BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Helm and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1999-173

Members
  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • J Withers
Dated
Complainant
  • Roger Helm
Number
1999-173
Programme
One Network News
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary

An item reporting on the result of a One Network News/Colmar Brunton political poll was broadcast on One Network News on TV One 21 June 1999 between 6.00pm and 7.00pm.

Mr Helm complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was misleading and inaccurate in its interpretation of the poll results. He said that the item incorrectly linked voter support to the potential composition of a future Parliament. He said that the interpretation was based on a wrong assumption that the poll results, if reflected in a general election, would lead to proportional, or very nearly proportional, representation.

TVNZ responded that the item was an accurate indication of political preferences at the time of polling. It noted that the results were not presented as a prediction of the outcome of the next general election, but as an indication of how Parliament would look on the basis of an election held "today". It declined to uphold the complaint.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Helm 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 declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The result of a One Network News/Colmar Brunton political poll was the subject of a news item broadcast on 21 June 1999 during One Network News between 6.00pm and 7.00pm. The item reported the percentages of those polled who would vote for each of National, Labour, the Alliance, ACT and NZ First. The item continued by indicating the number of seats in Parliament which those political parties would obtain, on the basis that the poll results would indicate the outcome of an election held "today". The calculations of seat numbers proportionately represented the party vote preference of those polled. The item was accompanied by a computer-derived illustration of Parliament. In the illustration the seats which would be won by each party were colour-coded.

Mr Helm complained about the way that TVNZ had interpreted the poll. He said that statements made in the item about the number of seats which each party would have won if an election were held "today" were inaccurate and misleading.

He complained that TVNZ did not describe the potential ways in which disproportionate results could arise in the upcoming election through parties colluding to manipulate election results. To illustrate his point, Mr Helm stated that the Electoral Act would not prevent a political party withdrawing many of its safe-constituency candidates before the election and endorsing "stooge" or "crony" party candidates in their place in return for such stooge or crony parties endorsing its list.

In summary, Mr Helm said:

It is not enough to argue that the electoral system is intended to be proportional. What counts is what the Electoral Act says, not what it is commonly imagined to say.

In its response, TVNZ advised that it had considered the complaint under standards G1 and G11(i) of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters:

G1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

G11  To refrain from broadcasting any programme which, when considered as a whole:

(i) Simulates news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm viewers.

TVNZ suggested that Mr Helm may "fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of political polls conducted on TVNZ’s behalf". It described such polls as providing a snapshot of political preferences at the time the poll was taken, not predicting the result of an election. It contended that it had reported the poll results without error and that its interpretation of the poll result, made on the basis of an election held "today", was not misleading.

TVNZ noted that "some political machinations were possible, even likely" before the upcoming election. But it said that such machinations:

… are not strictly relevant in the search for information about current political preferences.

TVNZ expressed its regret that Mr Helm had found fault with its item but advised that it did not consider it breached programme standards. It declined to uphold the complaint.

As he was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Helm referred the complaint to the Authority. In his referral he described TVNZ’s response as "surprisingly obtuse". In his view, it failed to address his objection to "party support (percentages) being ‘translated’ proportionately to party representation numbers without even acknowledging other possibilities".

In its response to the Authority, TVNZ said that, while it agreed with much of what Mr Helm said in his correspondence, it had difficulty understanding what Mr Helm’s complaint had to do with what it considered to be its accurate reporting of a poll result.

In his final comment, Mr Helm maintained that TVNZ had misinterpreted his complaint. He stated that his complaint concerned the interpretation of poll results and was independent of the reporting of the poll results themselves.

The Authority’s Findings

Standard G1 requires broadcasters to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The Authority finds that it was neither misleading nor inaccurate for TVNZ to present its interpretation of the poll results to viewers without providing them with more information. It considers that the public recognises that any poll is a blunt instrument. A broadcaster is not expected to present opinions on polls which are encumbered by detailed caveats about theoretical possibility of the type Mr Helm outlined. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint under standard G1.

As to standard G11(i), the Authority finds that it is not apposite on this occasion. Standard G11(i) refers to the simulation of news and events in a broadcast which misleads or alarms. The Authority does not find that the item was misleading or alarming. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint under standard G11(i).

 

For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Sam Maling
Chairperson
21 October 1999

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1.    Roger Helm’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 25 June 1999

2.    TVNZ’s Letter to the Complainant – 28 June 1999

3.    TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 July 1999

4.    Mr Helm’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 3 August 1999

5.    TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 18 August 1999

6.    Mr Helm’s Final Comment – 25 August 1999