MPs win bid to be included in TV3 debate

By Sue Eden - for full text of judgment, click on link at right

TV3 director of news and current affairs Mark Jennings today said TV3 would be following the High Court's ruling and including two extra political leaders in tonight's election debate.

United Future leader Peter Dunne and Progressive Party leader Jim Anderton went to court to fight TV3's decision to hold an election leaders' debate without them.

However, TV3 was "deeply concerned" at the serious precedent the ruling had created, Mr Jennings said.

"We believe the ruling has significant implications regarding media freedom in New Zealand.

"Although the debate will proceed with eight leaders, we are examining our legal options for challenging the precedent this ruling has caused. This decision will be reached over the next week or so."

Justice Ron Young said today that in his judgement TV3 had made an "arbitrary" decision in determining who would be present in its leaders' debate.

It had based its decision on a single opinion poll -- which expert testimony had said had a margin of error greater than the margins between the smaller parties.

Justice Young said he was thrust into "inappropriate" territory for a judge in deciding who TV3, a private company, should include in its debate.

But, he said, to refuse to act would be a further injustice to the MPs so he accepted he must decide whether TV3 should be required to invite the MPs to the debate.

While it might not make for "ideal" television -- to have eight political leaders in a one-hour debate -- that was the least important consideration here.

Justice Young said he was prepared to make an interim injunction that required TV3 "to invite the two plaintiffs to participate in its leaders' debate this evening".

Mr Dunne told reporters he was pleased with the judge's decision.

He was catching a plane to Auckland this afternoon.

"The judge's ruling has made it quite clear that the basis on which participation was decided wasn't particularly robust in this instance," Mr Dunne said.

The case had been a specific application in respect of this particular debate.

He said the MPs had been seeking the right to be included, rather than fighting to have others excluded.

"We were challenging the basis on which the decision was made and we're very pleased that the judge has upheld that."

TV3's lawyer, John Tizard, presented its side of the argument in the High Court at Wellington today.

When announcing its decision to hold a leaders' debate, TV3 had said six leaders would be invited to participate and that who ultimately appeared in the show would depend on its July 28 poll.

Mr Tizard argued that to include more than six leaders meant the debate would not be as meaningful.

Once advertising time and commentary from the presenter was taken into account, leaders would only have about three minutes each of actual speaking time during the debate if eight leaders took part.

TV3 also argued against suggestions the debate would influence the make-up of Parliament and government, saying while that might happen it doubted debates held such sway despite the one instance in 2002.

United Future came from nowhere at the last election to win nearly 7 per cent of the party vote and eight seats after Mr Dunne made a big hit in a TV "worm" debate.

Outside the court room today, questions were already being asked about what this ruling meant for freedom of the press and the rights of private companies to make decisions about their operations.

"What its implications are for the future obviously is something that all of us will need to think about in the cold light of day," Mr Dunne said.


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