Brian Edwards Media

A Shameful Ruling by the Broadcasting Standards Authority




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.

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  1. Anything to get some numeric thinking into journalists’ brains is to be applauded. The BA to Postgrad-school career track, with its emphasis on social analysis, encourages the “I was never any good at maths” crowd to take up journalism.

    Maybe they’ll stop saying things like “70% less”, if they learn some basic numeracy, too – that would be nice.

  2. This isn’t just; it’s a corruption.
    What will happen to those who do not pay the fines??
    I strongly object to this decision made by the BSA.
    This is not proper.
    If corruption continues, then they all should be removed forcefully from office.
    What do the rest of you say to this?

  3. Okay … here’s what One News should do. Respond promptly to, and actively encourage, crowd-sourced corrections.

    Sure, perhaps those 40-odd minutes of broadcast news are too precious to use correcting every error, but other broadcasters have made a virtue of clearing up this sort of thing in weekly public service programs, or at least acknowledging them online.

    Instead, it’s just more of the same “who knew?” approach to science that TV news in general needs to fix. This isn’t how responsive media work. You try not to make basic mistakes, and if you do, you correct them promptly and move along.

    Perhaps a BSA uphold was too big a stick for an error that didn’t materially harm anyone. But the BSA should be telling broadcasters to develop ways of properly dealing with these complaints themselves — not demanding money of a man who was, everyone agrees, right.

  4. This one made me nervous as I had complained that a BBC Documentary had the Sun setting the wrong way. This happens all the time.

  5. Brian, thank you for blogging on this issue. I’d like to know what TVNZ said to he BSA in response to the complaint, this would help to understand if the BSA are merely bullies or they themselves were being bullied.

  6. August, of course, is TVNZ Spotlight on Science and Innovation Month.

  7. But Brian, as our beloved PM has so frequently informed us recently, there are no facts, only opinions.

  8. Maybe TVNZ could give McDonald a job as a fact checker? They seem to need him frequently enough to justify the salary.

  9. It’s TV Monopoly:

    “Standards Authority favourin’ your error: collect $50″

    But by incentivising TVNZ to make mistakes, it seems that the BSA is contributing to lowering the standards, yes?

  10. Mr McDonald, assuming you may read this comment, the decision that went against you is clearly a nonsense.

    You raised a point of factual accuracy. And I hate to burst any lawyer’s bubble, but in such cases the proving of who is accurate and who isn’t is not a matter of legal dispute. It is a matter of measurement.

    A measurement that a 10 year old got right, but not TVNZ or the Broadcasting Standards Authority – apparently.

    To TVNZ, Mr McDonald is a consumer of your product, if he complains about the quality of that product, actually listen to the complaint based on its merits. It’s called customer service…. And I hope you choke on his $50 cheque.

  11. TVNZ ‘s CEO tells his staff he is not interested in content just getting the corporation onto every ‘screen’ possible. The trickle-down of that attitude evidently translates into “who gives a rats about content accuracy?”
    Don’t pay the ‘fine’ go public and invite TVNZ and the misnomered “Standards Authority’ to make a donation to Reading for the Blind or any charity that requires accuracy.

  12. Perhaps this inattention to any semblance of numerical accuracy is what allowed TVNZ to happily accept ad money from Han(d)over Finance and all the other thieves for so long without bothering to figure out whether (or not) they were solvent. Does this lack of care apply to all aspects of TVNZ’s reporting – like their financial journalism?

  13. Nice post Brian – if the public don’t have confidence to use these processes, Press Council included, then the fourth estate will be in a sorry state. Surely media outlets aren’t so thin-skinned as to run to the lawyers everytime a minor error is pointed out – just admit it, correct it and get on with reporting news in the accurate, fair and balanced way it should be.

  14. Paul (and anyone else who’s interested), you can read the BSA’s decision, including summaries of correspondence from TVNZ and Don McDonald over at the BSA’s website, as well as the BSA’s previous warnings to Don (they have cut him a lot of slack).

    It may also be of interest to read Don McDonald’s earlier complaints, which can also be found on the BSA’s website.

    And I also recommend Don’s Twitter account @McDONewt . He has a very particular way of writing – quite mathematical, like he’s formulating an equation using words.

    Don is a New Zealand internet legend, and is also well known to newsroom staff around New Zealand from his frequent, unsolicited suggestions of story ideas.

  15. I still think the complaint from a listener about me encouraging people to run over possums was better!

  16. @ Gregor Ronald 19:11.

    I heard one on Morning report today using “less” when referring to number and wondered whether it was just going to have to be accepted through common usage.

    Of course we are up against a virtual brick wall on this one. You see, children are taught from junior school onwards that the inequality symbols “” mean less than or greater than, never fewer than. What chance have we, and in light of Brian’s report above, I am not going to risk drawing the BSA to it… I will leave that to others.

  17. It appears the BSA is most interested in upholding the further dumbing down of broadcast journalism.

  18. Mr McDonald should just tell he BSA to put its judgement where the sun does not shine and dare them to take legal action to recover the fine. He might find he has an excelent case in the disputes tribunal and since lawyers are not allowed in that forum he should be able to run rings around the dingbats that the BSA/TVNZ are likely to put forward.

    The BSA and TVNZ already look stupid (in the case of TVNZ continuing a long term trend). If they wish to press the matter they will end up looking bloody stupid.

    I would also suggest that Mr McDonald redouble his efforts. On an average night one should be able to find a few dozen causes for complaint against TVNZ. The greatest complaint should be wilful and continuing insults to intelligence of the audience. I have never complained to the BSA (what’s the point) but I may start doing so to show solidarity.

  19. to be honest good on the BSA – after reading the list of complaints he’s lodged they should have told him to piss off long ago.

    BE: I think they’ve already got that message. Unforunately that isn’t their mandate under the law. As an alternative perhaps they could try exercising a little patience with a brilliant if somewhat eccentric scientist who is usually right in what he says.

  20. 20

    He’s what’s commonly referred to as a “vexatious litigant”. But it’s BSA’s bad, they done slapped him with a $50-dollar fine, when he was right.

  21. Rocky, the BSA did not slap him with a fine of $50 at all. They awarded costs against him, after they had given him multiple warnings that they would do so. As Robyn said, the BSA cut him considerable slack. Alas, it is quite surprising that someone with such a brilliant mind did not forsee this.

    BE: It’s good to see that Don is not the only pedant. You’re right of course, he wasn’t fined, costs were awarded against him. But it’s still $50 which he can’t afford and, since it’s been described as a ‘deterrent’ by the BSA, ‘fine’ seems appropriate enough.

  22. It is worth noting also that TVNZ did acknolwedge its error to McDonald, and the BSA reminded McDonald that TVNZ had admitted that it had erred. So what was the point of his complaint to the BSA – what was he hoping to achieve?

  23. If Mr McDonald had made previous complaints to the BSA this should have no influence on the complaint before them.Its an extemely poor tactic to employ.
    If the distance from the Earth has no material bearing on the Supernova, perhaps this can be demonstrated by the BSA and TVNZ making this decision. They should be subjected to the effects of a Supernova only 240 light years from Earth.
    A simple recant and correction of the actual facts during an appropriate timeslot should have been the appropriate remedy to this situation.

  24. I reckon they should stick him under a blond wig, smother him in slap, and give him a weeklong run as TVNZ’s 6PM newsreader.
    We want Don ….. We want Don ….. We want Don!

    BE: Unfortunately illiteracy is also a qualification for writing and reading the TV news. Don isn’t illiterate.

  25. Only in New Zealand…

  26. It’s interesting that the BSA website doesn’t make it easy to read its decisions. There are no links to them that I can find in any of its menus – you have to do a search on ‘decisions’. Having eventually found the list I am intrigued how many of its decisions are ‘not upheld’ – looks like a waste of time even trying if your complaint could be even remotely described as trivial.

    BE: I have the same impression. I tend to the view that the BSA is warier of getting on the wrong side of the broadcasters than on the wrong side of the complainants. Of Don’s 24 or 25 complaints only one has been upheld and, even then, it made no order against the broadcaster. Given his level of intelligence and the number of occasions on which he was factually correct, that should in itself set alarm bells ringing.

  27. I can’t agree with your summary. This guy is a know all pedant who just ends up wasting the time of any authority he complains to. He is in the same category as that prison inmate who trawled through law books endlessly looking for technical legal loopholes and then appealing his sentence. I was told by my radio this morning that the temperature was six degrees but I happen to know it was 6.337 degrees…This is outrageous…I think I should complain to someone.

    BE: Yeah, let’s have people who keep their heads down and don’t give a stuff about anything. On any given night I can find half a dozen examples on One News and 3News of what can only be called ‘illiteracy’, the basic rules of English grammar and syntax mangled beyond recognition. Then there’s the completely unacceptable mixing of news and comment, reporters not only telling you what happened but what you should think about it. And don’t forget the incoherent interviewers stammering and stuttering their way through their interviews. And their colleagues more interested in the sound of their own voices that what their guests have to say. In summary we have a third-rate, tabloid news service on both major channels. But hey, what’s the point in complaining when it’s so much more satisfying to sit on your arse and name-call people smarter and more socially concerned than you who actually give a damn. Good comment, Rick. Amazed you had the energy.

  28. I think it is a nonsense that the judgement cites the substantial cost incurred by the authority as an aggravating factor against the complainant – surely it is their choice to incur those costs – they could simply choose not to investigate ( once they see his name on the complaint)and just fire off a form letter to him every time saying ” We will not be investigating your complaint as it is deemed to be probably trivial/vexatious”.

    However in the interests of accuracy a rather pedantic point:

    The complainant states (according to BSA website):

    “One News – reporter stated that supernova was “240 light years from Earth””

    But of course the reporter didn’t state that – S/he stated that:

    “The Canadian Astronomical Society says Kathryn’s supernova was in a galaxy 240 light years from Earth.”

    So, did the Canadian Astr.Soc get it wrong, or did TVNZ get it wrong??

    BE: I very much doubt that the Society got it wrong. Have a look at MSNBC’s report of the Society’s report.

  29. To Cartwright: They both did. Don didn’t.

  30. Thanks Brian for pointing this out.

    I too have made complaints to the BSA. One, against a Prime broadcast was upheld and the series withdrawn: During the process, the BSA notified me that if the broadcaster challenged their decision, the complaint could wind up in court and I might be liable for costs.

    I certainly hope this has been changed, as it was a hidden in the process and I took it as a big “get lost” from the BSA. They don’t say that up front in the broadcasters BSA adverts. Perhaps someone should make a complaint about their misleading advertising and non disclosure?

    The BSA and ASA are very soft self-regulators. Look at the ample free publicity that is milked from their toothless processes. The most notable recent example was the Arnold Nordmeyer character assassination by BD breweries who deliberately courted controversy with adverts, which some would say, defamed a dead person.
    Despite being withdrawn late in the day, this cynical campaign appears to have been a big success.

    BE: Thanks for that. At least we now know that you could end up paying costs to the broadcaster, if the BSA judges your complaint to be trivial or frivolous. So you’re actually taking a risk in complaining to the Authority at all. So I agree – the BSA should include this warning in its advertising.

  31. Good on Don.

    In this country there is too much so-called ‘news’ that is inaccurate, irrelevant or worse.

    The original media release on this story was from The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and not the Canadian Astronomical Society (they are different organisations). The release does say ‘240 light million years’, so is correct. The TVNZ reporter, it appears, therefore made two major errors of fact in a sentence of 16 words. The original release is easily found online:

    Errors of this magnitude would, in my day at least, not be accepted in a primary school essay. Why accept such disgraceful reporting anywhere in the media, let alone a national news broadcast?

    Garbage in, garbage out. News: an acronym for not even worth saying.

  32. To Al: Can’t have cake and eat.

    If the Canadian AS said it was 240 years, and not 240 mil, then the reporter correctly reported what they said, and Dons point is irrelevant.

    Don’s complaint is that they incorrectly reported the distance, but they didn’t report the distance at all….they quoted someone reporting the distance.

    If they misreported what was said, then that should be the subject of the complaint.

    If in fact as you say – the CAS got it wrong, then TVNZ reported what they got wrong accurately.

    BE: This question has now been put to bed. See my earlier reply to you and Gary’s comment below.

  33. dompost had the same wrong facts as TVNZ Jan 2011 and do not acknowledge. all his BSA decisions were no way frivolous.

  34. ‘Then there’s the totally unacceptable mixing of news and comment, reporters not only telling you what happened but what you should think about it.’

    I totally agree with you. Don’t you think though, that the complaint to the BSA, should have been about the padding out of marginal ‘news’ stories with subjective opinion and spin. The shallow level of television journalism in this country, provides a nitpickers paradise. Is this possibly due to two inadequately resourced commercial operators competing for the lowest common denominator of the public? Since news went from half to a full hour, padding, plagiarism and polarity have become the norm.

    BE: And I totally agree with you on that, Rick.

  35. I’m torn. On the one hand The News™ should always be striving to get it right and people like Don should always pull them up on it when they make mistakes.

    On the other hand, the only people who give a s**t about the distinction between 240 light years and 240 million light years are probably the ones who already knew it was wrong. For everyone else, there’s ignorance and irrelevance to fall back on.

  36. Thank you vm Brian for taking up this cause.
    Our members are incensed by what has happened to someone who is using a statutory process to complain and who has been financially penalised for doing so. He’s a member of the Royal Society of NZ and therefore can be assumed to know his stuff on the subject in hand.

    Surely the first obligation of any news broadcast is to be accurate. Is there such a thing as a trivial or vexatious inaccuracy in this context?

    Surely its either correct or it isn’t. This is a value judgement on the part of the BSA and we would not perhaps mind if they also penalised monetarily the broadcasters against whom successful complaints are made, and upheld, but they don’t, or when they do the sums involved are pitiful.

    We need a new set of people on the BSA who are unafraid to take on the broadcasting bullies, who in the person of highly paid lawyers breast up to the BSA in their mob-type striped suits and proceed to mouth on about Freedom of Speech, while trying to squelch people who are simply exercising that freedom through a statutory process.

    Lets get rid of the BSA. We need new personell with a bit of gumption, and a new set of standards for them to live by. After all, in a commercial environment, which is what we are talking about here, the customer is always right.

  37. BE: “At least we now know that you could end up paying costs to the broadcaster, if the BSA judges your complaint to be trivial or frivolous.”

    Highly unlikely, Brian. How many other complainants have been ordered to pay costs to a broadcaster? The Broadcasting Act makes it clear that complaintants may be liable for costs, so the BSA is hardly being unreasonable. You have said that McDonald is not well-off. I’d have thought that was irrelevant. It’s like you’re trying to lay a guilt trip on the BSA. So complainants should be treated differently according to the size of their bank balance?
    Importantly, it’s not as if the awarding of costs is all one-sided. Did you read the recent decision of the BSA ordering TV1 to pay a complainant more than $8000 in costs?

    BE: Well, I don’t follow the BSA’s rulings closely enough to know how many people have to pay the broadcaster’s costs when their complaint is turned down. As it happens, the one decent thing about the BSA’s ruling was that it recognised that Don had very little money and set the costs at a lower figure than TVNZ would have wanted.

  38. It appears from its decision in respect of a complaint from one of our members, a retired scientist, about news accuracy, which has resulted in its effectively fining him for having the temerity to complain, that the Broadcasting Standards Authority has relinquished any claim to credibility as a monitor of standards in NZ Broadcasting.

    Instead of having on the broadcasters for their persistent breaches of acceptable standards, especially in respect of sex violence and bad language, all of which it continues to allow to be thrust daily into the faces of the young and vulnerable in our society, the BSA has decided to go after complainants instead.

    The sum of $50 may seem small but the complainant is an elderly beneficiary who cannot afford any sort of financial impediment. Instead of penalizing him financially, they should be pinning a medal on his chest for the many times he has complained in a valiant if vain attempt to make the BSA to live up to its responsibilities.

    The media landscape in NZ today is littered with examples where programme makers and advertisers are exploiting the young of our society, purely for profit. Violent and sexually explicit scenes from adult programmes continue to be screened in what is supposed to be children’s only viewing time, and the BSA, by its consistent failure to insist that the Watershed which is supposed to signal programmes with adult content in them, be marked and monitored, is failing to protect our greatest asset which is our children. The BSA refuses even to meet with us, the only media advocacy group in NZ, so that we might be able to air our concerns to them.

    In short they effectively treat complainants and their advocates with ignore, while simultaneously buddying up to the broadcasters, with whom they actually share offices.

    It is time for the Broadcasting Standards Authority to be disbanded, and replaced by people who are willing to stand up for decency, fairness and accuracy, instead of capitulating regularly to the battery of over-paid media lawyers who represent the electronic media in this country, who pretend to advocate Freedom of Speech when they’re actually advocating an electronic media Free-For-All

  39. As a science teacher I find the decision of the BSA to be extremely vexatious. To try and portray large numbers accurately to young people is difficult yet vitally important in further education and study.
    I had heard of a “knowledge economy” as important to NZ’s future, what happened to that?

  40. Get off your high horse Brian and stop applying double standards e.g. your quote…..

    BE: It’s good to see that Don is not the only pedant. You’re right of course, he wasn’t fined, costs were awarded against him. But it’s still $50 which he can’t afford and, since it’s been described as a ‘deterrent’ by the BSA, ‘fine’ seems appropriate enough.

    Not if you’e being accurate!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    It is not a fine. His ability to pay is irrelevant, Well done BSA these nit pickers with nothing better to do are a pain in everyone’s A**e

    Oh by the way there should be no comma after the “and”

  41. Thanks for making this an issue, Brian. Back in December 2010, George Jones sent an email to the Science Wellington email list, protesting Don’s first warnings about making complaints to the BSA. I don’t want to repeat it here without permission, but I’ll forward it to you (Brian) in private.

    I tried to comment on the Stuff article (not my brightest of moments) but they never let what I said through their moderation queue, for no clear reason that I can see. People possibly really need to get to know Don to appreciate what he’s on about. Don was in the news a few years back as the WCC’s most prolific “complainer” based on the number of times he’s called in to report things like steps being slightly dislodged. To me it seemed a silly label, because in Don’s mind it’s likely more about notifying the council about problems (missing drain covers and broken street lights and so on) that otherwise they might never be fixed.

    He’s not a clear communicator in writing (I’ve no idea if there’s a reason), and to be honest I think the reason he’s now being fined is as likely because the BSA and various media organisations are sick of trying to read his complaints and dismissing them out-of-hand, with little or no regard to the issues he raises.

    To those who have suggested that Don should stick it to the BSA and keep submitting, it’d be tough for him to afford it. I think a better reaction would be for everyone else who cares about these things to complain more vigorously and let the BSA know that people actually care about them. As has been said over and over, a bigger story than Don being fined $50 would be the frequency with which our media, whose main role is meant to be communicating clearly, screw up the accuracy of what they’re reporting, use grammar that’s ambiguous, potentially misleading and sometimes makes no logical sense. But who will ever report on that or seriously do anything about it? Really the only authority for “watching” the broadcasters is the BSA.

  42. Just send them a cheque for one millionth of $50 Don; and if they’re frivilous, trivial or vexatious enough to argue about it, sue their fat useless arses.

  43. I listened to your comments on Jim Moiras show. I thought the lawyers opinion lacked ethics The term material I thought would have covered precisly this incident.

  44. The BSA has finally disrobed and revealed itself as a media poodle (and the advertising overlords).

    It fits with the puerile efforts of underpaid executives of Ennron, BP, assorted finance companies, Lehman Brothers, the arrogant CEO of Wellington Airport and Wellywood,they know better than the rest of us.

    The number of times media has been wholly accurate in presenting stories is probably less than 50%.

    This is not a criticism. Reportage is a mix of hunger for truth and cynical headline grabbing.

    that the BSA has taken this step suggests we should not accept accuracy from the media.

    Who does the BSA represent? Who pays them?

    On a daily basis I hear inaccuracies on Radio NZ.

    The brief exposures I have to to what passes for news on TV makes me shudder. Accuracy is not a word TV would understand.

    It appears that the BSA represents the interests of underpaid, under resourced, uninterested reporters who exist to provide advertisers ears and eyes.

    Yeah, OK, I know Radio NZ does not advertise anything else but itself. It is however, pressured by its governmental owner. Sigh.

    British style riots may be closer than we wish.

    Establishment bullshit can reach intolerable levels.

    This is apush in the wrong direction.

  45. @ logie97 August 16th, 2011 at 22:33.

    Regarding the “less than” symbol used in mathematics. If you are comparing only natural numbers (1,2,3,…) then you are correct, perhaps the symbol should be called the “fewer than” symbol. However, the symbol is more commonly used to compare real numbers (all the stuff between and including the natural numbers). The set of real numbers are uncountable, and natural numbers are real numbers, so calling the symbol “less than” is more appropriate.

  46. Sadly this stuff happens in media all the time.

    Another example is when our news people talk about ‘tanks’ in war zones when in the pictures they are clearly armoured personnel carriers (or amoured cars!). There are other examples, I have heard over the years, but I cannot remember off the top of my head..

    It is easy to write off Don is some old raving nitpicker, but TVNZ has a responsibility for accurate news reporting, and to use the correct terminology.

    To give an example. New Plymouth is 160km from Wanganui. Imagine if TVNZ reported it as being 16km from Wanganui?

  47. Thanks Richard. At a primary level it should be “fewer than” and I venture to suggest that most radio and television journos do not take Maths much beyond primary level. Unfortunately at primary level the concept and language of “less than” is taught for the natural numbers rather than volume.

  48. I have already sent the email that I sent to the science list last year to Brian, and he has quoted from it in his blog. I received an email from BSA at the time who corrected a couple of points.

    I like the idea of ‘ak’ above that Don should write a cheque for a millionth of $50. However they do have the power in their act to impose costs to either side, and I think they would have no sense of humour about this matter. On the other hand… it certainly would be great publicity about the subject – maybe we can get a 1.2 x 2.4 m panel and create a cheque for Don to sign. Then it could be on the front page of DomPost. What is it?: $50 / 1 000 000 = 0.005 cents only. 5 millicents.

    The BSA has on two previous occasions imposed costs on the person complaining –

    2002-091 – over the previous two years six complaints about the use of ‘bugger’ in various broadcasts, all deemed frivolous by BSA – $150 after a warning.

    1997-182 – items about future king of NZ and controversy surrounding Judge Beattie – deemed not unbalanced – $300

    Also there was a warning that they might impose costs in 2005-056.

    I think Brian is correct – the imposition of costs is because of past behaviour, and is intended to dissuade further complaints.

    The summary of BSA’s work is in each year’s annual report – they reject a high percentage of the complaints – Don submitted 5 in 2009 and 5 in 2010. They handle around 200 a year now, increased significantly in recent years.

    Note Peter Griffin’s blog at
    and also Grant Jacobs at

    Both look at the wider subject of reporting on science matters – the Science Media Centre’s reason for being.

    Peter is asking for Don’s help. I think that is an excellent idea – and have the Centre filter his findings and front a campaign to raise the standard in all media.

  49. Well done Brian, heard you on national radio and its great to hear someone openly challenge BSA ruling. I no long watch tv news as am fed up with reporters telling me how to think .It would seem that truth and accuracy have been abandoned by tvnz ,backed up by a compliant BSA, we have a public tv news broadcast service reminiscent of Goebals propaganda…massage the facts and demonise those who object.

  50. Since justice of the real kind seems an unlikely outcome of this farce, I suggest the oaf at TVNZ who made the cock-up should pay Don’s fine for him.

  51. If the statement of accuracy was about the cost of paying for the BSA would the complaint be upheld? $9 or $9M per year? Employing how many people to process how many complaints? What criteria governs recruitment of the people making up the BSA? Surely they should be thankful for someone keeping them employed.

  52. Brian Id be happy to chip in a couple of dollars towards Dons costs payment.Maybe a collection from the blogger

    BE: pjr, this is a generous thought on your part and on other contributors to this site. I certainly don’t want to stop you or anyone else. My feeling, however, is that no-one, including Don, should pay the $50. Unless, of course, TVNZ’s highly paid lawyers might like to take it off their bill.

  53. pjr:
    Maybe a collection from the bloggers?

    A reader on my blog wrote yesterday that he has paid it:

  54. To Mikaere: You write: “Oh by the way there should be no comma after the “and”.”

    Yes there should. The use is parenthetical. Brian’s phrase “since it’s been described as a ‘deterrent’ by the BSA” is followed by a comma, linking it with the preceding one.

    You also state: “Not if you’e being accurate!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”.

    May I point out that the correct spelling is “you’re” (a shortened form of “you are”).

    On the use of punctuation marks, in particular the exclamation point, there is a view that a person’s sanity is inversely proportional to the number of exclamation marks they use.

    BE: Thanks Gary, I couldn’t have put it better myself. Other, perhaps, than to add: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

  55. Out of interest, Grant, will you continue to pay Don’s costs if this happens again? I would’ve thought that a more constructive approach would be to sit down with Don and ask him what he hopes to achieve by complaining to the BSA. In this case, TVNZ admitted to him it had made an error. Why wasn’t this sufficient? Why did he need to make a formal complaint to TVNZ – rather than an informal complaint – and why did he need to approach the BSA?

  56. Ross,

    You wrote: will you continue to pay Don’s costs if this happens again

    I didn’t pay his costs, a reader on my blog did – as I wrote, “A reader on my blog wrote yesterday that he has paid it”.

    You wrote: In this case, TVNZ admitted to him it had made an error.

    If you read the BSA ruling or my article (linked on my name), you will observe that TVNZ considered their error immaterial, i.e. they considered it didn’t matter that they had made it.

  57. Thanks, Grant.

    Of course, the BSA agreed that the error was immaterial, but that doesn’t change the fact that TVNZ admitted it made a mistake. Don’s motivation for approaching the BSA is unclear.

    BE: TVNZ agreed that it had made a mistake. It nonetheless rejected Don’s formal complaint. His only remaining option was to go to the BSA.

  58. Ross, I can’t speak for McDonald (nor can you, I think) but suggest you read my article particularly the two paragraphs from “The key point is that …” onwards for one possible reason. (If you have objections to my article I’d appreciate it if you deal with them on my blog.)

  59. Hi Ross, I can’t speak for Don as to why he complained but, for me, as a science communicator and a member of the Royal Society, a simple admission of a mistake given frequent continuing mistakes is a cop-out.

    The story should have been corrected. There should be processes put in place to prevent a reoccurrence.

    Perhaps this is a minor matter. As someone in another discussion on this suggested, doubtless the BSA would see the matter as less trivial if the million times reduction was made to its budget. The story’s reporter would, no doubt, see a reduction factor of even 0.9 in their salary as far from minor. So why is a million-fold mistake not of importance? As I’ve said earlier: this story had two major errors in one 16-word sentence.

    I don’t know about Don but, for me, it’s the principle. Where does shrugging off ‘minor’ mistakes stop? Accuracy does matter.

  60. Gary,

    I agree that accuracy does matter, and I’ve complained to TVNZ and the BSA about this very issue.

    But you ought to see Don’s complaint in context. He’s made many complaints, and has been warned by the BSA on mutliple occasions that he could and would face costs if he continued to make trivial or vexatious complaints. I’m sure you would acknowledge that if he didn’t learn from those warnings, it was inevitable that he would be charged costs.

  61. Hi Ross,

    Many? I haven’t checked, but Brian said: “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.”

    An average of three a year, given the far more numerous errors made by broadcasters, seems extraordinarily reasonable to me. And 24 of those 25 times he was right. I’m surprised, with three free-to-air channels running so-called news at least twice a day, there hasn’t been at least a complaint a day. If I had the time, I could make that many without difficulty.

    Yes, he was warned. But, yes, he was right. He kept complaining despite the warning. I’d have thought we needed more people to make a stand rather than fewer.

    A wonderful scene from Fawlty Towers springs to mind:

    “This is typical. Absolutely typical… of the kind of… ARSE I have to put up with from you people! You ponce in here, expecting to be waited on hand and foot. Well, I’m trying to run a hotel here! Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not! You’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well, let me tell you something – this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble! Well, I’ve had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough! I’ve had it! Come on, pack your bags and get out!”

  62. Seems a shame that Mr McDonald’s clearly accurate and well-functioning mind can’t be put to better use than making (seemingly) excess complaints to the BSA.
    Perhaps TVNZ (or TV3) could engage his services to review pre-recorded segments prior to broadcast.

  63. 63

    I was appalled to hear Ursula Cheer state that material has been interpreted as meaning the mistake was not unintentional. Professor of law indeed!! save us

    If a town crier in England announced that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus had discovered a huge continent, full of wondrous riches 6 metres off the coast of Cornwall he would have had a hard time convincing anyone who decided to swim out and have a look that the error was not material to the facts.
    footnote 6 metres is one millionth of the actual distance of 6000 odd km

  64. 64

    The media in this country is becoming increasingly sloppy in their reproting of stories with an arrogance borne of decisions like this

    Throughout history many tragedies and injustices have occurred by perons acting on misrepresentations of the facts

    An organisation, whose impact on society’s thoughts and actions is sufficiently momentus to warrant an Act of Parliament to ensure standards of accuracy are impeccable, is in no position to have such a sniveling attitude to its reponsibilities

  65. Gary, it doesn’t appear that you have read the BSA’s decision on this matter. According to TVNZ, Don has made about 4% of all its complaints. Now I’d expect that TVNZ receives hundreds of complaints each year. So I think 4% would qialify as many complaints.

    One of his complaints was about an item on tv where a woman was told that she should have a drink. She had just witnessed a person being killed. Don complained, arguing that the repoerter was advocating and promoting alcohol! A brilliant mind that doesn’t get it.

    BE: The BSA had a record number of complaints in 2010 (210); it had 162 complaints in 2009. Don has had 25 complaints over 8 years, an average of 3 a year. The average is weighted by the last couple of years when he had 6 and 7 complaints respectivley. So far as I can find, he has had only one complaint this year. As I noted earlier, I could easily lodge one complaint a week about inaccuracies and bad journalistic practice by each of the main NZ television channels. I would make Don look like an amateur and I have very little doubt that at least 50% of those complaints would succeed. Both the BSA and the broadcasters get off lightly.

  66. Here’s the link to TVNZ’s “gratuitous promotion of alcohol”.

  67. Brian, with regard to your reply to Ross at 0840h – I think he’s saying that TVNZ are claiming 4% of *TVNZ’s* received complaints are from Mr McDonald. Probably not an insignificant number. Of course, this simply conjecture unless TVNZ front up with some documents.

  68. Almost reads that the BSA are complaining about having to do their job. If no one complained then what would they have to do. Nose, spite, face, cut, your, off, to.

  69. Mully, you are correct.

    Brian, I referred to the % of complaints that have been lodged with TVNZ by Don.

    I am not aware that the BSA publishes all of its decisions. I do not believe it does, though it appears to publish the majority of its decisions.

  70. TVNZ’s relentless commitment to accuracy continues this evening, with the “Current Affairs” show Tonight claiming (twice in the first two minutes) that the Christchurch earthquake was this countries worst natural disaster.

    News to anyone familiar with the great Hawkes Bay earthquake of 1931, but perhaps we should be generous and assume that they’ve never heard of the 1931 earthquake at TVNZ.

  71. Sanctuary, just wondering what the programme was you watched. “Tonight” only goes out on weekends, if I recall correctly.

  72. Tim,

    I think the programme was Sunday which screened at 7.30pm on TV1.

  73. Members of the BSA are: Peter Radich, Mary Anne Shanahan, Te Rau Kupenga, all lawyers, and Leigh Pearson, a former journalist. Little wonder Don got firmly put back in his place.

  74. Extrapolating the judgement we could assume that if TVNZ was to tell us in the news that Wellington was 65 odd kilometres from Auckland instead of 650 odd k’s, the bsa would be quite happy with that. Interesting.

    I think it’s probably time to start complaining about every inaccuracy we find. . .make em earn their $$$ and no doubt give Brian more grist for the mill

  75. Jeez, I’m surprised no newspaper has ever slapped a “handling fee” on having to deal with my ‘Letters to the Editor’.

    By the way, Mikaere (August 17th, 2011 at 16:29). If you’re going to nit-pick Brian’s writing, please allow me the privilege of doing likewise to yours;

    “Get off your high horse[missing comma] Brian and stop applying double standards[missing punctuation] e.g. your quote…..[superfluous full stops]

    BE: It’s good to see that Don is not the only pedant. You’re right of course, he wasn’t fined, costs were awarded against him. But it’s still $50 which he can’t afford and, since it’s been described as a ‘deterrent’ by the BSA, ‘fine’ seems appropriate enough.

    Not if you’e being accurate!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!![Excessive use of exclamation marks]

    It is not a fine. His ability to pay is irrelevant,[comma used instead of full stop] Well done BSA[no punctuation breaking two statements] these nit pickers with nothing better to do are a pain in everyone’s A**e[lack of full stop]

    Oh by the way[lack of comma] there should be no comma after the “and”[lack of full stop]

    Score: C- Can do better.

  76. It is an interesting point Brian, where does Broadcasting Standards have the legal right to fine someone? Are they a law court? Can people be summoned to attend a hearing? Can they have legal representation? etc. These questions need to be answered. On another point, the lack of accuracy that is a standard feature of our media today. It is definitely getting worse. In the rush to be the first to get out a story, all care and responsibility are thrown out the window. I remember when an Ansett plane crashed near Woodville in 1995 (I think). I spent several hours listening to the radio news (I live in Palmy) trying to find out exactly where it had crashed. The reported location changed with each bulletin. I gave up in disgust and concluded that they had no real knowledge of what had happened and that they were just guessing. What is my interest in all this? I am (was) a trained journalist. I was trained in the old fashioned way (as you were most likely as well) to check my facts first. Journalists now don’t seem to bother with facts much, they are more interested in presentation and speculation.

  77. Ben, on the other hand, seems to have two separate conditions. I think he has the flu, and should get to bed right away. He may also be suffering from Carpal Tunnel syndrome, and should ice his wrists and stop typing as soon as possible. That shouldnt be a problem if hes in bed getting over his flu

  78. Don McDonald has a brilliant mind. I fondly remember his calls into the newsroom. His ability and willingness to recite PI and to provide the exact mathematical reasoning as to why his bus was late were particularly impressive. He is also incredibly polite and used to end every phone call with a thank you. Shame, BSA. Shame.

  79. It seems Mr McDonalds actions are being judged in the light of his reputation. The principles of natural justice require that this be the other way round.

  80. Just phoned BSA 0800 0800 366 996 and asked “if I made a complaint whether I could be fined or held liable if the decision went against my complaint?” I was passed directly to the legal department and told (who took at least five minutes of umming and ahing) to say “Generally no.” However, if my complaint is considered frivolous or a waste of time, then maybe I could be fined. I had to supply the words “frivolous” and “waste of time” as after five minutes of uming and ahing she couldn’t really tell me what it was that I wasn’t suppose to do to incur their wrath and a financial penalty. At the end of the conversation she asked me if I had a complaint to lodge, I gratefully declined…

  81. The BSA has a point though. For all practical purposes, the difference between 240 LY and 240M LY is irrelevant. Both are so fantastically large that the difference is meaningless to all but a very few people. And in the contexct of this particular story, they’re right again – the point of the story is that the 10yo found a supernova. Supernovas (novae?) aren’t especially rare, plenty have been found before, and those few people who actually need to know will already know that they tend to be millions of LY away, not hundreds. The news here is, indeed, about the girl. Not the nova.

    Mr McDonald wasn’t able to parse that out, and instead focussed on the – for practical purposes – irrlevant omission of the word ‘millions.’ Yes, TVNZ were technically wrong, but that doesn’t make Mr McDonald right.


  82. JonS, I beg to differ, on whether accuracy matter or not.

    Take this case for example (I shan’t C&P the whole thing), where the BSA agreed that a news story was “inaccurate but fair”;

    This one is not about an academic matter involving 240 or 240 million lightyears – but about the accuracy of political reporting. Whatever one might think about Hone Harawira (or any other politician, I believe that we still deserve a news media that delivers decent, accuate reporting.

    Otherwise, what’s the point?