Roberts and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1994-038
- I W Gallaway (Chair)
- R A Barraclough
- L M Dawson
- J R Morris
- Brendan Roberts
ProgrammeOne Network News
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
An apparent breakthrough in the tests used to detect foetal abnormalities was reported in
an item on One Network News broadcast between 6.00–6.30pm on Saturday 12
February. The researchers claimed that it was possible to detect abnormalities within a
fortnight of conception and the item contrasted the new test with the experience of a
London mother who had to wait 14 weeks to discover her baby would suffer from Down's
Syndrome. At that time, she had reluctantly decided to have an abortion.
Mr Roberts complained to Television New Zealand Ltd that the item was unbalanced as it
neither advanced the alternatives to abortion nor dealt with the legal requirements
necessary before an abortion could be performed.
Pointing out that the new test was the item's focus and the passing reference to abortion
did not justify outlining the pro-life and pro-choice arguments, TVNZ declined to uphold
the complaint. Dissatisfied with TVNZ's decision, Mr Roberts 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 declined to uphold 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 has
determined the complaint without holding a hearing.
A One Network News item broadcast on 12 February reported a breakthrough which
allowed foetal abnormalities to be detected within a fortnight of conception rather than
having to wait the required 14 weeks under the existing procedures. To illustrate the
impact of the new process, the item interviewed a mother in London who, after 14 weeks,
had discovered that her foetus suffered from Down's Syndrome. At that time, reluctantly,
she had decided to have an abortion.
Mr Roberts complained that the item was neither balanced nor fair as it had neither given
the alternatives to an abortion in that situation nor dealt with the legal requirements
which had to be met before an abortion could be performed.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standard G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting
Practice. It requires broadcasters:
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters,
current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
Emphasising that the item covered an apparent breakthrough by English medical
researchers in the early detection of foetal abnormalities, TVNZ said that the reference to
abortion was mentioned only to contrast the new procedure with the traditional
amniocentesis test. It also referred to an earlier similar complaint from Mr Roberts, not
upheld by the Authority (No: 55/93), and argued that the same decision was appropriate
on this occasion for the same reason.
In response to this point, Mr Roberts pointed out that the item on this occasion, unlike the
earlier one, had not mentioned any alternatives to abortion.
The Authority noted that the item complained about and dealt with in Decision No:
55/93, as Mr Roberts had pointed out, had referred to the necessity for counselling should
Down's Syndrome be detected. Nevertheless, it agreed with TVNZ that the earlier decision
was also relevant as in neither instance was abortion the focus of the item. Both items, the
Authority decided, focussed on the procedures for the detection of foetal abnormalities.
In the item complained about on this occasion, the mother, when informed after 14 weeks
that her foetus suffered from Down's Syndrome, had not acted as if an abortion was the
appropriate, let alone the inevitable, response. She had said that "for us" it had been the
"right thing to do" but that it was "not an easy decision".
Accordingly, as it was a brief news item to which the viewers brought their own
knowledge, the Authority decided that aspects of its conclusion in the earlier decision
Although both items included passing comment about abortion, it was not the focus of the
item. Accordingly, the Authority considered that was unnecessary to present the pro-life
or pro-choice arguments.
In these circumstances, the Authority decided, an explanation of the legal grounds for
abortion and their application to the situation being reported on was outside the item's
scope. As it had concluded with the earlier complaint, the Authority was unable to agree
with Mr Roberts that the item's brief reference to abortion was unbalanced, partial or
For the reasons given above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
9 June 1994
Mr Roberts' Complaint to Television New Zealand Limited
In a letter dated 18 February 1994, Mr Brendan Roberts of Auckland complained to
Television New Zealand Ltd about an item on One Network News broadcast on TV One
between 6.00 - 6.30pm on Saturday 12 February.
The item had dealt with a new test to determine whether or not a foetus was genetically
abnormal in some way and, Mr Roberts maintained, it breached the broadcasting
standard requiring balance, impartiality and fairness. The standard was contravened, Mr
Roberts continued, as it accepted that an abortion was an appropriate response should the
test indicate some abnormality. It had done so without giving the options to an abortion
or outlining the legal requirements which had to be fulfilled before an abortion could be
TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint
TVNZ advised Mr Roberts of its Complaints Committee's decision in a letter dated 3 March
1994 when it reported that the complaint had been considered under standard G6 of the
Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
The item, TVNZ explained, dealt with an apparent breakthrough by English medical
researchers on the early detection of foetal abnormalities. It claimed that potential defects
could be detected a fortnight after conception and this was contrasted with the experience
of a mother who had to wait 14 weeks into the pregnancy to discover that her baby had
Down's Syndrome. At that time, the item reported, she had decided to have an abortion.
TVNZ referred to a complaint from Mr Roberts about a news item dealing with a similar
matter on similar grounds when the Authority decided (No: 55/93) that the item was not
unbalanced, partial or unfair. It argued that the same decision was appropriate on this
occasion as abortion was not the subject of the item complained about. It continued:
The only mention of abortion was in the context of a woman who decided that
course after the traditional amniocentesis test, a procedure which was shown only
to illustrate the contrast with the new medical breakthrough.
Such a passing reference to the subject is not sufficient cause for the pro-life and
pro-choice arguments to be outlined. Indeed, they had no relevance in the context
of the story being told.
Mr Roberts' Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority
Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, in a letter dated 17 March 1994 Mr Roberts referred his
complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting
He acknowledged that this complaint was similar to the earlier one TVNZ had referred to
but, he added:
... in this instance there was not an alternative to abortion mentioned and again
the law was not mentioned concerning "the physical/psychological danger to the
TVNZ's Response to the Authority
As is its practice, the Authority sought the broadcaster's response to the referral. Its letter
is dated 21 March 1994 and TVNZ, in its reply dated 5 April advised that it had nothing to
add to its letter to Mr Roberts dated 3 March.
Mr Roberts' Final Comment to the Authority
When asked to comment briefly on TVNZ's reply, in a letter dated 22 April 1994 Mr
Roberts maintained that the item breached standard G6. The number of references to
abortion was irrelevant as the use of the term, he argued, required some comment as to
the state of the mother's health before an abortion could be legally performed.