Jeune of 24 September.