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BSA finds TV screwed up coverage of Electoral Finance Bill

By Steven | February 22, 2008

I brought these complaints, together with the Coalition for Open Government. The BSA has found TV3’s and TVNZ’s coverage of the Electoral Finance Bill, when it was first revealed to the public, contained significant inaccuracies.

These complaints related only to this early coverage, though I think we could have complained about other coverage, too.

COG thought that it was particularly important that the public be properly informed about the bill, and were dismayed that both channels rather suggested that the bill as introduced included some provisions increasing the transparency of political donations to parties via anonymous donations and secret trusts. It didn’t. (The later version of the bill did contain some new controls on such political donations, so this BSA decision is now mostly only of historical interest. The BSA quite rightly found that there was no point in ordering the channels to broadcast a statement now about how they’d got it wrong).

A few observations:

First, a little sympathy for the reporters. Then-Minister of Justice Mark Burton didn’t make the best job of explaining the effect of the bill in his press conference. However, a press release and explanatory Q and A contained accurate information, as did the bill itself, with its explanatory notes offering a summary of its effects.

Second, we hoped that the stations would quickly realise their errors and feed the correct information into some follow-up stories. We would have been satisfied with that and withdrawn the complaints – we only wanted the public to be presented with accurate information. Instead, they both simply tried to defend the stories. I’ve got to say, I’m appalled by this approach. Of course mistakes are going to happen. When they are pointed out, newspapers are pretty good at feeding in the correct information into later coverage (of course, they have the useful mechanism of letters to the editor and small “corrections” or “clarifications” slots). But TV’s approach tends to be to retreat to the ramparts and fight it out.

Third, some of the arguments put forward by the channels were self-serving and even ridiculous. It was pretty clear that they either didn’t really understand what the bill said, or were disingenously trying to suggest that viewers would interpret the stories in ways that were basically contrary to the very words that were spoken in them.

Fourth, the complaints may have been entirely counter-productive for COG. We were never approached by TVNZ for comment on the EFB, and it wasn’t for months that TV3 approached us again. Was it spite? Was it a poor campaign by COG? Maybe both?

Fifth, COG also has a complaint before the Press Council against the NZ Herald’s editorial coverage of the EFB. The argument is that the Herald misled its readers by telling them that under the EFB everyone who engaged in electioneering would need to register, without properly informing them that the registration threshold was in fact $12,000 (it’s $1000 in electorates) – something that affects considerably fewer people. Watch this space.

Topics: Broadcasting Standards Authority, Media ethics | 32 Comments »

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