Christchurch City Councillors and Canterbury Television Ltd - 1994-058
- I W Gallaway (Chair)
- R A Barraclough
- L M Dawson
- J R Morris
- Christchurch City Councillors
ProgrammeGifford and Balani talkback show
BroadcasterCanterbury Television Ltd
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
26 July 1994
The Christchurch City Councillors' Complaint to Canterbury Television
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.