BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Sorrell and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 1994-105

Members
  • I W Gallaway (Chair)
  • W J Fraser
  • L M Loates
  • J R Morris
Dated
Complainant
  • Chris Sorrell
Number
1994-105
Programme
Verbatim, Insight
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio


Summary

Verbatim, a play broadcast on National Radio at 8.30pm on 27 July, dealt with the

upbringing of a young man then serving life imprisonment for murder. Insight, a

current affairs documentary broadcast on National Radio at 12.30pm on Sunday 31

July (repeated at 9.00pm on Monday 1 August), examined Treaty of Waitangi issues.


Chris Sorrell complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd that both programmes included

offensive language which was in breach of the broadcasting standards.

RNZ considered the language was not used inappropriately in context on each

occasion. The play used the language which would be heard in the real world and the

Insight programme had included an excerpt from the film "Once Were Warriors" to

highlight the reality of Treaty concerns rather than just accepting generalised political

statements. Dissatisfied with RNZ's decision, Chris Sorrell 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 declined to uphold the complaint.


Decision

The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of both the programmes

complained about and have read the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix).

As is its practice, the Authority has determined the complaint without a formal

hearing.

Chris Sorrell complained to RNZ about the use of offensive language, specifically the

"f..." word, on a number of identified programmes. The use of such language, the

complainant said, was an outrage and was evidence of National Radio's declining moral

standards and its concern for market share. Nominating specific standards breached,

the complainant believed an apology from RNZ was appropriate.

RNZ assessed the complaint about the two programmes listed which had been

broadcast in the previous 20 working days. They were the drama Verbatim, broadcast

at 8.30pm on 27 July, and Insight, broadcast at 12.30pm on 31 July and repeated at

9.00pm on 1 August. They were assessed under the following nominated standards:

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.

R3  To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during

the generally accepted listening periods.

R13 To act responsibly and speedily in the event of a complaint and when an

accusation of unfairness is found to be correct, to provide appropriate

redress as early as possible after the original broadcast.

R28 The time of transmission is an important consideration in the scheduling of

programmes which contain violence.

R31 Where programme content is likely to disturb or encourage deviant

behaviour by people under the age of 15 years, broadcasters should use

reasonable endeavours to schedule the programme content outside of

normal listening hours for children.


Dealing first with the drama Verbatim, RNZ focussed on the good taste requirement in

standard R2 and its reference to context. Having regard to the fact that the broadcast

was preceded by a warning that the language used might be offensive, and that the

word "fuck" was used in an extremely natural manner in a play dealing with the

upbringing of a person later convicted for a number of crimes including murder, RNZ

declined to uphold the complaint that the broadcast breached standard R2. It wrote:

Having regard to the subject matter of the play, to the realism essential to a work

aiming to be in large measure a social document and to the natural, unforced and

low-key colour which is the essence of the play, the complaint that the

broadcast breached the statutory programme standard requiring the observance

of decency and good taste ... is not upheld.


In view of the time of the broadcast (8.30pm), RNZ declined to uphold the complaint

under the other standards.

Noting that Insight was neither a children's programme nor broadcast at an hour for

children's programmes, RNZ reported that a 15 second excerpt dealing with violence

from the film "Once Were Warriors" was used – in which the words "fuck" or

"fucking" were broadcast – to illustrate the "stark realism" which the Treaty of

Waitangi discussions should address. For similar contextual reasons to those relevant

to Verbatim, RNZ also declined to uphold the complaint against Insight.

When referring the complaint to the Authority, Chris Sorrell argued that RNZ had

side-stepped the issue of whether foul language could be used. The complainant also

expressed particular concern at the hour the material was broadcast and the influence

of the medium on listeners.

Putting to one side as irrelevant the complaint which alleged a breach of standard R13

as it is largely confined to accusations of unfairness, the Authority decided to treat the

complaints which alleged a breach of standards R3, R28 and R31 as one matter. With

regard to the two programmes complained about on this occasion, these standards

require broadcasters to take account of the impact of its broadcasts on young listeners.

The Authority took some guidance from the 8.30pm watershed for television.

However, in view of the number of radio stations and the target audience of each, the

Authority decided it was necessary when dealing with complaints about radio

broadcasts, to consider who would be listening to the specific broadcast complained

about. It referred back to Decision No: 124/93 (dated 29 September 1993) when it

accepted that a talkback between 7.00–9.00am dealing with economic issues was

unlikely to appeal to the younger listener.

Agreeing with RNZ that neither Verbatim nor Insight were programmes targeted at

children, the Authority was of the opinion that the listening period for younger

listeners must be assessed in the context of the programmes which are broadcast. On

that basis, it considered that neither broadcast could be considered to have contravened

standards R3, R28 or R31.

The Authority then considered whether the use of the word "fuck" on the two

programmes cited breached the requirement for good taste and decency in standard R2.

It is a word which is offensive to many and, the Authority considered, it could only be

used if justified in the context of the broadcast.

On that basis, the Authority had little difficulty in deciding that its use in the drama

Verbatim was not a breach of standard R2. It was a play which, as RNZ noted, dealt

with a social reality in which the language used would not be out of place.

Accordingly, taking context into account and the warning about language, the

Authority concluded, the broadcast of Verbatim on National Radio at 8.30pm on 27

July did not breach standard R2.

Insight is a weekly current affairs documentary which reviews a major current social

issue. A discussion about Treaty of Waitangi issues certainly fell within its portfolio

and the Authority was required to decide whether it had been appropriate to use an

extract from "Once Were Warriors" containing the language to which the complainant

objected. Unlike the broadcast of Verbatim, the excerpt was used without a warning

and the Authority considered, consequently, that its use had been perhaps

inadequately introduced. However, although it might have come as a rather blunt

surprise, the Authority decided that its use was not inappropriate in the context of the

reality with which, as the broadcast stressed, the Treaty of Waitangi principles and

practices had to deal.

 

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Iain Gallaway
Chairperson
3 November 1994


Appendix

Chris Sorrell's Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd - 10 August 1991

After corresponding with both RNZ and the Broadcasting Standards Authority, Chris

Sorrell of Darfield complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd about the use of the "F---"

word on National Radio. Four examples were listed including the broadcast of the

play Verbatim on 27 July at 8.30pm and the broadcast of Insight at 12.30pm on 31

July which was repeated at 9.00pm on 1 August.

Alleging that the complaint breached standards R2, R3, R13, R28, and R31 of the

Radio Codes of Broadcasting Practice, Chris Sorrell wrote:

It has become apparent to me that of recent times there has been a conscious

decision by somebody, somewhere to allow the use of the "F" word on the

radio and I wish to know who it was, when it was and why it was allowed.

The letter added that it was not good enough to hide behind "the loosely worded

guidelines set out in R2".

RNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint - 30 August 1994

RNZ advised Chris Sorrell of its Complaints Committee's decision on the complaint

about the radio play Verbatim and the Insight documentary programme - broadcast on

27 July and 1 August respectively. It declined to uphold the complaint that the use of

the word "fuck" in the two contexts named breached standard R2 of the Radio Code of

Broadcasting Practice.

It noted:

Programme Standard R2 refers to programme elements which may cause

offence to a significant proportion of the audience, or which contravene

generally accepted community standards prevailing at the time.

It emphasised that context was important when assessing a complaint under standard

R2. Focussing first on the complaint about Verbatim, it noted that the complaint had

also cited standards R3, R13, R28 and R31. As standard R3 referred to the normally

accepted listening periods for children and as the broadcast of Verbatim at 8.30pm was

outside this period, the standard R3 complaint was rejected as inapplicable. As no

errors of fact were identified, the R13 complaint was also rejected. The R28 and R31

complaints were also considered inapplicable and RNZ then proceeded to assess the

complaint only under standard R2.

Noting that the broadcast had been preceded with a warning that the language of the

play could offend, RNZ observed:

The word "fuck" occurs several times in the play, in an entirely natural

manner. It is not intended to shock or to upset, nor is it used gratuitously.

The play, it continued, dealt with current situations and the language used could be

heard in any city street and many school grounds. It added:

To TV audiences, the use of "fuck" as an intensive, as a dreary unimaginative

interrogative noun ("...What the fuck...?"), and as an imperative verb of insult

has long passed from the shocking, through the stage of being irritating, to end

up as simply a boring mark of an inadequate communicator.

It concluded in regard to standard R2:

Having regard to the subject matter of the play, to the realism essential to a

work aiming to be in large measure a social document and to the natural,

unforced and low-key colour which is the essence of the play, the complaint

that the broadcast breached the statutory programme standard requiring the

observance of decency and good taste either in the specific use of language or in

overall presentation is not upheld.

RNZ then considered the complaint against the use of the words "fuck" and "fucking"

on Insight. It reported that the words had been broadcast when the programme used

an excerpt from the soundtrack of the film "Once Were Warriors". RNZ explained:

Again, the broadcast is aimed at serious listeners, and is intended to place the

issue of Waitangi Treaty compensation in historical context, to examine it in

the context of the present, and to ask, if not answer, the question of the proper

direction to take next and whether it will benefit those it is intended to benefit.

The film extract had been used to place the political statements in a real environment.

RNZ concluded:

Aside from the different context and different type of programme (ie, current

affairs rather than drama), most of the considerations applying to the

"Verbatim" consideration and decision apply to this Insight programme and are

largely the same. Once more, it is noted that no other listener has complained,

formally or otherwise, which must be given some weight when one of the

assessment criteria involves a "significant number of the community".

Chris Sorrell's Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - 2

September 1994

Dissatisfied with RNZ's decision, Chris Sorrell referred the complaint to the

Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Arguing that standard R2 was open to endless interpretations, the complainant said

that RNZ side-stepped the issue of foul language by concentrating on the explicit

content of the programmes.

Chris Sorrell then stated that both the content and language of Insight was offensive

and disturbing and added that primary school children could be doing their homework

at 8.30pm.

The letter noted that Insight had been broadcast at about midday on Sunday and asked

what right had RNZ to broadcast censored material.

Explaining that many people were too worn down to complain, the complainant

continued:

The medium today is all powerful and shapes people's minds by what it

broadcasts, and in the public interest should be held accountable for its actions

and set standards to be proud of. What benefit and to whose edification are

such programmes attributed.

RNZ's Response to the Authority - 8 September 1994

In its report to the Authority, RNZ disagreed that it had side-stepped the main issue.

Context had been taken into account but the focus had been on the use of the word

"fuck". It had also argued that the disturbing nature of Verbatim was not a

broadcasting standards issue. It had described a violent incident in the past and the

consequences. It had not encouraged violence.

RNZ reported that it also believed:

... the lack of any other complaints over the programme is significant in

assessing standards within the community, but of course does not place undue

weight on that, and certainly does not regard it as a sole factor.

Chris Sorrell's Final Comment - 14 September 1994

When asked to contribute a brief, final comment, Chris Sorrell maintained that

although a number of issues had been discussed:

Radio NZ does still not seem to consider how the broadcasting of such material

will effect the normal mind and seems determined to continue producing more

of it.

The complainant argued that whereas the play Verbatim might be useful for a group of

psychiatrists, it was not entertainment. The use of the offending language in Insight

was unjustified as the extract from "Once Were Warriors" was unnecessary.

Both programmes, Chris Sorrell concluded, warranted censure.