BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Berney and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2005-128

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Diane Musgrave
Dated
Complainant
  • C W and N M Berney
Number
2005-128
Programme
Popetown
Broadcaster
CanWest TVWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
C4 # 2

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Popetown – animated comedy set in a fictional Vatican City – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, unfair, unbalanced and in breach of children’s interests

Findings

Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – contextual factors – not upheld

Standard 4 (balance) – not a news, current affairs or factual programme – standard does not apply – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) and guideline 9g (denigration) – high protection given to satire and comedy – programme had clear satirical and humorous intent – did not encourage denigration – not upheld

Standard 9 (children’s interests) – time of broadcast – standard does not apply – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An episode of Popetown, called “Derby Day” screened on C4 at 9.30pm, on 10 August 2005. The animated series was set in a fictional Vatican City, called Popetown, and centred around a young priest called Father Nicholas, a group of corrupt cardinals and a child-like Pope character.

[2] During the “Derby Day” episode, Father Nicholas was put in charge of the horses running in the Derby, but allocated this responsibility to Sister Marie. She fed the horse curry, and it become bloated with wind and could not race. In a sub-plot, the Pope was scared by watching movies about serial killers and enlisted a Swiss Guard to protect him.

Complaint

[3] CW and NM Berney formally complained to CanWest TVWorks, the broadcaster, that the programme was grossly offensive to members of the Catholic Church, and other Christians.

[4] They also considered that the programme was unbalanced. While recognising that humour outweighs potentially objectionable elements, they considered that the humour in this instance was “non existent, or at least puny”.

[5] They argued that the programme was unfair, and considered that the comic content “missed the mark”. They commented that any effective satire or irony was not apparent.

[6] The complainants acknowledged that the programme was broadcast late at night and was classified. However, they considered that it would still have adversely affected older children that might have been watching.

Standards

[7] CanWest assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 4, 6 and 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Standard 9 Children’s Interests

During children’s normally accepted viewing times, broadcasters are required, in the preparation and presentation of programmes, to consider the interests of child viewers.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[8] In its response to the complaint, CanWest noted that Popetown was set in a fictional Catholic school where a teenage boy is working on a cartoon. This cartoon was Popetown, CanWest noted.

[9] As the cartoon was drawn from the perspective of an uninterested teenage boy, CanWest asserted, it was to be expected that the cartoon would be irreverent. It considered that the opening scene set up the expectation that the programme would not be a satirical look at the Catholic Church in general, but a “more distorted view from the perspective of a teenage boy”.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[10] CanWest contended that in order to constitute a breach of Standard 1, a programme must be unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it is shown. It argued that there were several relevant contextual factors on this occasion.

[11] First, the broadcaster noted that Popetown screened at 9.30pm – more than an hour after the adults only watershed. It also argued that C4 was an “accepted niche channel” that was well known for screening more challenging programmes than conventional stations. CanWest also noted that the later timeslot would ensure a more mature audience, who would be better able to understand that the cartoon was told from a particular perspective.

[12] Second, CanWest said that the cartoon was rated PGR but screened in AO time, as it contained material that was more challenging than might usually have been expected from a programme of this genre.

[13] Third, CanWest took into account the target audience expectations, and their knowledge of adult cartoons. As examples, the broadcaster cited well-known cartoons like bro’Town, Beavis and Butthead and The Simpsons. It said

The New Zealand audience is well versed in the type of humour which these shows have – for example fart and faeces jokes, sexual humour and a general disrespect for authority. The content of Popetown in this context would not be surprising or even particularly challenging.

[14] Finally, CanWest contended that an expected part of the cartoon genre was that characters and plot did not follow reality.

[15] Taking these factors into consideration, the broadcaster considered that Popetown did not breach standards relating to good taste and decency. It also considered that the average viewer of cartoons of this nature would have expected the content and perspective of the storyline.

Standard 4 (balance)

[16] CanWest stated that as Popetown was not a “news, current affair or factual programme”, the balance standard did not apply. Accordingly, it did not uphold this part of the complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[17] Turning to fairness, CanWest reiterated that Popetown had little to do with the reality of the Catholic Church. It considered that viewers would realise the representation of the pope, bishop and cardinal characters were unrealistic.

[18] The broadcaster considered that as the material in Popetown was shown in the “legitimate context of a humorous or satirical work”, it did not denigrate Catholics. It was of the view that the reputation of no individual or group was blackened by the programme.

[19] CanWest concluded that Standard 6 had not been breached. It contended that the footage shown and the ideas expressed in Popetown were obviously intended to be seen as the cartooning of a teenage boy, and were not expected to be taken seriously.

Standard 9 (children’s interests)

[20] CanWest noted that 9.30pm on a Wednesday was not considered “children’s normally accepted viewing times”. It considered that by viewing the series and assigning it an appropriate rating, the broadcaster considered the interests of children. It did not find a breach of Standard 9.

Referral to the Authority

[21] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, CW and NM Berney referred their complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[22] The complainants did not agree with the broadcaster’s assertion that because the cartoon was drawn from the perspective of a teenage boy, it could be expected to be irreverent. They considered that this view was illogical, and could allow any offensive programme to be broadcast.

[23] The complainants contested the comparison with cartoons like bro’Town and Beavis and Butthead, arguing that that Popetown was a “completely different kettle of fish”.

[24] They considered that regardless of the time at which it screened, the programme was still objectionable and offensive. They also disagreed that viewers would be aware of the likely content of the programme prior to it screening.

[25] Further, the complainants disagreed that the programme did not require balance. They maintained that it breached children’s interests.

[26] While they acknowledged that matters of good taste and decency, fairness, and balance were often at least in part subjective, the complainants contended that some programmes were so “gross” as to offend “any reasonable standards”.

Authority's Determination

[27] The members of the Authority have viewed a copy of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[28] The Authority agrees with CanWest that Standard 4 (balance) has no application on this occasion. Popetown is not a “news, current affairs or factual programme” and thus did not require balance. This aspect of the complaint is not upheld.

[29] The Authority also observes that the programme screened at 9.30pm, an hour after the adults only watershed. As Standard 9 is concerned only with programmes broadcast during children’s normally accepted viewing times, the Authority concludes that in this instance, Standard 9 does not apply.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[30] The Authority accepts that the lampooning of an institution or a group in a satirical context is likely to offend at least some members of the group or institution. But such offence is outside the gamut of the broadcasting standards relating to good taste and decency. This standard requires programming to meet commonly accepted norms in terms of language, violence, sexual material or nudity.

[31] The Authority considers that an animated satirical comedy based on the Catholic Church, which contains no offensive language, violence, sexual material or nudity, does not go beyond commonly accepted norms of good taste and decency.

[32] Furthermore, contextual factors are always relevant when assessing good taste and decency. In this case, the programme was broadcast on a channel that is aimed at the 15-29 demographic, and well-known for its challenging “youth culture” programming. In these circumstances, and taking into account the likely expectations of the C4 audience, the Authority considers that the good taste and decency standard was not breached.

[33] Essentially, the complainants’ concern was that the programme was offensive to Catholics because it denigrated the Church. This, in the view of the Authority, is more appropriately addressed under the fairness standard, and in particular guideline 6g, which prohibits programmes which encourage denigration.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[34] The Authority notes that the complainants have referred to guideline 6a in their formal complaint to the broadcaster. It agrees with CanWest that this guideline is intended to apply to actual people and events, and therefore is not relevant to a cartoon. However, for the avoidance of doubt, the Authority considers that the complainant’s main concern about fairness relates, in essence, to the denigration of the Catholic Church and its members (guideline 6g). In light of this, the Authority makes the following comments.

[35] The starting point for the Authority in considering a complaint such as this is the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, protected by s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990:

Freedom of expression – Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

[36] The right to freedom of expression is fundamental to a democratic society. Under section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act, the Authority may restrict this freedom only where such limitation is reasonable, and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

[37] One of the inevitable consequences of the right to free expression is that people will sometimes be offended by what others have to say. The Authority accepts that the complainants are genuinely offended by the depictions of their religion. But, in light of the right to free expression, the fact that offence has been taken – even if it is widespread offence – is not of itself sufficient justification for finding that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards.

[38] The question for the Authority is instead whether the programme encouraged denigration of Catholics on the basis of their religious belief, prohibited by guideline 6g.

[39] The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as meaning a blackening of the reputation of a class of people (see for example Decision Nos 1994-062 and 2004-129). It is also well established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act, a high threshold is required before the Authority will find that a broadcast encourages denigration to such an extent that it amounts to a breach of guideline 6g (see for example Decision No 2004-001).

[40] The Authority also notes that the prohibition against denigration is not intended to prohibit a broadcast offered “in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work”. This exception to guideline 6g reflects the importance that society assigns to the freedom of legitimate humorous or satirical expression. While there may be cases in which a satirical or humorous work may breach the standard – if it amounted to hate speech, for example – the code is clear that such works are afforded a high degree of protection.

[41] Popetown is a satirical comedy, using the fictional setting of life at the Vatican as a vehicle for an irreverent “youth culture” comedy. In the view of the Authority, there was nothing in the programme that went beyond the boundaries of legitimate satire, into the realm of vitriol or hate speech.

[42] It is the nature of satire that many of the topics it addresses invite a strong response from listeners or viewers. The Authority considers that the fact that a programme causes offence should not of itself prevent the broadcast of legitimate satire; this is especially so when the satirical and humorous intent is as overt as it is in the present case. The Authority has consistently recognised the right of broadcasters to satirise politics, religion or culture (see Decision Nos 1990-011, 1991-050, 2004-152, 2004-184, and 2004-187). It sees no reason to depart from that position in the present case.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
22 December 2005

Appendix

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

  1. CW and NM Berney’s formal complaint to CanWest – 1 September 2005
  2. CanWest’s response to the formal complaint – 3 October 2005
  3. CW and NM Berney’s referral to the Authority – 21 October 2005
  4. CanWest’s response to the referral – 4 November 2005