Stoush over poverty documentary screening

KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 11:07 18/01/2012
Inside Child Poverty

QUESTION OF TIMING: Inside Child Poverty screened immediately before the election.

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Questions are being asked about NZ On Air's political neutrality after a top National Party official on its board raised concerns about a child poverty documentary that screened just days before the election.

Inside Child Poverty: A Special Report screened on TV3 at 7.30pm on Tuesday, November 22 - just four days before the general election.

The Electoral Commission received five complaints about the programme but found it was neither an election advertisement nor an election programme and therefore did not breach the law.

However NZ On Air, which funded the project, was concerned about the screening of the documentary on an election issue so close to the day.

Ironically, it appears the organisation's concerns fuelled the criticism, as early reaction to the documentary focused largely on the content of the programme.

Emails released under the Official Information Act show board member Stephen McElrea, who is also John Key's electorate chairman and National's northern region deputy chairman, raised the issue in November before the programme aired.

Labour broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran said that caused concern about political interference in NZ on Air.

"Surely we want voters to be as informed as possible. NZ On Air should actively encourage broadcasters to screen programmes with political implications, as long as the programmes are balanced and allow the different sides of the debate to have their say."

NZ On Air chief executive Jane Wrightson wrote to TV3 expressing her disappointment that the show was being aired days before the election.

She made no request for the timing to be changed.

In an email on November 24, Wrightson said there had been no criticism of NZ On Air and mainstream media seemed "more interested in the tea party".

Board chairman Neil Walters said NZ On Air had sought legal advice over whether it could influence the screening of certain programmes during an election campaign.

No final decision had been made but the lawyers had said it was a delicate area.

"We ourselves don't want to place restrictions on the scheduling of programmes," he said.

NZ On Air was in discussions with TV3 to try to avoid future issues.

"We're very jealous of our reputation for political impartiality and we felt that that was being put at risk unnecessarily," Walters said.

"We didn't think it was our fault but we felt other might see it that way."

He also defended the board saying members checked their political biases at the door.

Prime Minister John Key was out of the country and not available to comment.

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