TV3's toxin avenger vows she will never give up

Last updated 00:22 25/05/2008
Michael Bradley
Melanie Reid

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WHAT IS it like to be Melanie Reid, TV3's best and brightest investigative journalist, on the trail of the biggest story of your career?

"You're up against everybody and everything. You're up against the Ministry of Health, you're up against the ESR, you're up against the university scientists. You're up against Dow, one of the biggest chemical companies in the world. It's like being an ant looking up a mountain."

Reid is in a cafe not far from TV3's offices in central Auckland. She is leafing through a thick sheaf of her files bound into a tabulated tome, looking for a newspaper cutting, or maybe a letter, but she keeps losing her place each time she looks up to drive a point home.

Maybe she's a soldier ant: "It's like being in a war. You've got this line in front of you who say `you got it wrong', `you're a maniac'. Then you get all this rubbish" she taps the huge file "thrown in too. And you go, bring it on. I won't stop until those people get what they deserve. They deserve a health study and an apology, and I won't stop until they've got both of those things."

"Those people" are the residents and former residents of the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutu, who believe their health and in some cases the health of their children and grandchildren has been destroyed by the toxic dioxin released from the American-owned Ivon Watkins Dow (IWD) agri-chemicals factory in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

In October 2006, TV3 screened Reid's long, compelling and seemingly authoritative documentary Let Us Spray, in which interviewees recounted their ghastly family histories of rare cancers and neurological disorders, miscarriages and deformed babies. While carefully falling short of stating that these illnesses were directly caused by dioxin released from the factory, the documentary strongly alleged that successive governments had failed to respond adequately to the Paritutu residents' concerns.

"This rubbish" is what followed in early 2007: a pair of submissions to the Broadcasting Standards Authority by the Ministry of Health and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) accusing the documentary of a multitude of sins, from lack of balance to bad science, from misleading editing to mischievous choice of theme music. The ministry complaint alone, says Reid, was weighty "enough to hold a very, very heavy door open".

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The complaint, says TV3's head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings, was probably the heftiest he has seen in his television career. Worse still, says Jennings, in order to test the truth of some of the complaints, the BSA has asked TV3 to hand over Reid's original tapes of her interview with Ministry of Health

official Mark Jacobs, "which opens up a whole new area in terms of freedom of the press". TV3 is refusing, and the complaint process has turned into a standoff as lawyers for the BSA and TV3 tussle over those tapes.

Reid says responding to the two complaints has already taken her four or five months of fulltime work. Jennings says the complaints have little merit and are an "abuse" of the complaints system.

"Just doing the story alone cost about $200,000; now we're spending a lot of money fighting this government department in a forum where the judges the BSA are government-appointed. You can understand how queasy this makes us feel."

If Reid and Jennings sound a little paranoid, consider this: late last year the ESR chief executive John Hay wrote to the judges of the Qantas Television Awards, strongly urging them not to honour Let Us Spray, given that it was in "blatant breach" of broadcasting standards and the subject of a BSA complaint.

TV3 fired off a trenchant letter to ESR expressing surprise at such interference by a taxpayer-funded organisation, and pointing out that until the BSA ruled, any such breach was arguable at best. Naturally, the Qantas judges took no notice of the letter, and the only action Jennings took in response was to "applaud extra loudly" when the documentary was awarded "Investigation of the Year".

MELANIE REID, 43, was fighting for causes even before she was journalist.

"When I was 18 I took on the Queenstown council and stopped a multimillion-dollar development. The pegs were in for an industrial site at the entrance to Queenstown. I did a campaign, engaged the entire community, wrote a book called Towards Sustainable Development and presented it to all the councillors and the mayor. I held public meetings."

The experience taught her that "if you can motivate people to care, change can happen" and she decided to become a journalist. The travails of the little guy up against big bureaucracy has been a recurring theme, from a Christchurch family fighting for compensation because they believed the garden fungicide Benlate was the cause of their child's birth deformity, to a piece in defence of Christchurch daycare worker Peter Ellis. There have been fluffy pieces, too, such as the 20/20 report on "psychic" Jeanette Wilson which won Reid a "Bent Spoon" award for gullibility in the field of the paranormal from the Skeptics Society.

She has been back in David v Goliath mode since she began investigating the Paritutu saga four years ago. It has become a bewilderingly complicated saga, but the core facts are simple. From 1962 to 1987 IWD manufactured the gorse herbicide 2,4,5-T at its New Zealand factory in the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutu.

A highly toxic compound called 2,3,7,8-TCDD, one of a class of chemicals known as dioxins, was created in small quantities in the manufacturing process, and remained as a contaminant in the herbicide. Before 1972, the level of contamination was relatively high, but that year New Zealand passed regulations limiting the level of dioxin to 0.1 parts per million (ppm). The level of contamination permitted was reduced tenfold in 1982 and tenfold again in 1987, a level which made manufacture uneconomic, and production of 2,4,5-T ceased. The Paritutu factory was the last in the world to stop production.

From the 1960s on, residents were complaining to authorities about the smell of fumes from the plant; more recent media reports contain residents' recollections of curtains that melted, of factory workers' footprints leaving dead patches on lawns; of children playing with the orange foam from the effluent stream between the factory to the sea. In two incidents an explosion in 1972 and an equipment failure in 1986 the factory released chemicals across the town.

From the 1970s on, there was growing international concern that dioxin could lead to an array of diseases, especially cancers. In the same decade, a number of "clusters" of birth defects observed in New Zealand were alleged to have been caused by maternal exposure to 2,4,5-T.

In 2004, after years of local discontent (and despite numerous health studies that have failed to unequivocally link the IWD to specific instances of ill-health), the Ministry of Health commissioned ESR to conduct a "serum study" on the levels of dioxin in the blood of people who lived near the factory during those years of production. The resulting report, released in 2005, concluded there were indeed elevated levels of dioxin, and that this was likely to lead to slightly increased rates of cancer compared to the general population. The report underpins the modest package of free annual health checks and advisory services for Paritutu residents that was announced last month.

That much is uncontroversial. But Reid's resulting documentary painted a far more sinister picture. It contained moving interviews with sick people, horrifying images of deformed babies, and Reid's own trenchant attacks on the competence, candour and motives of the Ministry of Health (and before that the Department of Health) over three decades. She criticised the rigour of various health studies, but singled out the ESR's recent serum study, attacking its methodology and claiming that the results had been misinterpreted, giving dioxin levels four to five times too low. This was backed by the opinion of an Auckland forensic accountant, John Leonard, who scrutinised the ESR report on behalf of TV3. Although not a medical scientist, Leonard was used by TV3 after scientific advisers recommended they run the study past a "numbers man".

The Ministry of Health and the ESR responded on two fronts. They commissioned more peer reviews of the serum study, but meanwhile got to work on a complaint to the BSA, accusing TV3's documentary of breaching standards relating to balance, fairness and accuracy.

Issues of balance and fairness are always tricky in a documentary that espouses a particular cause (especially where the cause is little people beset by powerful forces such as big business or government). There is no question that Reid went in to bat on behalf of those who believe they were poisoned by IWD; the Ministry of Health was given just a fraction of the screen time of the sick people and the anti-dioxin campaigners. The ESR wasn't represented at all.

But a documentary that scrupulously balanced every claim with a matching counterclaim would soon disappear into a morass of contradictory detail. And though the ESR is incensed it was not given a chance to defend its research, TV3 argues, with some merit, that the ministry commissioned that research and has long been fronting the dioxin issue.

Some details of the ministry's complaint seem trivial or even daft, especially the claim that the choice of the Fourmyula "Nature Enter Me" was intended to persuade viewers that chemicals had entered the bodies of the interviewees. Reid thinks this is hilarious, and says the song was chosen mainly because it was a hit in the 1960s, then again in the new millennium, thus echoing the timeframe of the long-running Paritutu saga.

For members of the public who couldn't care less about such niceties of journalistic practice, though, what really matter are the complaints about accuracy. They want to know if the documentary was right in saying that the government has for 30 years failed to take proper steps to look into health problems caused by dioxin from IWD, whether it has consistently misinformed the public, and whether it has botched again with the serum study.

On the first point government inaction and misinformation TV3 isn't backing down, pointing out that it has extensive documentation, much of it not used in the documentary, proving precisely this point.

The second point the vexed 2005 ESR serum study (see box, right) has spawned a saga in its own right. Three peer reviewers who re-examined the ESR report in light of Reid's documentary all gave it a clean bill of health (while acknowledging some glitches), a fact trumpeted in a ministry press release in early 2007.

But TV3 has hit back: it asked toxicology expert Dr Mike Fitzpatrick to look again at the serum study, and he said it was "based on poor science", "imbalanced" and contained "too many errors to count".

So on the science, on the history, on the basic facts, TV3 and the government flatly contradict each other, and the BSA is caught in the middle, required not only to make calls on subjective matters such as balance and fairness, but also to judge whether scientific expert X knows more than expert Y. Meanwhile, the piles of documents grow ever taller, and lawyers on each side clock up the billable hours.

This, says TV3 lawyer Clare Bradley, is not what the BSA was set up to do. She believes the BSA should simply be judging whether Reid did everything she could to bring a story to light and gave the other side a reasonable opportunity to put its perspective. Instead, says Bradley, "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".

In any case, says Bradley, the broadcasting complaints process should be for people who don't have the ability and resource to get their own message out there. Government departments have a publicity machine to do just that. Government departments, says Bradley, "should suck it up".

AS THE squabble over the value of the ESR report drags on, it is worth noting the rather depressing fact that even if flawless, the report would be far from the final word on whether or not the people of Paritutu were poisoned by the IWD plant.

Much about the science of dioxin is messy. For example, there is no dispute that dioxin causes some cancers, but there is vigorous disagreement on whether or not it can cause multi-generational mutations. TV3 quotes the studies which support the idea that dioxin is "mutagenic"; the Ministry of Health quotes those which suggest it isn't. Similarly, it is difficult to accurately state precisely how elevated blood dioxin levels might affect the health of a given individual. "Safe" levels of dioxin exposure have been repeatedly revised downwards over the decades as new evidence of its dangers have come to hand.

Reid has not a flicker of doubt that the ESR study is badly flawed. But the bigger scandal, she says, is that the right studies are still not being done.

"There are some very easy stock answers on dioxin," says Reid. "`This has been peer reviewed'; `this has been studied'; `this has been looked at by four experts'.

"My answer to that is why don't you look at the exposed group and do the health study on those people those people who walk down the road with me and say `in this house they lost this many children; in that house they lost this many children and she's now got a baby with hydrocephaly'."

The BSA process is dragging on and on, largely because of TV3's refusal to hand over Reid's unedited tapes, a matter of principle with which many journalists would sympathise.

In the meantime, Reid says she will stick with this story until the people of Paritutu have got justice.

"I'm convinced those people are sick because of that plant. I make no bones about it. Until they get help I will fight for them. How can I not do it? What sort of journalist what kind of person are you to just walk away?"

She is working on a follow-up to Let Us Spray. Journalism, though, may turn out to be not enough. Next stop: court.

"The government has had four or five years to set this straight. Mark my words, there will be a class action suit bigger than anything they've ever seen.

"It will be really easy, because there are certain things you can prove. You can prove when the government knew and when they acted. You can prove when Dow knew and didn't tell the government. You can prove the production figures."

Almost 13 years ago, Reid reported on the Ison family of Christchurch, who believed that their son had been born without eyes as a result of the mother coming into contact with the garden fungicide Benlate while pregnant.

- Sunday Star Times

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