Hard News by Russell Brown


Let Us Spray: The Aftermath

Depending on where you're standing, TV3's 2006 documentary special, Let Us Spray, is either a textbook journalistic investigation that richly deserved its Qantas Award -- or a classic example of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

It was certainly an exceptionally important story, one that covered New Zealand's reckless history of agri-chemical use, through to the contemporary belief of former residents of the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutu (built on the doorstep of the Ivon Watkins Dow plant during the years when it produced the herbicides 2,4,5 T and 2,4 D) that they and their families have suffered awful, generational health effects as a result of exposure to a contaminant in commercial herbicides -- dioxin.

TV3 gave the producer and reporter on Let Us Spray -- Keith Slater and Melanie Reid respectively -- fully 18 months to carry out their work, and 90 minutes of prime-time to tell their story. The words "cover-up" are used throughout the documentary. It lmakes an alarming case.

But earlier this month, a long-running investigation by the Broadcasting Standards Authority found that the programme had breached standards relating to fairness and balance in the way it dealt with both the Ministry of Health and ESR, which conducted the 2005 study of blood serum dioxin levels of past Paritutu residents.

That decision, according to Steven Price (who, let us be quite clear, acted for the Ministry of Health in the course of the BSA complaints) indicates that:

… the Qantas media awards are seriously flawed. They do no quality checking at all, even when concerns are raised about nominees. If they’re supposed to be honouring excellence in journalism, that’s a big problem. They should be deeply embarrassed by this.

Price notes that ESR wrote a letter to the Qantas Awards judges in 2007 flagging its concerns about the programme. This was, said Paul Norris, who chaired the awards news and current affairs judging panel that year, "extraordinary" and "out of order": an example of a government agency unacceptably attempting to influence the judging process.

It would be fair to say that the ministry and ESR were equally as angry for their part -- especially over the implication that the 2005 ESR report was botched. The documentary made that claim on the basis of an examination of the study data by a forensic accountant, John Leonard, who recommends in the programme that "somebody totally independent looks at it."

But someone did -- the study was independently peer-reviewed by four experts, including two PhD biostatisticians. TV3's analysis was not reviewed.

(Additional note: The study was reviewed again, by a different set of experts, in light of Leonard's review. These reviewers did get all the raw data, including Appendix 0 [it's not customary for peer reviewers to be given such data], and they also found that the study was robust and the errors picked up by Leonard were not material.)

A furious rebuttal published on the Ministry of Health website maintains the errors picked up by Ferguson were "typographical" and played no part in the study's conclusions. The BSA found that TV3 should have given the ministry and ESR a fairer chance to respond to its claims.

So did TV3 do the right thing, and resist a crown entity's bullying over a peripheral issue? Or do the BSA's decisions indicate there was something badly wrong with the story? The same questions might equally be applied to the Qantas judges. That's what we're asking in this week's programme. I can't tell you exactly who will be appearing -- that's being finalised today -- but it should be a fascinating show.

For reference: The Ministry of Health's dioxins resource.

And the programme itself, which is still available online, as a series of 300k .wmv files:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

If you'd like to join us for the recording from 5pm tomorrow at TVNZ, hit "Reply" and let me know asap. Me, I'm back to reading reports …

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