Programme Dropped After Government Pressure

NZ Herald 14 August 1999 By Vernon Small

TVNZ pulled an Assignment documentary on Thursday after pressure from the Government and a complaint from Treasurer Bill English's brother and sister-in-law about "snuff" killing.

Sources told the Weekend Herald that TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis withdrew Someone To Watch Over Me against the wishes of senior staff.

Mr Ellis is reported to have made the decision after watching a tape of the programme with his wife.

The Yorkshire TV documentary, examining the link between Munchausen's By Proxy Syndrome and some cot deaths, included hidden-camera footage of parents trying to hurt and kill their children.

The decision to postpone the documentary has further strained relations between TVNZ staff and the Government.

Those relations hit rock bottom after TV One alleged Prime Minister Jenny Shipley told staff after a Crossfire programme that she had made up claims that presenter John Hawkesby had received a $1 million severance payment.

In a letter to TVNZ chair Rosanne Meo and Mr Ellis, obtained by the Herald, Mr English's brother Conor and his wife, Jo Coughlan, complained about the trailer for the programme and the show itself.

Conor English, of the Employers Federation, is a former press secretary to Food Minister John Luxton and Jo Coughlan is press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Don McKinnon. They said that the promotional clip in last week's Assignment breached broadcasting standards by showing a caregiver holding a baby's nose so that it was smothered, while running the line: "The cameras tell no lies as caregivers try to snuff out life."

"We do not consider New Zealand's state-owned television channel, or any TV channel for that matter, should be running 'snuff' programmes where killing is televised," they said in the letter.

Copies were sent to State Owned Enterprises and Youth Minister Tony Ryall, Mrs Shipley, Labour leader Helen Clark, NZ First leader Winston Peters, the Alliance's Jim Anderton and Act's Richard Prebble.

"As parents and just pretty average New Zealanders, we strongly object to such extreme and sadistic violence on our TV."

Mr English said the letter was not an attempt to use the couple's political connections. "This is just two citizens of New Zealand who've seen something on TV and have felt that it's repugnant."

Told that TVNZ denied any babies had been killed in the show, Mr English said the trailer presented it like a snuff movie "with 30 babies being killed."

A spokesman for Mrs Shipley said she had noted the letter but had not taken any action.

Mr Ryall said he had contacted TVNZ before he received the letter.

"I wrote to them as Justice Minister and as a parent and told them in light of complaints against TVNZ, that had been upheld, with how they had been dealing with children, I thought they would have to make sure, that they would have to satisfy themselves, that complaint was not going to happen again.

"I do not want you writing that the shareholding minister wrote to them because he didn't. It was the Minister of Justice who wrote to them," said Mr Ryall, who is both Justice Minister and shareholding minister in TVNZ as State Owned Enterprises Minister.

He said he did not "heavy" TVNZ.

Commissioner for Children Roger McClay is also understood to have contacted TVNZ over the programme, but he could not be reached for comment last night.

Paul Cutler, TV One's head of news and current affairs, said on Thursday that the screening of the programme had been delayed and it would probably run in a few weeks. He said the station had decided to look at the content of the British documentary and see how it could be put into a New Zealand context.

Sources said Mr Cutler, TV One general manager Shaun Brown and Assignment executive producer Phil Wallington had initially opposed the withdrawal of the programme. The postponement was a compromise.

Mr Wallington said the letter of complaint did not make a fair point and the documentary would be broadcast with some local context.

Neither the trailer nor the programme showed children being killed, he said.

"The purpose of the cameras was that it identified those people and they were watched and if they made any move against the child there was immediate intervention. So it was the opposite of what they are complaining about."

Mr Wallington would not comment on the reason for withdrawing the programme or on whether he agreed with the decision.

He said the documentary had been shown in Britain and had been controversial. TVNZ recognised that the sensitivities of parents and children had to be considered.