BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Sanders and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1996-020

Members
  • J M Potter (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • A Martin
Dated
Complainant
  • Laurie Sanders
Number
1996-020
Programme
One Network News
Channel/Station
TV One
Standards Breached


Summary

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.


Decision

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

school".

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

 

Judith Potter
Chairperson
29 February 1996


Appendix

Laurie Sanders' Complaint to Television New Zealand Limited - 6

November 1995

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

continued:

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

and wrote:

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

broadcast.

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

December 1995

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

stated:

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

College.

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

Witch".

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

College.

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

Christian views.

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.

He continued:

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

will rest.