BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Walsh and TV3 Network Services Ltd - 1994-003

Members
  • I W Gallaway (Chair)
  • R A Barraclough
  • L M Dawson
  • J R Morris
Dated
Complainant
  • Dara Walsh
Number
1994-003
Programme
20/20
Channel/Station
TV3


Summary

The current child support legislation and, specifically, the impact of the controversial Child

Support Act 1991 were examined in an item on TV3's 20/20 broadcast between

7.30–8.30pm on Sunday 1 August 1993.

Ms Walsh complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd that the item breached a number of

broadcasting standards including those requiring balance, accuracy and fairness. The

item, she said, had assumed that there were only two sides to the debate and, she

suggested, had revealed that one side, the liable parents, had "hijacked the media" over the

issue.

Acknowledging that the complex Act could be approached in a number of ways, TV3 said

that it had made the editorial decision to advance the perspective of the liable parent for

whom the Act was not working. It declined to uphold the complaint. Dissatisfied with

TV3's decision, Mrs Walsh referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

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

For the reasons given below, the Authority upheld the complaint and ordered the

broadcast of a summary of the decision.


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 has

determined the complaint without a formal hearing.

An item on the impact of the Child Support Act 1991, broadcast on TV3's 20/20 on 1

August 1993, focussed on the dissatisfaction felt by some liable parents. The Act, the item

reported, was causing misery and poverty as fathers – as liable parents – were treated as

cash providers only. Moreover, the item alleged, the compulsory contribution might well

exceed the real costs of child support and could, in effect, subsidise the custodial parent.

Ms Walsh complained that the item breached the standards requiring balance,

impartiality, fairness, objectivity and accuracy. She believed that the item had

concentrated on the inadequacies of the Act as perceived by a small number of liable

parents who were high income earners while ignoring the vast majority of less vocal

custodial and liable parents who, while possibly also seeking a review of the legislation,

complied with it. She pointed to some of the positive changes which had occurred under

the Act and commented that access, a dissatisfaction raised by some of the liable parents

interviewed during the item, was a separate issue from child support. She suggested that

the principal problem, only touched on briefly in the item, was the reluctance by the

courts to make Departure Orders in special circumstances.

TV3 assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 and standard G6

of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The provision in the Act requires

broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with:

(d) The principle that when controversial issues of public importance are

discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are

given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or

in other programmes within the period of current interest.


Standard G6 of the Code requires broadcasters:

G6   To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters,

current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.


Pointing to the wide-ranging impact of the Act and the complexity of some of its

provisions, TV3 said it had been necessary to focus on a specific perspective. As an exercise

of editorial discretion, it had chosen to focus on the liable parent for whom the Act was

not working. It acknowledged that there were other legitimate points of view which, it

added, might be dealt with at some future time.

The Authority began its consideration of the complaint by examining the item's theme. It

considered that the programme advanced the position that the regime under the Child

Support Act was causing misery and that fathers were treated as cash providers only who,

in addition, could well be subsidising the custodial parent. Overall, the item suggested that

the regime was unfair.

The Authority agreed with TV3 that it was not possible for the item to deal with all the

issues contained in the Child Support Act but it was of the opinion that the matters which

were dealt with had to be covered in a balanced way. As the complainant indicated, there

were other perspectives on the issues covered than those presented by the liable parents

interviewed. Some balance was required, the Authority believed, for example, by providing

alternative viewpoints when discussing the alleged hardship the Act was causing to liable

parents or the allegation that child support was fostering the custodial parent's lifestyle

rather than that of the children.

However, the programme seemed to accept uncritically the points of view advanced. For

example, one of the fathers featured complained that as well as paying for the children

from his first marriage, he was also supporting his new partner's children. Yet no attempt

was made to question him or his partner as to why the father of her children was not

contributing to their support.

The programme did provide some balance by stating that the Act was an attempt to shift

the cost from the Government to liable parents who had previously avoided supporting

their children and that the Minister of Revenue had been approached for comment.

However, he had refused to take part in a programme which "focussed on the negative"

and, furthermore, he did not want to comment while a review of the legislation was

taking place. Although this was an attempt to seek balancing comment, in the Authority's

view it was insufficient to comply with the standards.

The item had advanced the grievances felt by some liable parents about the child support

scheme and some serious allegations were made to which there was no reply. The

Authority appreciates that it was legitimate to focus on one perspective and that was the

editorial discretion exercised by TV3. However, having chosen the matter on which the

item would focus, the broadcaster was then obliged to present the material in a way which

complied with the requirements for balance either in the same programme or in the period

of current interest. The requirement in the standards for balance does not require that

each side to a debate be given equal time. However, it does mean that the opposing

significant views need to be acknowledged and presented, if not in the same programme, at

least within the period of current interest. By not doing so on this occasion, TV3 failed to

comply with the broadcasting standards.

 

For the reasons above, the Authority upholds the complaint that the

broadcast by TV3 Network Services Ltd of an item on 20/20 on 1 August

1993 breached s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 and standard G6 of

the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.


Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make an order under s.13(1) of the Act.

Because of the programme's failure to advance the perspective of any other interested

party in a significant way, the Authority has decided to impose an order on this occasion.

It believed that an order was particularly appropriate given that the Child Support Act

continues to be a matter of public concern. However, because of the number of

perspectives on the legislation, the Authority expects the statement to acknowledge only

that the programme was unbalanced in that it failed to present the range of views on the

matter. It does not expect the statement to canvass the alternative points of view.

Order

Pursuant to s.13(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders

TV3 Network Services Ltd to broadcast a brief summary of this decision,

approved by the Authority, about the item on 20/20 on 1 August 1993.

The statement shall be broadcast during a broadcast of 20/20 within 14

days of the date of this decision.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Iain Gallaway
Chairperson
17 February 1994

Appendix


Ms Walsh's Complaint to TV3 Network Services Limited

In a letter dated 16 August 1993, Ms Dara Walsh of Hobsonville complained to TV3

Network Services Ltd about the item called "Family Ties" broadcast on 20/20 between

7.30–8.30pm on Sunday 1 August.

The item, she began, breached the standard which requires that reasonable opportunities

are made to present significant points of view. It also contravened those which require

balance, impartiality, fairness, objectivity and accuracy. In dealing with a controversial

issue, she continued, the programme advanced the media misconception about the Child

Support Act 1991 that there were only two sides involved - disgruntled liable parents,

represented on the item by FARE, and custodial parents represented by the Minister of

Revenue. Moreover, the item had focussed on the inadequacies of the Act as perceived by a

small number of liable parents who were high income earners while ignoring the vast

majority of less vocal custodial and liable parents who, while complying with the Act,

nevertheless also sought a review.

She cited examples of the programme's bias and inaccuracy, including the point that the

IRD did not just deduct a set percentage from the liable parent's income but considered

that person's living circumstances as well. Moreover, the item did not record that there

was a maximum annual income (approximately $57,000.00 which she called a "State

protected top-up income") which was assessed in determining the amount which the liable

parent was required to pay the custodial parent.

Ms Walsh also wrote:

FARE's spokesperson, ... , said that second families are subsidising first families. This

comment, and indeed your whole programme, would have the general public

believe that it is only men and liable parents who have second families. Their are

many women with children from former relationships who have formed new

relationships, (many having come off the D.P.B. to do so) and gone on to have

more children. Often it is the stepfather's subsidising the children from their

partner's first family when there is inadequate child support being paid by the liable

parent.


The issue of access was also raised by one liable parent which, she noted, was dealt with

separately in the Act from questions of support.

She pointed out that under the previous liable parent scheme, taxpayers had subsidised the

liable parent whose contributions did not match actual expenditure. She asked:

Why did your programme fail to highlight the very real and tragic cases where

women and children really live on the breadline, instead of focusing on liable

parents who now have to re-adjust to their responsibilities?


The FARE spokesperson had suggested that the number of second marriages would decline

because of the "unreasonably high" financial burden on the liable parent to which, Ms

Walsh responded, putting aside the question of whether or not the payments were

"unreasonably high", that many women could not afford to come off the D.P.B. and

remarry as the contribution from a liable low income earner or beneficiary was minimal.

The item reported that the responsible Minister (the Minister of Revenue) had declined to

participate. Ms Walsh quoted from a recent letter she had received from that Minister in

which he had advised that the formula assessment provided in the Act could be varied by

the Family Court in specific circumstances. She commented:

This is the crux of the whole issue and to date there has been very little criticism of

the judiciary for its extremely narrow definition of Section 105 of the Act. This

deals with the "special circumstances" required before a Departure Order can even

be considered. Perhaps this lack of criticism is due to it being easy to be found in

contempt of Court. It would seem though, that the law makers never intended the

law to be interpreted so strictly by the judiciary and that if access to the Courts

wasn't so expensive, protracted and seemingly futile, then the current law would

work better.

Contrary to what the item has said, she stated, it was more difficult for a custodial parent

to obtain a Departure Order than a liable parent.

In conclusion, she observed that there were a number of other aspects of the law with

which custodial parents were unhappy which were not aired as "liable parents have

hijacked the media over the issue".

TV3's Response to the Formal Complaint

TV3 advised Ms Walsh of its Complaints Committee's decision in a letter dated 8 October

1993 when it reported that the complaint had been assessed under a number of standards

including s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act and standard G6 of the Television Code of

Broadcasting Practice.

In dealing with the complaint that the programme focussed on the viewpoint of liable

parents who were high income earners, TV3 argued that, given the complexity of the Act,

it was appropriate for the programme to be selective. It continued:

The Child Support Act 1991 in its intent, implementation and consequences is vast.

To cover the whole gambit would require such scope that it would simply be

impossible – in any media – to present a complete and intelligent analysis.


TV3 acknowledged that there were other perspectives which could well be considered at

some future time but, on this occasion, had chosen the perspective of the liable parent for

whom the Act was not working. Declining to uphold the complaint, TV3 wrote:

The participants related their experiences and the effects of the Act upon them; that

was the editorial choice of 20/20. We reiterate our concurrence that there are

other legitimate points of view; we disagree that these could have been adequately

covered within 20/20 but that acknowledgement in itself is not a reason for

ignoring the subject altogether.


Ms Walsh's Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

Dissatisfied with TV3's reply, in a letter dated 14 October 1993 Ms Walsh referred the

complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting

Act 1989.

She argued that TV3 had not responded adequately to her complaint that the Act had a

major impact on groups other than those on who the item had focussed. By approaching

the issue in the way TV3 had done, Ms Walsh said that the result was an item which was

unbalanced and unfair. It was insufficient to suggest that other aspects of the Act might

be dealt with in some future programme.

Ms Walsh argued:

Balance and fairness are required when dealing with a controversial public issue. If

TV3 were indeed prepared to fulfil these requirements, then it should have done so

and not have dealt with the issue in the narrow manner in which it did. If it were

unable to deal with it in a balanced and fair manner, then that, to paraphrase

their words, would have been a reason for ignoring the subject altogether!

TV3's Response to the Authority

As is its practice, the Authority sought the broadcaster's response to the complaint. Its

letter is dated 26 October 1993 and TV3 in its response of 3 November advised that it did

not wish to comment further.