Curran and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1998-099, 1998-100, 1998-101, 1998-102
- S R Maling (Chair)
- J Withers
- L M Loates
- R McLeod
- Patrick Curran
ProgrammeOne Network News
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
The historic peace agreement in Ireland was the subject of news items on One Network News on 10 and 11 April 1998 between 6.00–6.30pm.
Mr Curran complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that its coverage was selective and biased and failed to acknowledge the role at the peace talks of both Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and John Hume, the leader of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party. He argued that other media, including the BBC and local newspapers, gave a fair and accurate coverage of the peace accord. Mr Curran requested that his complaint be dealt with by way of a formal hearing.
News reports on One Network News on 20 and 23 May 1998 referred to the forthcoming referendum on the peace agreement. In the first item the leader of the main Catholic party, John Hume, was referred to as a "Republican leader", and in the second item it was stated that a third of the votes in Northern Ireland belonged to Republicans.
Mr Curran complained that the use of the description "Republican" to describe Irish nationalists was false and misleading and a breach of broadcasting standards. He complained that the 23 May item was incorrect in stating that, in the recent General Election, two thirds of the votes in Northern Ireland had gone to the Unionists and one third to the Republicans.
TVNZ denied any bias in its coverage of the peace talks, emphasising that its role was to report events as they occurred, and to outline the deal which was reached. It rejected the comparison made to the coverage of the talks by the BBC, pointing out that the BBC’s audience was a domestic one and furthermore, that in the United Kingdom it was a domestic issue. TVNZ concluded that there was nothing in the broadcasts to suggest they were other than accurate, objective and impartial.
With respect to the second complaint, while TVNZ accepted that Mr Hume could accurately be described as "Nationalist", it did not consider it was inaccurate to describe him as Republican. It did not agree that the republican description implied a link between Mr Hume and terrorism. As for the polling figures, TVNZ said it stood by its reporter, who had checked the figures before the broadcast.
It declined to uphold the complaints.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decisions, Mr Curran referred the complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold an aspect of one complaint. The Authority declines to uphold any other aspect.
The members of the Authority have viewed the items complained about and have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendices). On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.
The Authority first deals with Mr Curran’s request for a formal hearing. Having considered the matter, it has concluded that holding a formal hearing will not assist it in making a decision on these complaints. In its view, there is sufficient material before it to proceed in its usual manner and determine the complaints on the basis of the written submissions.
Mr Curran alleged that TVNZ’s coverage of the news of Ireland was inaccurate, selective and biased, and in breach of standards G14 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards read:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
G19 Care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed.
The 10 April item on the peace agreement
The Northern Ireland peace agreement was the subject of news items broadcast by TVNZ on One Network News on 10 April between 6.00–6.30pm.
Mr Curran complained to TVNZ that in its extensive coverage of the historic peace deal it did not once mention Prime Minister Bertie Ahern who had played a major role in the talks. He noted that the BBC, RNZ and print media all gave excellent coverage to Mr Ahern’s role at the talks. He also complained that Catholic leader John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the principal Catholic leader at the talks, was also not mentioned on TVNZ. In contrast, Mr Curran asserted, TVNZ erroneously presented Gerry Adams of the IRA as the leader and spokesman for all Catholics in Northern Ireland.
At the outset, TVNZ denied any bias in its approach to the Northern Ireland question, and rejected absolutely Mr Curran’s suggestion that it engaged in censorship. It suggested that Mr Curran had perhaps misunderstood the purpose of each item. It reported that it had not set out to assess who had played positive roles in the peace settlement, but that its goal was to report the events as they occurred, and to outline the detail of the deal which was reached. It also emphasised that its role was quite different from that of the BBC, noting that the BBC’s coverage was concerned with a domestic issue, and was produced for a domestic audience. In contrast, TVNZ’s position was more detached, it argued, and its focus was on what happened, rather than how it happened.
Furthermore, TVNZ continued, its position was quite different from that of a newspaper, which had the ability to devote a great deal of space to background issues. Radio too was different, TVNZ argued, as with more frequent news bulletins, it was able to approach a story from different angles during the day.
Responding to the complaint about its coverage of the leaders at the peace talks, TVNZ pointed to the fact that it had a reporter on the spot, so as to get a uniquely New Zealand perspective on the outcome of the agreement. It maintained that it was satisfied that the pictures and commentary truly reflected what went on, and did not distort the content or the reality of the peace deal achieved. As for the role of Gerry Adams in the talks, TVNZ repeated that it had a reporter on the scene, and that in its view Mr Adams’ role was crucial in the discussions.
The Authority acknowledges that the coverage may not have been as complete as Mr Curran would like, but accepts TVNZ’s argument when it says that its reportage is generated for a New Zealand domestic audience. It also accepts that within the time constraints of an evening news programme, some details may be sacrificed for the sake of brevity. In assessing this item against the standards, the Authority concludes that no breach occurred. With respect to standard G14, it decides that the report, although an abbreviated version of the events, was an accurate summary. Further, it acknowledges TVNZ’s point when it says that to a New Zealand audience the role played by the parties to the accord was of less significance than the fact that the agreement had been reached. Turning to standard G19, the Authority finds no evidence that the editing of the item infringed the standard. The essence of the item was to inform a New Zealand audience of the momentous accord which had been reached in Northern Ireland. Omission of some of the people involved in reaching that accord did not, in the Authority’s view, constitute a breach of standards.
11 April item on peace deal
Mr Curran complained that when New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon’s remarks were reported, TVNZ omitted to include his praise of the role of the Irish government, and only reported him praising Tony Blair. In addition, he complained that Senator Mitchell’s remarks concerning atrocities committed by both sides were edited to make it appear that he was only critical of republican terrorists.
TVNZ did not respond to these matters specifically.
Mr Curran has provided the Authority with the full text of the remarks made by both Mr McKinnon and Senator Mitchell. In the Authority’s view, it was a matter of editorial discretion as to which extracts of those texts were included in the bulletins. It does not find the edited text created any distortion so as to breach standard G19.
11 April item concerning release of Political prisoners
On-screen graphics itemised some of the main points of the agreement. The background to the graphics showed an armed and hooded man. Mr Curran complained that the hooded man was dressed in typical IRA gear, and that a necessary inference was that the terrorists who had been imprisoned were IRA sympathisers, and ignored the fact that there were terrorists on both sides, and that about one third of these were Loyalists.
TVNZ initially denied that such a graphic was included. It later accepted that it had been, but said that it was not specifically linked to the IRA. The graphic was, TVNZ argued, simply a universal symbol which had been used to denote terrorism wherever it occurred.
The Authority considers that a New Zealand audience would not have interpreted the graphic as denoting any particular type of terrorist; it notes that no distinguishing features were discernible, and accepts that the graphic was used as a symbol. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
10 and 11 April items overall
Overall, Mr Curran argued that the omissions and innuendoes he had enumerated demonstrated that TVNZ’s coverage of the peace accord was misleading and inaccurate. He considered its reporting of the Good Friday accord showed a clear pattern of misleading conduct and a clear violation of standards G14 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Further, he argued, its coverage of the event violated the trust that viewers in New Zealand placed in TVNZ to bring them fair and reasonable coverage of domestic and foreign news.
TVNZ maintained that the integrity of its decision-making was enhanced by the fact that it had a reporter on the spot. It reminded the Authority that its role was not to report on Irish news per se, but to report it for a New Zealand audience. It also emphasised that it did not set out to assess who had or had not played a decisive role in the Northern Ireland settlement, but to report the events as they occurred and to outline the detail of the deal which was reached. It said it was satisfied that the pictures and the commentary accurately reflected the content and reality of the peace accord. It therefore declined to uphold any aspect of the complaint.
The Authority finds no breaches in the particulars cited relating to these two items. Overall, it is not persuaded that the coverage on 10 and 11 April about the peace accord was inaccurate or misleading. It acknowledges that time constraints necessitate a degree of editorial judgment on the part of TVNZ when reporting complex issues such as the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. On this occasion, the Authority considers that TVNZ provided a fair and accurate, albeit truncated, version of the events which occurred. It declines to uphold the complaint that overall the items breached standards G14 and G19.
20 May item – U2 singer and David Trimble and John Hume
In an item broadcast on 20 May, prior to the referendum, the lead singer of U2 concluded a concert by inviting David Trimble, leader of the main Protestant Party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and John Hume, leader of the main Catholic Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), on stage in support of the "Yes" vote. TVNZ reported this by stating:
Irish politicians and rock stars have joined forces in the interests of lasting peace. Unionist and Republican leaders appeared on stage in Belfast with top groups U2 and Ash.
Mr Curran complained that not only was it totally incorrect to describe Mr Hume as a republican leader but it was also an insult to Mr Hume, who had always unequivocally rejected Republican violence.
TVNZ asserted that while Mr Hume could accurately be described as a "Nationalist", it did not consider it inaccurate to label him as Republican, particularly as Mr Hume’s ultimate aim was the absorption of the Northern Ireland counties into the Republic of Ireland. Furthermore, it argued, the term "Republican" was quite appropriate as it conveyed more information than the word "Nationalist" to a New Zealand audience. It did not agree that "Republican" conveyed violence. It maintained that it was simply a fundamental political objective and, in the Northern Ireland context, was the logical opposite to "Unionist".
A majority of the Authority accepts TVNZ’s reasoning above. It also notes that the point of the item was to convey to a New Zealand audience the fact that leaders from opposing sides were joined together in an historic – and unprecedented – accord. In that context it does not consider it was a breach to describe Mr Hume as a republican leader.
A minority disagrees. It considers that in the context of Northern Ireland politics, the terms "Nationalist" and "Republican" have specialised meanings which are not interchangeable. Mr Hume’s Nationalist movement espouses a different philosophy from the Republican movement as embodied in Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein. The minority therefore concludes it was inaccurate – and careless – to describe Mr Hume as a "Republican" leader
23 May item – voting patterns
TVNZ’s reporter, when asked how the "Yes" vote would be divided, responded by saying that in the last general election about two thirds of votes in Northern Ireland belonged to the Unionists, and about one third to the Republicans.
Mr Curran provided figures from the 1997 election which showed that the Protestant parties received 46.3% of votes, and the Alliance 8%. The Catholic parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, received 40.1% between them, and 5% of votes went to other parties. Mr Curran maintained that those figures showed that TVNZ’s report was totally false.
TVNZ responded that the figures provided by Mr Curran merely confirmed the rounded up figures which it had used. It suggested that the Unionist figures, when added to the Alliance and some of the "others" produced a rounded figure placing Unionist support at close to 60%. The SDLP and Sinn Fein had around 35-40%, TVNZ concluded. It emphasised that those were 1997 figures, and that its reporter had access to later figures given at the peace talks. It noted that Time had access to the same figures and reached a conclusion broadly the same as TVNZ.
Having examined the figures for itself, the Authority understands why Mr Curran feels aggrieved at TVNZ’s somewhat loose interpretation of the numbers. It is not persuaded that the presence of TVNZ’s reporter – and her ability to receive updated figures – was relevant, since the results of the 1997 election were already public information and could not be "updated". Although the Authority finds no breach of the standards here, it considers the reporter’s interpretation of the figures bordered on being unacceptably loose and close to testing the standard.
A majority of the Authority declines to uphold an aspect of the complaint relating to the use of the term "Republican" to describe John Hume.
The Authority declines to uphold all other aspects of the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
27 August 1998
Patrick Curran’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 23 April 1998
Mr Curran of Levin complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about its coverage of the Irish peace agreement in news broadcasts on One Network News on 10 and 11 April 1998 between 6.00–6.30pm.
He began his complaint by referring to previous complaints made about other items of Irish news.
Mr Curran then outlined some of the events which preceded the peace agreement, referring to press releases and other news sources, including the BBC, which covered the accord.
He complained that TVNZ’s coverage omitted to mention:
the role of John Hume, the Catholic leader, at the talks
the major part played by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern
[Mr Curran complained that TVNZ falsely presented Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein/IRA as the leader and spokesman for the talks for all the Catholics in Northern Ireland. He said that was a violation of standards G14 and G19.]
Foreign Affairs Minister Don McKinnon’s praise of the role of the Irish government in concluding the talks, and only showed him praising Mr Blair for his role
Senator Mitchell’s reference to the deaths of two young men, a Protestant and a Catholic who died together
[Mr Curran complained that TVNZ only chose to broadcast the Senator’s reference to republican terrorists. He noted that in TVNZ’s brief report of the murder, it had not screened any footage of it. He said that was a violation of standards G14 and G19.]
the terms of the programme to release prisoners convicted of terrorist offences, of which Loyalists were one third of the total.
[Mr Curran complained that TVNZ instead referred to only the Republican/Catholic prisoners with a background graphic of a hooded man in typical IRA gear.]
Mr Curran appended the full text of the statement made by Senator Mitchell at the peace talks, the media statement made by Foreign Minister Don McKinnon, thetext of the agreement relating to the release of prisoners, and various newspaper articles pertaining to the peace agreement which, Mr Curran noted, did not omit references to the role played by Irish Prime Minister Ahern and John Hume, leader of the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party.
In a letter dated 4 May, Mr Curran wrote to the Authority advising that he had lodged a formal complaint with TVNZ. With it he enclosed a copy of the statement made by Senator George Mitchell at the plenary session of the peace talks, and a copy of the statement made by New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Don McKinnon. He also included a copy of the agreement reached in the accord relating to prisoners.
TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 19 May 1998
TVNZ began by making two statements. First, it denied any bias in its approach to the Northern Ireland question. Second, it rejected Mr Curran’s accusation that it engaged in censorship.
TVNZ said that it believed Mr Curran misunderstood the purpose of each item. It said it did not set out to assess who had or had not played a positive role in the Northern Ireland settlement. It wrote:
It set out simply to report the events as they occurred and to outline, as much as was possible, the detail of the deal which was reached.
TVNZ said that it believed the items were successful at describing what went on during the two days, and in detailing the outcome. It emphasised that the roles of TVNZ and the BBC were quite different. It pointed out that the BBC was producing material about a domestic issue for a domestic audience, whereas TVNZ was in a more detached position and was reporting on developments in a world trouble spot, and its focus was on what happened rather than how it happened.
With respect to newspaper coverage of the events, TVNZ pointed out that it was in a different position because a newspaper was able to include background information. Radio was different because it had more regular news bulletins, and could therefore approach a story from different angles during the day. TVNZ continued:
We suggest it would not be out of place to give credit to One Network News for placing its own reporter at the peace talks so as to get a uniquely New Zealand perspective on what was happening, rather than relying on the work of other journalists who do not have New Zealand interests as their first priority.
TVNZ advised that it had not located the background graphic of the hooded man to which Mr Curran referred. It noted that the dove of peace was used as a background graphic throughout the coverage. Besides, it argued, a hooded figure did not necessarily refer to the IRA. It was a symbol used by it and other television outlets to denote terrorism.
TVNZ concluded that there was nothing in the broadcasts to suggest that they were other than accurate, objective and impartial. As far as standard G19 was concerned, it was satisfied that the pictures and commentary truly reflected what went on and did not distort the content or the reality of the peace deal.
Mr Curran’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 8 June 1998
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Curran referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
He emphasised three points which he had raised in his original letter of complaint:
1. By omission and innuendo, Mr Curran complained that TVNZ had presented Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein/IRA as the leader of and spokesman for the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, simply by cutting out all references to John Hume (leader of the main Catholic party in Northern Ireland for the last 28 years).
Mr Curran also objected to TVNZ branding John Hume as a "republican leader".
He pointed to the newspaper coverage of pictures of a singer from the band U2 holding hands with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and "moderate Irish nationalist" Mr Hume. TVNZ’s report on that event stated:
Irish politicians and rock stars have joined forces in the interests of lasting peace. Unionists and Republican leaders have appeared on stage in Belfast with pop groups U2 and Ash.
Mr Curran suggested this was not an honest error on the part of TVNZ and pointed to another example of its use of the term republican when it meant nationalist.
2. Mr Curran appended a copy of the statement made by Senator George Mitchell. He noted that TVNZ chose to broadcast the section about IRA terrorists, but not to tell of his clear reference to the two friends murdered by Loyalist killers on 3 March.
In Mr Curran’s view, naming the two friends was most unusual, yet TVNZ withheld that news. It also withheld the praise Senator Mitchell placed on Prime Minister Ahern for the major role he played in the peace talks.
Mr Curran acknowledged TVNZ’s argument that newspapers had more space to devote to this detail in the news, but pointed out that it had chosen to include mention of Gerry Adams.
3. Mr Curran enclosed a copy of the Multi Party agreement, drawing particular attention to the section dealing with IRA and Loyalist prisoners. He pointed out that there was no mention of terrorists from either community, and noted that about one third of incarcerated prisoners were Loyalists. TVNZ had focused only on the IRA prisoners.
Next he advised, he was enclosing a videotape of the item which showed clearly the graphic of the hooded man in typical IRA gear which TVNZ had been unable to locate.
Mr Curran appended some newspaper articles from various sources, including The Irish Times, the Belfast Telegraph and The Irish Independent.
Mr Curran requested that the Authority convene a formal hearing to hear his complaint. He advised that he had another complaint before TVNZ at the time and suggested it would be expedient to deal with the two together.
In a letter dated 11 June 1998, Mr Curran advised that he was enclosing another copy of a tape of the relevant news items, and a page from The Irish Times. He wrote:
How can Television New Zealand possibly justify its altering of the facts about the current political situation in that troubled area of the world by falsely presenting, by omission and innuendo, Gerry Adams/Sinn Fein/IRA as the leader of all the Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Mr Curran repeated his request for a formal hearing.
In a letter dated 11 June, he provided a video copy of the items complained about. He noted that his copy included material on 12 April which he had not included as part of his complaint. Nevertheless, he maintained, it was typical of the coverage given by TVNZ to Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams. He also enclosed an article from The Irish Times predicting that David Trimble and John Hume would be the most likely Minister and Deputy Minister in the new Assembly in Northern Ireland. He repeated his objection to TVNZ representing Gerry Adams as the leader of the Catholics in Northern Ireland.
TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 22 June 1998
First, TVNZ responded to Mr Curran’s view that the role of Gerry Adams in the Northern Ireland talks was over-emphasised in its news reports. In its view, Mr Curran was relying on a perception of the talks which he had gained from other media outlets but which was not in accord with its interpretation. It noted that it had a reporter at the talks, and in its considered judgment, the role of Mr Adams was crucial in the discussions. It added:
There is a difference of opinion between Mr Curran and TVNZ. Such a difference cannot constitute a breach of standards.
Secondly, it referred to Mr Curran’s insistence that the term "nationalist" should be used instead of "republican". It advised that it saw no objection to the term being used for a viewing audience fully cognisant of the Northern Ireland situation, but that it did not consider it could assume the audience was so informed. Thus, it said, it had used the term "republican" because, while it implied all that "nationalist" did, it added the information that it was the ultimate object of adherents to the cause that Ireland should become a single republic. Because Mr Hume was an advocate for absorption of Northern Ireland into the Irish republic, it did not consider it incorrect to say he represented "republican" views.
Thirdly, TVNZ advised that it now recognised the graphic which Mr Curran had described as "a hooded man in typical IRA gear". It said it disagreed totally and that the graphic was a generic indicating terrorism. Further, it said, it did not favour one side or the other. In this case, the graphic emphasised the importance of the talks because of the long history of terrorism and bloodshed in Northern Ireland. It was not linked to the IRA, TVNZ contended.
In reference to Mr Curran’s request for a formal hearing, TVNZ responded that it saw no reason why the Authority should depart from its usual practice of considering the matter on the basis of the correspondence. It pointed out that on at least six occasions, the Authority had declined to uphold a complaint by Mr Curran. It suggested that persistence on the part of the complainant was no reason to depart from an established procedure, especially when previous decisions by the Authority had consistently rejected Mr Curran’s complaints.
Mr Curran’s reliance on numerous press clippings and reference to other news sources suggests to us that what we are discussing is not so much a standards issue, but a matter of editorial judgement. TVNZ is happy to pit its judgement against any source that Mr Curran has advanced. While Mr Curran is at liberty to trust other sources if he so wishes, the fact that TVNZ may not always "parrot" those other sources does not invalidate its editorial judgements. We submit that in the case of the 10th and 11th April stories we have a particularly strong claim to the integrity of TVNZ’s decision making because TVNZ had a reporter on the spot. We remind the Authority again that our role here is not simply to report Irish news per se, but to report Irish news for a New Zealand audience.
Mr Curran wrote to the Authority on 4 July concerning an item broadcast on One Network News on 2 July. The item concerned the appointment of Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP as deputy Minister to David Trimble in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. Mr Curran noted that TVNZ’s item failed to acknowledge that Mr Mallon was from the SDLP, yet Sinn Fein was mentioned twice. He asked the Authority to view the item.
In a letter dated 6 July, the Authority advised Mr Curran that it would not view the item unless it were the subject of a formal complaint.
In a second letter, dated 10 July, the Authority advised Mr Curran that having given due consideration to his request for a formal hearing, it had decided there was sufficient information before it to be able to determine the complaint on the basis of the written submissions.
Mr Curran wrote on 9 July clarifying that he had no wish to take his complaint about the 2 July item any further. On 13 July he responded to the Authority’s decision not to hold a formal hearing.
Patrick Curran’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 28 May 1998
Mr Curran of Levin complained to TVNZ Ltd about two news items broadcast on One Network News. The first was on 20 May 1998 and the second on 23 May 1998. Both items dealt with stories about the upcoming referendums in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic on the Northern Ireland peace accord.
The first story showed the lead singer of the Irish pop group U2 holding hands with John Hume, leader of the main Catholic party in Northern Ireland, The Social Democratic and Labour Party, and David Trimble, leader of the main Protestant Party, the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr Curran complained that TVNZ altered the thrust of the report by labelling John Hume a "republican". Accompanying pictures of the three men, the presenter said:
Irish politicians and rock stars have joined forces in the interests of lasting peace. Unionist and Republican leaders appeared on stage in Belfast with top groups U2 and Ash.
Mr Curran complained that not only was the labelling totally false, but it was also an insult to John Hume who has always unequivocally rejected republican violence. In his view, unionist David Trimble would also have been unhappy with the report, for he would not wish to appear on stage with a "republican leader".
Mr Curran said that the broadcast clearly violated standards G14 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
The second item which also dealt with the Northern Ireland referendum stated in part:
In the past about a third of the votes in Northern Ireland have belonged to the Republicans and about two thirds to the Unionists.
Mr Curran described the statement as totally false. He provided figures which showed that the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the main Catholic Party had secured 24% of all votes cast in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, the Republican party had received 14% of the total votes.
TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 23 June 1998
TVNZ advised that it considered the complaints under standards G14 and G19 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. It noted that Mr Curran objected to Mr John Hume being described as "republican" in one item, and in the other his objection focused on the percentages used to describe the previous distribution of votes in Northern Ireland.
TVNZ observed that the item on 20 May described the situation in Northern Ireland a few days before the referendum, and highlighted a free concert featuring the band U2, which was attended by Mr David Trimble (the Unionist leader) and Mr Hume, who shook hands on stage, and urged the audience to vote "yes" in the referendum.
While TVNZ agreed that Mr Hume could accurately be described as "Nationalist", it did not accept that it was inaccurate to describe him as Republican. It suggested that Mr Hume’s ultimate aim was the absorption of the Northern Ireland counties into the Republic of Ireland. Further, it suggested that to a New Zealand audience, the word "Republican" was quite appropriate as it conveyed more information than the word "Nationalist", especially when used in opposition to "Unionist".
We do not agree with you that the word "Republican" implies violence. It is simply a fundamental political objective and in the Northern Ireland context is the logical opposite to "Unionist".
TVNZ said it was satisfied that the broadcast was accurate and at no time implied a link between Mr Hume and terrorism. It declined to uphold a breach of either standards G14 or G19.
The second item, which was broadcast two hours before vote counting began in the referendum, featured TVNZ’s reporter describing the situation. The complaint, it noted, was that it was incorrect to state that in the past one third of votes in Northern Ireland had belonged to the Republicans, and about two thirds to Unionists. TVNZ said it stood by its reporter, who was on the spot and checked the figures before the broadcast. It noted that her figures tallied with a similar story in Time magazine which stated that about 60% of the voting population in Northern Ireland was protestant. TVNZ concluded that if 60% was protestant, it followed that "about" two thirds would have voted for the Unionists.
TVNZ did not believe that the item was inaccurate or a distortion of the original event, and found no breach of standards. It did not uphold the complaints.
Mr Curran’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 30 June 1998
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 by labelling John Hume as a "republican", TVNZ had altered his image. He also questioned TVNZ’s assertion that the term "republican" did not imply violence.
With respect to the voting patterns in Northern Ireland and TVNZ’s assurance that its reporter had checked the official UK statistics, Mr Curran advised that he had received a copy of those UK statistics from the Northern Ireland Information Service, which he enclosed. He referred to a letter from the Senior Information Officer, which he also enclosed. He noted that the Information Officer had made a distinction between the Catholic Nationalist and Republican political parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
Mr Curran pointed out that the figures showed that in every British General Election since 1983 the SDLP (Nationalists) had gained more of the Catholic vote (24%) in Northern Ireland than the Republican Sinn Fein (16%). He also noted that the Northern Ireland office had pointed out that a percentage within the Catholic community also voted for parties other than the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
Thus, Mr Curran concluded, there was proof that the statement made by TVNZ was, as he described, totally false.
He asked the Authority to review his complaint in conjunction with an earlier complaint. He requested the opportunity to present his complaint(s) in person.
TVNZ’s Response to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 23 July 1998
TVNZ repeated that in its view it was not inappropriate to describe Mr Hume as a republican. It enclosed a clipping from the Daily Telegraph of London in which a highlighted passaged referred to Mr Hume’s role in the republican movement.
It noted that the whole tenor of the article was that as a nationalist and supporter of a united Irish republic, Mr Hume had persuaded Gerry Adams into the dialogue which led to the Stormont agreement. It submitted that as the Daily Telegraph had arguably the longest running in-depth coverage of any newspaper on the Irish question, its use of the word "republican" showed that TVNZ was not out of line.
It also noted that in the material submitted by Mr Curran to the Authority from the Senior Information Officer for Northern Ireland, the word "nationalist" had been used interchangeably with "republican".
We submit that it is correct to describe the SDLP as republican because it supports a united republican Ireland. It is equally correct to describe Sinn Fein that way as it also claims that as its objective. Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein are both republican and nationalist. Mr Curran may choose to describe only Sinn Fein as "republican" – but that is not accurate.
On the subject of the figures provided by Mr Curran, TVNZ responded that those figures merely confirmed the "necessarily rounded" figures used by TVNZ. It noted that the UUP (Trimble) had 33%, the DUP (Paisley) 14% and the Alliance (whose members lean towards the Unionists) 8%. It added a few unionists from the 5% others and said that a rounded figure placed Unionist support at close to 60%. The SDLP had around 35-40%, it noted. TVNZ also emphasised that those were 1997 figures, and that its reporter who was on the spot at the peace talks had access to later figures given at the peace talks. It noted again that Time magazine had access to the same figures and had reached a conclusion broadly the same as TVNZ.
TVNZ enclosed a copy of the article referred to.
Mr Curran’s Final Comment – 3 August 1998
Mr Curran first commented on TVNZ’s submission that The Daily Telegraph had arguably the longest running in-depth coverage of any newspaper on the Irish question. He suggested that must have meant he had pored over a lot of newspapers from both Britain and New Zealand reading about the Northern Ireland issue. However, he continued:
Yet the only clipping from all that material [TVNZ] could produce to "defend" TVNZ’s statement I complained about were a few highlighted paragraphs from The Weekly Telegraph which told how John Hume "believes his greatest achievement has been to wean the republican movement away from violence" – an historic fact which led to the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
Mr Curran considered that for TVNZ to use that item from the Telegraph to try to justify its broadcast strongly suggested it had little respect for the commonsense and intelligence of the members of the Authority.
The fact is, Mr Curran continued, at the time the item was aired, TVNZ had told only of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein in the context of Northern Ireland politics.
Turning to the matter of the voting statistics, Mr Curran noted that TVNZ had in effect admitted he was correct in the figures he had quoted. To its argument that its reporter had access to later figures given at the Peace Talks, Mr Curran responded:
However these figures have been available since June of last year following the British General Election. This being the cas, why were these figures not quoted by TVNZ?
Mr Curran described as nonsense TVNZ’s contention that the Senior Information Officer of the Northern Ireland Information Service "also seems to see "Nationalist" and "Republican" as being interchangeable." He pointed out that the Senior Officer had made a very clear distinction when he wrote:
Thirdly, with regard to the Nationalist/Republican vote, I have shown how this has split down between the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
In conclusion, Mr Curran wrote:
Taken in isolation, any one of those complaints now before you could easily pass as human errors of no significance whatever. However, when seen in the context of the extraordinary 74 days silence by TVNZ on the very existence of the main Catholic political party in Northern Ireland, the SCLP, and its leader John Hume it surely becomes a serious matter of omission and innuendo changing the whole story of political life in Northern Ireland at a most critical time in its history from Good Friday and its peace agreement to its referendum on 22 May.