Malone and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2019-099 ( 7 April 2020)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Ross Malone
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the use of the term ‘synthetic cannabis’ in a 1 News segment that reported on these products and their likely link to a number of deaths breached the accuracy or programme information standards. The Authority cited a recent decision where it found that while these products do not contain actual cannabis, the term ‘synthetic cannabis’ is commonly used to describe them and is unlikely to mislead viewers. Therefore, the Authority did not consider it likely viewers would be significantly misinformed by its use in this broadcast. The Authority also did not identify any breaches of the programme information standard.
Not Upheld: Accuracy, Programme Information
 A segment on 1 News reported on a person’s death, likely as a result of smoking synthetic cannabis products and the general increase in deaths caused by synthetic cannabis products. The item featured comment from an emergency medicine specialist and an Auckland detective inspector. It also cited a coroner’s report regarding the person’s death.
 Synthetic cannabis is a smokeable plant material containing one or more chemical compounds called synthetic cannabinoids that cause the user to get ‘high’.1
 The segment was broadcast on 10 September 2019 on TVNZ 1. In considering this complaint, we have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 Ross Malone complained that the broadcast breached the accuracy and programme information standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice for the following reasons:
- The broadcast described ‘synthetic drugs otherwise known as synthetics as being cannabis when there has never been cannabis in this product.’
- This was likely to unintentionally mislead viewers into thinking cannabis was responsible for the deaths discussed in the broadcast rather than synthetics.
- ‘The correct terms to use are synthetic drugs, synthetics, synthetic compounds or synthetic cannabanoids. [sic]’
- The use of the term ‘synthetic cannabis’ by others ‘is not an excuse for the news companies to automatically use an inaccurate term as they are the broadcaster not the coroner.’
The broadcaster’s response
 TVNZ submitted the broadcast did not breach the nominated standards for the following reasons:
- It is clear in the item that the drugs being discussed are synthetic.
- ‘It is routine for the officials who deal with these drugs to reference them as synthetic cannabis as they contain one or more chemical compounds called synthetic cannabinoids that cause the user to get “high”.’
- The segment formed part of an unclassified news programme, therefore the programme information standard is not applicable in the circumstances.
The relevant standards
 The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact and does not mislead.
 The programme information standard (Standard 2) requires broadcasters to ensure that programmes are correctly classified and screened in appropriate timebands.
Freedom of expression and public interest
 The right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information, is the starting point in our consideration of complaints. Equally important is our consideration of the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.
 Audiences may be misinformed in two ways: by incorrect statements of fact within the programme; and/or by being misled by the programme.2 Being ‘misled’ is defined as being given ‘a wrong idea or impression of the facts.’3
 The harm alleged in this case is that by using terms such as ‘synthetic cannabis’, TVNZ are misleading the public into thinking these synthetic products contain cannabis.
 The same harm was alleged by Mr Malone to have been caused by a similar segment broadcast during Newshub on the same day. In considering Mr Malone’s complaint about the Newshub item, we determined that:4
- The use of this phrase (synthetic cannabis) and similar phrases used in the broadcast to describe the products was not inaccurate or misleading.
- At no stage in the broadcast were the products described simply as ‘cannabis’ (the term was always preceded by ‘synthetic’ which means ‘of or relating to products made from artificial substances, often copying a natural product’ (emphasis added)).5
- ‘Synthetic cannabis’ and ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ are also well-established terms that are used to describe synthetic plant-based products that attempt to recreate the effects of cannabis.
- The term ‘synthetic cannabis’ is also commonly used in the media to describe the products reported on in the broadcast, often in reference to the harm these products can cause.6
 We ultimately found it was unlikely viewers would be significantly misinformed by the use of the phrase ‘synthetic cannabis’ and therefore the broadcast was not inaccurate or misleading.
 We find the same with respect to this broadcast. We do not consider the use of the phrase ‘synthetic cannabis’ in this 1 News segment was likely to mislead viewers regarding the nature or make-up of synthetic products, nor do we consider the use of this phrase to be inaccurate considering its widespread use.
 Therefore, we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.
 The basis on which Mr Malone considered that the programme information standard had been breached is unclear from submissions. We did not identify anything in the broadcast that indicated a breach of this standard.
 Therefore, we do not uphold the complaint under the programme information standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
7 April 2020
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Ross Malone’s formal complaint – 26 September 2019
2 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 24 October 2019
3 Mr Malone’s referral to the Authority – 7 November 2019
4 Mr Malone’s further comments – 14 November 2019
5 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 20 December 2019
2 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 19
3 Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd, CIV-2011-485-1110
4 Malone and Mediaworks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-087
6 See for example: Synthetic cannabis caused or contributed to deaths of 80 people in New Zealand in less than two years (1 News, 29 April 2019), Chilling map shows which synthetic drugs are killing Kiwis around New Zealand (Newshub, 11 September 2019)