BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Gee and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1995-087


A Shortland Street storyline involved characters Kirsty and Lionel being seized,

threatened and tied up by a military style unit. It was then revealed that it was a case

of mistaken identity and that the unit, as a training exercise, was meant to detain and

interrogate its own agents. Shortland Street is broadcast on TV2 between 7.00–

7.30pm each Monday to Friday.

Mr Gee complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the military

action was portrayed inaccurately and dealt with the soldiers unfairly. Furthermore,

the incident had involved excessive violence and had not been preceded with a


Emphasising that the unit which seized the couple was entirely fictitious and had been

shown in a fictional series, TVNZ said the standards relating to fairness and accuracy

did not apply. As the violence implied was acceptable in a PGR rated programme, the

violence standards had not been breached. Dissatisfied with TVNZ's decision, Mr

Gee 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 episodes containing the incident

complained about and have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix).

As is its practice, the Authority has determined the complaint without a formal


Referring to his lengthy experience as a soldier, Mr Gee complained to TVNZ about

the storyline carried through a number of episodes of Shortland Street when two

characters were seized and questioned by a military-style unit. It was later revealed

that the unit was involved in an exercise and, as a result of mistaken identity, had

seized the wrong couple. They were offered compensation of $50,000 which they

accepted as they desperately needed funds for the renovation of their home.

Mr Gee stated that the treatment of the military unit was "ambiguous, in poor taste,

lacked fairness and on at least two occasions was inaccurate". He listed some

broadcasting standards which he considered had been breached in the sequence as it

had dealt with the military unfairly and had contained excessive violence.

TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards. The first five require


G1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

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


G5  To respect the principles of law which sustain our society.

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

matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.

G13 To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently

inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the

community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational status,

sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political

belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of

material which is:

i) factual, or

ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs

programme, or

iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work

The other two read:

V1  Broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that any violence shown is

justifiable, ie is essential in the context of the programme.

V3  Warnings should be given, at least at the beginning of a programme, when a

programme contains material which is likely to be disturbing to the average

viewer or which is unexpectedly violent for that programme genre.

Throughout its response to Mr Gee, TVNZ stressed that the series was fiction and

that the unit which seized the couple – SUSS or the Special Undercover Surveillance

Service – was entirely fictitious. Writers of fiction, it continued, were limited only by

their imagination and it argued that a requirement that programmes reflect an official

military perspective would amount to totalitarianism. Because of the fictional nature

of the series, standards G1, G4, G5 and G6 did not apply. The exception for drama in

standard G13 (iii), it continued, excused that standard and the minimal violence

portrayed did not contravene standards V1 or V3.

When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Gee objected to and found

patronising TVNZ's suggestion that he did not understand the difference between fact

and fiction. Shortland Street, he wrote, was set in contemporary New Zealand and

therefore had to be credible. The sequence he complained about failed "the credibility

test". He repeated that point on several occasions in responding to TVNZ's

arguments and concluded:

In conclusion I found that the TVNZ letter did not answer my concerns. TVNZ

seemed to be rather defensive. I did not undertake this course of action lightly.

I do not appreciate being fobbed off like some whingeing child.

In its report to the Authority, TVNZ referred to the appeal of Enid Blyton's books to

children and maintained that Mr Gee had not fully recognised the fictional nature of

Shortland Street. Mr Gee in his final comment disputed TVNZ's claim and,

maintaining that the reference to Enid Blyton was irrelevant, stated that Shortland

Street depended on its credibility in order to be good drama.

The Authority considered first the complaint that the violence portrayed was

excessive and, as a result, breached standards V1. As the violence was only implied,

the Authority had little hesitation in deciding that standard V1 had not been

contravened in the PGR rated programme. Accordingly, a warning pursuant to

standard V3 was unnecessary.

The resolution of the other aspects of the complaint required considerably lengthier

consideration. The Authority sympathised with many of the matters raised by Mr

Gee, including his concern at the tone of TVNZ's letter in response to his formal

complaint. The Authority noted that the Unit was described as "SUSS" in the series

but, in view of the uniforms worn and the equipment disclosed, accepted that viewers

might well take it to be a unit of the regular army. It also accepted, as Mr Gee alleged,

that the reference in the dialogue to the Official Secrets Act was outdated.

The Authority then examined the complaint under each of the nominated standards.

As Shortland Street is a fictional series, it decided that standards G1, G4, G5 and G6

were inapplicable. As the military unit was shown without any apparent justification

to be incompetent and, hence, represented as inherently inferior, the principle

contained in standard G13 was contravened. However, in view of the exception in

standard G13(iii) for "dramatic work", the Authority decided that the standard had

not been breached.


For the reasons given above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Because it shared some of Mr Gee's concerns, although the series had not breached

the standards, the Authority decided to take an unusual step and comment briefly on

the sequence complained about. It agreed with Mr Gee that Shortland Street takes

great care to ensure that it is based in contemporary New Zealand, and emphasises the

point that the matters portrayed could "in fact" happen. As the sequence complained

about was fictional – as TVNZ argued – but unlikely to happen "in fact", the

Authority concurred that the points raised by Mr Gee, although not a matter of

broadcasting standards, were valid comments and criticisms.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Judith Potter
24 August 1995


L M W Gee's Complaint to Television New Zealand Limited - 9 May 1995

Leslie Gee of Christchurch complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about a

storyline contained in the episodes of Shortland Street broadcast on TV2 at 7.00 -

7.30pm from Monday 1 May to Friday 5 May.

He alleged that the storyline, which involved the kidnap and release of characters

Kirsty Knight and Lionel Skeggs, was "ambiguous, in poor taste, lacked fairness and

on at least two occasions inaccurate". The broadcasts, he continued, had breached

standards G1, G4, G5, G6, G13, V1 and V3 of the Television Code of Broadcasting


The broadcasts had breached the standards because there was an inaccurate reference

to the Official Secrets Act 1951, because the soldiers' actions contravened the law and

because the incident was portrayed in an unbalanced way. Mentioning his previous

service as a soldier, he said the programme dealt with the military unfairly. The

standards relating to violence were contravened, he continued, as the violence

displayed was excessive and was not preceded with a warning.

TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint - 22 May 1995

TVNZ explained the storyline in the sequence complained about:

In examining the sequence to which your complaint refers, we note that it tells

how a military-styled unit seizes the characters Kirsty and Lionel (played by

Angela Marie Dotchin and John Leigh). After the couple are threatened and tied

up for a time, the storyline reveals that it was all a case of mistaken identity. It

was a training exercise and the unit was meant to detain and interrogate its own


Emphasising that Shortland Street was fiction and that the writers were allowed a

great deal of latitude in those circumstances, TVNZ said that the unit which seized the

couple - SUSS or the Special Undercover Surveillance Service - was entirely fictitious.

TVNZ then dealt with the specific aspects complained about. That the characters

were unaware whether the Official Secrets Act still applied added credibility and, it


TVNZ believes strongly that the work of writers of fiction must be protected,

and that their imaginations must be allowed to roam free in search of new

adventures for their characters to experience.

If we were to make all our programmes factual, they would cease to drama and

television would have lost a very precious element.

A requirement for all television programmes to reflect official legal or military

positions would smack of totalitarianism.

Standard G1, TVNZ maintained, was not applicable to a work clearly presented as


With regard to standard G4, as the unit did not represent the profession of soldiering,

soldiers were not unfairly portrayed. Similarly, TVNZ argued that standards G5 and

G6 did not apply to fictional programmes and standard G13 specifically allowed an

exemption for drama.

Turning to the violence standards allegedly contravened, TVNZ did not accept that

the implied violence in a "PGR" programme breached standard V1 and, accordingly,

V3 was inapplicable.

TVNZ concluded:

While TVNZ remains sorry that you found this sequence in "Shortland Street"

offensive, it does not believe that its broadcast was in breach of any programme


Accordingly, your complaint was not upheld.

Mr Gee's Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - 12 June 1995

Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, Mr Gee referred his complaint to the

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

Mr Gee began by explaining that he had served in the New Zealand Army for 10_

years and, consequently, he was well-informed about the activities of the defence and

security organisations.

He made five points in response to TVNZ.

First, expressing objection to TVNZ's claim that he did not to know the difference

between fact and fiction, he noted that the series was set in contemporary New

Zealand and, consequently, that the storylines had to be credible. However, the SUSS

storyline, by not showing the many other people who would have been included in

such an abduction and interrogation, failed "the credibility test".

Secondly, he acknowledged that there was only one verbal reference to the New

Zealand Army, but much of the clothing and equipment was material used only by

specific Army and Police units in New Zealand.

Thirdly, he did not accept that SUSS's fictional status was an excuse for its stupid

behaviour. He wrote:

The only way for SUSS to guarantee Kirsty and Lionel's silence would have

been to make them disappear. This shows that TVNZ either does not realise

that fact and fiction crossover in drama or they refuse to acknowledge when

they have failed to do their homework properly.

As his fourth point, Mr Gee emphasised that he did not intend to muzzle writers.


It was my intention to redress some inaccuracies I saw in the portrayal of what I

took to be an fictional army unit. Drama reflects life and in many cases it sets

out to expose and highlight certain aspects of our society and the human

condition. Drama also allows writers to commentate on what they see as being

wrong or abhorrent in society. To merely hide behind a comment such as - all

that fiction does is to provide exciting and engrossing stories is not do fiction

any justice. To separate fiction, especially drama, from real life is to deprive

drama of some of its greatest material.

Noting that Shortland Street was based on reality, he said that the sequence suggested

that it was losing touch with reality. Mr Gee stated that he was not advancing

totalitarianism but suggesting that the writers do some research to ensure greater


As his fifth point, Mr Gee maintained that the standards applied to drama as well as

documentaries and current affairs. Moreover, as drama needed to reflect reality,

fiction should not be divorced from fact.

He concluded:

In conclusion I found that the TVNZ letter did not answer my concerns. TVNZ

seemed to be rather defensive. I did not undertake this course of action lightly.

I do not appreciate being fobbed off like some whingeing child.

In support, he enclosed a copy of a letter to TVNZ from his friend, Ms Wendy

Heath, who confirmed Mr Gee's comments about the military authorities portrayed

and endorsed his comments about the role of drama. She wrote:

In conclusion, Mr Gee's initial complaint stems from a concern that the

storyline complained of does not do credit to the professionalism of New

Zealand soldiers and I endorse this complaint wholeheartedly. I, however,

would further like to point out that your reply to his complaint, in its flippant

and patronising tone and its contradictory content, tends to support Mr Gee's

argument. It would seem that the same flippant attitude and lack of forethought

created this puerile storyline, and the patronising attitude towards the audience,

that is, your consumers that led you to believe that they would not be aware of

the inaccuracies and nonsensical quality of this piece of fantasy.

TVNZ's Response to the Authority - 20 June 1995

In its report TVNZ argued, despite his claim to the contrary, that Mr Gee

misunderstood the nature of fiction. It wrote:

Without wishing to hurt Mr Gee's feelings we point to the line in his letter of

referral where he says "the fact that SUSS is an entirely fictional organisation as

stated by TVNZ is not an excuse for the unit's behaviour".

Oh, but it is.

The writer's imagination (and the programme standards), it continued, were the

bounds of the fictional organisation portrayed. Enid Blyton's books were exciting to

children although they involved unrealistic military activities and, TVNZ concluded,

the fictional nature of Shortland Street had not been fully recognised by the


Mr Gee's Final Comment - 29 June 1995

In his response, Mr Gee recorded:

Firstly: I would just like to reiterate that I am well aware of the differences

between fact and fiction. It would appear that TVNZ and myself have a

fundamental difference about the role of drama within fictional works. I see

drama as being a reflection of the society in which it is set. I distinguish drama

from satire, farce, black comedy, general comedy, science fiction and fantasy,

sword and sorcery fantasy and children's stories.

Arguing that the reference to Enid Blyton was irrelevant, he said that the sequence had

shown the New Zealand Army inaccurately and unfairly and that Shortland Street

would cease to be good drama if it lost its credibility.