BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Alexander and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2021-012 (29 June 2021)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Alana Alexander
Number
2021-012
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority has not upheld a complaint about an item on 1 News that discussed a controversial wall-hanging in a Puhoi Pub bearing the n-word, and included footage of the wall-hanging itself. The complainant alleged the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard by displaying the offensive term multiple times, when the item could have discussed the issue without doing so. The Authority noted the item censored verbal reference to the term by the pub’s owner, and was preceded by a verbal warning that ‘some viewers may find details in Jenny Suo’s story distressing’. It also noted the item’s footage of the wall-hanging was part of its critical examination of the issue, the offensive term was not depicted outside that context, and the broadcast carried significant public interest in creating an active public discourse. Having regard to the relevant context and value of the item, the Authority found the broadcast was unlikely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or undermine widely shared community values.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency


The broadcast

[1]  An item on 1 News on 12 January 2021 discussed a controversial wall-hanging in a Puhoi Pub bearing the n-word. It included footage of the wall-hanging itself, shown four times, as well as a brief shot of the customer’s Facebook post quoting the offensive term. It was preceded by a verbal warning that ‘some viewers may find details in Jenny Suo’s story distressing’:

There are calls for a pub north of Auckland to remove a wall hanging, bearing an offensive term for a black person, but staff at Puhoi Pub says it's been on display for as long as they can remember, and the owner has no plans to take it down. Just a warning some viewers may find details in Jenny Suo’s story distressing.

The Puhoi Pub is one of the oldest in the country. Its walls proudly showcase the settlement’s history, including this set of bullock horns, which was hanging over the door when Mildred visited for a bite to eat.

‘What if it was my little sister that saw that like, it’s heart breaking…’

Bar staff say the pub is a living museum and the horns have been on display for decades…

‘It’s part of the history of the pub. It belongs in the pub. It was donated by the owner who owned that n****r [bullock]. And so that’s why we’ve left them all up on the wall.’

The complaint

[2]  Alana Alexander complained the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard:

  • ‘[TVNZ] included multiple gratuitous visual shots of the bull with the word written on it that was clearly able to be read, and did not make any effort to even somewhat obscure the word (ie pixel it out).’
  • ‘It’s 2021. We know why the word is offensive. We also know what the word is even if it is mostly blurred out so there is no excuse for not partly obscuring it at the very least in order to not strongly impact on people.’
  • ‘There is absolutely no reason to display in its entirety a word that is associated with an absolute stain on human history, and that causes pain to folks of African descent.’
  • At the very least, the word could have been displayed ‘far less frequently’.
  • ‘It would be hard to see them choosing to present other offensive words without racial context (e.g. C**t) for the same amount of screen time…’

The broadcaster’s response

[3]  TVNZ did not uphold Ms Alexander’s complaint for the following reasons:

  • ‘A warning was given in regard to the footage before it was shown, and a clear description of the issue being discussed was also given so that viewers could make an informed decision about whether they wished to view such material.’
  • ‘The wall-hanging is pictured on several occasions in the item, when the reporter discusses the history of the item, and the owner gives her view on why it should remain in public view, but this footage is relatively brief (approximately 11 seconds in the item) and does not dominate the visuals.’
  • ‘The editor of newsgathering advises of the decision to show the wall-hanging:
    • We showed it in this instance because to not do so would have made it impossible to tell this story about the offensive word in question.
    • We also felt that showing the context of how the word was presented and how prominently (on an old bullock skull above a door in a pub) was also relevant to the publican’s explanation of why it was there, and why pub visitors found it offensive.
    • We have done the same in the past when we did a story about offensive place names in the South Island, one of which was N****r Creek. We didn’t utter the word but showed it on a map to prove its existence.
    • I would also argue that it is considerably less offensive to show the word in the context of a story about how offended pub visitors were when they saw it. We would never say it.’
  • ‘In this case the Committee considers that sufficient consideration and care was taken in the presentation of the story, both so that viewers could understand the issue being discussed and make an informed decision about whether they wished to view the material.’

The standard

[4]  The good taste and decency standard1 states current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The standard is intended to protect audiences from content likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.2

Outcome

[5]  We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Freedom of expression and overview of outcome

[6]  We have also considered the right to freedom of expression, which is our starting point. This includes the broadcaster’s right to offer a range of information and the audience’s right to receive that information. Our task is to weigh the value of, and public interest in, the broadcast against the level of actual or potential harm that may have been caused, with reference to the objectives of the good taste and decency standard, described above. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the level of harm justifies placing a reasonable limit on the right to freedom of expression.

[7]  Considering the value and public interest in the item, the Authority has previously acknowledged news media plays a vital role in creating an active public discourse, which is an important part of a free and democratic society.3 In addition to the civic interest in this story, in relation to the ongoing discussion about language, history and race relations, there was also an element of human interest, considering the customer’s distressing experience. The actual footage of the wall-hanging and the customer’s post emphasised this human aspect, gave proper consideration to her experience, and demonstrated the true nature and gravity of the issue.4

[8]  The importance of freedom of expression is such that, at times, the exercise of this right will result in harm being felt by some. In light of the public interest, and the important public discussion facilitated by this item, we have not found harm caused by this broadcast at a level that justifies intervening or restricting the right to freedom of expression. We explain our reasons below.

Good taste and decency

[9]  The question for the Authority is whether the inclusion of the footage visually depicting the relevant term was justified in the context or whether, notwithstanding context, it exceeded audience expectations and was likely to cause widespread undue offence, or undermine widely shared community standards.5

[10]  The following contextual factors were relevant to our assessment:6

  • 1 News is a news broadcast and therefore often discusses current events, featuring footage of such events.
  • 1 News is an unclassified news programme, targeted at an adult audience, although screened at 6pm during children’s normally accepted viewing times. 
  • Adult supervision is expected during unclassified news programmes as they are likely to contain material that is inappropriate for children.
  • The item in question was preceded by a verbal warning that ‘some viewers may find details in Jenny Suo’s story distressing’.
  • The item censored verbal use of the term by the pub’s owner.
  • As above, there was a significant degree of public interest in the broadcast, both in terms of the ongoing discussion about language, history and race relations, and considering the human aspect of the customer’s distressing experience.
  • The footage occurred within the context of a critical examination of the issue, that gave due consideration to the offensiveness of the term and the negative impact it had, and it was not depicted outside this context.

[11]  Having regard to these factors, and the value of the item as a whole, we do not consider the broadcast was likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or undermine widely shared community values. In this context, the footage, which depicted the visual impression provided by the wall hanging and the prominence of the word, was not gratuitous but ensured viewers understood both the nature and gravity of the issue and what term was in question. It also helped the broadcaster tell the story of the customer, whose upsetting experience of the wall-hanging facilitated an informed public discourse on the issue.

[12]  In this case, we consider the footage was justified in the context and in light of the public interest in the subject matter. In addition, the verbal warning that preceded the item gave viewers an opportunity to make an informed decision about whether or not they wanted to watch it.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

  

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

29 June 2021

 


Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1  Alana Alexander’s original complaint – 12 January 2021

2  TVNZ’s decision on complaint – 12 February 2021

3  Ms Alexander’s referral – 15 February 2021

4  TVNZ’s response to the referral – 16 April 2021


1 Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
3 Pask and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-057 at [10]; Wakelin and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-060 at [9]
4 Pask and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-057 at [10]; Grant and Phillips and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2019-013 at [36]
5 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
6 Guideline 1a