BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Steele and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2022-104 (22 November 2022)

  • Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
  • John Gillespie
  • Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i
  • Aroha Beck
  • James Steele


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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that an episode of Unbreakable, which featured stories about New Zealanders with disabilities, including Golriz Ghahraman MP, was unbalanced and unfair. The Authority noted it is not unbalanced to include an MP in a story, and that as a human interest piece, alternative viewpoints were not required to be presented. The fairness standard did not apply.

Not Upheld: Balance, Fairness

The broadcast

[1]  Unbreakable is a documentary series that follows New Zealanders with disabilities as they seek to achieve their goals. Each episode features three individuals. An episode broadcast on 16 August 2022, on TVNZ 1, featured Golriz Ghahraman MP. It followed her experience of working as a member of Parliament while having multiple sclerosis (MS).

The complaint

[2]  James Steele complained the broadcast breached the balance and fairness standards of the Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand.


[3]  The complainant alleged the programme was unbalanced because:

  • It used public funding to ‘publicly endorse a sitting member of parliament’, by portraying Ghahraman in a favourable light, and inviting the audience to empathise with her and her goal – ‘a People’s Vaccine’ – and to share in her disappointment at not achieving her policy goal.
  • It included Ghahraman’s policy discussion, and highlighted a cause she backed (the People’s Vaccine), without any critique of those policies, and without portraying an alternative viewpoint.


[4]  Under fairness, the complainant alleged:

  • ‘TVNZ has not treated with fairness the following parties… Te Pāti Māori, Act New Zealand, The New Zealand National Party, New Zealand First Party, The Opportunities Party, and all other registered political parties in Aotearoa New Zealand’. Other parties were excluded from having their own MPs participate in the series, and should have ‘been allowed equal air time to lead the viewer to equate an emotion with the success of a political cause’.

The broadcaster’s response

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

  • The issue being discussed in the series is how different people with disabilities manage the challenges they face and go about living their lives. This focus is not a controversial issue of public importance. The focus on individual lives does not trigger this standard, or require balancing material.
  • The ‘sadness Ms Ghahraman feels about not managing to persuade the government to support the people’s vaccine, an initiative which was being discussed in early 2021, is not [a controversial] issue.’
  • The fairness standard is not triggered, as the complainant has not identified any person or organisation featured in the programme, who has been treated unfairly.

The standards

[6]  The balance standard1 ensures competing viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.2 The standard only applies to news, current affairs and factual programmes, which discuss a controversial issue of public importance.3

[7]  The fairness standard4 protects the dignity and reputation of those featured in programmes.5 It ensures individuals and organisations taking part or referred to in broadcasts are dealt with justly and fairly and protected from unwarranted damage. In this case the fairness standard does not apply, and is dealt with briefly at [19].

Our analysis

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

[9]  As a starting point, we considered the right to freedom of expression. It is our role to weigh up the right to freedom of expression against any harm potentially caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.6

[10]  In this case we note that the value in the broadcast is high. The broadcast promotes the voices of a marginalised community in Aotearoa New Zealand, and in the case of Ghahraman, issues of participation in politics for those with disabilities, which is an important subject. Accordingly, we would require a correspondingly high level of potential harm to justify restriction of the broadcaster’s freedom of expression. For the reasons further outlined below, we have identified no potential harm at such a threshold.


[11]  Determination of a complaint under the balance standard occurs in two steps.7 The first step is to consider whether the standard applies. It will only apply where the subject matter is:

  • an issue ‘of public importance’ (something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, New Zealanders);
  • ‘controversial’ (an issue of topical currency; which has generated or is likely to generate conflicting opinion; or about which there has been ongoing debate – eg issues related to New Zealand political policy, public health and safety, public expenditure); and
  • ‘discussed’ in a news, current affairs or factual programme (eg investigative or in-depth work – brief news reports, programme clearly focused on a particular perspective, or personal or human interest stories, may not amount to a discussion).

[12]  The second step is to assess whether the broadcaster sufficiently presented significant viewpoints in the circumstances.

[13]  With regard to the first step, the show clearly signalled that its purpose was to show New Zealanders from all walks of life, with various disabilities, on a journey to achieve particular goals. It demonstrated how Ghahraman (and the other individuals featured) managed the particular challenges they faced in the pursuit of those goals. Ghahraman’s political views and objectives were not the point of the programme. However, reference to some of her political objectives (including the People’s Vaccine), and how important they were to her, served to support the programme’s depiction of the particular challenges of an MP in her circumstances (including that she was ‘determined not to let anyone down’ despite the tiredness and concerns associated with her illness).

[14]  Human interest or personal stories do not generally trigger the requirements of the balance standard as they do not deal with controversial issues of public importance.8 Viewers would not expect a programme of this nature to include ‘balancing perspectives’ portraying Ghahraman or her political objectives ‘in a less positive light’.

[15]  In addition, to the extent the political policies mentioned in the broadcast may themselves constitute controversial issues of public importance, we do not consider their mention in this context constituted a ‘discussion’ for the purposes of the standard.

[16]  Further, the depiction of Ghahraman’s attempt to achieve her ‘People’s Vaccine’ policy goal – to persuade the New Zealand Government to join other countries in waiving intellectual property rights to vaccines for developing nations – was from over a year ago. The results of that policy are no longer of significant concern to New Zealanders, and the issue in and of itself is no longer controversial, as a Government decision was made in May 2021 to support the international effort to waive intellectual property rights in relation to Covid-19 vaccines and therefore the issue is moot.9 There is no ongoing discussion or debate on this topic.

[17]  Rather than balance, the complainant appears to be expressing concern regarding TVNZ’s apparent bias (including its choice of portraying a politician from only one political party in its programme and for ‘inviting the audience to sympathise with her political cause’). However, the balance standard is not directed at bias in and of itself. Provided the standard is not breached, broadcasters are entitled to present stories from particular perspectives.10

[18]  For the reasons above, we consider the balance standard does not apply.


[19]  As noted above, the fairness standard requires broadcasters to deal fairly with any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in a broadcast. The complainant has stated other political parties (not including the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand) were treated unfairly, by not having representation of their own MPs who have disabilities in the programme. We note that as none of the other political parties took part in, or were referred to in the broadcast, this standard does not apply to them or their MPs.

[20]  For clarity, we note the presence of an MP from one particular political party in a television show, does not mean that other MPs from other parties must also be provided equal airtime in the same show. The broadcaster has editorial choice and the freedom of expression to include who it wishes in its broadcasts, so long as it does not breach broadcasting standards.

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


Susie Staley
22 November 2022   




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

1  James Steele’s formal complaint – 17 August 2022

2  TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 12 September 2022

3  Steele’s referral to the Authority – 12 September 2022

4  TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 3 October 2022

1 Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
2 Commentary, Standard 5, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 14
3 Guideline 5.1
4 Standard 8, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand
5 Commentary, Standard 8, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 20
6 Introduction, Code of Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand at page 4
7 Guideline 5.1
8Caughey and Leyland and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-009
9 Thomas Manch “New Zealand to support effort to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents, after United States backs WTO bid” Stuff (online ed, 6 May 2021)
10Drinnan and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No 2021-083, at [14]