Beaumont Bell and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2021-050 (15 September 2021)
- Susie Staley MNZM (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Dr Rowan Beaumont Bell
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint about the introduction for a piece broadcast on RNZ Concert: ‘Being a coloured man wasn’t an advantage to 19th century English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But he did, fortunately, have some influential supporters… so his music did get heard.’ The complaint was that the description of the composer as ‘coloured’ perpetuated racism. The Authority acknowledged the complainant’s concerns and the changing nature of language over time. In this case, it found the description of the composer, in the context of the broadcast, did not encourage discrimination or denigration and was unlikely to cause offence at a level justifying restriction of the right to freedom of expression.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Discrimination and Denigration
 A piece by English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was introduced on RNZ Concert, in a broadcast of 28 April 2021:
Being a coloured man wasn’t an advantage to 19th century English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. But he did, fortunately, have some influential supporters… so his music did get heard.
 Dr Rowan Beaumont Bell complained the description of the composer as ‘coloured’ breached the good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration standards:
- ‘This is an unacceptable term with negative connotations and is essentially a racial slur.’
- ‘Language like this perpetuates racism.’
 In his referral to the Authority, and in response to the broadcaster’s decision on his original complaint (below), Dr Beaumont Bell added:
- ‘It is not my complaint that his ethnicity was referenced. It was the language used to describe him. “Coloured” is unacceptable, with underlying historical context that makes the term racist.’
- ‘…[t]he use of the term “coloured” to describe any person’s ethnicity is highly offensive. I would also suggest that many people in society would agree.’
- ‘If one performs a quick internet search with the terms ‘racist’ and the offensive term in question, there are multiple articles from mainstream media making it quite obvious that this is not an appropriate term to be using1…’
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint:
- ‘The language you complain about was used by our presenter in the context of a classical music broadcast on RNZ Concert. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was of mixed-race birth, a detail about him which appears in every biographical reference we have available. So, it is unsurprising that reference should be made to his ethnicity. It is a historically important fact.’
- ‘While use of the word ‘coloured’ to describe someone’s ethnic makeup may be offensive to you it is certainly not an affront to the norms of good taste and decency and its use in the above context lacks the high level of malice or nastiness that would be necessary to conclude that a broadcast encouraged discrimination or denigration in contravention of the broadcasting standards.’
 Responding to the complaint referral, RNZ added:
Describing the 19th century composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as ‘being a coloured man’ could possibly have been rephrased as ‘being a man of colour’ to employ more modern grammar, but it does not mean to say that the actual term used was in breach of any of the standards.
 The good taste and decency standard2 states current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The standard protects audiences from content likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.3 Context is highly relevant when determining a complaint under this standard including the context in which the particular content occurred, and the wider context of the broadcast.4
 The discrimination and denigration standard5 protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief. ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment.6 ‘Denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community.7 The importance of the right to freedom of expression means that a high level of condemnation will usually be necessary to find a breach under this standard.8 The importance of that right is also recognised in the guidelines to the standard, which state it is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is factual or a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion.9
 We have listened to the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, which is our starting point. This includes the broadcaster’s right to offer a range of ideas, information and content and the public’s right to receive those. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the broadcast has caused actual or potential harm at a level that outweighs the right to freedom of expression.
 For the reasons below, we have not found such harm in this case.
Good taste and decency
 The question for the Authority under this standard is whether the description of the composer as ‘a coloured man’ was likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards, in the context of the broadcast.10
 RNZ Concert is described by RNZ as ‘New Zealand’s fine music radio network’,11 and plays a range of classical, jazz, contemporary and world music. It is normal for pieces to be introduced by hosts with some background and contextual information. Here, the piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was introduced with reference to the historical circumstances in which his music was produced and the challenges he faced as a composer at that time, ‘being a coloured man’ in 19th century England.
 As noted by RNZ, some biographical references alternatively describe Mr Coleridge-Taylor as being ‘of mixed-race birth’. We note another reference describes his rise to success from beginnings as ‘an underprivileged coloured boy…’12
 We acknowledge the complainant’s concerns in that societal attitudes towards such language have shifted and some people may find the use of it offensive. However, in the context of giving historical background for the musical piece that aired, including the nature of the challenges overcome by the composer so his music could get heard, the broadcast was unlikely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or undermine widely shared community values, to an extent that outweighed the right to freedom of expression.
 We therefore do not uphold the complaint under the good taste and decency standard.
Discrimination and denigration
 Again, we acknowledge the complainant’s concerns under this standard. The use of ‘coloured’ may be considered a racial slur and offensive to some people. We also acknowledge there was alternative language that could have been used to avoid such offence. In another context, our decision may have been different.
 However, in the context of this broadcast, we find the use of ’coloured’ did not reach the high threshold for finding the broadcast encouraged discrimination or denigration in breach of the standard. The host’s introduction sought to contextualise the composer’s music, representing the race-based challenges he faced – and overcame - as a composer in the 19th century. The use of the term, in messaging of this nature, was unlikely to ‘encourage’ discrimination or denigration as contemplated under the standard.
 We therefore do not uphold the complaint under this standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
15 September 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Dr Rowan Beaumont Bell’s complaint to RNZ – 28 April 2021
2 RNZ’s decision on the complaint – 26 May 2021
3 Dr Beaumont Bell’s referral to the BSA – 26 May 2021
4 Dr Beaumont Bell’s further comments – 28 May 2021
5 RNZ’s response to the referral – 29 June 2021
6 Dr Beaumont Bell’s final comments – 5 July 2021
7 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 7 July 2021
1 “Greg Clarke: Why FA chairman’s comments are so offensive” BBC News (online ed, United Kingdom, 11 November 2020); Amelia Butterly “Warning: Why using the term ‘coloured’ is offensive” BBC News (online ed, United Kingdom, 27 January 2015); Wikipedia “Colored” <wikipedia.org>; Dahleen Glanton “Column: Why is ‘people of color’ OK but not ‘colored people’? A reading list for white folks” Chicago Tribune (online ed, Chicago, 4 March 2020)
2 Standard 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
3 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
4 Guideline 1a
5 Standard 6 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
6 Guideline 6a
7 As above
8 Guideline 6b
9 Guideline 6c
10 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
11 RNZ “Concert” <rnz.co.nz>
12 Classical Music “Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel” <classical-music.com>