Election period taxpayer funded programmes

January 18th, 2012 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

wants to stop broadcasters screening documentaries on political issues in the lead-up to an election – a break from its usual hands-off approach which its chairman says is important for its reputation.

The broadcasting funding agency has obtained legal advice on whether it can include a condition for broadcasters “not to screen programmes discussing topics likely to be an election issue” before an election.

I don’t think taxpayer funding programmes should be interfering with the election, unless they are part of the normal news and current affairs of a channel.

Our electoral laws goes to great length to restrict the amount of money that can be spent in an election period. Parties are not even able to purchase television advertising time beyond that allocated to them.

The step was prompted by TV3 screening a child poverty documentary four days before the November election. NZ on Air had provided $105,400 for the Inside Child Poverty programme by Bryan Bruce.

Board chairman Neil Walter said yesterday NZ on Air did not shirk from funding controversial programmes, but had to safeguard its own reputation.

He said child poverty was a major election issue, and there was a risk the programme would influence voting.

More than a risk. The programme was factually incorrect and should have had an authorisation statement on it, as it was very partisan against National.

Now I’m not saying it should not have been funded. I have no issue with NZ on Air funding controversial programmes. But absolutely TV3 should not be shown such blatant propoganda a few days before an election, and if it is funded by the taxpayer, then fair enough to have a clause in there saying “You can screen this programme anytime in 152 out of 156 weeks, but just not during these four weeks.

“We are, on one hand, anxious to safeguard our reputation for political impartiality, and in our view that was put at risk by the decision to schedule that documentary just four days out from a general election. On the other hand, we are very careful not to interfere in the editorial content of programmes. Our legislation bars us from doing that.”

Media law barrister Stephen Price said a blanket clause preventing “election issues” was too broad and seemed heavy-handed.

“It’s much better if they just leave it up to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. The broadcasters already have an obligation to be fair and balanced and they know they have to be on their toes close to an election.”

But they can only act on complaints after the event.

TV3 would not comment yesterday, although in the documents Mr Walter said the broadcaster had “expressed its regret for having put us into this situation and has assured us there will be no repeat of the problem”.

Good.

And my views would stand even if the programme was a history of the union movement, and was an hour long expose on how over 60 years unions have funded Labour, influenced their policy and control their candidate selections. That would be a good documentary – but not one to be funded by taxpayers to show in election week.

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48 Responses to “Election period taxpayer funded programmes”

  1. dime (10,207 comments) says:

    ” “You can screen this programme anytime in 152 out of 156 weeks, but just not during these dour weeks.”

    Dour is right :P

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  2. PaulL (5,446 comments) says:

    Is there an obligation of impartiality, or can NZ On Air fund partisan stuff? I suspect probably they can fund partisan stuff – but should they need to be balanced over their portfolio of stuff?

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  3. RRM (10,096 comments) says:

    I’m a bit on the fence over this one.

    In the period leading up to the election, is it REALLY a problem to have people watching programmes and thinking about issues that potentially affect their lives?

    In other words, is it REALLY better that all we see in election week is nothings like:

    VOTE FOR ME BECAUSE I HAVE THIS NICE PICTURE OF ME.
    OH AND I SUPPORT FAMILIES.
    THAT OTHER LOT, THEY DON’T SUPPORT FAMILIES.

    VOTE FOR ME BECAUSE LIFE SHOULD MEAN LIFE.

    VOTE FOR ME BECAUSE YOUR FAMILY DESERVES MORE.

    VOTE FOR ME IF YOU WANT A BRIGHTER FUTURE.

    Etc

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  4. David Farrar (1,436 comments) says:

    RRM: Thinking about issues is one thing. A so called documentary that makes factually incorrect assertions such as that National always reduces the numbers of state houses (it has increased under this Govt) is another. People know ads from parties and candidates are partisan and treat them with scepticism. The danger here is that this programme told a very skewed and slanted story, and there was no balance.

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  5. fish_boy (152 comments) says:

    It is telling that a documentary on child poverty is seen by DPF and the rest of the governments cronies as an attack on the National Party, and disgusting that the main response is not to address a serious crisis but to try and close down the debate. Anyone who thinks this way has some seriously skewed values.

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  6. RRM (10,096 comments) says:

    Maybe if we had some sort of Broadcasting Standards, factually incorrect tv programmes would be less of a problem?

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  7. Pete George (23,793 comments) says:

    dime – beat me to that one. I didn’t think it was that bad. Labour might think dire.

    The documentary was a blatant attempt to influence how people voted and timed to be difficult to debate or refute.

    I don’t blame Bryan Bruce (unless he misled NZOA), he got what he wanted. But it was blatant abuse of the democratic process by TV3.

    Media law barrister Stephen Price said a blanket clause preventing “election issues” was too broad and seemed heavy-handed.

    “It’s much better if they just leave it up to the Broadcasting Standards Authority. The broadcasters already have an obligation to be fair and balanced…”

    Yes..

    …and they know they have to be on their toes close to an election.

    but it falls over there, TV3 knew they didn’t have to be on their toes, they knew they could get away with this as there was no time to address it before the election.

    The big issue raised by this is not poverty or censorship, it’s manipulation of democracy by media. It’s not as if it’s the only example of TV3 doing this during the campaign.

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  8. Dave A (61 comments) says:

    I could mention that the person behind this call for censorship is NZOA board member Stephen McElrea, who is John Key’s electorate chairman and National’s northern region deputy chairman, but I won’t.

    Key lines indeed.

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  9. mikenmild (12,295 comments) says:

    Nice; so a politically biased member of NZOA gets to complain about a politically biased programme.

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  10. Paulus (2,707 comments) says:

    It’s TV3 FFS – they performed worse than any other station in the last election – look at their two “geeks” and their performance.

    TV3 wanted the audience ratings, and were getting desperate, and this was the only way they could try again to influence the election.

    They had tried all sorts of other ways to denigrate and embarrass John Key and the National Government.

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  11. Pete George (23,793 comments) says:

    Not sure about that Paulus, Bruce asked for that scheduling from the start, TV3 complied. That suggests much longer term planning when to show it.

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  12. Graeme Edgeler (2,972 comments) says:

    Election period taxpayer funded programmes

    election period publicly-funded election programmes are the only ones we are allowed.

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  13. Will de Cleene (462 comments) says:

    No politics during election cycles! Media should be restricted to talking about cats and Richard Branson.

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  14. RightNow (7,014 comments) says:

    I suggest that in 2014 Key only gives the shortest possible notice period for the election date.

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  15. Weihana (4,620 comments) says:

    I don’t agree with taxpayers funding documentaries but likewise I don’t believe in regulating them for election campaigns. Freedom of speech is the freedom to communicate with other human beings and that implies the freedom to try and change their views with biased and opinionated documentaries.

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  16. Nick R (522 comments) says:

    @ DPF – if the programme was inaccurate, the correct response is to complain to the BSA – not to start putting political pressure on NZOA to exercise control over scheduling decisions made by private broadcasters.

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  17. PaulL (5,446 comments) says:

    Nick R. There are provisions in the electoral act to deal with information disemminated that is knowingly wrong, and that there is insufficient time to correct. In short, if you broadcast something incorrect 4 days before the election, how can any political party reasonably respond to it – or even know it is coming. The law already addresses this in some areas, it appears to not address it in this area. Complaining to the BSA is akin to closing the door after the horse has bolted. It should be done anyway, to lay down a clear viewpoint (or otherwise) as to whether this program was unbalanced. But that cannot be all of the answer – there’s nothing to stop someone doing it again next election.

    I guess the other possible response is to find some right wing type people who can be bothered making a low quality documentary misrepresenting the behaviour of Labour governments past, and then broadcast that right before the next election. I presume the lefties would be up in arms then.

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  18. Pete George (23,793 comments) says:

    @Nick R – if the political pressure is inaccurate the correct response is to complain via the next ballot. That will be as timely as a BSA complaint would be to the last ballot.

    TV3 were deliberately trying to influence an election with their timing of the show, some political operators are deliberately trying to influence an election with the current posturing, both are far from ideal but it’s how things seem to operate.

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  19. gravedodger (1,575 comments) says:

    I have a post on this and my actions in response at No Minister and Homepaddock covers it also.

    I wonder how loud the shrilling would be at the socialist blogs if a righty had made and arranged broadcast a doco, equally slanted, one sided, error ridden on how Syd Holland and his National Government had smashed the Communist led Unions who tried to cripple New Zealand in 1951.
    Now that would be a doco worth making, get Barnes and Hill ghosts up and about for a bit. Hang on Shearer must be following Nash the elders tactics today.

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  20. Pete George (23,793 comments) says:

    PaulL – an influx of ‘documentaries’ leading up to next election? Could be all over the internet too. Maybe the semblance of fair elections horse has already bolted too.

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  21. Weihana (4,620 comments) says:

    Why do people say “influencing the election” as if it’s some dark evil? Are documentaries a form of mind control? It seems to me that some people are overly concerned about other people being influenced by an opinion that it is considered wrong in their own opinion. No one ever complains about themselves being fooled. David certainly wasn’t at risk of voting Labour because of the documentary. It’s always other people that are being influenced and for some reason this is wrong. I don’t see why.

    Defamatory and demonstrably incorrect statements should be complained about I would agree but the presumption should be that people have the freedom to broadcast whatever propaganda they want and the viewer should be free to decide, amongst the multitude of information sources they have available to them these days, what they want to believe.

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  22. RightNow (7,014 comments) says:

    Weihana – would you equally support the removal of regulations on election advertising? I.e allow any party or individual to spend as much as they want on advertising with no restrictions (including allow them to advertise on polling day)?

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  23. speters (108 comments) says:

    RightNow – seems to me you’re confusing quality and quantity issues. Regulations on election advertising are in place to ensure electoral success doesn’t depend on the size of the party coffers. The complaints about this documentary seem to be based on the fact that it was left-leaning. That doesn’t make it electoral advertising – surely the producer is allowed to come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that the Labour Party have dealt with poverty issues better than National over the past hundred years.

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  24. emmess (1,398 comments) says:

    You can make a case for free speech for state agencies and private citizens during the currently regulated election campaign
    period.
    You can also make a case for regulated speech for state agencies and private citizens during the currently regulated election campaign period.
    At a stretch you can even make a case for free speech for private citizens only.
    You cannot reasonably make a case for free speech for state agencies only.

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  25. Weihana (4,620 comments) says:

    RightNow,

    I don’t have a problem with regulating polling day or otherwise instituting short lived regulations to guard against last-minute smear campaigns for which it is impractical to respond to. However, I think natural persons (not corporations or lobby groups) should be free to spend as much of their own money on campaigning.

    Edit: Should have finished that sentence. Spend as much of their own money on campaigning… as they see fit.

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  26. Nick R (522 comments) says:

    @ PaulL – Mediaworks (which owns TV3) also brought us the “PM’s Hour” on Radio Live shortly before the election, and the lefties were up in arms about that, complete with allegations that the Govt had effectively bought the access by letting Mediaworks pay for its licence fees over a period of years. So I don’t think anyone can fairly accuse Mediaworks of having any sort of systematic bias towards Labour, or against National.

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  27. RightNow (7,014 comments) says:

    speters – the issue of quality remains whether the material broadcast is a documentary or an advertisement. Weihana posits: “Defamatory and demonstrably incorrect statements should be complained about”. This can hold true for advertisements and documentaries alike.
    Weihana is (as I understand) saying there should be no limits to anyone broadcasting whatever they want. You have realised one of the points of my question – that parties with more funds could be advantaged over parties with less funds unless there are limits on campaign spending. But if we are to ensure a level playing field in election advertising shouldn’t we also be ensuring a level playing field with broadcast content such as the documentary in question?
    The other material point of my question relates to the period in which material is disseminated – whether the documentary in question should have been broadcast so close to the election with no time for rebuttal. If we allow this then why wouldn’t we allow election advertisements to be broadcast on election day?

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  28. BlairM (2,340 comments) says:

    Oh no! It would be terrible if parties with more money had an advantage over parties with less! It’s very important in a democracy to protect the parties with no support that nobody wants to give money to!

    What bollocks. Let anybody say what they like. Let parties buy as much advertising as they can afford. Let third parties do the same. Let’s have a proper democracy, not a political oligopoly.

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  29. Richard29 (377 comments) says:

    “The programme was factually incorrect ”
    I’d like to see the outcome of the BSA option on that. I saw the doco and I can’t actually remember any facts – it was mostly editorial “Look at these shocking state houses – tut tut”, “Look at these kids at school with third world diseases – this is terrible”. The doco definitely took a position that we should do something and drew some comparisons with policies overseas but I don’t think it endorsed a specific parties solutions.

    State housing, Health Policy, Redistribution – these are all general policy areas. National also has policies on these issues. Raising an important social issue during an election campaign should be seen as an opportunity by all political parties to say why their strategy for solving these issues is the best.

    I fail to see how watching reruns of masterchef in election week would be better for democracy – as it turned out the big issue of the election according to the vote was not child poverty or economic management it was voter apathy.

    The slipperly slope element concerns me – should we not run science docos on climate change for fear of ‘influencing’ in favour of the Greens, and we’d better not run any 60 minutes episodes on victims of recidivist offenders for fear the political censors think we are ‘influencing’ people to vote for Act and their 3 strikes policy, and definitely don’t talk about the Rena, ChCh Earthquakes, Pike River or anything else that somebody might see as taking a position one way or another on a political issue that the government has handled.

    Really DPF?

    The National Govt party won 47% of the vote under an MMP system and your response is that they could have done better if they had controlled the media more. What percentage do you think is appropriate? There are lots of examples of governments with laws actively controlling the political content of the media in the run up to elections. Many get astounding election results – over 90% is not uncommon.

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  30. Dave A (61 comments) says:

    Fascinating how the Ruling Party’s bloggers will not mention that this is all coming from John Key’s electorate chairman.

    Talk about key lines…. Ele’s spinning the same propaganda

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  31. Weihana (4,620 comments) says:

    RightNow,

    There is no such thing as a “level playing field”. There might be half a dozen guys who want to legalize domestic abuse. Yet no one else supports them and they have no money to campaign. Oh the unfairness!

    What we have in NZ is a system which benefits the incumbents. National gets far more money to campaign than does ACT or the Greens or the Maori Party. How is this a “level playing field”? How is it fair?

    I agree with you that broadcast media should not be treated differently than any other media. If they are advocating a political message then some very limited regulation around election day is not unreasonable in my view. But complaining about this documentary just sounds like whinging to me. It’s making something out of nothing. We watched it, we all knew what it was, and we all came to our own opinions on the matter. Big deal. National still won.

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  32. Francis_X (147 comments) says:

    “I don’t think taxpayer funding programmes should be interfering with the election, unless they are part of the normal news and current affairs of a channel.”

    Yeah, because god forbid that voters actually know what the issues are, right?

    I mean, who needs to know about trivialities like child poverty when elections are on. Who needs distractions when there are plenty of cooking, crime, and comedy shows on the telly.

    Sleeeeep, you are all going back to sleeeep. Your masters command it.

    There. That should satisfy David and Mr McElrea. Can’t have our masters needlessly embarresed, eh?

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  33. Francis_X (147 comments) says:

    David Farrar (1,556) Says:
    January 18th, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    “RRM: Thinking about issues is one thing. A so called documentary that makes factually incorrect assertions such as that National always reduces the numbers of state houses (it has increased under this Govt) is another. People know ads from parties and candidates are partisan and treat them with scepticism. The danger here is that this programme told a very skewed and slanted story, and there was no balance.”

    “Balance”?

    Oh David, please, spare us the rhetoric about “balance”. If the programme had been done promoting Business Roundtable policies on poverty, you’d be doing a little happy dance.

    The only “message” that the public have been getting is mainly from Bennett’s office. Mainly about how the poor have it sweet in this country. Or from Key when he sez that poverty is about lifestyle choices (don’t make me find the link to Key’s dumbness, because I will!).

    This is perhaps the first serious doco on poverty in umpteen years, and the right wing is in a frenzy about it?!

    Wazzamatter guys, the truth is just a bit hard to stomach?

    The best and funniest thing about all this (if poverty can be called funny) is that McElrea has made an own goal on this issue. Is he had not kicked up a petulant fuss, Bruce’s doco wouldn’t be getting a second burst of oxygen.

    Nice to know it’s not just leftwingers who stuff up with own goals.

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  34. backster (2,194 comments) says:

    Strange how leftwing trolls have rushed to be defensive about what was an indefensible strategy by TV3 and Labour.

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  35. reid (16,681 comments) says:

    That would be a good documentary – but not one to be funded by taxpayers to show in election week.

    But it would be one which taxpayer money should be spent on, to get a bit of balance back in the equation. I wonder if that will happen? Of course it would have to be an overseas production, I doubt you’d find more than 1 or 2 conservatives on any NZ documentary maker’s payroll.

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  36. Yoza (1,924 comments) says:

    I’m surprised to see this on David Farrar’s blog, I would have thought the Nats would want to pretend this wasn’t happening.

    This complaint, a complaint originating with a National Party staffer, is a tacit admission that the policies of National Party regimes contribute disproportionately to child poverty in this country. I wonder if this will make next New Year’s ’30 Worst PR Disasters’ list’?

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  37. PaulL (5,446 comments) says:

    Yoza – complaining that someone had a biased documentary with factual errors is hardly a tacit admission that it was correct. Have you been reading a bit too much Orwell?

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  38. Yoza (1,924 comments) says:

    The complaint itself invites the conclusion that the National Party is primarily responsible for creating the conditions of which child poverty is a direct consequence.

    Cosby Textor must be spitting tacks. First off, this complaint will motivate more people to watch the documentary – I haven’t seen it yet and will probably look it up on 3 on demand. Then there is the alleged bias and factual inaccuracies, this is completely irrelevant, as the Cosby Textor propaganda gurus would point out that once you need to explain you have lost your audience – the message is, “National Party Offended By Doco Portraying Their Responsibility For Child Poverty In New Zealand.”

    The Labour Party could not have orchestrated this any better, I think it’s hilarious. I’m looking forward to seeing how deep the Nats are going to dig this hole.

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  39. Keeping Stock (9,370 comments) says:

    The Left’s mantra; when you’re losing the argument, just say “Crosby Textor”

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  40. Yoza (1,924 comments) says:

    It is not an argument, it is comic relief.

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  41. ross (1,414 comments) says:

    So, censorship on the net is abhorrent, but censorship on tv is ok if the perception might be that a programme is about something that is not National Party policy.

    Priceless.

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  42. ross (1,414 comments) says:

    “The danger here is that this programme told a very skewed and slanted story, and there was no balance.”

    Well, that’s your opinion. I presume you’ve complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

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  43. laworder (298 comments) says:

    I am uncomfortable with the idea of censorship unless it is of something clearly detrimental to society’s interests (eg child porn)
    However if it was factually incorrect, that I do think is reasonable grounds for complaint

    I saw this doco, and think that while it did make some valid points and raised a couple of good suggestions to solve the problems noted it also had some major shortcomings. It did fail to acknowledge the National/Green State Housing insulation scheme, and made no note of the fact that the other causes, while not addressed by National in the last three years, were also not addressed by Labour either in the nine years prior to that.

    It also completely failed to acknowledge the significant role that substance abuse and addictions play in NZ’s child poverty problem and completely failed to pose any solutions for that. If the State would just stop acting as an Enabler for addicts on various benefits that would make a siginificant impact on child poverty for a start not to mention many other social problems

    Personally rather than complaining to NZOA, I would have noted the factual inaccuracies etc

    Regards
    Peter J
    Webmaster for http://www.sensiblesentencing.org.nz

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  44. Paulus (2,707 comments) says:

    IT”S NOT THE PROGRAMME _ FFS IT”S THE TIMING.

    Clark would have sent Simpson to castrate somebody had this been scheduled in 2008, irrespective of content, to have been shown at the time it was, just three days before the election.

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  45. St Hubbins (26 comments) says:

    I have no problem with TV3 showing this before the election, however there’s no way that the taxpayer (via NZ On Air) should be funding such overtly partisan political material. Getting rid of NZ On Air completely would be good.

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  46. Francis_X (147 comments) says:

    “Strange how leftwing trolls have rushed to be defensive about what was an indefensible strategy by TV3 and Labour.”

    Sorry, our mistake. We should be in total agreement with you in all respects. After all, if it’s good enough for the North Koreans…

    By the way, I guess this means that you National supporters now reject the BSA’s finding which went against TV3’s interview of then Prime Minister, Helen Clark? (For consistency of course.) After all, it happened so close to the 2002 election and was bound to “influence” voters in a very “inappropriate” manner.

    Sorry, there I go again, being critical. This is not how a good National Citizen behaves.

    “”Paulus (595) Says:
    January 19th, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    IT”S NOT THE PROGRAMME _ FFS IT”S THE TIMING.

    Clark would have sent Simpson to castrate somebody had this been scheduled in 2008, irrespective of content, to have been shown at the time it was, just three days before the election.””

    Now bloody what? Don’t tell me it’s wrong to have political material during an election campaign?

    And how much would I care if “Clark would have sent Simpson to castrate somebody had this been scheduled in 2008″? Not fricken much. If Clark had tried to pull such a stuint, there’d be a fair few voters switching to another party. Jeez, have some respect for the voting public. we’re not all thicko.

    It’s called de-mo-cra-cy Paulus me old mate.

    “St Hubbins (4) Says:
    January 19th, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I have no problem with TV3 showing this before the election, however there’s no way that the taxpayer (via NZ On Air) should be funding such overtly partisan political material. Getting rid of NZ On Air completely would be good.”

    Yeah because there aren’t enough cooking and reality shows on our tv. Keep the public dumb. Makes it easier for both parties to feed us crap.

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  47. Francis_X (147 comments) says:

    The Electoral Commission has dismissed a complaint against TV3 and Bryan Bruce – http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/96324/poverty-documentary-cleared-of-any-electoral-breach

    Damn. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t stack the Electoral Commission with party hacks.

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  48. ross (1,414 comments) says:

    From the Radio NZ report linked to above:

    “The maker of the documentary, Bryan Bruce, says TV3 deserves an apology for a suggestion it was unethical to show the programme so close to an election.”

    You mean Bruce expects an apology from David Farrar and his mates? Stop it, my tummy’s hurting.

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