BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Torrey & Mayell and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2019-102 (7 May 2020)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Julie Torrey & David Mayell
Number
2019-102
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
TV One

Warning: This decision contains content that some readers may find disturbing.

Summary

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

A 1 News item reported on the confessions of a man identified as America’s most prolific serial killer, Samuel Little. The Authority did not uphold complaints that the inclusion of a statement by the man breached the good taste and decency, children’s interests and violence standards. The Authority determined that the content was justified by context and in the public interest. The Authority acknowledged the high value in news and current affairs reporting and noted that the introduction to the item (which included reference to a ‘chilling’ police interview) was adequate to inform viewers of the nature of the coverage enabling them to adequately protect themselves and their children from the content by choosing not to watch. However, the Authority noted that where broadcasters provide audience advisories about potentially challenging content through a programme host’s introduction, it is important that the introduction is factual and captures the nature of the content to come.

Not upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Children’s Interests and Violence


The broadcast

[1]  On 9 October 2019, 1 News reported on an American serial killer, Samuel Little. The introduction to the item follows:

A 79 year old man has been revealed as America’s most prolific serial killer and now the FBI is appealing for help to identify victims after Samuel Little confessed to 93 murders over 35 years. Here’s ABC’s Steve Austin with his chilling police interview.

[2]  The report subsequently continued:

He is now considered the most murderous serial killer this country has ever seen, and tonight Federal Officials are posting his jailhouse confessions online, hoping to jog memories and discover clues that lead to the remains of his victims.

[3]  The item featured clips of the police interview of Samuel Little:

Samuel Little: She was like partially concealed by the vegetation.

Reporter: Samuel Little has confessed to strangling 93 women between 1970 and 2005, and the FBI believes all of his confessions are credible. Some of the bodies were never found. He was already serving a life sentence for three murders in the 1980s. On 60 Minutes he was not shy about what it felt like to kill.

Samuel Little: You know that she’s fighting for her life, and I’m fighting for my pleasure.

Reporter: He remembered many of the details like it was yesterday, and has even drawn these pictures of his victims, for investigators. Little explains that he killed sex workers or people with drug addictions because he thought they wouldn’t be missed.

[4]  The item was broadcast on 1 News at 6pm, 9 October 2019 on TVNZ 1.

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

The complaints

[6]  Both complaints expressed particular concern with the broadcast of Mr Little’s comment ‘she’s fighting for her life, and I’m fighting for my pleasure.’

Julie Torrey’s complaint

[7]  Julie Torrey submitted that the broadcast breached the good taste and decency and violence standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice for reasons including:

  • Samuel Little’s comment was boastful and smug and he appeared to be proud of his deeds.
  • The comment glorified violence.
  • The quote was not necessary and sensationalist.
  • The broadcaster had not considered the trauma such quotes might cause to viewers, particularly those who have been personally exposed to violence.
  • The introduction’s reference to the pending details of his ‘chilling police interview’ did not sufficiently warn viewers that they were ‘about to hear a mass killer boast about the way he killed one of his victims’.

David Mayell’s complaint

[8]  David Mayell complained that the item breached the good taste and decency, children’s interests and violence standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[9]  Mr Mayell’s submissions included:

  • To broadcast words which imply ‘there’s pleasure in murder’ runs ‘the very real risk in today’s society of others wanting to understand and experience’ what he has described (ie by killing). 
  • The news item was pre-recorded and the broadcaster had time to vet and edit the item.
  • The item was not one of particular public interest in New Zealand as it was an American news item. It was Mr Mayell’s view that the particular quote was used to ‘hype up this news’.
  • Samuel Little’s statements described the victim’s experience of dying which is inconsistent with the children’s interests and violence standard requirements.
  • There was no adequate warning for the item.

The broadcaster’s response

[10]  The broadcaster did not uphold the complaints for the following reasons:

  • For a programme to be considered a breach of the good taste and decency standard, the material shown, within its context, must be unacceptable to a significant number of viewers.
  • 1 News is aimed at an adult audience and news broadcasts often discuss current events including serious crimes of this nature.
  • Children of a vulnerable age are unlikely to watch the news unattended.
  • The broadcaster cited previous Authority decisions which accepted that adult supervision is expected for items aired on news programmes and there is an expectation that parents will exercise discretion around the viewing of news and current affairs by their children.
  • No details of the murder were discussed.
  • The comment complained about was a generalised comment revealing his state of mind and it was not attributed to any particular victim.
  • There was no endorsement or prominence given to Samuel Little’s comment.
  • The introduction to the item and comments preceding the particular statement complained about, make it clear that ‘chilling’ details of murder will be heard and that Mr Little ‘was not shy about what it felt like to kill’. This provided sufficient information to enable viewers to make an informed decision on whether or not they wished to continue viewing.

The relevant standards

[11]  The good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) requires broadcasters to maintain current norms of good taste and decency consistent with the context of the programme and the wider context of the broadcast. Broadcasters should take effective steps to inform audiences of the nature of the programme, and enable viewers to regulate their own and children’s viewing behaviour.1

[12]  The children’s interests standard (Standard 3) requires broadcasters to ensure children can be protected from broadcasts which might adversely affect them, including material that unduly disturbs them, is harmful, or is likely to impair their physical, mental or social development.

[13]  Context is crucial to the Authority’s assessment of complaints under both standards 1 and 3, including the programme’s classification and time of broadcast, the target and likely audience, and any pre-broadcast warnings for certain content.2

[14]  The violence standard (Standard 4) is intended to protect audiences from unduly disturbing violent content. Violent content should be appropriate to the context of the programme. The standard requires broadcasters to exercise care and discretion when portraying violence.

Our analysis

Freedom of expression and public interest

[15]  The starting point in our consideration of complaints is the right to freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression is an important right in maintaining a healthy democracy. It however is not an absolute right and may be limited where the exercise of the right has or may cause harm. When we consider complaints, we weigh the public interest, value in the broadcast and right to freedom of expression against the harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We must ensure that any limitation on freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.

[16]  News and current affairs reporting on matters of public interest carries high value and plays a critical role in a healthy democratic society. The level of public interest in a broadcast is an important consideration when assessing complaints.3 Matters of public interest may include criminal matters, including exposing or detecting crime, issues of public health or safety, and the exposing of seriously antisocial and harmful conduct.4

[17]  Matters of public interest are not limited to just local news items. International news items play a role in keeping the public informed and aware of issues, and create and contribute to public discourse and discussion.5 We therefore consider the news item in question to be of public interest with value for New Zealand audiences.

[18]  We have weighed this against the potential harm that the broadcast may have caused. For the reasons discussed below, we do not consider that any actual or potential harm is such that would warrant regulatory intervention and limiting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression in this case.

The relevant contextual factors

[19]  The context of the broadcast is highly relevant in determining whether a programme has breached broadcasting standards, and is relevant to the three standards raised in the complaints considered. We consider the following contextual factors to be relevant:

  • 1 News is an unclassified news programme targeted at and likely to be viewed by an adult audience. It is unlikely that children will watch it unsupervised.5
  • The item is a report about criminal matters and the uncovering and solving of historical serious criminal cases.
  • The introduction to the item stated that the item covered Mr Little’s ‘chilling’ interview with the police.
  • The item (in particular the statement ‘she’s fighting for her life, and I’m fighting for my pleasure’) included disturbing insights into Mr Little’s behaviour and the experience of his victims.
  • While clips included snippets of Mr Little, he was not the focus of the report. The focus of the report was the effort to ‘jog memories’ and discover clues leading to the remains of his victims.
  • The clips were not accompanied by any violent imagery or graphic description of the murders.

Good Taste and Decency Standard

[20]  Taking into account the above contextual factors, we do not consider the item is likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. While broadcasters should take reasonable care in minimising potential harm, the standards recognise that news programmes are by their nature distinctive, and often include disturbing and challenging material that is reflective of the world we live in. Broadcasters are not expected to shield audiences from violent or tragic events, which unfortunately do take place.7 The focus of the standards is on providing effective protections to enable viewers to make a different viewing choice and to exercise discretion.

[21]  Where broadcasters take effective steps to inform their audiences of the nature of their programmes, and enable viewers to regulate their own and their children’s viewing behaviour, they are less likely to breach the good taste and decency standard.8

[22]  In this case, the item did not contain an express warning. TVNZ relied upon the host’s introduction, which included reference to a ‘chilling’ police interview, to caution its audience as to the nature of the item. After careful consideration, we concluded the term ‘chilling’, while somewhat titillating and less factual or descriptive than it could have been, was adequate to convey the disturbing nature of the item, giving viewers sufficient information to determine to choose not to watch. Taking into account this advisory, and the contextual factors set out in paragraph [19], we do not uphold the complaint under this standard. However, we note that this advisory was merely adequate.  We consider that when broadcasters rely upon hosts’ introductions in this way it is important that the introduction is factual and appropriately captures the nature of the content that is to come.   

[23]  For these reasons we do not uphold the complaints under standard 1.

Children’s Interests Standard

[24]  The factors outlined in paragraphs [19] and [22] are also important under the children’s interests standard. We find that the host’s introduction, combined with the contextual factors, enabled viewers to adequately protect their children from the content, by choosing not to watch.

[25]  Guidelines to the children’s interests standard require that disturbing or alarming material in such news programmes should be justified in the public interest.9 We have already concluded that the story as a whole was in the public interest.  We also consider the particular comment (which we agree was disturbing in nature) was relevant to the item reported and in the public interest. The item provides an insight into Mr Little’s behaviour, exposing the reality of seriously anti-social and harmful characteristics.

[26]  We acknowledge that the item may have been distressing to some. However, for the reasons given above, we did not find the harm to be at a level that justifies our intervention.

[27]  For the above reasons, we do not uphold the complaint that the broadcast breached the children’s interests standard. 

Violence

[28]  The violence standard guidelines recognise that disturbing or alarming material may sometimes feature in news and current affairs items as it reflects the world in which violence occurs.10 The broadcaster’s obligation is to ensure that the material is justified by the context11 and in the public interest, and that, where appropriate, an audience advisory is included.12

[29]  We acknowledge that the short clips of Mr Little’s interview included disturbing insights into his behaviour and the experience of the victims. However, in the context of a news programme targeted at an adult audience, educating viewers regarding crime and focussed on the solving of historical crimes, we do not consider the content was unjustified.

[30]  The item did not contain any graphic descriptions or images of violence. The broadcast did not linger or dwell on Mr Little or the details of his crimes.

[31]  As discussed in the context of our analysis under the good taste and decency and children’s interests standards, we consider that the introduction to the item sufficiently signalled the likely content. 

[32]  Finally, we do not consider the particular content reached the threshold of being likely to incite or encourage violence or that it included any combination of violence and sex designed to titillate, beyond current socially acceptable community norms.  Footage of Mr Little was limited, there was no express reference to any sexual offending, Mr Little was shown as a convicted prisoner in custody and his actions portrayed in a condemning light.

[33]  For these reasons, we do not uphold the complaints that the item breached the violence standard.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaints.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

7 May 2020   

 

 

 

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined these complaints:

1.  Julie Torrey’s original complaint to TVNZ – 9 October 2019

2.  TVNZ’s response to Ms Torrey – 8 November 2019

3.  Ms Torrey’s referral to the BSA – 22 November 2019

4.  TVNZ’s further comments - 24 February 2020

5.  Ms Torrey’s final comments – 15 March 2020

6.  David Mayell’s original complaint to TVNZ – 11 October 2019

7.  TVNZ’s response to Mr Mayell – 8 November 2019

8.  Mr Mayell’s referral to the BSA – 25 November 2019

9.  TVNZ’s further comments – 17 February 2020


1 Guideline 1b
2 Guidelines 1a and 3b
3 Freedom of expression, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, at page 6
4 Guidance: Privacy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, at page 61
5 Pask and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-057 at [10]
6 Lowry and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-051 at [9]
7 Lewis and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2017-069 at [14]. Also see Moore and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2017-059 at [11]
8 Guideline 1b
9 Guideline 3d
10 Guideline 4d
11 Guideline 4a
12 Guideline 4d