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Bruce-Phillips and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2020-092 (9 December 2020)

  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
  • Donna Bruce-Phillips
Shortland Street


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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint about the use of ‘Jesus’ as an exclamation in an episode of Shortland Street. The complaint was the use of ‘Jesus’ in this way disrespected New Zealanders who use that name only in prayer. The Authority acknowledged the complainant, and others in the community, find the language used offensive. However, as it has previously determined, the use of variations of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ as exclamations did not threaten community standards of good taste and decency.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency  

The broadcasts

[1]  On 7 July 2020 at 7pm, an episode of Shortland Street included the following exchanges:

Chris Warner:             Louis, you should hear this.

Louis King:                 What?

Roshan Namal:           We got the preliminary results from Dr Devine’s post-mortem.

Louis King:                 And?

Roshan Namal:           She had a depressed skull fracture to the back of her head.

Louis King:                 Jesus.

Harper Whitley:           What you and Maeve have is special.

Nicole Miller:               Yeah it is.

Harper Whitley:           And that woman seems intent on ruining it, so don’t let her.

Nicole Miller:               Well it’s not up to Saskia, it’s up to Maeve, and I trust her completely.

Harper Whitley:           Jesus, you are smitten aren’t you?!

The complaint

[2]  Donna Bruce-Phillips complained the use of ‘Jesus’ in this way breached the good taste and decency standard, as follows:

  • ‘Shortland Street…seems to openly disrespect a huge majority of NZers who use that name [Jesus] only in prayer.’
  • ‘Would they use the name of Allah in the same way? They would be facing a barrage of complaints in the wake of religious intolerance and discrimination.’

[3]  In her referral to the Authority, Ms Bruce-Phillips added:

  • ‘The misuse of the name Jesus…is actually a form of hate speech in my opinion.’
  • ‘As New Zealanders hopefully are maturing and do genuinely care about those whose views may differ from their own…it would be a world first to begin a reversal of this trend.’

The broadcaster’s response

[4]  TVNZ did not uphold the complaint on the following grounds:

  • The use of ‘Jesus’ is acceptable in G and PG programming.
  • In the programme ‘Jesus’ was used as a mild exclamation.
  • Such language is not found by the majority of New Zealanders to be unacceptable.
  • In previous decisions, the Authority found the use of ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘Christ’ and ‘God’ as exclamations did not threaten current norms of good taste and decency.
  • The comments complained about would not have offended a significant number of viewers in the context of the screening.

The standard

[5]  The purpose of the good taste and decency standard is to protect audience members from viewing broadcasts that are likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. The broad limit is that a broadcast must not seriously violate community norms of taste and decency.1 Context is crucial in assessing a complaint under this standard, including the context of the particular content complained about, as well as the wider context of the broadcast.2

Our analysis

[6]  We have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about, and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[7]  We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where we find the broadcast caused actual or potential harm such that limiting the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.

[8]  In assessing this complaint, we have considered the following contextual factors:

  • The programme screened at 7pm and was rated PG, meaning it was expected to contain material more suited for mature audiences but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of a parent or adult.3
  • The programme has an adult target audience, although it was broadcast at a time when children may be watching.
  • The programme is a local, fictional drama based around a hospital and the health services profession, which routinely depicts life and death situations and presents social issues in a realistic and robust manner.
  • The first instance of the term’s use was an exclamation conveying shock in response to a post-mortem report of ‘a depressed skull fracture’.
  • The second instance was a light-hearted exclamation preceding a comment about someone being ‘smitten’.

[9]  Considering the above factors, the use of ‘Jesus’ in these contexts was unlikely to cause widespread undue offence. The Authority’s research, Language That May Offend in Broadcasting, found ‘Jesus Christ’ ranked low (29th out of 31) on the list of words tested, in terms of its offensiveness.4

[10]  While we acknowledge this language may offend some members of the public, including the complainant, the Authority has consistently found variations of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ used as exclamations do not threaten widely shared community standards of good taste and decency.5

[11]  The complainant has highlighted an anticipated disparity of treatment between the use of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Allah’ in media. However, our jurisdiction is limited to the determination of complaints before us in light of any harm caused, or potentially caused, by the broadcast in question. In addition, it is not the Authority’s role to ‘reverse trends’, as advocated by the complainant.6

[12]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the good taste and decency standard.

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


Judge Bill Hastings


9 December 2020     



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

1  Donna Bruce-Phillips’ formal complaint – 8 July 2020

2  TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 31 July 2020

3  Ms Bruce-Phillips’ referral to the Authority – 7 August 2020

4  TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 31 August 2020    

5  Ms Bruce-Phillips’ further comments – 4, 9, 22 September, 13 October 2020

1 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
2 As above
3 Guideline 2a
4 Language That May Offend in Broadcasting (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018), page 6
5 See for example: ten Hove and MediaWorks Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2020-044A and Mclean and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-046
6 See for example: Sta. Lucia and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-048 at [18] and 13 Complainants and Television New Zealand, Decision No. 2017-101 at [44]