BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Christchurch City Councillors and Canterbury Television Ltd - 1994-058

Members
  • I W Gallaway (Chair)
  • R A Barraclough
  • L M Dawson
  • J R Morris
Dated
Complainant
  • Christchurch City Councillors
Number
1994-058
Channel/Station
CTV
Standards Breached


Summary

The widening of Avonside Drive by the Christchurch City Council was one of the issues

discussed by the hosts during the Gifford and Balani talkback show broadcast by CTV

between 8.30–10.00pm on Wednesday 9 February. Before taking calls from viewers, the

hosts expressed strong views about the roadworks which included describing the city

councillors as "turkeys", "bozos" and "yes men" who cheated, told lies and seemed to be

insane. Moreover, there was an allusion to the possibility of corruption by the councillors.

The programme itself, when taking calls about the roadworks in question, contained

comments of a similar tenor.

Seventeen councillors complained to Canterbury Television Ltd that the broadcast lacked

taste, was unbalanced and unfair. While accepting that council decisions could well be

criticised, they objected to the irresponsible personal attack which, they said, brought them

into disrepute.

Arguing that the roadworks discussed involved the radical transformation of a

particularly beautiful part of Christchurch, CTV maintained that the hosts were expressing

personal opinions. It accepted nevertheless that some of the references to the councillors

were unfair as they exceeded the acceptable limits of a robust public debate. It proposed

the wording of a statement – disclaiming that any inference about corruption could be

taken – to be read before a future edition of Gifford and Balani and sought the councillors'

approval to it.

Dissatisfied that the balance aspect of the complaint had not been upheld and believing

that CTV should broadcast an apology for all the above comments which they maintained

had been unfair and unjust, the councillors 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 part of the complaint that the

councillors had been treated unfairly and ordered CTV to broadcast a summary of this

decision and an apology to the councillors.


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.

CTV's Gifford and Balani is a talkback programme then broadcast between

8.30–10.00pm on Wednesdays and co-hosted by George Balani and Phil Gifford. In the

introduction to the show on 9 February, the hosts referred to some roadworks being

carried out in Avonside Drive. Both hosts disapproved of the works and, during the

introduction, Mr Balani described the city councillors as "a bunch of turkeys", "a bunch of

bozos" and "a bunch of yes men". Questioning the councillors' sanity, he said that they

had to be voted off the Council as they cheated and told lies. He also alluded to the

possibility of corruption on their part when he asked:

Could it be that someone's getting a backhander for the work?


After arguing that the decision did not make sense, he wondered:


Is someone getting a slide on the side?


The calls received during the broadcast which addressed the issue generally supported the

hosts' opinions about the roadworks and the tenor of Mr Balani's comments, although not

so vitriolic as in the introduction, continued to be critical.

Seventeen Christchurch City Councillors complained to CTV that the broadcast lacked taste

and balance and had dealt with them unfairly. They alleged that it contravened s.4(1)(a)

and (d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 and standards G4 and G6 of the Television Code of

Broadcasting Practice. When they later referred their complaint to the Authority, they

confined the allegations to breaches of standards G4 and G6 pursuant to which

broadcasters are required:

G4  To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any

programme.

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

current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.


The councillors maintained that the standards had been breached as the broadcast had not

traversed the debates leading to the roadworks during which members of the public had

had a number of opportunities to express their views. The terms by which they were

described, they continued, were untrue and designed not only to ridicule but also to

undermine public confidence in them. The serious allegation about corruption, they

added, was unfounded.

In responding to the complaint, CTV stated that the talkback programme provided a

forum for both residents and councillors and that opinions, including those of the hosts,

could be vigorously and robustly expressed. CTV denied that the balance requirement had

been contravened as anyone who wished to could take part. In dealing with the complaint

alleging a lack of fairness, CTV pointed out that politicians could expect to be criticised for

their decisions. While arguing that a number of Mr Balani's harsh comments were

acceptable, CTV acknowledged that some of his statements "exceeded that which is

acceptable in even a robust debate". CTV did not accept that the comments implied

corruption. Rather, he had referred to a "preposterous motive" in order to show that no

reasonable argument had been advanced for the roadworks in Avonside Drive.

In response to Mr Balani's excessively robust comments, CTV proposed that a statement be

read, with the councillors' approval, on a forthcoming edition of Gifford and Balani. The

suggested statement provided that the comments could not be construed as inferring the

possibility of corruption but apologised for any embarrassment suffered by the councillors.

When they referred their complaint to the Authority, the councillors maintained that the

remarks were unbalanced (and in breach of standard G6) as the broadcast did not provide

any historical perspective to the roadworks. They also maintained that Mr Balani's

disagreement with their decision did not entitle him to abuse them personally. Standard

G4, they stressed, applied to all shows including talkback programmes. Although CTV

maintained that the broadcast could not be construed as suggesting the possibility of

corruption, the councillors were adamant that such an allegation was made for which

both CTV and Mr Balani should apologise.

Dealing with that aspect initially, the Authority did not accept CTV's interpretation that

the mention of corruption was a reference to a "preposterous motive". Having watched

the broadcast and noting Mr Gifford's reaction and his argument for caution when Mr

Balani spoke of backhanders, the Authority agreed that it was not unreasonable to believe

that Mr Balani was alleging at least some degree of corruption on the part of the

councillors.

The Authority places a high value on the right to free speech and it accepted CTV's

argument that politicians and those in public life must be ready for criticism – sometimes

unreasonable – from those who disagree with their decisions. Politicians must also be

prepared to accept that critics might well use unflattering terms to describe them. The

obviously untrue hyperbole (eg bozos and turkeys) might not be so damaging as the insults

which refer particularly to the character of the person or people disparaged. As they were

so obviously fanciful rhetoric, the Authority accepted that the use of the adjectives

"turkeys, "bozos and "yes men" did not on this occasion breach the requirement in

standard G4 to deal justly and fairly with any person referred to in a broadcast.

However, the critic's licence is not unlimited. Boundaries are not rigid and must inevitably

take account of the context in which the language is used. Despite the conclusion about

the use of those abusive terms, the Authority believed that the references to the councillors

as liars and cheats and insane were much more than essentially meaningless rhetoric and

went beyond being acceptable robust references to politicians on a talkback programme.

In the context in which those terms were used on this occasion, the Authority concluded

that they were not acceptable and, accordingly, in breach of the requirement in standard

G4 that people referred to be treated justly and fairly.

The lack of balance resulting from the absence of any history of the Avonside Drive

roadworks was the other principal matter raised when the complaint was referred to the

Authority.

All programmes, and especially current affairs and talkback programmes, assume some

background knowledge. The events which led up to the roadworks in Christchurch's

Avonside Drive were matters of at least some general ongoing knowledge among the

residents of Christchurch. On the basis that the hosts showed a CTV news item from

earlier in the evening and could justifiably assume some general knowledge among

viewers, a majority of the Authority was not prepared to conclude that the broadcast

contravened the requirement for balance in standard G6.

A minority disagreed. While supporting the right of talkback hosts to express strong

opinions robustly, it argued that when the tone became abusive and unreasonable, it was

unlikely except in exceptional circumstances for balance to be achieved. On this occasion,

such a tone was present and the balancing requirements, of strongly expressed calls which

challenged the hosts or the participation by some councillors, did not occur. Moreover

and despite the high profile nature of the issue in Christchurch, the minority believed that

the hosts could have given the reasons for the Council's decision without detracting from

the expression of the hosts' firmly held views.

The correspondence between the parties also raised some other matters which, it was

argued, could affect the Authority's decision on the complaint. For example, CTV

maintained that it was the role of a talkback broadcast to be provocative and

controversial. The Authority accepts this proposition as a general rule and, indeed,

appreciates that a talkback host who does not provoke controversy may have a limited

career in that occupation. Being provocative, however, does not mean dismissing an

opposing perspective without debate, nor does it necessarily involve abusive comments in

the place of reason. Above all, it does not entitle the host to suggest or imply corruption or

any other form of dishonesty without evidence.

If a host wants to take a strong stand or interviews a spokesperson from one side of a

dispute, it may well be necessary in the interests of balance to arrange for some

spokesperson from the other side or, at least, for the host to adopt the role of the devil's

advocate. The Authority does not accept that an open-line on a talkback programme is, in

itself, a guarantee that the balance requirement will not be breached. On this occasion, as

noted above, a majority of the Authority accepted that general public knowledge was

sufficient to provide the historical perspective and, although close to the boundary of being

unbalanced, it believed that viewers probably would be aware of the arguments for

proceeding with the controversial roadworks.

In its report to the complainants, CTV was not explicit as to how the broadcast had

breached standard G4. As was apparent from the suggested statement, it did not accept

that corruption by the councillors could be implied but it did not identify the excessively

robust comments. As noted above, the Authority did not accept CTV's decision that an

inference about corruption could not be drawn. Furthermore, the Authority has found

the allegations that the councillors were liars, cheats and insane to be unfair references in

contravention of standard G4.

 

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

broadcast by Canterbury Television Ltd of Gifford and Balani on 9 February

1994 breached standard G4 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.


A majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaint that the

broadcast breached standard G6 of the same Code.


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

Act.


The Authority has expressed the view that the comments made by Mr Balani were

unacceptable and agrees with CTV that a statement should be broadcast. As will be

apparent from its decision, it believes that the statement should specifically refer to the

implication about corruption and, in view of the possibly damaging consequences of that

remark, it considers that the statement should include an apology to the complainants. In

addition, it considers that the statement should include a summary of this decision.


Order

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

Canterbury Television Ltd to broadcast a statement, approved by the

Authority, which includes an apology and a summary of this decision. The

statement shall be broadcast during an episode of Gifford and Balani

broadcast within one month of the date of the decision.


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Iain Gallaway
Chairperson
26 July 1994


Appendix

The Christchurch City Councillors' Complaint to Canterbury Television

Limited

In a letter dated 7 March 1994, 17 Christchurch City Councillors signed a letter of

complaint to Canterbury Television Ltd about the Gifford and Balani talkback show

broadcast between 8.30 - 10.00pm on Wednesday 9 February.

The programme began, the councillors recalled, with a discussion between the hosts about

the roadworks being carried out on Avonside Drive. Both hosts were unhappy with the

works taking place and after showing a news item on the topic carried by CTV earlier that

evening, among other observations Mr Balani described the councillors as a "bunch of

turkeys", "a bunch of bozos" and "a bunch of yes men". Questioning the councillors'

sanity, he said that they had to be voted off the Council as they cheated and told lies. He

also raised, they added, the possibility of corruption.

The councillors accepted that their decisions could be criticised but did not expect to be the

subject of an irresponsible personal attack.

Reviewing briefly the history of the debate leading up to the roadworks in Avonside Drive

during which the public had had a number of opportunities to express their views, the

councillors said the terms used undermined public confidence in them, were untrue and

were designed to personally ridicule rather than by reasoned argument. The serious

allegation about corruption, they added, was unfounded and defamatory and contained

an element of malice.

The Councillors complained that Mr Balani's comments during the broadcast lacked good

taste, were unbalanced and unfair and breached s.4(1)(a) and (d) of the Broadcasting Act

1989 and standards G4 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The letter

continued:

The media, and particularly television, are in a position of great influence in the

views they express and must use that power responsibly. In the present case Mr

Balani's personal attack on Councillors was completely irresponsible, and brings the

role of Councillors into disrepute not only in relation to Avonside Drive but also in

relation to other decisions made by Councillors.

CTV's Response to the Formal Complaint

CTV advised the complainants of its decision in a letter dated 29 March 1994 and it

reported that the complaint had been assessed under the standards nominated.

It began by referring to the context in which the remarks had been made and, it said, the

roadworks had involved the radical transformation of a particularly beautiful part of the

city contrary to a substantial body of opinion. In this situation, the Council was

accountable to the public and could be expected to provide strong reasons for the changes.

Moreover, CTV continued, the comments had been made during a talkback programme

which provided a forum for the views of both residents and councillors.

In summarising its introduction, CTV wrote:

Given this background it might be expected that opinions aired on the programme,

including those of the hosts, should be vigorously expressed. It is accepted that the

sentiments expressed by Mr Balani plainly represented a side of the issue which was

opposed to the reaction of the Council. It is also recognised that the opinions

expressed included robust statements adverse to the Councillors themselves as well

as to the actual action under discussion.

It also pointed out that hosts' views were personal and did not reflect those of CTV.

Dealing with the standards allegedly breached, CTV said that the standard of good taste

and decency had not been contravened.

With regard to the requirement to provide a reasonable opportunity for balance, CTV said

that any member of the public, including councillors, could participate in the talkback

programme. Although the councillors had not specifically expressed a wish to debate this

subject, CTV said it would provide an opportunity for a debate should the councillors wish

to take part.

As for the allegation that the councillors had been dealt with unjustly or unfairly, CTV

argued that politicians incurred the risk of adverse comment for their political actions. Mr

Balani's comments, it added, had been harsh but commentators should not be unduly

restrained. Nevertheless, CTV accepted that some of his statements "exceeded that which is

acceptable in even a robust public debate". Despite reaching that decision, CTV added, it

did not accept that the comments implied corruption on the part of councillors. Rather:

In fact the object of the statement was to indicate, by reference to a preposterous

motive, that no reasonable argument had been advanced for the work, to meet the

public opposition.

While standard G6 requires balance and impartiality, CTV maintained that a talkback host

was entitled to express his views. The programme, it argued, provided a forum for the

various opinions to be aired.

In regard to the one aspect of the complaint upheld, CTV proposed a statement to be read,

subject to the Councillors' approval, prior to a future edition of Gifford and Balani. The

suggested statement focussed on the complaint which referred to the remarks about

possible corruption. CTV said that the broadcast could not be construed as suggesting the

possibility of corruption and apologised for any embarrassment suffered by the councillors

as a consequence of the comment.

The Councillors' Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

Dissatisfied with CTV's response, in a letter dated 6 May 1994 18 councillors referred the

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

Act 1989.

The Councillors maintained that Mr Balani's opening remarks did not put the road

widening of Avonside Drive into its historical perspective and, consequently, breached

standard G6 of the Code. As the standard applied to all programmes, they did not accept

CTV's argument that Mr Balani's comments were made on a talkback show to stimulate

debate.

They also maintained that the criticism, as it was neither just nor fair, breached standard

G4. Again the programme did not provide the background to the decision and:

The fact that Mr Balani did not agree with the Council's decision to widen Avonside

Drive does not, in our view, entitle him to label Councillors as cheats, liars and

insane.

Standard G4, it added, applied to all programmes including talkback shows.

Arguing that the present complaint was a similar to an earlier one from Mr Jones about

an item on TVNZ (Decision No: 83/94), the councillors said that the apology proposed on

this occasion was not acceptable as it referred only to the possible inferences of corruption.

It continued:

In our view, references to backhanders and a slide on the side are more than

suggestive, they directly refer to corruption. There is no other interpretation that

could be placed on those words and any apology should acknowledge that. We also

believe that the apology should be by Mr Balani as well as CTV.

In conclusion, the councillors requested an apology for all the comments complained

about in the original letter of complaint.

CTV's Response to the Authority

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

is dated 16 May 1994 and CTV, in its reply dated 30 May, did not wish to make any

further comment.

The Councillors' Final Comment to the Authority

Having seen CTV's response, in a letter dated 16 June 1994 the Councillors advised that

they did not want to put any further matters to the Authority.