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Atkin and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2019-094 (9 March 2020)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Mark Atkin
Number
2019-094
Programme
Seven Sharp
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority has not upheld a complaint about a segment on Seven Sharp regarding an advertisement by Fluoride Free NZ. Mark Atkin, on behalf of Fluoride Free NZ, complained that the programme was in breach of the balance and accuracy standards. The Authority found that the segment did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance, as required for the balance standard to apply. The Authority also found that none of the points identified by the complainant were inaccurate.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  A segment on Seven Sharp looked at an advertisement published in the New Zealand Herald by Fluoride Free NZ about a recent study regarding whether fluoridated water is safe during pregnancy (the advertisement). The presenter introduced the segment by saying:

First, could what’s in our water be making our children dumber? That’s the claim being spouted in an advertisement in the Herald this morning, placed by anti-fluoride campaigners. They point to a single study suggesting children born to mothers drinking fluoridated water while pregnant having lower IQs compared to children born to mothers who didn’t.

But how accurate is that assertion?

[2]  The segment then showed comments from Dr Lance O’Sullivan (public health advocate and former New Zealander of the Year), Dr Riana Clarke (Ministry of Health (MoH)), and Sir Peter Gluckman (former Chief Science Advisor) supporting the efficacy and safety of adding fluoride to water. The advertisement was shown with a voiceover summarising its contents and the study.

[3]  The presenters then interviewed Professor Alan Blackman from AUT’s School of Science about his view on the study and how it would impact people’s opinions on fluoride. Comments provided to TVNZ by MoH were summarised by one of the presenters:

They point to the fact that a few years ago, the Royal Society of New Zealand and the office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor provided a comprehensive review of all the scientific evidence – not just one study – all the scientific evidence about the safety of fluoridation…and they found it safe, they also recommended that they review that scientific evidence every ten years or if there was a really big study that pointed to the fact that it wasn’t safe. So that’s a good thing too.

[4]  Finally, an email from a viewer regarding her experience of taking fluoride tablets while pregnant, and her son’s subsequent academic success demonstrating a high IQ, was read out on air.

[5]  The segment was broadcast on 2 September 2019 on TVNZ 1. As part of our consideration of this complaint, we have watched a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[6]  Mark Atkin, on behalf of Fluoride Free NZ, submitted the broadcast breached the balance and accuracy standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice for the following reasons:

Balance

  • The segment only had comment from people who ‘promote fluoridation’.
  • No comment was sought from ‘the advertiser, or any real expert or neutral commentator.’
  • The reference to Fluoride Free NZ’s advertisement did not present its views in the same way that MoH’s viewpoint was presented. ‘It can hardly be described as “adequately presented”’.
  • The email from a viewer at the end of the broadcast was given undue weight and had a ‘totally irrelevant point’.

Accuracy

  • The reference to ‘one study’ or ‘a single study’ was inaccurate as ‘this study follows 4 other mother-offspring studies.’ ‘The fact that the advertisement focuses on the newest study does not justify claiming it is the only study.’
  • The statement from Dr Riana Clarke (MoH) was taken from a video from April 2017 and was not about the study in question. It was therefore misleading as it would have ‘given the false impression that [Dr] Clarke had answered a question about the study.’
  • ‘Allan Blackwood’s comments about correlation and causation apply equally to every study claiming fluoridation reduces tooth decay…so it is misleading to imply that it is a specific failing of this study.’
  • The email at the end discussing a mother’s experience taking fluoride tablets while pregnant is misleading as ‘the Ministry of Health no longer recommends taking fluoride tablets, during pregnancy or otherwise’, fluoride tablets contain a warning to pregnant mothers and children three years and under and even fluoride promoters do not claim any benefits to the developing child from taking fluoride tablets during pregnancy.

The broadcaster’s response

[7]  TVNZ did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

Balance

  • The programme included reference to the statements in the Fluoride Free NZ advertisement.
  • ‘The viewpoint of Fluoride Free NZ is provided for viewers, and sufficient information is given, so that they could seek out more from Fluoride Free NZ if they chose.’

Accuracy

  • The focus of the advertisement and of the discussion was the new study and the presenters’ and other comments relate solely to that study.
  • ‘It is accurate to say that the ad “point(s) to a single study” [as] the headline of the ad says: NEW STUDY TOP MEDICAL JOURNAL FLUORIDATED WATER UNSAFE DURING PREGNANCY and the first two paragraphs of the ad discuss this new study.’
  • Describing the advertisement as ‘pointing’ or ‘directing attention towards’ a single study is therefore not misleading.
  • References to studies not discussed in the programme are not relevant as they were not ‘mentioned in any detail in the Fluoride Free NZ ad.’
  • The clip from the MoH video was included as ‘part of the programme which discussed the safety of fluoridated water in general’.
  • Prof Allan Blackman’s comments were ‘clearly signalled’ as his opinion, to which the accuracy standard does not apply.
  • The viewer’s email is her opinion and not subject to the expectation of the standard. The MoH recommends different products containing fluoride for ‘even the youngest of children’. The problem with fluoride tablets is the possibility of not complying with recommended doses.1

The relevant standards

[8]  The balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[9]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.2

Our findings

[10]  The right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, is the starting point in our consideration of complaints. Equally important is our consideration of the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified. In this case we are required to determine whether the item may have caused harm by misleading the public or failing to provide the audience with sufficient information to reach an informed opinion.

Balance

[11]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement under the balance standard to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to ‘news, current affairs and factual programmes’ which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.3

[12]  The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.4  A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.5

[13]  We have consistently recognised that Seven Sharp is a news and current affairs programme. While we acknowledge there is ongoing debate about the ethics around adding fluoride to community water supplies,6 we do not consider whether that practice has health benefits or negative effects is controversial. In 2011 we found that whether water fluoridation has health benefits or negative effects amounted to a controversial issue of public importance.7 Given additional information and research made available over the past nine years, we consider that the issue is no longer controversial:

  • ‘The science of fluoride in water is effectively settled. It has been one of the most thoroughly worked questions in public health science over some decades. There is a voluminous scientific and lay literature that needs to be considered.’8
  • ‘Given the caveat that science can never be absolute, the panel is unanimous in its conclusion that there are no adverse effects of fluoride of any significance arising from fluoridation at the levels used in New Zealand. In particular, no effects on brain development, cancer risk or cardiovascular or metabolic risk have been substantiated, and the safety margins are such that no subset of the population is at risk because of fluoridation.’9
  • ‘Numerous large scientific reviews over the last 60 years and ongoing monitoring of all new, relevant scientific studies continue to confirm that water fluoridation is effective and safe - and not linked to any health risks.’10
  • ‘Throughout more than 70 years of research and practical experience, the overwhelming weight of credible scientific evidence has consistently indicated that fluoridation of community water supplies is safe’11

[14]  We recognise that some groups, such as Fluoride Free NZ, maintain a different view, but we do not consider that the issue can be considered to be controversial. As the focus of the programme was on the health benefits of fluoridated water, rather than the debate around whether it amounts to forced medical treatment or where the decision-making powers should lie, it was not discussing a controversial issue, therefore the balance standard does not apply.

[15]  Therefore we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.

Accuracy

[16]  Audiences may be misinformed in two ways: by incorrect statements of fact within the programme; and/or by being misled by the programme.12 Being ‘misled’ is defined as being given ‘a wrong idea or impression of the facts.’13

[17]  The complainant identified a number of points as inaccurate in the broadcast, listed above in paragraph [6]. We did not consider them inaccurate, for reasons we expand on below.

[18]  The advertisement was highlighting and focussing on a particular  study, so it was reasonable for the presenters to make references to it ‘pointing to’ a ‘single study’, to the promoters having based a whole ad campaign around ‘one study’ or to the conclusions promoted in the advertisement being based on ‘one study’. The weight of scientific evidence indicates that adding fluoride to community water supplies does not have negative health effects, so it is accurate to indicate to viewers that there are few studies showing otherwise.

[19]  The statement from Dr Clarke (MoH) was in the context of asking whether fluoride was dangerous. We consider that this was a fact, and in light of the scientific views set out in paragraph [13], was not materially inaccurate. Further, viewers would have understood that her comments were being made generally and were not in response to the specific study.

[20]  With regard to Prof Blackman’s comments ‘about correlation and causation’ the complainant submitted that this critique can ‘apply equally to every study claiming fluoridation reduces tooth decay…so it is misleading to imply that it is a specific failing of this study.’ We consider that this was Prof Blackman’s opinion, which he was entitled to give, and this is not subject to the accuracy standard.  In any event, we disagree that this comment was misleading, as Prof Blackman went on to explain specifically what the issue was with the study:  

There is correlation and causation and you know, just because you get a correlation between two things, doesn’t mean to say that’s the cause. The study looked at pregnant women and then three to four years down the track they did IQ tests on their kids. And, from what I can read in the paper, there is no mention of what happened between birth and age three or four. No mention of the environmental factors that were doubtless important in determining the IQ of these kids over that time.

[21]  Finally, as noted above, the email read out at the end was anecdotal and viewers would not have taken it to be a medical endorsement of fluoride tablets.

[22]  Therefore we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair
9 March 2020


 

 

 

 

Appendix

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

1  Fluoride Free NZ’s complaint to TVNZ – 11 September 2019

2  TVNZ’s response – 9 October 2019

3  FFNZ’s referral to the BSA – 4 November 2019

4  FFNZ submissions accompanying referral – 4 November 2019

5  TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 12 February 2020


1 ‘Guidelines for the Use of Fluorides’ (Ministry of Health, 2009)
2 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 Guideline 8a
4 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 As above
6 See for example ‘Public drinking-water fluoridation and the right to refuse medical treatment — the Supreme Court wades in’ (Lawtalk 922, New Zealand Law Society, 5 October 2018); ‘Councils push for Health Ministry to take over national powers on water fluoridation’ (Stuff, 15 March 2017)
7Atkin and the Radio Network Ltd, Decision No. 2011-061
8 ‘What is in the water?’ (Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, 12 June 2013)
9 ‘Health effects of water fluoridation: A review of the scientific evidence’ (A report on behalf of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, August 2014)
10 <https://www.toiteora.govt.nz/fluoridationanswers> (page updated 6 March 2018)
11 ‘Fluoridation Facts’ (American Dental Association, 2018), page 1
12 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 19
13Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd, CIV-2011-485-1110