BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Jarvis and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2021-135 (20 December 2021)

Members
  • Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
  • John Gillespie
  • Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i
Dated
Complainant
  • Mike Jarvis
Number
2021-135
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary  

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that a 1 News Covid Update broadcast breached the balance and accuracy standards by featuring modelling of the current COVID-19 outbreak provided by Professor Shaun Hendy. The Authority found the balance standard was not breached. While the item discussed the topic of COVID-19 modelling, which is a controversial issue of public importance, it was clearly signalled as approaching the topic from a particular perspective. Viewers could also reasonably be expected to be aware of alternative views from other coverage.  The accuracy standard was not breached as the modelling was analysis, comment or opinion and so was not subject to the standard.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  The 1 News Covid Update broadcast on 23 September 2021 contained daily updates of information on COVID-19 in New Zealand and also a presentation by Professor Shaun Hendy, New Zealand physicist, on COVID-19 modelling. Professor Hendy’s segment was introduced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as follows:

…so a few disclaimers before the work is shared. It does belong to TPM and it is yet to be peer reviewed. It also does not represent an inevitable outcome for New Zealand. We see it as a contribution to a debate and a contribution to the work that we must do going forward.

[2]  Professor Hendy then provided some of the details of the COVID-19 modelling that he had prepared, including the following remarks:

  •  ‘Now, I do need to emphasise that this is just a modelling study, and although we've tried to incorporate the best data from overseas, there's still many uncertainties, you know, if new information does come to light, new information from overseas, our conclusions would have to be updated to allow for that.’
  •  ‘Nonetheless, there are still scenarios where, despite a high vaccination coverage, population immunity would not be achieved. Now this would likely result in severe health burdens that are, you know, an order of magnitude worse than seasonal influenza. For example, if we only get to 80 percent of those over five, then we could still experience 60,000 hospitalisations from COVID-19 in a one year period and 7000 fatalities. Our health care system couldn't cope with this level of illness…There's no magic threshold for vaccination coverage, just the fact that the higher the coverage, the less restrictions you will need in coming years.’
  •  ‘I think it's perfectly valid for us to follow what's happening overseas. But we do have to remember every country is different, it depends on age structures, other measures that you might be prepared to put in place. And I think it's also important to remember that, you know, we're looking at the long term here and we will have to watch what happens in countries like Singapore and Denmark over the longer term, it would be really dangerous to just simply follow a country based on some short term results. This is a strategy that we're going to have to have in place for at least a year, if not several years.’

[3]  Ardern followed by providing further comment on the COVID-19 modelling:

  •  ‘As you can see, sitting behind the work completed by TPM are complex models, a lot of variation to them and likely to be changes to them in the future. They've had to take into account a huge range of variables and I expect those will be debated, but there are still some really strong themes that we can take away, even at this early point.’
  •  ‘This is different to majority modelling in Australia and it's quite different to what we're actually seeing in real life in Singapore.’ (Reporter)
  •  ‘And it's different again to Denmark...These are tools and pieces of information that help inform our decisions. But it's not a matter of this is the singular pathway and here's the inevitable outcome. I don't think any model intends to be that. They call themselves a guide, and the guide that you can take here is vaccines matter and they help us get to freedoms.’ (Ardern)

The complaint

[4]  Mike Jarvis complained the 1 News Covid Update broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards as:

  • Professor Hendy’s conclusions ‘do not appear to reflect reality’ when compared to statistics from countries similar to New Zealand such as Ireland, which has a 70% vaccination rate and 1200 deaths, rather than the 7000 deaths predicted by Professor Hendy with 80% vaccination in New Zealand.
  • Professor Hendy presented the modelling with no background, context or supporting information as to how his modelling reached these figures.
  • The COVID-19 update should not contain pieces of material from a report that has not been peer reviewed, which is presented or designed to be interpreted as fact by viewers.
  • Media seemed unprepared to challenge the statistics and Ardern ‘answered or shut down’ any questions directed to Professor Hendy.
  • Verbal disclosure that the research was private and subject to peer review did not mitigate the breaches of the standards.
  • ‘The material presented was state sponsored ‘propaganda’ and misinformation designed to fit the narrative of the Prime Minister, and the Director-General of Health; specifically to create an element of fear and encourage faster uptake of the vaccine.’
  • TVNZ should have questioned the content of the broadcast before it was broadcast, ‘I'm particularly concerned that the content (Professor Hendy's unbalanced presentation) was deliberately engineered by the Prime Minister and Dr Bloomfield as a scare tactic aimed to create fear and get people to vaccinate.  Why was this scenario chosen to be aired, when of all scenarios, it is the most implausible?’
  • ‘TV1 presumably have been aware in advance to arrange the link to Hendy and could have asked about the matters that were intended to be revealed.’

The broadcaster’s response

[5]  TVNZ did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

  • While COVID-19 modelling is a controversial issue of public importance, the broadcast does not amount to a discussion as it was a government press conference and so the balance standard did not apply. Further, the findings of the model were challenged and criticised on the same day during 1 News, and the modelling has also been discussed widely in other media. They also found that the broadcast provided adequate context for a viewer to understand the report and its conclusions. On this basis the balance standard does not apply.
  • The TPM modelling was clearly distinguishable as analysis and so the accuracy standard did not apply.
  • The press conference was broadcast live so the broadcaster has no ability to question the content before it was aired.

The standards

[6]  The balance standard1 states when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs or factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.2 The standard only applies to news, current affairs and factual programmes, which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.3

[7]  The purpose of the accuracy standard4 is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.5 It states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. Being ‘misled’ is defined as being given ‘a wrong idea or impression of the facts.’6 

Our analysis

[8]  We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[9]  Our task is to weigh the value of the programme, in terms of the right to freedom of expression and the public interest in it, against the level of actual or potential harm caused. The harm alleged is the audience would be misled as to the effects of a COVID-19 outbreak in New Zealand at various levels of vaccination. The value of the programme was high given it was a live press conference featuring the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health disseminating health information relating to the current COVID-19 pandemic. There is a public interest in broadcasting government announcements but this means the broadcaster has limited ability to include balancing content or undertake fact checking. The public interest in this health information also means it is important to ensure accuracy. Broadcasters play an important role in keeping the public informed with regard to the pandemic.

Balance

[10]  For the balance standard to apply, the subject matter of the broadcast must be an issue of ‘public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’ and it must be ‘discussed’ in a news, current affairs or factual programme.7

[11]  Professor Hendy was presenting his findings based on his own modelling. He and the Prime Minister discussed the use of COVID-19 modelling. It is an important tool for the New Zealand government and public to predict and understand how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the country. The various models and their outcomes are varied, constantly being updated and subject to challenges and criticism. On this basis COVID-19 modelling is a controversial issue of public importance, which was discussed within the item, and the balance standard applies.

[12]  The following factors are important in our consideration of whether a reasonable range of perspectives were presented:8

  • The broadcast did not suggest it was a balanced examination of alternative modelling methods. This was demonstrated through comments including ‘We see it as a contribution to a debate’, ‘Professor Hendy's modelling has been available in different forms and iterations right from the beginning of COVID, and so has a range of other models’, and ‘They've had to take into account a huge range of variables and I expect those will be debated’.
  • It was clearly signalled as being from the perspective of Professor Hendy and the Government, as it was a live press conference with limited ability for reporters to meaningfully question the statistics presented.
  • During reporter questions, it was identified that the modelling differed from ‘majority modelling in Australia’ and from experience in Singapore and Denmark.
  • An alternative view was presented by the broadcaster during an item concerning Professor Hendy’s modelling on the 1 News broadcast at 6pm that day, which included the following commentary:

Reporter:              Not everyone agrees using modelling is useful

Rodney Jones (Modeller): It’s just not plausible, and it’s unhelpful. We are in a good space, we can look forward to 2022 with confidence and this sort of forecast just creates uncertainty and creates fear.

  • Viewers could also reasonably be expected to be aware of other perspectives on the issues from subsequent broadcasts and other media.9

[13]  For these reasons, we do not uphold the complaint under this standard.

Accuracy

[14]  The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment, or opinion, rather than statements of fact.10

[15]  COVID-19 modelling results in a forecast of likely infections based on probabilities is not a verifiable fact that can be proven right or wrong. Forecasts and predictions are by their nature opinions about possible future events, based on the analysis of available research and data.

[16]  As the broadcast was presenting analysis, comment or opinion rather than statements of fact, the accuracy standard does not apply.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Susie Staley
Chair
20 December 2021    

 

 

Appendix

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

1  Mike Jarvis’ formal complaint – 29 September 2021

2  TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 28 October 2021

3  Jarvis’ referral to the Authority – 7 November 2021

4  TVNZ’s final comments – 8 November 2021

5  Jarvis’ final comments – 15 November 2021


1 Standard 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 As above
4 Standard 9 of the Free-To-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
5 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
6 Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd, CIV-2011-485-1110 at [98]
7 Guideline 8a
8 Guideline 8c
9 See “Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Shaun Hendy stands by modelling amid criticism” Radio New Zealand (online ed, 24 September 2021); Henry Cooke “Covid-19 NZ: Rodney Jones says Shaun Hendy's 7000-death vaccine model doesn't pass plausibility test” Stuff (online ed, 23 September 2021); “Hendy’s modelling just one of 'range of advice' Govt gets: Robertson” 1 News (online ed, 24 September 2021).
10 Guideline 9a