RACHEL BROWN AGAINST TVNZ
Case Number: 3133
Council Meeting: October 2021
Ruling Categories: Accuracy
In early August the Greyhound Protection League and Animal rights group SAFE presented a petition to Parliament, seeking a ban on greyhound racing in New Zealand.
On August 5 TVNZ posted a story on its website reporting on the presentation of the petition. The story says that greyhound advocates believe NZ is on the brink of a greyhound racing clampdown. A chief executive of one of the organisatons is quoted: “It’s going to do the magic and it’s going to ban greyhound racing’’.
The story notes that the petition was signed by 37,000 Kiwis.
TVNZ did not write the story – but published it in accordance with a copy-sharing arrangement with Australian Associated Press (AAP). In early August the Greyhound Protection League and Animal rights group SAFE presented a petition to Parliament, seeking a ban on greyhound racing in New Zealand.
Rachel Brown complains that a story published on tvnz.co.nz on August 5 breached Principle 1 re fairness, accuracy and balance.
Ms Brown says the story incorrectly reported that a petition presented to Parliament by SAFE and the Greyhound Protection League (NZ) was signed by 37,000 Kiwis.
She says the article did not mention that the petition was open to people globally. Therefore it was inaccurate and misleading.
Ms Brown also questions whether TVNZ made any efforts to check the validity of the signatures.
TVNZ advises it removed the story from its website on September 5, a month after it was published, as per the contract it has with AAP.
TVNZ’s Complaints Committee says it is unable to determine whether the signatures were all from NZ or included overseas signatures.
It says Parliament is silent on the country of origin of signatures, but advises that any person or organisation can create a petition. The committee says “You do not need to be of voting age, be enrolled, be in NZ, or even be a NZ citizen.’’
“We note that the country of origin of petitioners and signatories appears to be irrelevent to the petition as NZ citizenship is not a pre-requisite for creating a petition. 1 News published an article from a credible news source (AAP) and is entitled to rely on this news source. There was no intention to deliberately misinform or mislead readers.”
TVNZ also said “we do not agree that the country of orgin of the signatories is relevent to an accurate understanding of the issues raised in the story’’.
In a later response to the Media Council, TVNZ says “it is not 1 News’ role to question the validity of these signatures if they are accepted by Parliament”.
She says Ms Brown has no proof to the claim that the petition was open globally to signatures.
Post meeting Correspondence
Ms Brown supplied material to the Media Council after the complaint had received preliminary consideration by the Council. Given the material was supplied late, it was not initially considered.
The material consisted of screen shots of American, Australian and Serbian animal rights groups soliciting for signatures on the NZ Petition.
The Media Council Chair subsequently deemed the material relevant, and the Council provided it to TVNZ for additional comment. Their response reinforced their earlier position.
This complaint is unusual in its provenance.
Ms Brown initially complained to the Media Council on August 9, and was referred to TVNZ, as she had not yet raised her complaint with them. Ms Brown complained to them on September 20, by which time the story had been taken down.
As the story had been removed from TVNZ’s website on September 5, TVNZ argues this limited the scope of its investigation. TVNZ responses suggest they absolve themselves of any responsibility as they didn't write the story, only published it for a month and got it from a reputable agency.
It is certainly true that by the time the complaint was lodged the story had gone, so had TVNZ addressed the main point of the complaint – that there was an inaccuracy – there was little remedial action they could have taken in terms of the published story.
However, if TVNZ assessed whether Ms Brown had a point – that 37,000 Kiwis did not sign the petition - it does not show in its responses to Ms Brown and the Media Council.
TVNZ’s Complaints Committee has said it is unable to determine whether the signatures were all from NZ or included overseas signatures and that anyway the origin of the signatures was irrelevant. That is not so. The reference to the 37,000 being New Zealanders was done with a purpose. Clearly it is far more telling to New Zealand readers if a substantial portion of New Zealanders have joined in, rather than there being a scattering from all over the world. The number of signatories was important.
The Media Council was able to establish relatively easily, that the petition had US support, and that a US Facebook page asked people to sign the NZ petition. The Media Council discovered this, when it Googled ‘greyhound’ and ‘petition’ to see if other outlets had published the story, as per TVNZ’s reference in its response. The online references suggested Ms Brown indeed had a point.
Subsequently, well down the track, Ms Brown provided further evidence of international input, which reinforced the Council’s view that is highly probable the petition had been signed by overseas parties, but by then TVNZ was firm in its view that it was not their responsibility and that the origin of any signatures on the petition was irrelevant.
The Media Council can see no easy way of definitively determining the proportion of NZ and overseas signatures on any petition to NZ parliament. If there is a method, it hasn't arisen in the course of examining this complaint. The story states the petition was signed by 37,000 Kiwis. On the balance of the information available that was not so. Therefore there was a significant error of fact that misleads readers.
If a news outlet receives a complaint about the accuracy of a story, from an external news agency, that it has published, the Media Council expects the complaint to be examined. The expectation is not a full investigation – but an assessment as to whether the complaint needs to be passed onto the supplier, in this case AAP, for them to investigate.
TVNZ had a duty, as publisher, to assess the validity of the complaint beyond what it demonstrated in its replies to Ms Brown and the Media Council. Just because it is only up for a short period of time is not an absolving factor. In our view, given the material available, TVNZ should have informed AAP of the complaint, and acknowledged this action with the complainant, and accepted that the report was in error.
Ms Brown also questions whether TVNZ made any efforts to check the validity of the signatures. The Media Council’s view is that this is an instance where the publisher is entitled to rely on the integrity of the story and AAP. In the absence of a blatant ‘red flag’ or a complaint, publishers are not expected to fact check stories presented by external sources.
However, the story contained an important inaccuracy and breached Principle 1. This would have been fixed if there had been a proper communication with AAP and an acknowledgement of error to the complainant. This was not done, and we uphold the complaint.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.