I was on National Radio’s Afternoons (with Jim Mora) programme yesterday. One of the topics which fellow panellist Michelle Boag and I were discussing arose from an item in that day’s Dominion Post. The story was about a Wellington man whose complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority about an item on One News had not merely been dismissed as ‘frivolous and trivial’ by the Authority, but had resulted in his being ordered to pay TVNZ costs of $50 as ‘a form of deterrent’. The man’s name is Don McDonald, a beneficiary who is unable to work and receives the invalid’s benefit and pension. I was surprised, as no doubt many Dom Post readers and listeners to Afternoons were, to learn that the BSA had the power not merely to punish broadcasters for their transgressions but to punish people whose complaints to the broadcasters and subsequently to the Authority were deemed to be ‘frivolous’ or ‘trivial’.
As a general principle, that seemed to me an inappropriate function for an organisation whose mandate surely is (or ought to be) to represent the interests of listeners and viewers, not to ‘deter’ listeners and viewers from complaining with the threat of punishment if their complaints overstep the Authority’s arbitrary benchmarks of what is ‘serious’ or ‘important’. The problem here is that ‘frivolous, trivial, serious, important’ are all subjective terms. What is ‘frivolous and trivial’ to one person may be both ‘serious and important’ to another. If you read all of Mr McDonald’s complaints to the BSA – I can find a total of 25 over the past 8 years – it becomes crystal clear that, in his mind, none is ‘frivolous’ or ‘trivial’ in intention or nature. Mr McDonald is simply a stickler for accuracy, one of the 11 ‘Standards’ which it is the broadcasters’ responsibility to maintain and the BSA’s responsibility to uphold.
What’s more, when he complains that a broadcast statement is inaccurate, he is, as far as I can see, almost invariably correct. The complaint for which the BSA has ordered him to pay a fine of $50 to TVNZ is a case in point. On 6 January of this year One News reported on the discovery of a supernova by a 10-year-old Canadian girl, Kathryn Gray. The report included the following statement: ‘The Canadian Astronomical Society says Kathryn’s supernova was in a galaxy 240 light years from Earth.’ Mr McDonald complained to TVNZ that the statement was inaccurate because ‘a supernova star at such close distance would barbecue the earth.’ He said the distance from the earth to its neighbouring galaxy Andromeda was at least two million light years. He was right. What’s more, TVNZ agreed that he was right. Kathryn’s supernova was in a galaxy not 240 but 240 million light years from the earth. In other words, a million times further away that TVNZ had reported.
I’d call that fairly inaccurate.
I’d say that was a clear breach by TVNZ of its duty under Standard 5 to be accurate in its news reporting. I’d have thought the decent thing for TVNZ to do was to uphold Mr McDonald’s complaint and maybe apologise and promise to do better. Dream on! TVNZ’s lawyers were scanning the fine print. You see ‘Standard 5 Accuracy’ requires broadcasters to make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is ‘accurate in relation to all material points of fact’. And TVNZ decided that the distance of Kathryn’s supernova from earth was not a material point of fact in the item, which focused on the discovery of the supernova by a 10-year-old girl. Hey, this was a human interest story, who cared about the facts? And the Broadcasting Standards Authority agreed with TVNZ that the supernova’s distance from the earth ‘was peripheral to the story’ and decided that it had had just about enough of Mr McDonald and his never-ending complaining and ordered him to pay $50 to TVNZ for its and their trouble.
As a ‘form of deterrent’, you understand. Now here’s an interesting question: If you were 10-year-old Kathryn Gray would you consider that the fact that the supernova you had discovered was 240 million light years from earth (rather than a mere 240 light years from earth) was or was not ‘a material point of fact’ with regard to your discovery? The question is rhetorical. Only an idiot could get the answer wrong. What’s concerning about this story is that Mr McDonald is actually being fined not for his entirely justified complaint with regard to One News’ coverage of Kathryn’s supernova – for being right – but for all his previous complaints which the BSA considered ‘frivolous’, ‘trivial’ or ‘vexatious’. The Authority has thus assumed the mantle of a judge dealing with a repeat offender. His ‘deterrent’ sentence is intended to discourage him from making further such complaints, however right in fact.
Like all deterrent sentences it finds its justification not in what the accused person has done in this case, but in what he or other offenders might do in future. The warning is for you and me as well as Mr McDonald. But what about the facts? What about Mr McDonald being right? In its finding the Authority makes the following statement: ‘Mr McDonald wishes to apply standards of scientific or mathematical accuracy where these are not required.’ It would be interesting to know just where ‘standards of scientific or mathematical accuracy’ are ‘not required’ in broadcasting. Perhaps the BSA will tell us. In the meantime, less scrupulous broadcasters will no doubt be reassured by this invitation to be careless with the facts and get away with it.
I’m told by friends of Mr McDonald that he has a brilliant mind and is or has been a member of Mensa. Reading his submissions to broadcasters and to the BSA, I don’t for a moment doubt it. His arguments display a scientific and linguistic subtlety that I find extraordinary. One friend told me: Don is particularly good at numbers, and handles them with care. He is the sort of person who is precise, and expects that precision in others. ‘Too clever for his own good’ perhaps, as my mother used to say. But if there’s a bottom line to this story, it is that the Broadcasting Standards Authority, whose mandate is surely to look after the interests of the consumers of broadcasting rather than the broadcasters themselves, has ordered a beneficiary on the bones of his financial arse to hand over $50 to a multi-million dollar corporation which had its facts wrong. That stinks.