James and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1995-147
- J M Potter (Chair)
- L M Loates
- R McLeod
- M James
ProgrammeScienz: Plague of Possums
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Scienz: Plague of Possums was the title of an eTV programme broadcast on TV One at
8.30am on 19 August 1995. Aimed at secondary school students, it focussed on the
science involved in controlling the possum population in New Zealand.
Mr James complained to Television New Zealand Ltd that the programme was
unbalanced overall and inaccurate on a number of specific points. It was unbalanced as
it failed to deal with the widespread opposition to the use of aerial drops of 1080
deadly poison to control possums.
Maintaining that the programme examined scientific methodology, TVNZ said that it
was not a study of that controversy although it had alluded to the debate surrounding
the use of 1080. It declined to uphold the complaint. Dissatisfied with TVNZ's
decision, Mr James referred the complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the
Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons 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 a formal hearing.
The approach of science to the problem of possums was dealt with in the eTV
programme, Scienz: Plague of Possums, broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on Saturday
19 August. Possums were considered a problem, the programme reported, because of
their destruction of fauna and their role in the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Those
matters were explained reasonably fully and the item referred to the use of 1080
poison as a means of controlling possums.
Mr James' complaint focussed on the aspect of the broadcast which dealt with the use
of 1080 and he maintained that the programme was unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate.
In addition to recording a number of specific details on which he said the term was
incorrect, he argued that 1080's classification as a "Deadly Poison" was not noted and
that insufficient attention had been given to the environmental risk of 1080.
TVNZ assessed the programme under standards G1 and G6 which require
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political
matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
Explaining that the series focussed on the use of science generally and that the
particular episode dealt with the use of science to control the possum plague, TVNZ
pointed out that less than a quarter of the programme had covered the design and
management of possum campaigns. The efficacy of 1080 was not a focus, TVNZ
insisted, although the "restrictions and monitoring surrounding the use of this
imperfect but effective control mechanism" were clearly referred to.
When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr James maintained that the
programme was "simply an unbalanced, one-sided endorsement of this controversial
possum control practice". In response to TVNZ's argument that the 1080 debate had
been covered in items on Holmes, Mr James argued that the programme on Holmes
already lacked balance as all the principal parties had not been consulted at the time.
There was one matter raised in the referral which the Authority accepted disclosed a
factual error. The broadcast reported that 1080 was found in some South African and
Australian shrubs. Mr James wrote:
This is untrue as 1080 occurs nowhere in the plant kingdom. Fluoroacetate
does, however this has a completely different chemical equation to sodium mono
fluoroacetate, which is a synthetic compound.
TVNZ did not contest the matter. However, as it was raised for the first time in the
referral and as it was a relatively minor point given the thrust of the complaint, the
Authority did not consider that it amounted to a breach of standard G1.
Having watched the programme, the Authority was clearly of the opinion that the
science involved in the study and control of possums was the issue which was
addressed. Possums were shown to be a major concern. Although it was not possible
to deal with all the scientific issues in depth, the Authority considered that the matters
raised were dealt with dispassionately. In view of the approach taken, the Authority
was of the view that the programme was not required to deal fully with the
controversy surrounding the use of 1080.
Nevertheless, the 1080 debate had been touched on and in dealing with the use of
1080, a large sign was shown which clearly indicated its deadly status and, the
Authority concluded, the programme did not suggest that the use of 1080 poison was
an ideal solution.
For the reasons above, the Authority declined to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judith M Potter
14 December 1995
Mr James' Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd - 12 September 1995
Marcus James of Raglan complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about an eTV
item, Scienz: Plague of Possums, broadcast on TV One at 8.30am on Saturday 19
August 1995. The item, he said, was unbalanced, unfair and inaccurate.
Mr James referred to the comments, both official and in the media, which questioned
the use of aerial drops of 1080 poison to deal with possums. Those comments, he
wrote, had questioned 1080's impact on native fauna and on New Zealand's
internationally marketed "clean, green image". He explained:
1080 is in fact a registered Deadly Poison, two full classes higher on the official
poisons register than the plain "Poison" it was inaccurately referred to on this
programme. Dangerous Poison occurs between the two, with 1080 ranked only
slightly below "Radioactive Material". Correct description of a poisons official
registration is a prerequisite for safe use and responsible risk management,
especially when presented on the "Educational TV" forum.
The programme unfairly referred to 1080's "environmental benefits" without
ever referring to 1080's environmental risks.
Mr James then discussed some scientific reports which reported the effect of 1080 on
fauna and livestock He commented about one sequence in the item:
The segment dealing with TB, showing footage of the supposedly TV infected
possum being sniffed by cows was particularly misleading. It was not
announced for quite some time into this particular footage that the possum did
not have TB at all! Rather the possum had actually been drugged, it was
belatedly announced, and the footage had actually been "stage managed".
Moreover, citing some sources in support of his contention, Mr James maintained that
the item's conclusion - that the use of 1080 was necessary to protect our meat and
dairy exports - was didactic and unfounded.
TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint - 11 October 1995
Assessing the complaint under standards G1 and G6 of the Television Code of
Broadcasting Practice, TVNZ said that the complaint alleged that the programme on
the use of 1080 as a means of destroying possums paid insufficient attention to the
perils in the use of 1080 in that situation.
Before examining the detail of your complaint, the Complaints Committee
considered the context in which the programme was screened. It was one of six
half-hour programmes, screened by Education Television, highlighting innovative
science undertaken by New Zealand scientific institutions. The target audience
is secondary school pupils.
The purpose of this particular programme is clearly spelt out. It is to examine
the National Science Strategy which co-ordinates the research and study of New
Zealand's Plague of Possums.
The committee heard that the series has been exhaustively researched over a
period of two years, and meticulously checked and re-checked with the agencies
to ensure scientific accuracy.
It was important, TVNZ continued, to acknowledge that Plague of Possums was not a
news or current affairs documentary but one which examined the science involved in
attempting to control the possum plague. The discussion on the use of 1080 poison
baits involved less than a quarter of the programme and then focussed on design and
management of the poison campaigns rather than the efficacy of 1080. TVNZ noted:
The restrictions and monitoring surrounding the use of this imperfect but
effective control mechanism are clearly referred to.
TVNZ then examined the evidence advanced by Mr James. After describing his use of
quotes from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as selective, TVNZ
pointed out, as Mr James had acknowledged, that the widespread opposition to 1080
aerial drops had been reported during the period of current interest on the news and on
TVNZ said that the item complained about frequently alluded to the fact that the use
of 1080 was controversial and had stated explicitly that it was a "restricted" poison.
As for the claim that the programme did not deal with the environmental risks of 1080,
TVNZ said that the programme:
... identified the chemical names of 1080, pointed to tests re-examining its
breakdown in water, explained that the poison can persist in cold dry conditions,
indicated that it is very unlikely to transfer up the food chain, reflected that the
effects on insects are being studied and stated that control options are under
review. This whole sequence, it seemed to the committee, indicated that there
may be risks which require monitoring. In the context of the programme there
was need to go beyond that.
In its assessment of the complaint, TVNZ advised, it had sought advice from the
Animal Health Board which reported on the studies cited. TVNZ had also sought
advice from MAF's Quality Management division. Having dealt with the specific
comments received, TVNZ commented:
As you will note, the committee went into your complaint in considerable detail.
Overall, it believed that you were seeing the programme for something it wasn't
and never pretended to be. As indicated at the start, the programme was about
the science involved in attempting to control possums in this country. It was
not a study of the controversy surrounding 1080.
Expressing regret that Mr James found fault with the programme, TVNZ declined to
uphold the complaints and observed.
[TVNZ] believes your concerns stem from a misunderstanding of the
programme's purpose and direction, coupled perhaps with a reliance on
literature which appears to be either outdated or scientifically discredited.
Mr James' Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - 28 October
Dissatisfied with TVNZ's decision, Mr James referred his complaint to the
Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
He began by pointing out that TVNZ did not appear to have considered that the
people behind the "National Science Strategy" might be protagonists for 1080. For
example, the named Animal Health Board representative had in 1994 been the DOC
spokesperson on its "failed Mangamuka 1080 aerial drop". The strategy which the
programme purported to examine, Mr James contended, was "simply an unbalanced,
one-sided endorsement of this controversial possum control practice".
Maintaining that the requirements in standard G6 were not met, Mr James said the
items on Holmes did not provide balance. He also questioned who were the sponsors
of the item and what had been their influence.
Mr James disputed TVNZ's claim that he had cited selectively from the Parliamentary
Commission for the Environment. He also disputed the claim that the item had
alluded to the controversy which surrounded 1080 or that its classification as a poison
had been adequately presented.
Persisting in his opinion that the broadcast breached standard G6, Mr James cited
from specific comments from the programme which, he said, were in breach of the
requirement in standard G1 for truth and accuracy.
TVNZ's Response to the Authority - 8 November 1995
In its report to the Authority, TVNZ repeated some of the points made in its reply to
Mr James. The programme, it emphasised, was aimed at secondary school children
... concentrated on the science involved in controlling the possum population in
New Zealand. It stressed the routine nature of much of the study and the
importance of scientific method in designing and recording studies within our
own environment. It was not a study of the controversy surrounding 1080.
The sponsorship arrangements were openly listed in the opening and closing credits
For the record, name association sponsors for the "Scienz" series (six half-hour
programmes) were the Ministry of Research Science and Technology, the Royal
Society of New Zealand, the Foundation for Research Science and Technology,
and the Ministry of Commerce.
Specific funders and consultants for this episode were the Animal Health Board,
the Department of Conservation, Landcare Research and Agresearch.
In conclusion, TVNZ referred to some specific comments from the item's transcript
which, it said, clearly alluded to the fact that arguments existed about the use of 1080.
Mr James' Final Comment -
Mr James did not respond to the Authority's invitation to reply to TVNZ's report.