Child poverty film did not breach election rules

Journalist Bryan Bruce in a scene from the documentary 'Inside Child Poverty.' Photo / Supplied
Journalist Bryan Bruce in a scene from the documentary 'Inside Child Poverty.' Photo / Supplied

A documentary on child poverty that controversially screened four days before last year's general election did not breach broadcasting standards, the Broadcasting Standards Authority has ruled.

Inside Child Poverty was broadcast on TV3 on November 22. The election, which returned the National-led Government, was held on November 26.

Investigative journalist Bryan Bruce fronted the hour-long insight into the last 100 years of child welfare and focused on how child health had deteriorated over the last century. He painted a picture of hungry kids, mouldy damp rooms in slum-worthy houses, and rising medical and electricity bills.

The documentary claimed 150 children who died in New Zealand in 2010 would have lived had they been born in Japan, Sweden or the Czech Republic.

The documentary provoked a strong response and Bruce was forced to defend the timing of the screening, saying the issue of child health was an ethical and moral issue, not political.

"What worries me is that we are not talking together about a long term plan for our kids," he said.

Viewer Michael Rutland made a complaint about the documentary, alleging it breached the law because it covered "significant electoral issues" immediately before an election.

He also alleged it was biased towards former Labour governments and could unfairly influence the election outcome.

In its response, broadcaster TVWorks argued that proposals made in the documentary for changes to health, housing and welfare policy were aimed at all parties and governments, and were "not to advance the interests of a particular political party".

In its decision, released today, the BSA declined to uphold the complaint.

It found that the documentary was a investigative report into a social issue and was expressed in a way that did not favour any political party.

"The documentary would have to have contained serious flaws, inaccuracies or misrepresentations to justify restricting the broadcaster's right to impart such information and the audience's right to receive it.

"While the item could be said to be political in the sense that it discussed policy issues, we consider it was generic in its approach," the BSA said.

It also found that the National Party was treated fairly, saying "while the item could be said to be political in the sense that it discussed policy issues, we consider it was generic in its approach. The documentary provided a prime example of democracy at work, disseminating the type of information, and prompting the types of discussions, that should be welcomed during election periods."

The documentary was also the subject of heated political debate and New Zealand on Air bosses faced intense questioning from MPs when they appeared before a parliamentary commerce committee in March.

NZ on Air board member Stephen McElrea, who is also the electorate chairman for Prime Minister John Key, was accused of political bias after he questioned the timing of the documentary's screening.

But Labour's broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran said Mr McElrea's situation raised questions about whether other conflict of interest problems might exist at NZ on Air.

The strong reaction to the documentary prompted NZ on Air to seek legal advice on whether it could include a condition for broadcasters not to screen programmes discussing topics likely to be an election issue before an election.

- APNZ

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