Sanders and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1996-020
- J M Potter (Chair)
- R McLeod
- L M Loates
- A Martin
- Laurie Sanders
ProgrammeOne Network News
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Tauranga's Bethlehem College was featured in an item on One Network News broadcast
on TV One between 6.00–7.00pm on 24 October 1995. Reporting that the school had
banned "Bad Jelly the Witch", the item included interviews with Bethlehem's principal,
Mr Graham Preston, and Labour MP Mr Trevor Mallard.
Mr Sanders of Tauranga complained that the item was unfair to the College and
inaccurate when it reported Mr Mallard's statement that the College banned every mention
of a witch. Mr Sanders referred to the College's use of C S Lewis' "The Lion, The
Witch and The Wardrobe".
Explaining that the item advanced the earlier stories in the print media by opening up the
debate about just what school children should read, TVNZ said the College principal was
given every opportunity to explain its policy. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ's decision, Mr Sanders referred the complaint to the
Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, the Authority upholds the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed the item complained about and have read the
correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). As is its practice, the Authority
determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
Mr Sanders complained to TVNZ about an item on One Network News which reported
that Tauranga's Bethlehem College had banned "Bad Jelly the Witch". During the item,
the College principal, Mr Graham Preston, spoke about the qualities sought in the books
used and Mr Trevor Mallard MP stated that "Every mention of a witch is banned by the
Pointing out that the College used "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe", Mr
Sanders maintained that the broadcast breached standards G1, G6, G14, G15 and G21
of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The first two require broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters,
current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
The others read:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
G15 The standards of integrity and reliability of information sources in news,
current affairs and documentaries should be monitored regularly.
G21 Significant errors of fact should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.
Assessing the complaint under the nominated standards, TVNZ argued that Mr Mallard's
remark was fair comment in view of the publicity the issue had gained in the print media.
As the principal had been given an opportunity to comment on the issues, TVNZ argued
that the item was impartial and fair and not in contravention of the standards.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Sanders insisted that the item was
neither fair nor accurate. In response, TVNZ argued that a political spokesperson was an
appropriate person to interview and said that Mr Sanders was confusing the message
with the messenger.
In his final comment, Mr Sanders reviewed some of the media coverage of Bethlehem
College and described part of it as sensational and unfair. He insisted that TVNZ
appeared to have relied on that material and, consequently, had broadcast an inaccurate
and unfair item. He believed that a broadcast apology was appropriate.
The Authority must first decide on the applicability of all the nominated standards. There
is a good deal of overlap between them – apart perhaps from standard G21 which only
comes into play after a ruling that the broadcast contains a factual error. It could be
argued that standard G15 is distinct from the others cited. However, the Authority
accepts TVNZ's argument that a current spokesperson for a major political party can be
considered reliable, at least until shown otherwise, and is an appropriate news source.
In view of the overlap between the standards, the Authority believes that standard G14 is
the appropriate one under which to assess the entire complaint.
As TVNZ argued, much of the item considers the question of what books children
should read. The issue arose from the reported banning of "Bad Jelly the Witch" and the
principal explained the qualities sought in the books used by the school. Mr Mallard MP
took the debate one step further. He said that "every mention of a witch is banned" at the
school. It was a straightforward statement which was impliedly critical of Bethlehem
College. Because of the inherent criticism, the Authority believes that the College
principal should have been given the opportunity to respond to the specific observation.
The Authority acknowledges that statements made by politicians may include comments
which advance a political agenda. Nevertheless, regardless of the degree of scepticism a
viewer might have when listening to a politician, Mr Mallard's comment on this occasion
was included in the interview as a matter of fact rather than opinion.
The Authority accepts that Bethlehem College uses C S Lewis' book "The Lion, The
Witch and The Wardrobe" Nevertheless, whether the statement was accurate or
inaccurate, the Authority concludes that, TVNZ having reported the contentious
statement, was required to broadcast – or seek – a response which dealt with the specific
statement. As it did not do so, the Authority upholds the complaint that the requirements
in standards G14 were not fulfilled.
For the reasons above, the Authority upholds the complaint that the
broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item about Bethlehem
College on 24 October 1995 breaches standard G14 of the Television
Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may approve an order under s.13(1) of the
Broadcasting Act 1989. In view of the relatively minor nature of the contravention, it
does not intend to do so on this occasion.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
29 February 1996
Laurie Sanders' Complaint to Television New Zealand Limited - 6
Following correspondence with the Member of Parliament interviewed in an item about
Tauranga's Bethlehem College, and discussions with the College's Principal, Mr
Sanders of Tauranga complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about an item broadcast
on TV One's One Network News between 6.00 - 7.00pm on 24 October 1995. He
alleged that the item breached standards G1, G6, G14, G15 and G21 of the Television
Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Mr Sanders stated that when Mr Trevor Mallard MP was interviewed about Bethlehem
College, he had said that "Every mention of a witch is banned by the school". That
statement, Mr Sanders continued, was untrue and unfair and he cited C S Lewis' book,
"The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe", taught in standard 2.
Pointing out that Mr Mallard had based his remark on an inaccurate article in the Bay of
Plenty Times, Mr Sanders suggested that Mr Mallard was simply trying to use Bethlehem
College as a scapegoat in his opposition to state funding of private schools. He
Mr Mallard had made no attempt to contact the school prior to his surprise
assertions, and so far has not visited the school to assess it for himself. An
invitation to visit the school was made by the Principal, Mr Graham Preston. I
understand that he contacted Mr Preston after a radio interview and apologised
personally, but it would be more appropriate for an apology to come direct from
him, over TVNZ and for TVNZ to also issue a formal apology to Bethlehem
College over the TV Network.
TVNZ did not, it seems, appreciate the sensationalist promotion of unnecessary
statements such as Trevor Mallard made, and I would question whether or not
the facts were properly verified. Most of the assertions made (in the Newspaper
article) were of trivial matters which if they actually occurred, happened 7 years
ago when the school was establishing itself and was obliged to accept cast-off
resources from the State system some of which it felt were only partly adequate
for teaching purposes.
Mr Mallard's distressing comments, he concluded, should have been seen for what they
were - a vote seeking promotion.
TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint - 7 December 1995
Assessing the complaint under the nominated standards, TVNZ pointed out that the
school's policies had been subject to reports in the newspaper - before the broadcast
complained about - in which the principal was reported as having banned literature and
songs about witches. Although it appeared that Mr Sanders was suggesting in his formal
complaint that the principal did not make that statement, TVNZ argued that Mr Mallard's
remarks amounted to fair comment which merited reporting. TVNZ denied that they
were either unfair or unbalanced.
In declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ assessed the complaint under each standard
G1 The fact that C S Lewis' work may not be banned at the school does not
mean in our opinion that the statement by Mr Mallard should not have been
G3 As standard G3 points out, individuals are entitled to express their own
opinions and this is how the matter was reported in the item.
G6 There is no evidence in our opinion that the item was not balanced,
impartial and fair to both the school and Mr Mallard.
G14 There is no evidence in the view of TVNZ that this standard was breached.
G15 The Principal of the school which was the subject of the item was
interviewed and given ample opportunity to present his view and accordingly we
cannot see how there could be any breach of this standard.
G21 There was in our view, no significant error of fact in the item.
Mr Sanders' Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - 17
Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, Mr Sanders referred the complaint to the
Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
Expressing the opinion that TVNZ was unfair, he also considered that the item was not
totally accurate. As TVNZ said that it based the item on the article in the Bay of Plenty
Times, Mr Sanders considered that TVNZ had a responsibility to check the facts. As for
Mr Mallard's comment about the school's ban about books on witches, Mr Sanders
On Page Two of the reply dated 7/12/95 from TVNZ they state that in the
Reference G1 "The fact that C S Lewis's work may not be banned at the school
does not mean in our opinion that the statement by Mr Mallard should not have
been broadcast". My argument here is that it proves Mr Mallard's statement that
"Every mention of a witch is banned at Bethlehem College" is untrue and would
not have been made if the facts had been verified. This is a significant error of
fact. C S Lewis' work "The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe" is a classic
story about the triumph of good over evil (witchcraft) and is taught at Bethlehem
If individuals such as Mr Mallard are entitled to present their views in such an
irresponsible way then there is nothing to stop the school from being mercilessly
denigrated, defamed, etc purely on the whim of one person who has his or her
own agenda to push. In this regard you may consider TVNZ acted irresponsibly.
TVNZ's Response to the Authority - 19 January 1996
In its report to the Authority, TVNZ said that it did not understand Mr Sanders' reference
to the Bay of Plenty Times. It had had its attention drawn to stories in the Sunday News
and The Dominion which it attached along with a transcript of the item.
In addition, it wrote:
... we believe that Mr Sanders' argument is really with Labour's Associate
Education spokesman, Mr Trevor Mallard rather than with TVNZ. It is Mr
Mallard who stated on the programme, as he did in the newspapers, that
Bethlehem College had adopted a "bizarre policy against witches". We suggest
that news media outlets are entitled to accept the word of politicians with special
areas of responsibility and to report comments they might make on subjects that
come within their "portfolios".
This is a case, we believe, of confusing the message with the messenger.
Maintaining that the item which was broadcast carried the debate further than the print
media reports, TVNZ said it dealt with the issue of what children should read. The
school's principal, TVNZ added, was given a fair opportunity to address the issue.
Finally, TVNZ insisted that Mr Sanders' reference to C S Lewis' book was a red herring
as the story arose from the school's attitude to Spike Milligan's popular "Bad Jelly the
Mr Sanders' Final Comment - 30 January 1996
Mr Sanders outlined the sequence of events leading up to the broadcast complained about
- a sequence which he said was confirmed by Mr Preston, principal of Bethlehem
1. A Bay of Plenty Times sensational article about Bethlehem College on 24.10.95
which, he said, promoted the views of a few parents who were at odds with the school's
2. On the basis of that article, Mr Mallard MP had described the school as bizarre and
fundamentalist which should not receive state funding. Mr Sanders said his
correspondence with Mr Mallard revealed that his comments were of a party political
nature. Both TVNZ and Mr Mallard, Mr Sanders continued, appeared to have
overlooked the human rights legislation.
3. The Sunday News sought Mr Preston's response to Mr Mallard's comments. Mr
Preston was asked whether the book "Bad Jelly the Witch" was in the school library and
replied that a book with that name would not be. The Sunday News article claimed that
the school put a "hex" on witches. TVNZ, Mr Sanders added, had accepted that mis-
represented information. He wrote (emphasis in the original):
To my knowledge Graham Preston did NOT order pages to be ripped
out of books. The aspect of that "incident" was the receiving of inadequate
teaching resource material 8 years ago from a source that did not share the
school's spiritual views and I understand one or two pages of ONE JOURNAL
which referred to witches were glued together. Now that was 8 years ago
when the school could not afford to be selective about what
resources it received. The reference is historically obsolete,
therefore and was an attempt by the Sunday News to sensationalise
something that no longer occurs.
Mr Sanders then analysed the item's script and commented:
And as far as I know "Bad Jelly the Witch" has never actually been banned --- it
has simply never been selected.
If TVNZ simply used the Sunday News article (which I consider
defamatory) and did not check with Graham Preston carefully
enough, or trustingly believed Trevor Mallard when he "slated" the
school, then the TVNZ CEO needs to order a shake-up and request
the News Desk only obtain facts before exposing schools like
Bethlehem College to unfair and untrue commentary on a powerful
medium such as television. Are financial losses caused by this kind
of activity claimable back on to TVNZ?
The buck, in this case, rests with TVNZ for failure to corroborate
the truth and present it accurately.
As such I simply hope for and expect a gracious public apology to
be made by TVNZ during its News Broadcasts and there the matter