Toxin Avenger – SST on the money

A very good story in the Sunday Star Times last weekend (25 May) about the trials and tribulations endured by TV3 investigative reporter Melanie Reid in her battle to defend a documentary she made in 2006 about dioxin pollution in Paritutu, near New Plymouth.

Adam Dudding’s feature laid out Reid’s fight with the Ministry of Health and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). The government agencies claimed that Reid’s story was unbalanced, based on “bad” science, was misleadingly edited and used theme music designed to influence viewers (I’m not kidding about this). The Ministry and the ESR complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority on the grounds of balance, accuracy and bias. It’s a salutory example of regulatory difficulties in the area of balance and bias. How can the BSA board rule effectively on such a complex case that rests on contradictory scientific claim and counter-claim?

Reid’s documentary, Let us spray, alleged that an agri-chemical plant in Paritutu had released dangerous levels of dioxin into the environment and had poisoned workers in the town. The Ministry of Health filed a complaint almost immediately under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The Ministry also demanded that TV3 owners, Canwest, hand over camera tapes of an interview with one of its officials Dr Mark Jacobs, whom it claimed had been misrepresented through the selection and editing of clips that appeared in the programme.

Canwest refused and nearly a year later, 10 October 2007, the BSA ordered the network to hand over the tape in an interlocutory decision ID2007-012. After some legal too-ing anf fro-ing Canwest handed over the tape but argued that the BSA should not make it available to the Ministry of Health, citing arguments in favour of editorial independence. The BSA then decided to hand over the tape to the Ministry with conditions, as laid out in decision ID2007-012B. Ironically this decision is dated 26 October 2007, almost a year to the day that the original programme aired.

Incidentally, in a separate complaint, ID2007-001, a Mr Fabian wrote that several images in the doco, of deformed babies, could be disturbing to children and breached the standards of good taste. The BSA did not uphold the complaint.

However, the substantial complaint has still not been resolved more than 18 months after the broadcast.

In Adam Dudding’s SST piece the TV3 lawyer Clare Bradley is quoted saying that adjudicating on the substantive complaint is not what the BSA was established to do:

“the BSA has a tendency to become the investigator of fact, which I think is a wrong use of their mandate. They don’t cross-examine to determine credibility in the way a judge does”.

For me it also highlights issues to do with the way the whole balance provision is worded and in particular the difficulties in ruling on balance when there is conflicting and complex scientific data in dispute. How can the part-time members of the BSA board make informed decisions in areas well outside their expertise?I also think that Clare Bradley’s point that large government agencies such as the Ministry of Health and the ESR have their own resources that they can bring to bear in getting out their messages is a good one.

For example, in light of the disputed data at the centre of the BSA case, what should we make of this media release from the Ministry of Health in March 2007?

Media Release
27 March 2007
Paritutu residents to have say on health services

Paritutu residents will be asked about their health service needs, as part of a Ministry of Heath-led programme for groups exposed to dioxin.
The terms of reference for the project, to design and consult on options for a health support programme, were released today.

The programme is being developed to address the health needs of residents and former residents of the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutu exposed to dioxin from the former Ivon Watkins-Dow (IWD) plant. This exposure occurred between 1962 and 1987 when IWD manufactured the herbicide 2,4,5-T at the plant.

Dr Douglas Lush, Senior Advisor, Public Health Medicine, said the Ministry wanted to ensure services are provided that would help manage the possible heath effects of the dioxin exposure, and address the community’s concerns. He said the Ministry has considered the results of the 2005 blood serum study, and the possible related health effects.

“It is clear from this study that in the past some Paritutu residents were exposed to dioxin at levels significantly above those of the general New Zealand population, and that based on international findings this may cause increased rates of disease, in particular cancer.

“The increased risk is thought to be for residents and former residents of Paritutu who lived for at least 15 years within 400m south and 1km east of the plant during the years the plant manufactured 2,4,5-T between 1962 and 1987.”

The study alluded to in this media release has been completed. From memory it was released about a month ago (or maybe less). A press release from the consultants (Allen & Clarke) who did the study says that there is little or no evidence to support an allegation that residents of Paritutu (and their children) exposed to dioxin were substantially affected:

Mr Allen said that there was limited evidence suggesting effects on the descendants of those individuals who were exposed to dioxin. Accordingly, Allen & Clarke has recommended that descendants be encouraged to access existing health services, but also that descendants be offered the opportunity to be added to a database for future contact on dioxin-related research of interest to them. Allen & Clarke has also recommended that the Ministry of Health support the provision of full antenatal screening for more subtle forms of spina bifida, as well as actively promote folate supplementation during pregnancy.

The findings are equivocal at best, but seem to support ESR studies conducted in 2005 and 2002. While these official reports seem to clear Dow of any responsibility and suggest that the exposure levels in Paritutu were not too deadly, a number of lobby groups tend to dispute this. DioxinNZ has an extensive database of studies and case studies.

This story is far from resolved. We’re still waiting for the BSA decision and it’s not even clear if TV3 has handed over the tapes. According to the BSA they were handed over in October 2007, but Adam Dudding’s report suggests that this still in dispute. At the time of posting I’m trying to confirm this with TV3.

Melanie Reid is also not giving up. She says she is working on a follow-up report and firmly believes that the Ministry of Health and ESR have consistently failed to adequately investigate health problems in Paritutu, despite all the reporting I’ve linked to above.

She comes across in Adam’s profiling as a fighter. She’s also a bit of a journalistic hero in my books. The SST piece ends with a nice quote from Melanie that every journalist should memorise and repeat when they’re backed into a corner by vested interests intent on shutting down lines of inquiry:

“So never say never to me.”

I’ll drink to that.

2 Responses to Toxin Avenger – SST on the money

  1. sheriff says:

    “..and used theme music designed to influence viewers (I’m not kidding about this)…”

    As a current affairs programme maker, I can tell you that this is exactly what we intend to do. Are you surprised? Surely a basic knowledge of semiotics will tell you that there is a preferred meaning for almost all components of a programme like this. The music used is often one of the most telling and effective ways of setting a general mood and theme.

  2. Hey sherrif, I wasn’t having a go at the use of evocative music at all. As a radio and video documentary maker I always try to match music and mood and to tell part of the story through the music.
    I was actually referencing the fact that the Ministry and ESR felt that was something worth complaining about. That to me was the joke.
    Kia ora
    BTW: I checked up about the status of the case with the BSA. TV3 has given the tapes to the Authority, but the tapes have not yet been given to the Ministry or ESR. That matter is still in judicial review.

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