BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Mosen and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 1998-131

Members
  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • J Withers
Dated
Complainant
  • Jonathan Mosen
Number
1998-131
Programme
Morning Report
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio


Summary

In an item on Morning Report broadcast on 12 August at 7.28am, the presenter suggested to an investment advisor, when he was interviewed about the possible sale of the Wellington Airport, that potential buyers would "have to be blind" to think the sale was not a political minefield.

Mr Mosen complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd that he, as a blind person, found the comment highly offensive, as it equated blindness with stupidity. He maintained that it was distressing and unhelpful to have ignorant and inaccurate perceptions about blindness reflected by a current affairs presenter. He sought an apology.

RNZ defended the use of the phrase which it asserted was used in a colloquial sense and also a metaphorical sense, and maintained that the meaning of the figurative use was perfectly clear. It advised that even if the complaint were to be upheld as discriminatory to blind people, the exemption, which permits the broadcast of serious opinion, applied. It declined to uphold any aspect of the complaint.

Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Mosen referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item complained about, and have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

During an item concerned with the sale of the Wellington Airport, broadcast on Morning Report on 12 August 1998 at 7.28am, the presenter suggested to his guest that potential buyers would "have to be blind" to think that the sale was not a political minefield.

Mr Mosen complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd that the remark was offensive to blind people as it equated blindness with stupidity. He argued that a major contributor to the high unemployment rate among blind people was the ignorance about blindness on the part of the community. He added that it was distressing and unhelpful to have a current affairs presenter reflect ignorant and inaccurate perceptions about blindness by making a comment which implied that blind people could not understand what was going on around them.

Mr Mosen sought an on-air apology.

RNZ advised that it considered the complaint under standards R2 and R14 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters:

R2 To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and good taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.

R14 To avoid portraying people in a manner that encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is

factual, or

the expression of serious opinion, or

in the legitimate use of humour or satire.

RNZ dealt first with the allegation that standard R14 was breached because the comment encouraged the denigration of blind people. It reported that it found no portrayal of people wholly or partially without sight, nor did it find any element of encouragement of denigration against any section of the community. It therefore concluded that the literal meaning of the word was not intended.

It then advised that it had consulted the Oxford Dictionary to confirm its view that the word "blind" carried a metaphorical meaning in addition to a literal meaning. It noted that there was a multitude of such meanings, many of which imputed ignorance and which could be traced back to Old English.

RNZ also pointed to the fact that the metaphorical sense of the remark was obviously understood by the interviewee and it was clear it was not intended to refer to a physically disabling condition. Notwithstanding the above comments, RNZ also noted that the presenter’s statement amounted to an expression of serious opinion which, irrespective of other factors, would place the broadcast within exemption (b) of the standard.

In light of those considerations, RNZ concluded that there was no breach of standard R2 and no ground for an allegation of a breach of standard R14.

When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Mosen responded that although there was widespread misuse of the word "blind" to imply ignorance, it was a term which was offensive to blind people. He argued that the fact that the interviewee understood the meaning of the word in the context did not detract from the fact that it was offensive to blind people.

Mr Mosen said he considered it laughable that RNZ should seek to justify the usage of the word by consulting the Oxford Dictionary. He accepted that there was no doubt the word had been used for centuries in the manner claimed, but maintained that it had nothing to do with today’s standards of good taste. He argued that it was no longer acceptable to use the term to mean ignorant.

The Authority acknowledges Mr Mosen’s arguments and appreciates his concern about language which singles out and denigrates a section of the community. However, it does not agree that the use of the phrase "you’d have to be blind" in the context was a reference to blind people. The Authority finds that the context revealed a clear meaning, entirely unrelated to sightedness. Whatever the etymology of the word equating blindness with lack of knowledge or ignorance, the fact is, the Authority considers, that those two concepts are no longer linked, and a parallel meaning of the word "blind" has evolved. The Authority concludes that in the context of the item, the word was not used in the narrow sense claimed. In this case, the meaning intended was that a person who was blind to the potential political minefield of the sale was one who did not have adequate information, or who was ignorant of the possible consequences.

The Authority notes Mr Mosen’s suggestion that in order to enable blind people to exercise their rights under the Broadcasting Act, it should provide its materials in an accessible form. It advises that it intends to investigate the matter further.

The Authority concludes that there was nothing in the broadcast which denigrated blind people, and therefore no breach of standard R14. It also concludes that there was no breach of the good taste requirement of standard R2.

 

For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Sam Maling
Chairperson
22 October 1998

Appendix

Jonathan Mosen’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 16 August 1998

Mr Mosen of Wellington complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd about a broadcast on Morning Report on 12 August at 7.28am.

During an interview about the proposed sale of the Wellington Airport, the presenter said to the interviewee:

You’d have to be blind if you were going into this process as a potential buyer, to think it wasn’t a political mine field.

As a blind person, Mr Mosen stated that he found this comment highly offensive. He wrote:

It equates blindness with stupidity. It suggests that if you are blind, you are somehow less able to reason, or to be aware of blatantly obvious sensibilities. I can say that as a blind person I am more than aware of the political mine field surrounding asset sales. This sort of ablest language is surely no more acceptable than terms such as "a Maori day off" which thankfully are no longer considered acceptable.

Mr Mosen argued that broadcasters had a responsibility to ensure they did not denigrate people as a group, such as by race, gender or disability. He noted that blind people had an approximately 60% unemployment rate and that ignorance on the part of the community was a contributor to that high figure. Mr Mosen continued:

To have ignorant and inaccurate perceptions of blindness reflected by a current affairs presenter is distressing and unhelpful. It sets back our efforts to better inform people of the capabilities of blind people, and thus increase our chance of full participation in society, when someone like [the presenter] makes a comment implying that blind people as a group can’t understand what is going on around them.

Mr Mosen requested that the presenter be asked to apologise for any offence caused, and asked to be notified when it would be broadcast.

RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 26 August 1998

RNZ advised that it had considered the complaint under standards R2 and R14 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

It began with its assessment of standard R14, noting that the standard applied where there was a specific element of encouragement, where a group was portrayed, and where denigration, which had been interpreted by the Authority as "severe blackening", occurred.

RNZ noted the use of the impersonal pronoun, and the absence of the verb "see" in conjunction with the adjective objected to. In its view, this supported its contention that the use of the phrase was part of a natural, colloquial style of talking, using common everyday figures of speech.

RNZ said it found that no person or group wholly or partially without sight was portrayed, and found no element of encouragement. It did not agree that the broadcast encouraged denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of disability.

Upon consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, RNZ advised that the common usage of the word "blind" in the sense of unconscious of, or deficient in intellectual power and understanding was recorded from 1692. It was of the opinion that it could not set aside such long-established usage when it assessed the context of the broadcast, and further noted that the intended figurative meaning was perfectly clear.

In addition, RNZ contended, the presenter’s statement amounted to the serious expression of opinion which would place the broadcast within exemption (b) of standard R14.

In light of these considerations, RNZ advised it found no breach of either standard R2 or R14.

In concluding, RNZ advised that it regretted that the broadcast had disturbed Mr Mosen, but hoped that he would understand that there was no reference, real or intended, to the group of people who suffered an actual physical disability.

Mr Mosen’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 13 September 1998

Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Mosen referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Mr Mosen contended that standards R2 and possibly R14 were breached. He emphasised that because there were so few blind people, their numbers made it difficult to make well-known their sense of hurt and anger at the inappropriate use of the word "blind".

He wrote:

Although the individual being interviewed understood that in this context "blind" meant "ignorant" or ill-informed this does not detract from the extremely offensive use of "blind" in this context. For instance, there are sadly many New Zealanders who still know what the offensive term "a Maori day off" means. Just because we understand what is being said, it does not mean that the comment isn’t offensive. The misuse of the word "blind" in this way reinforces the stereotype that people who are unable to see are much less capable than those who are. Blindness is one of the most feared and misunderstood disabilities because vision is such a dominant sense. To use the term "blind: in this way denigrates all blind people, a clear breach of broadcasting standards.

Mr Mosen described as laughable RNZ’s resort to the Oxford English Dictionary to justify the use of the word.

To RNZ’s claim that if there was a breach, it was the presenter’s serious opinion, Mr Mosen disagreed. He argued that the presenter was not expressing a serious opinion about blind people, but about the possible ignorance of the company interested in purchasing Wellington Airport. Therefore, he argued, if the Authority agreed that the term "blind" denigrated blind people, then the defence of "serious opinion" could not stand.

In concluding, Mr Mosen wrote that he trusted the Authority would protect the desire of very small minorities to begin to be more assertive about fighting terms which were harmful, wrong and deeply offensive.

RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 18 September 1998

RNZ emphasised its view that the confirmation by a recognised English authority of metaphorical usage of the word dating back some thousand years, and of its use in precisely the sense intended for 350 years were fully relevant facts which could scarcely be described as "laughable". It advised it did not accept as a valid comparison the phrase "Maori day off" with its unacceptable racial implications.

With regard to standard R14, RNZ advised that it understood that an element of encouragement and portrayal of the group were essential conditions.

It reported that it found nothing in the broadcast amounting to either. It was also unable to find that the item went any way towards blackening those lacking sight, or any other group. It continued:

Notwithstanding, the Company believes that the idiom was used by [the presenter] in the course of a serious expression of a serious opinion, advanced for discussion with the expert interviewee, and that therefore the matter falls within the exemptions.

With regard to standard R2, RNZ advised that it was unable to agree that the item in any way breached the standard requiring the observance of good taste and decency in language and behaviour according to currently accepted norms.

Mr Mosen’s Final Comment – 26 September 1998

In his final comment, Mr Mosen first dealt with RNZ’s observation that he had not nominated any specific standards in his initial correspondence. He responded that as the Authority’s material was not available in Braille or Talking Book, it placed an obstacle in the way of blind people being able to exercise their rights.

He recommended that the Authority contact the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind to arrange to have its material made accessible to blind people.

Mr Mosen reiterated his view that a minority must be permitted to guide statutory bodies on such matters, and repeated that no blind person he knew of approved of using the word "blind" to substitute for words like "ignorant", "incompetent" or "stupid". On that basis, he submitted, there was a breach of standard G2.

He also submitted that blind people were denigrated as a group by the phrase "you’d have to be blind". Mr Mosen said he realised that the complaint sought to set some new boundaries about language, and that there was a backlash against what some perceived of as "political correctness". He emphasised that times had changed, and what was once seen as acceptable was no longer so, and certainly not to blind people. He continued:

But it is tough to change centuries of inaccurate and limiting social attitudes. Unfortunate use of the term "blind" in this way makes it no easier. I believe there are very strong parallels between racial minorities who have become more assertive about racial slurs, and the nature of my own complaint about blindness.

I urge the Authority to uphold this complaint to send a clear message that the word "blind" as a substitute for "stupid" denigrates blind people as a group and is not in good taste in the 1990s.