Broadcasting Standards and…

Vicki Hyde told the Conference how the Skeptics’ complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority had progressed.

The story so far

As outlined in the last issue (“Real TV”? How TVNZ Turned a Hoax into a Documentary), the Skeptics brought their first-ever complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority regarding the way in which the hoax documentary Alien Abduction Incident in Lake County was broadcast by TVNZ. In the complaint the Skeptics maintained that there had been five specific breaches of the Code of Broadcasting Practice for Television.

We told TVNZ that we thought their removal of the credits identifying the programme as fiction and their running of a misleading disclaimer before the programme was in breach of G1 requiring broadcasters to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The programme itself was a piece of fiction, but in choosing to eliminate indicators of that and in the wording of the disclaimer, TVNZ as a broadcaster was neither truthful nor accurate in their representation of the programme.

We said that G7 had been breached, as broadcasters are enjoined to “avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting”. TVNZ’s response was that this was “usually taken to refer to technical trickery” and was therefore irrelevant. However the code does not have anything in it which states that deceptive programme practises are limited to “freeze frame and the like”, as TVNZ claimed.

It’s interesting to note that this attempt to limit the extent of the codes by claiming some form of spurious application or specificity appears to be a standard one on the part of TVNZ. I had a call from a woman who was also in the throes of making a complaint and she had encountered exactly the same response. So it pays not to believe them if they try to manipulate the wording of the codes.

We cited other standards, G16 and G19, which state respectively that “news, current affairs and documentaries should not be presented in such a way as to cause unnecessary panic, alarm or distress” and “care must be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the extracts used are a true reflection and not a distortion of the original event or the overall views expressed”.

TVNZ claimed that G16 and G19 were not relevant because both refer only to News and Current Affairs programming, into which Alien Abduction did not fall. However, the codes clearly state that these apply to News, Current Affairs and Documentaries. They tried to weasel-word us again. We figured that TVNZ had tried to make the thing look like a documentary, so they should have to hold to the standards required.

Ironically, TVNZ did admit that the events depicted may have misled or alarmed viewers, and they accepted that they had breached Code G11, which requires broadcasters to “refrain from broadcasting any programme which, when considered as a whole:

i) Simulates news or events in such a way as to mislead or alarm viewers.”

TVNZ’s ultimate response was to promise that if and when the show was rescreened they would reinstate the credits. This was not acceptable, in our view. We wanted TVNZ to make a formal statement admitting to their deception and informing viewers of the fact that this occurred.

The complaint then progressed through the official channels of the Broadcasting Standards Authority itself. On the 18th of June, four months after the programme had been broadcast, we received the five-page written decision from the BSA. This said that they had upheld our contention that G7 had been breached but declined to uphold any other aspect.

So we had a partial victory.

The BSA ruled against TVNZ’s attempt to limit G7 to technical trickery, and said that the “standard applies when the broadcaster employs a practice which results in the viewer being deceived”. TVNZ had already admitted that some viewers may have been misled, and the BSA emphasised that the inclusion of an introduction “deliberately designed to create ambiguity” meant that G7 had been breached along with the G11 (i) breach TVNZ had agreed to.

I had thought that G1 was clearly breached also — that’s the code whereby broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. The BSA’s decision noted that the programme was a work of fiction and so it couldn’t breach standards which referred to facts. The decision also noted that the fictional nature of the programme reduced the level of potential seriousness of the action.

Sadly they had missed the entire point of the complaint — we knew the programme was fiction, we had no problem with that; it was the fact that TVNZ had been neither truthful nor accurate in their manipulation of the programme’s presentation and content that was the focus of our complaint.

I tried gently pointing this out in a final letter, but the only recourse to questioning the BSA is to take the matter to the High Court.

Action? What Action?

And what of the action to be taken in response to this acknowledged breach?

We thought TVNZ should be made to admit that they had manipulated programme content and presentation so that people would be aware that our national broadcaster is not above lying in their quest for ratings.

We’d asked for a public statement from TVNZ telling the public what they had done. The BSA agreed that this was the most appropriate of its possible powers under the Broadcasting Act. However, they said, because of the “one-off” nature of the broadcast which meant there was “no readily apparent programming outlet to which to attach such a statement” acknowledging the breach, the BSA decided not to impose such an order.

Some of you may have seen Frank Haden’s column in The Dominion nominating the BSA as a Bent Spoon accessory for this.

I did try to get some general clarification, after all this suggests that there is little point in complaining about any programme that is not part of a series, if indeed the Authority requires some sort of related programme outlet to which to attach such a statement.

It would be unfortunate, I wrote, for TVNZ to feel it has licence to broadcast any type of programme it likes — a snuff movie for example — feeling secure that the one-off nature of the programme means no order can be imposed. The response was that the Authority does not discuss individual decisions, so I’m no more the wiser now.

There are other things which the BSA could have done — things like requiring TVNZ to pay costs of up to $5,000, or refrain from broadcasting, or — even better — refrain from broadcasting advertising for up to 24 hours. While we might dearly wish for the latter, we didn’t think it reasonable to ask for.

So at the end of this six-month process, TVNZ has, somewhere in its archives, a low-budget fake documentary which now has its credits attached. They did, apparently, tell their programming staff that removing the credits was “an error of judgement”. They have won the Bent Spoon this year, and have further tarnished, if indeed that is possible, the already tawdry image of broadcasting in this country.

We hope that maybe next time they think about manipulating material to boost ratings, they will think again. But next time you watch a documentary, or see a piece of reality television or news footage, spare a thought for whether there could be credits for script-writing languishing on the cutting room floor…

This was the first complaint the Skeptics had made to the BSA, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Certainly the legislative backing for things like the BSA and the codes of practice helps to make it clear that this is a serious process. Indeed the BSA does have the power to decline to determine a complaint if it is considered frivolous or trivial and, where it considers the seriousness of the complaint merits it, the BSA can also hold formal hearings.

From a personal viewpoint, the length of time taken to work through the process was frustrating, as was the final outcome. Mr Stace, during the conference session on this issue, suggested that if people wished to take issue with the process itself, then lobbying the political powers that be (such as the Minister of Communications) would be necessary. The BSA operates under the strictures of the Broadcasting Act.

Despite the rather limp-wristed nature of the response, I think it was worth doing and would encourage you to consider taking up the pen yourself.

The BSA is happy to provide leaflets outlining the process required. The main points are to ensure that your first complaint in writing goes to the broadcaster (not the BSA), with the term “formal complaint” clearly noted, along with the programme name, channel, screening times, and which codes you think it breached and why. They must respond noting their decision or action within 20 working days and, if dissatisfied, you can then refer the complaint to the BSA for investigation and review.

You can get a full copy of the codes from the BSA for $10 (Box 9213, Wellington), or check out their Web site at The codes are also kept on file by the main public libraries (and you can even venture into the lion’s den/s — television and radio offices are likely to have copies on hand).

Hit Them Where It Hurts

However, given the commercial nature of television these days, it may be more effective to write to the programme sponsors and the advertisers peddling their wares during the time-slot. Tell them that you think they are tarnishing the image of their product by being seen alongside unprofessional, poor quality programming. That it saddens you to see such a useful, prestigious, well-regarded, quality offering in such company, and that you have regretfully decided you can no longer purchase their product or service as a result.

I suspect that that will get you a response much quicker than the broadcasting complaints process…

That said, please do try and remember to write letters of congratulation to producers and programme sponsors when they do get it right, when they do produce or support quality programming. Letters of praise are rare and are often remembered by the individuals concerned for far longer, which is one reason why we have Bravo Awards.

Or, to be really sneaky, my final suggestion is to go for the double whammy. Here’s one you might like to try — write to Down to Earth telling them how much you appreciate the fact that they sponsor a quality documentary slot in Our World.

Then casually mention how you consider it a real shame that Our World won’t actually show “our world” because TVNZ is holding on to 40 unscreened Natural History Unit documentaries. After all, as a sponsor for Our World, Down to Earth should be keen to encourage the screening of award-winning material produced right here in New Zealand…

At the very least, you’ll boost your letter-writing skills — who knows, maybe you’ll even help to boost our television standards. One can always hope.

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