BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Seager and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2012-052

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Peter Seager
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Sunday – interview with a man about the fate of his wife who died in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake – showed sequence of photographs as reporter stated, “As these police photos show, there were concrete cutters used on the western side of the building, but what about on the side [the woman] and four others were trapped?” – photographs allegedly inaccurate and misleading

Standard 5 (accuracy) – photographs used to illustrate assertions, based on eyewitness evidence, that concrete cutters were available but not used – use of photographs not material in the context of the item – photographs would not have misled viewers in any significant respect – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1]  An item on Sunday, titled “The Longest Night”, contained an interview with a man about the fate of his wife who died in the Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011, while trapped inside the CTV building. The item was introduced as follows:

It was our first national emergency. Our response teams had been planning, training, for such an event for more than a decade, and yet when the February 22 earthquake hit Christchurch last year, a lot went wrong with emergency services. [Man’s name] knows this more than anyone. His wife, [name] was trapped for more than 12 hours by the collapse of the CTV building. It was an horrific ordeal, played out in front of our cameras.

[2]  During the item, a sequence of six photographs of rescuers using concrete cutters was shown, as the reporter stated, “As these police photos show, there were concrete cutters used on the western side of the building, but what about on the side [the woman] and four others were trapped?” The item was broadcast on TV One on 15 April 2012.

[3]  Peter Seager made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was misleading as it suggested the photographs were taken on 22 February, to support the claim that concrete cutters were available, but not used, to rescue the woman. He noted that some of the photographs showed members of the Japanese Urban Search and Rescue team, who arrived in New Zealand within two days of the earthquake to assist with the rescue efforts, but who were not yet in New Zealand on 22 February.

[4]  The issue is whether the item breached Standard 5 (accuracy) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Nature of the item and freedom of expression

[6]  The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. In determining an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we assess the importance of the particular speech and the extent to which the values of freedom of expression are engaged, and weigh this against the level of harm in terms of the underlying objectives of the relevant broadcasting standards.

[7]  The focus of the Sunday item was the failed rescue of a woman and four students trapped on the eastern side of the CTV building following the Christchurch earthquake. The story was told from the perspective of her husband, who was present at the CTV site on 22 February, searching for his wife, and whose ordeal was captured by TVNZ cameras.

[8]  The wider context of the broadcast, as stated in the introduction, was questioning what “went wrong with emergency services”. For example, after covering the woman’s story, the presenter stated, “We wanted to know, what should the emergency services have done? …In this situation, what is international best practice?” Extracts from an interview with a Professor of Disaster Management at California State University were broadcast, in which he offered his views on international best practice for successful rescues.

[9]  There was a high level of public interest in the item. It it is important for the media to investigate and examine such issues, and it was legitimate to question, on behalf of the public, perceived inadequacies in the rescue efforts following the Christchurch earthquake – one of New Zealand’s worst natural disasters. In doing so, emergency services were provided with the opportunity to present their perspective, and the item acknowledged, in a positive way, the significant role played by rescuers.

[10]  We therefore think we should be cautious about interfering with the item’s broadcast and reception.

Was the item inaccurate or misleading?

[11]  Standard 5 (accuracy) 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 objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.1

[12]  In his complaint referral, Mr Seager said, “I am not disputing the presence or otherwise of concrete cutters at the site that night, only the manner in which TVNZ chose to ‘prove’ it.”

[13]  TVNZ accepted that at least some of the photographs showed Japanese rescuers working at the CTV site, and were taken some time after 22 February. However, it contended that the photographs were used to illustrate that there were concrete cutters on the western side of the building, but not made available or ever used on the eastern side where the woman and students were trapped. TVNZ noted that Sunday did not state that the photographs were taken on 22 February.

[14]  As the photographs were not “points of fact”, the issue is whether the use of the photographs was misleading, in the sense that they gave viewers a “wrong idea or impression of the facts”.2

[15]  We accept that it was technically incorrect for the reporter to use the phrase, “As these police photographs show”, given that at least some of the photographs were taken after 22 February. However, in the context of the item, we find that the use of the photographs was not material to the point being made, and therefore that their use was not misleading. The photographs were used to visually illustrate the assertion that, according to eyewitness accounts, concrete cutters were available on the western side of the CTV building on 22 February, but were not used on the eastern side of the building. This was confirmed in the item by fire service personnel, a digger driver operating on the eastern side of the building, and a concrete-cutting professional who offered his services, as well as the woman’s husband.

[16]  The absence of concrete cutters on the eastern side of the CTV building was just one factor that was said to contribute to the failed rescue efforts, and the tragedy of all those who died in the devastating earthquake. We do not consider that the use of the photographs in this context would have misled viewers in any significant respect.

[17]  For these reasons, and giving full weight to the requirements of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, we find that upholding the complaint would be an unjustifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression. We therefore decline to uphold the complaint.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Radich
24 October 2012


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

1                  Peter Seager’s formal complaint – 16 April 2012

2                 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 16 May 2012

3                 Mr Seager’s referral to the Authority – 18 May 2012

4                 TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 14 August 2012

5                 Mr Seager’s final comment – 21 August 2012

1Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036

2Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Ltd PDF1.92 MB CIV-2011-485-1110 [2012] NZHC 131 at paragraph [98] per Williams J