The Let Us Spray saga: What does it mean for investigative journalism?

UPDATED: Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme has an interview with Let Us Spray’s producer.

Investigative journalism in New Zealand is an endangered species. Investigative journalism on New Zealand television is virtually extinct – sightings of it are extremely rare in a TV schedule dominated by reality TV shows and magazine format current affairs programmes.

dioxinSo when TV3 in 2006 committed significant resources, manpower and airtime to look closely at claims from local residents of Paritutu that the local agrichemicals factory was poisoning some of them through exposure to dioxin, the scene was set for the TV channel to deliver the type of hard-hitting documentary it would normally buy in from the US or British networks.

Let Us Spray, the 90 minute doco that resulted was very compellingly put together. It was indeed hard hitting.  Reporter Melanie Reid worked doggedly on it and in the firestorm of controversy that was to follow, attracted the nickname the “toxin avenger”.

But the doco was also seriously flawed. Extensive investigations by the Broadcasting Standards Authority, acting on a complaint from Crown research institute ESR and the Ministry of Health have only just been published this week and found that the documentary and associated news bulletins drawing on its contents lacked balance and fairness and contained inaccuracies. Not only were fundamental editorial mistakes made, but allegations of a cover-up on the part of the Ministry of Health and of flawed scientific testing on the part of ESR were judged by the BSA to be unfair.

I’d been expecting media experts, like AUT’s Martin Hurst, who wrote about the Let Us Spray on his blog last year to be carefully picking over this judgement and looking at its implications for investigative journalism. But there’s been little commentary so far, except from media law expert Steven Price, who acted for the Ministry of Health in its complaint against the documentary and as a result acknowledges he may be slightly biased on the issue.

In this blog post, Price nevertheless does a good job of covering off the big issues the judgement raises, his main point (in my view) being: “Broadcasters can’t get away with making serious accusations by dressing them up as someone else’s ‘personal beliefs’ which then don’t require balance, or don’t require much balance. Particularly when they are implicitly buying into those beliefs.”

This sort of thing is rife in the media in both print and on TV. Journalists are supposedly obsessed with balance, it’s drilled into them in journalism school, but the reality in the newsroom is that balance doesn’t make for a good news hook. The outraged victim calling for justice certainly does. Too often the “balance” is provided in the bottom paragraphs of the story or in the brief cross-examination on the 7pm current affairs show after the recorded piece has put across at greater length the “victim’s” personal beliefs. It’s wrong to get too obsessed with balance  – for instance, many editors think the best way to cover the climate change debate is to give climate change deniers and those of the consensus view on climate change, equal space to put their arguments. That’s only added to confusion among the public on the subject.

What’s needed and what is so very often lacking is some decent editorial judgement on what weighting should be given to the arguments.

Price’s comments about the Qantas Media Awards deserve some attention. There has long been disquiet in the media industry about the quality of judging of the awards and I’ve certainly seen stories win awards at Qantas that I knew were flaky at best. But what should happen if a BSA or Press Council complaint is made against a story that is up for a big award at Qantas? Obviously excluding such stories until the complaints process has been worked through would be unfair on the journalists and media organisations. But in the case of Let Us Spray, a documentary with what was later judged to have serious flaws, won a major prize and adulation for the network that ran it. Given some of the basic journalistic failings of the piece identified by the BSA based on what was presented on the screen, the Qantas judging panel for 2007 should be doing some seriously reflecting on their decision.

Another issue raised by Price and in the words of Martin Hurst: “How can the part-time members of the BSA board make informed decisions in areas well outside their expertise?”

In this case, the BSA was dealing with complex scientific issues yet, according to Price, it chose not to get in an expert to help it in its investigation. Rather than the science itself, the focus of the BSA was on whether it was misrepresented or not.

“The BSA found, for example, that the programme suggested that the serum study was seriously scientifically flawed. That’s an assertion that’s capable of being proved one way or another on the evidence. The complainants are really entitled to its decision on that, rather than have the BSA subsume it under fairness and balance.”

Whether or not the BSA is, as Price puts it, doing what it can to “duck difficult scientific questions”, there definitely seems to be grounds for bringing in scientific experts to give advice where potrayal of science is under scrutiny. If this is simply a resourcing issue, it needs to be sorted out.

As for the impact this judgement will have on the TV networks’ enthusiasm for investigative journalism, both Price and the BSA itself have something to say on the matter.  The BSA for its part is keen to point out that the last thing it wants to do is dampen enthusiasm for such journalism.

From the BSA judgement: “This was an important story which deserved to be told; the people of Paritutu were entitled to express their beliefs about dioxin and how the government had failed them. However, it is essential that investigations into controversial issues of public importance be presented in a fair and balanced way. This ensures that viewers are adequately informed of the issues, and that the people and organisations being criticised have a reasonable opportunity to put forward their side of the story.”

Price is more blunt: “We’ll no doubt get some more whining from TV3 about how this sort of complaints process makes in-depth investigative journalism impossible. We should take this with a grain of salt.”

We need more of the type of long-form investigative journalism that TV3 and Melanie Reid set out to produce. It would be sad if TV3 and other networks took this decision as an excuse to fill their schedules with content that’s easier to secure, that’s likely to be less controversial, yet potentially rate higher with audiences. That would be the easy option. The harder option, but ultimately the better one for viewers, is to stay committed to this sort of journalism but to make sure it is done properly.

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