BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Curran and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1996-046

Members
  • J M Potter (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • A Martin
Dated
Complainant
  • P G Curran
Number
1996-046
Programme
One Network News
Channel/Station
TV One


Summary

President Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland was covered on One Network News

broadcast between 6.00–7.00pm on 30 November and 1 December 1995.

Contrasting TVNZ's coverage with that from the BBC, Mr Curran complained to

Television New Zealand Ltd that TVNZ's coverage was biased and unbalanced in that it

suggested that the death and destruction in Ulster over the past 25 years was solely the

work of Catholic republican terrorists.

Explaining that the BBC dealt with Northern Ireland as domestic news in contrast with

TVNZ's coverage of a foreign story, TVNZ denied that the item was inaccurate, lacking

in objectivity or partial. Dissatisfied with TVNZ's decision, Mr Curran referred it 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 the items complained about and have read

the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). As is its practice, the Authority

determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

President Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland was dealt with on One Network News on

29, 30 November and 1 December 1995. Referring to the items on 30 November and 1

December, Mr Curran complained to TVNZ that the items were unbalanced in that they

suggested that the republican Catholics were the only terrorists in Ulster. He cited

examples from the coverage which justified viewers reaching that conclusion.

Mr Curran then pointed out that Protestant Loyalists had been responsible for about

30% of all sectarian murders and, indeed, in recent years the UFF and UVF (loyalist

groups) were responsible for more murders than the IRA.

Mr Curran contrasted TVNZ's coverage of the visit with that by the BBC which had

reported the President's careful balancing act while visiting the deeply divided province

of Ulster. In a second letter of complaint, Mr Curran complained that the coverage also

gave the impression that the Irish government supported the IRA.

TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G14 and G19 of the Television Code of

Broadcasting Practice. They read:

G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.


G19 Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the

extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or

the overall views expressed.


TVNZ emphasised that, for New Zealanders, Northern Ireland was a foreign story

while the BBC was dealing with a domestic situation "in which a great deal of detailed

information is appropriate and necessary". It continued:

This is not to say that TVNZ does not have an obligation to be accurate and

impartial. It does. Selecting relevant information, and leaving out other material,

does not mean that a news organisation is being either biased or inaccurate.


In dealing with the specific examples which Mr Curran alleged revealed bias, TVNZ

said that it was unable to find the statement in the bulletins on which the complaint that

the Irish government supported the IRA was based. Nevertheless, it pointed out that it

had been reported – accurately – that the Irish government had refused to support the

British government's stand on the disposal of the IRA weapon stockpile.

TVNZ then considered each of the other specific examples raised by Mr Curran and

concluded that the items on 30 November and 1 December was not inaccurate, partial or

lacking in objectivity. As for the complaint that the item had been edited to distort the

events shown, TVNZ concluded:

... in the context of a "headline" description of President Clinton's visit to

Northern Ireland, prepared for a foreign (New Zealand) audience the information

broadcast was a true and undistorted reflection of the events that occurred.


When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Curran requested that he be

allowed to present in person to the Authority the coverage of the President's visit as

reported by both the BBC and TVNZ. In its response to the request, TVNZ wrote:

While we recognise Mr Curran's intense interest in this subject, we believe that

his offer to show the Authority coverage from overseas sources is an unnecessary

diversion. As we have explained in our letter to Mr Curran there is an important

difference in perspective between a broadcaster reporting on a domestic situation

(as would be the case with the BBC in reference to Northern Ireland) and one

describing a remote event overseas (as is the case with TVNZ).


It suggested that the Authority should focus solely on the material broadcast by TVNZ

and that it should not depart from its normal practice of determining a complaint "on the

papers".

In his lengthy reply, Mr Curran acknowledged that he had intended to include One

Network News' coverage of 29 November as part of his complaint. That broadcast, he

recalled, contained the comment which implied – inaccurately – that the Irish government

supported the IRA. He again contrasted TVNZ's coverage of the visit with that by

other media and referred specifically to a Reuter's report published by The Levin

Chronicle. He supplied material to confirm the Loyalists'n responsibility for the

majority of sectarian deaths in recent years. He focussed on the aspect of the news

coverage in which two children spoke at a function attended by the President seeking

peace and, he maintained, it was implicit that the young girl who spoke movingly

(Catherine Hamill) was Protestant.

Mr Curran acknowledged and agreed with TVNZ when it maintained that it dealt with

Northern Ireland as foreign news. Nevertheless, he argued that the exclusion of any

material of President Clinton's visit to (Catholic) Londonderry supported his case that

TVNZ's coverage had not been balanced. By telephone, Mr Curran requested that the

Authority defer consideration of his complaint until it received a forthcoming complaint

about the news coverage of an IRA bomb blast in London which, again he alleged,

disclosed TVNZ's bias in its coverage of terrorism in Northern Ireland.

The Authority acknowledges Mr Curran's close interest in events in Ireland and notes

that TVNZ's coverage has been the subject of two complaints (Nos: 47/91 and 94/93[sic])

referred by him to the Authority in the past. In each instance, he has alleged that TVNZ

has implied that the IRA has been responsible for the bulk of the violence in Northern

Ireland. While the Authority has expressed some sympathy for Mr Curran on each

occasion, it has declined to uphold either complaint and has concluded that TVNZ has

fully explained the process by which it obtained and reported events in Northern

Ireland.

On this occasion, while again acknowledging Mr Curran's deep concern for events

throughout Ireland, the Authority confines its examination to TVNZ's coverage of

President Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland. Moreover, in view of the careful and

thorough manner in which Mr Curran has expressed his concerns, the Authority

considers that it is unnecessary to hold a hearing and will confine its deliberations to the

papers it has received. These papers include the two earlier decisions referred to above.

Should it receive further complaints, they will be considered at the time in the

circumstances which then apply, with reference of course to the previous decisions.

Nevertheless, to ensure that its assessment of the current complaint is not limited by

technical considerations, the Authority accepts that Mr Curran intended to refer to

TVNZ's coverage on the 29 November in addition to that on 30 November and 1

December. As it has seen a tape of the item on One Network News on 29 November

(supplied by TVNZ) involving the meeting between the leaders of the British and Irish

governments to which an aspect of the complaint referred, it has included that material

in its assessment.

TVNZ's news coverage of events in Northern Ireland, as Mr Curran accepts, is dealt

with as "foreign" news. Therefore, it does not include the same detail with which

"domestic" items are covered. Nevertheless, as TVNZ acknowledges, it is bound to

accept that the standards continue to apply.

The Authority has examined the coverage of President Clinton's visit to Northern

Ireland on that basis. Rather than record its findings on each of the examples which Mr

Curran maintained revealed bias, the Authority focusses on the two children who, in

front of President and Mrs Clinton, each made a very moving plea for peace. They

were chosen because of the impact which the sectarian violence had had on them. It

was clearly apparent that they were presented as representatives of both the Protestant

and Catholic communities. That coverage was an example of how the coverage in total

did not breach the standards.

Accordingly, the Authority concludes, the broadcast did not breach the standards

nominated by Mr Curran.

 

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judith Potter
Chairperson
22 April 1996


Appendix

P G Curran's Complaints to Television New Zealand Ltd - 10 and 19

December 1996

Patrick Curran of Levin complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about the coverage

on One Network News, between 6.00 - 7.00pm on 30 November and 1 December

1995, of President Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland.

Mr Curran pointed out that political and sectarian murders in Northern Ireland were

committed by both Protestant and Catholic terrorists and the President's condemnation

of all extremists was reported on the BBC World News on December 1. However,

TVNZ's report was one-sided sectarian journalism and only dealt with the republican

Catholic terrorists. He gave some instances from the broadcasts which he said

illustrated that bias.

Giving examples from President Clinton's visit which explained his concern for

balancing activities in "the deeply divided province of Ulster", Mr Curran questioned

whether TVNZ's omission of some of these events amounted to sectarian censorship.

Mr Curran elaborated on his complaint in a second letter to TVNZ. In addition to

repeating his complaint about TVNZ's coverage of President Clinton's visit, he alleged

that TVNZ's reports overall could give the impression that the Irish government

supported the IRA.

TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint - 25 January 1996

TVNZ advised Mr Curran that it had assessed his allegations about the biased and

unbalanced news coverage of President Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland under

standards G14 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

TVNZ began by pointing out that there was a fundamental difference between the BBC

and its coverage of events in Northern Ireland. For TVNZ viewers, Northern Ireland

was a foreign story while it was a domestic issue for the BBC. It noted:

This is not to say that TVNZ does not have an obligation to be accurate and

impartial. It does. Selecting relevant information, and leaving out other material,

does not mean that a news organisation is being either biased or inaccurate.

Dealing first with the complaint that it gave the impression that the Irish Government

supported the IRA, TVNZ reported that it was unable to locate the news comment cited

by Mr Curran in support of this aspect of the complaint. It added:

It is a fact that the Irish Government has refused to support the British

Government's stand on weapons. It is widely acknowledged in the United

Kingdom that the main reason the peace process was stalled was because of the

IRA's refusal to do anything about their weapons stockpile.

That was the issue to which the line of script referred and it is strictly accurate.

TVNZ believes there is no ground for accepting your impression of what the

statement implies.

TVNZ disagreed that the item showed bias in only mentioning the IRA stockpile and not

that of the loyalists. It commented that the BBC focused on the IRA stockpile and

remarked:

With respect, the IRA stockpile is seen as by far the largest and most lethal and

there is no doubt in our minds that the primary role of the commission will be to

grapple with the IRA stockpile and how it might be decommissioned.

Noting that it could not trace the reference to Mr Major cited by Mr Curran in either

bulletin, TVNZ said that the Annual Report of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, referred

to by Mr Curran, might be relevant to a British audience but was unnecessarily detailed

for TVNZ's foreign news service.

Mr Curran also quoted the reference in TVNZ's script to the murder of nine persons in

Protestant Shankill Road and, TVNZ replied:

In response we note that the script was here talking about President Clinton's visit

and referred specifically to the proximity of his itinerary to the killings two years

ago. Had the president visited the location where the revenge attack took place

that most assuredly would have been mentioned. Mr Clinton did not visit that

site. The Shankill Road chip shop killings contrasted with the peace mission of

the president; it is inconceivable that he should have visited such a site as recently

as nine months ago. The issue was that the president visited the site of a mass

killing - not who the killing was carried out by.

TVNZ also denied that the item implied that, by not identifying Catherine Hamill as

Catholic, she was a Protestant victim of IRA violence. It also rejected any "sinister

reason" for not covering the Londonderry leg of Mr Clinton's visit, writing:

Again we come back to the difference between a bulletin for domestic

consumption and one aimed at a remote audience in a faraway land. A conscious

decision was made to devote the time available to the Belfast part of the visit

because it was there that President Clinton's peace message was delivered, and

there that the lighting of a Christmas tree provided compelling pictures. Had these

events occurred in Londonderry rather than Belfast, doubtless TVNZ would have

opted to concentrate on that part of the visit.

Overall, TVNZ denied any breach of standard G14 and said that as the item was an

undistorted reflection of the events which had occurred, standard G19 had not been

contravened.

Further Correspondence

In a letter dated 29 January 1996, Mr Curran wrote to TVNZ and maintained that the

examples cited in his complaint were taken from TVNZ's coverage of President

Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland. However, he admitted that he might have the dates

of the coverage wrong and asked TVNZ for the dates on which TVNZ report of the visit

had been broadcast.

Mr Curran's Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - 20

February 1996

Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response to his complaint, Mr Curran referred it to the

Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Mr Curran maintained that TVNZ's coverage of President Clinton's visit to Northern

Ireland, "in striking contrast to the BBC's", suggested that the death and destruction in

Ulster over the past 25 years was solely the work of Catholic republican terrorists".

Referring to the examples cited in his letters of complaint to TVNZ, Mr Curran

requested the opportunity to present in person the BBC's and TVNZ's coverage of that

visit.

TVNZ's Response to the Authority - 6 March 1996

TVNZ advised the Authority that the quote cited by Mr Curran did not come from the

broadcasts complained about. They came from One Network News on 29 November.

TVNZ maintained that there was no reason why the Authority should not deal with the

complaint, as was its practice, on the papers, observing:

While we recognise Mr Curran's intense interest in this subject, we believe that

his offer to show the Authority coverage from overseas sources is an unnecessary

diversion. As we have explained in our letter to Mr Curran there is an important

difference in perspective between a broadcaster reporting on a domestic situation

(as would be the case with the BBC in reference to Northern Ireland) and one

describing a remote event overseas (as is the case with TVNZ).

With respect we suggest that the determination of this complaint must be solely on

the basis of what TVNZ broadcast.

Mr Curran's Final Comment - 21 March 1996

Apologising for the length of his formal complaint, Mr Curran said that he was

becoming forgetful in his older years and had incorrectly referred to the news item on

30 November when he had meant 29 November. He asked the Authority to examine

the items on 29 and 30 November, rather than 30 November and 1 December. He also

asked the Authority to compare TVNZ's coverage with that of the BBC and Reuters.

He made tapes of the BBC coverage available to the Authority and attached reports from

Reuters as reported in the Levin Chronicle.

The coverage in the other media, Mr Curran argued, explained that the violence arose

from the conflict between the Catholic IRA and the Protestant Loyalists. TVNZ, on the

other hand, mentioned only one side - the Catholic/republican/Sinn Fein - not the

outlawed Loyalist paramilitaries of the UFF and UVF.

Mr Curran wrote:

The point is, however much TVNZ may try to deny it, its man in Ulster covering

the period in question, acted as though the Catholic IRA had a monopoly of

terrorist murders in that tragic province.

Although TVNZ claimed it was unable to trace his reference about Mr Major's

comments, Mr Curran pointed out:

It was in the item broadcast by ONE on 29 November, immediately after the

misleading claim about the setting up of the Commission to look into the

decommissioning issue. TVNZ broadcast that quotation from Prime Minister

Major totally out of context implying that only the IRA were involved. Mr Major

used the term "PARAMILITARIES" clearly meaning evil men on both sides. I

enclose a copy of RUC (Police) statistics on this point from the police annual

report for 1994. As can be seen the Loyalists were responsible for most terrorist

violence in 1994.

Moreover, he did not accept, TVNZ's denial of his complaint that the item had implied

Catherine Hamill was a Protestant. The item on 1 December, he added, suggested that

Catholic support for peace was minimal. That was the result of not showing the huge

demonstration for peace while President Clinton was visiting the predominantly

Catholic Londonderry. Mr Curran observed:

Which brings me to TVNZ's statement that the Irish issue is foreign news and it

cannot be expected to give it much coverage as compared with its own domestic

news. I fully endorse that common sense attitude but question its application.

For it seems to me that whilst TVNZ could not find a minute or two to show

President Clinton in Londonderry it can find extensive time to broadcast news of

IRA murder and violence as though it was a domestic issue.

Further Correspondence

TVNZ responded to Mr Curran (on 26 March 1996). While wondering about which

aspects of the items Mr Curran was in fact complaining about, it said that it had

considered the item on 29 November. It did not object to the Authority viewing the

BBC coverage but repeated the distinction between a domestic and a foreign story.