BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Associate Minister of Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control (Hon David Carter) and Chamberlain and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1999-220–223

Members
  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • J Withers
Dated
Complainants
  • Associate Minister of Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control (Hon David Carter)
  • David Chamberlain
Number
1999-220–223
Channel/Station
TV One


Summary

The involvement of the Prime Minister’s staff with Timberlands was the subject of news items on One Network News broadcast on 17, 18 and 19 August 1999 beginning at 6.00pm, an item on Breakfast on 18 August beginning at 7.00am, and an item on Holmes on 18 August beginning at 7.00pm. It was reported that although Mrs Shipley had denied such involvement with the company after she became Prime Minister, papers released that day indicated otherwise.

Hon David Carter, Associate Minister of Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the 18 August report was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. He pointed out first that Mrs Shipley had not denied that her staff had been involved with Timberlands since she had become Prime Minister. Secondly, he said that it was misleading to state that documents had been released that day relating to the matter when in fact those documents were already in the public arena and had been published in a book. He also complained that TVNZ’s coverage of the matter had been premised on a deliberate misinterpretation of comments made by the Prime Minister. Mr Carter sought an urgent correction of what he called the inaccuracies.

David Chamberlain also complained to TVNZ about its coverage of the Timberlands issue. He contended that the book Secrets and Lies, which was the source of the allegations, had been used in an effort to discredit the Prime Minister. He argued that it contained "outrageous allegations". He also complained about the allegation that Mrs Shipley’s word was in doubt because she had given three different answers. He noted that none of her answers were contradictory, but were the answers to three different questions. Mr Chamberlain also complained that it was deceptive for TVNZ to attribute part of its news report to documents received by it that day, when in fact the documents had been disclosed earlier in the book.

TVNZ acknowledged that the Prime Minister’s responses on the matter had been in answer to different questions. However it argued there were subtle differences in the answers which were worth bringing to the public’s attention. As for the complaint about the documents having been released that day, TVNZ responded that its staff had independently verified certain documents referred to that day. It found no breach of any standards and declined to uphold the complaints.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s responses, Mr Carter and Mr Chamberlain each referred their complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.

Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the items complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendices. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

News reports covered the release of a book called Secrets and Lies which alleged that one of the Prime Minister’s advisors had assisted Timberlands in a campaign to influence public opinion on the issue of logging native timber in West Coast forests. An item on 17 August showed the Prime Minister denying any conspiracy or improper behaviour. A broadcast the following evening related what was described as fresh information about the link between Timberlands’ PR firm and the Prime Minister’s staff. The presenter reported that Mrs Shipley had denied that her staff had been involved with Timberlands since she had become Prime Minister. However, the item continued, papers released that day indicated that her staff were meeting with Timberlands "long after she became Prime Minister". The reporter then pointed out that the previous month when the Prime Minister had been asked if her staff had been involved "in any way in relations with Timberlands and the Government" she had said no, and the previous day she had given an assurance that her office "had not been involved in the policy issues with Timberlands" since she had become Prime Minister. However, the report continued, TVNZ had obtained documents which showed otherwise. At the conclusion of the report, TVNZ’s political reporter suggested that the Prime Minister’s word and integrity were possibly open to scrutiny.

The topic was covered in a Holmes item on 18 August and earlier that day, in Breakfast, the news item of the previous evening was largely repeated.

Hon David Carter, Associate Minister of Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control complained to TVNZ that the 18 August item was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. First, he complained about the presenter’s introduction when she stated that Mrs Shipley had denied that her staff were involved with Timberlands after she became Prime Minister. She had made no such denial, Mr Carter said. He explained that TVNZ’s conclusion related to the Prime Minister’s negative answer to a Parliamentary question when she was asked if her staff had been involved in relations between Timberlands and the government. He suggested that TVNZ had taken one answer and changed the question. Thus, he concluded, the introduction by the presenter was not truthful or impartial, and failed to treat the Prime Minister fairly. Mr Chamberlain’s complaint also concerned TVNZ’s interpretation of the Prime Minister’s responses to the Parliamentary questions.

Secondly, Mr Carter complained that it was misleading for TVNZ to have described the documents it referred to as having been released that day. The documents, he said, had been in the public domain for some time, and some had been published in Secrets and Lies. He suggested that they had been so described so as to give the impression that some new documents had come to light following the Prime Minister’s comments the previous evening.

Mr Carter then complained about the reporter drawing attention to what was apparently a contradiction on the part of the Prime Minister in response to a series of questions. He contended that as the answers related to different questions, the broadcaster had been involved in deceptive editing.

Furthermore, Mr Carter maintained that the statements were not inconsistent, and noted that each was made in context of a specific question or situation. He wrote:

Your reporters are being mischievous in suggesting that the differences raise questions about Mrs Shipley’s word.

This is the line run by the Labour Party which your reporters have parroted.

Mr Carter sought an urgent correction. In his view, the "documents deception" required stern disciplinary action by TVNZ.

Mr Chamberlain complained about what he called TVNZ’s "outrageously anti-Shipley tone" when it reported on the release of the book Secrets and Lies on 17, 18 and 19 August. He suggested that the book was a political document and that it made unsubstantiated allegations about a possible connection between Timberlands and anti-logging groups.

He complained that the book’s author was permitted to make "outrageous allegations", including that Timberlands’ PR company had spent millions of dollars on public relations, when he said it was public knowledge that the real figure was much lower than that. He also complained about the suggestion made by TVNZ’s political reporter that the Prime Minister’s responses to a series of questions had been contradictory, noting that the answers she had given were – in all probability – to three different questions. Finally, Mr Chamberlain stated that he was appalled at the description of the documents already in the book as being "obtained by TVNZ today." In his view, that was deceptive.

TVNZ assessed the complaints under standards G1, G4, G6, G7 and G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standards G1, G4, G6 and G7 require broadcasters:

G1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

G7  To avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting.

G4  To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any programme.

G6  To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.

The other standard reads:

G14  News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.

TVNZ advised that it considered Mr Carter’s complaint comprised two parts. The first was that it was not accurate to refer to the Prime Minister’s three answers as being different, and the second was that it was misleading and deceptive to claim that One Network News had "obtained" papers when they had already been published in a book.

TVNZ reported that it had reviewed all items dealing with the issue broadcast on its news and current affairs programmes between 17 and 25 August. It then considered the two aspects of the complaint.

First, TVNZ noted, it had not accused the Prime Minister of any wrongdoing. What had been described in the items were the "subtle differences" in Mrs Shipley’s answers. It suggested that whether or not the change in semantics was significant, it was worth bringing the matter to the public’s attention. TVNZ acknowledged that the responses given by the Prime Minister were in answer to different questions. It wrote:

The first answer was to the two parliamentary questions for which we offer the following transcripts (and the underlining is TVNZ’s):

5619 Jill Pettis to the Prime Minister

Have the staff in the Prime Minister’s office been involved in any way in relations between Timberlands West Coast Limited and the Government; if so, what has been the nature of this involvement?

The Prime Minister’s reply: No

5620 Jill Pettis to the Prime Minister

Have the staff in the Prime Minister’s office contributed in any way to the public relations effort of Timberlands West Coast Limited; if so, what has been the nature and extent of this contribution?

The Prime Minister’s reply: No

Given that the answer to questions which both used the phrase "in any way" was an unqualified "no", TVNZ considered that the subsequent qualifications (by the Prime Minister and her press secretary) were sufficient to make them matters of legitimate public interest.

In TVNZ’s view, Mrs Shipley’s comments were not contradictory, but they were different. It considered the appearance of movement in her position, from "no involvement" (in any way), to "no involvement in policy issues", to "no proactive involvement" was newsworthy. It suggested that if the Prime Minister’s written replies to Parliament had been entirely accurate, there would not have been any involvement at all between her staff and Timberlands’ PR company. It emphasised again that at no time had it accused the Prime Minister of wrongdoing. It had merely pointed to an "interesting change in semantics".

Secondly, TVNZ dealt with the complaint that it was deceptive to imply that the documents had been released that day. It responded that the phraseology had been chosen to indicate that its staff had independently verified some of the documents contained in the book Secrets and Lies. TVNZ did not consider that its effort to show that it was dealing with a primary source, rather than a secondary source, amounted to a deception or was misleading.

As for the complaint that standard G1 was breached, TVNZ said it found nothing in the broadcast which was inaccurate or untruthful. Turning to standard G4, it concluded that the Prime Minister had been fairly treated. It did not consider it unfair to her to point out that there were changes in her language on a particular issue.

Finally, TVNZ concluded that there was no breach of standard G6, particularly if its total news and current affairs coverage of the matter was examined. In particular it noted that while Mr Carter had accused TVNZ of "parroting" a Labour party line, in fact Hon Helen Clark, the leader of the party, had been challenged on Holmes both by the presenter and by a West Coast resident critical of Ms Clark and her party.

Standard G7, TVNZ responded, applied to episodes of technical trickery, rather than editorial content. It considered there was no deception involved in this broadcast.

Standard G14, it suggested, was effectively subsumed into standards G1, G4 and G6. It declined to uphold Mr Carter’s complaint.

Turning to Mr Chamberlain’s complaint, TVNZ denied that it had blown the book Secrets and Lies out of proportion, as contended by him. It suggested that his was a personal view, and rejected the criticism that the book had been used to discredit the Prime Minister. Its role, it continued, was to report when controversial claims - such as were contained in the book – were made, and to seek balanced reaction to them.

TVNZ further denied that the allegations made in the book had not been matched by responses from Ministers. It pointed out that Mrs Shipley, SOE Minister Mr Ryall and Conservation Minister Mr Smith each had had an opportunity to comment. In addition, it noted, comment was included from Ms Clark. It concluded that the book’s claim that a political campaign had been mounted by Timberlands had been dealt with in a balanced and responsible manner.

As for the complaint that it had been incorrect to state that Timberlands had spent "millions of dollars" on its PR campaign, TVNZ responded that the book’s author was entitled to express his view. However, it argued, the actual amount was not significant. The issue was about a matter of principle – whether it was right and proper for an SOE to spend taxpayers’ money on a political campaign and whether members of the Prime Minister’s staff had been involved.

With respect to the complaint that Mrs Shipley’s position was misrepresented, TVNZ responded as it had to Mr Carter, repeating its view that her responses, while not contradictory, were different.

Dealing with the complaint that it was deceptive to suggest that documents had been obtained by TVNZ that day, it again emphasised that it had independently verified certain documents that day.

As in response to Mr Carter’s complaint, TVNZ concluded that no standards had been breached. With respect to the requirement for balance, it further noted that stories dealing with the issue were dealt with in subsequent broadcasts on One Network News, Holmes and Breakfast.

When Mr Carter referred the complaint to the Authority for review, he detailed his dissatisfaction with TVNZ’s response. First he suggested that TVNZ had implied that the Prime Minister had misled Parliament by the answer to her written question. He responded that the relevant part of the parliamentary question had been not the words "in any way" as suggested by TVNZ, but "in relations between Timberlands West Coast and the government". He pointed out that the Prime Minister had quite rightly said no to the question, as relations between the two were the responsibility of the Minister for SOEs.

He rejected TVNZ’s argument that it had not presented her answers as being contradictory. Quoting directly from the transcript, he noted that the political editor had painted a picture of "a Prime Minister in denial" and one who changed her story. The facts, he said were quite different. He repeated that the replies related to three different questions. He then analysed those questions, and concluded that the replies to them were entirely consistent.

Secondly, Mr Carter pointed to TVNZ’s reference to documents released to it that day. In his view, that statement had been designed to suggest that further documents disproving the Prime Minister had come to light, which was not true.

Finally, Mr Carter contended that it was not a defence to suggest that TVNZ’s coverage of the issue should be viewed in the context of all of its news and current affairs programmes covering the issue at the time.

TVNZ reported that it had little to add to its earlier response to Mr Carter other than to reiterate that the subtle change in the Prime Minister’s syntax was a matter of public interest.

Mr Chamberlain disagreed with TVNZ’s contention that the items were balanced. He suggested that the requirement for balance was not satisfied by a broadcast "half an hour or 12 hours later".

He suggested that TVNZ had missed the point of his complaint that the items had implied that the Prime Minister had changed her story. He repeated that the emphasis in the Parliamentary question had been on the phrase "in relations with", rather than "in any way", as TVNZ had contended. He noted that relations with Timberlands were the responsibility of the Minister of SOEs.

Mr Chamberlain drew the Authority’s attention to what he called the "provocative description" of the documents as having been obtained by TVNZ that day. He suggested that TVNZ’s response was tenuous.

TVNZ advised that it had nothing further to add to Mr Chamberlain.

The Authority’s Findings

The complaints relate to an evolving story, the genesis of which was a book released on 17 August entitled Secrets and Lies. According to that book, Timberlands used public money to try to change the government’s policy on logging native beech. It also contended that Mrs Shipley’s staff were involved with Timberlands long after she became Prime Minister.

TVNZ reported that despite the book’s contentions, the Prime Minister – in response to a Parliamentary question in July – had denied that she or her staff had been involved "in any way in relations with Timberlands". However, TVNZ’s report of 18 August continued, the previous day she had said that her office had not been involved in the policy issues to do with Timberlands since she had become Prime Minister. This response, the report claimed, was at odds with documents obtained by TVNZ that day which revealed that members of the Prime Minister’s staff had met with Timberlands and its PR firm on many occasions. When this was put to the Prime Minister, she responded through a spokesperson that none of her staff had "been involved proactively in any Timberlands business".

The Authority has been invited to consider the items as deliberately misrepresenting the Prime Minister’s comments and implying that she had prevaricated when challenged on her staff’s involvement with Timberlands. Both complainants also contended that undue emphasis had been given to the claims made in the book Secrets and Lies which, according to Mr Chamberlain, was "a political document, quite likely based on stolen papers". The complainants also objected to TVNZ’s claim that it had received documents that day, when those documents were referred to in the book and clearly had been available for some time.

The Authority emphasises that the context of the items was an evolving news story. Of interest was what TVNZ considered to be the apparent conflict in the Prime Minister’s responses when further clarification of the matter was sought from her. In its analysis of the sequence of events, the Authority turns first to the claim that the newsreader misrepresented the Prime Minister’s response when she stated that Mrs Shipley had denied that her staff had been involved with Timberlands after she became Prime Minister. In the Authority’s view, that was an acceptable headline summary of Mrs Shipley’s position. It was clarified later in the item when Mrs Shipley gave an assurance to a waiting reporter that her office had not been involved in "the policy issues to do with Timberlands" since she had become Prime Minister. The Authority finds no breach of broadcasting standards here.

The next matter complained about was that TVNZ was incorrect to claim that it had received documents that day which attested to the truth of the claims in the book. The complainants maintained that that claim implied that new information had come to light which discredited what the Prime Minister had said the previous day. The Authority acknowledges that TVNZ’s claim was somewhat ambiguous, and accepts that it could have been open to the interpretation suggested by the complainants. Nevertheless, while it would have been preferable for TVNZ to have reported its claim as being an independent verification of those documents relied upon in the book, the Authority does not consider the abbreviated statement constituted a breach of the requirement for accuracy. It also declines to uphold the complaint that this constituted a deceptive programme practice, as contended by Mr Carter.

Turning to the complaints that the Prime Minister’s responses were misrepresented as being inconsistent, the Authority notes the argument put forward by the complainants that her edited answers related to different questions, and that there was no apparent inconsistency when they were seen in relation to the questions asked. The Authority accepts that Mrs Shipley’s answers were, as the complainants contended, to slightly different questions. However, it does not consider that the interpretation of the responses was unfair or demonstrated that the broadcaster had taken a partisan stance. In the context of the extraordinary claims which had been made in the book, a response from her was justified. She subsequently provided further detail which clarified her response.

Finally, dealing with the complaint about "outrageous allegations" contained in Secrets and Lies, the Authority concludes that the matters raised in the book were properly debated in the series of programmes and an adequate opportunity was given to all of the protagonists in the debate to put their points of view. Even if the allegations were, as contended, "outrageous", they were challenged by representatives of the government and the Coast Action Network. In the Authority’s view, the broadcaster took a fair and balanced approach to its coverage of the book’s claims and the political response to it.

Conclusion

Implicit in these complaints is the notion that TVNZ adopted a partisan stance in its coverage of the issue. Sections of these programmes, viewed in isolation, might convey that impression. But if the coverage "within the period of current interest" is viewed overall , then the Authority is not persuaded that the claim to bias can be made out. In the Authority’s view, this was a legitimate matter for the reporters to pursue with the Prime Minister and others and they had the opportunity to have their say.

The Authority has subsumed all aspects of the complaint under standard G14, which deals with balance, fairness and accuracy, and concludes that there was no breach of broadcasting standards.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Sam Maling
Chairperson
25 November 1999

Appendix I

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

1.     Hon David Carter’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 22 August 1999

2.    TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 17 September 1999

3.    Mr Carter’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 21 September 1999

4.    TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 11 October 1999

Appendix II

1.     David Chamberlain’s Complaint to TVNZ – 22 August 1999

2.    TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 15 September 1999

3.    Mr Chamberlain’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority –
       28 September 1999

4.    TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 11 October 1999