BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Thomas and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1998-058

Members
  • S R Maling (Chair)
  • R McLeod
  • L M Loates
  • J Withers
Dated
Complainant
  • Dr Glyn Thomas
Number
1998-058
Programme
One Network News
Channel/Station
TV One


Summary

The National Museum's display of a controversial art work showing a statue of the

Virgin Mary in a condom was the subject of a news item on One Network News

broadcast on 14 March 1998.

Dr Thomas complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that as a

Christian, he found the image highly offensive as, he believed, it would be to the

majority of Christians. He considered it unacceptable for national television to show

offensive images, and he sought an apology to those who had been offended.

In its response, TVNZ noted that the item was one of a number which traced the

controversy over the display of the statue in Te Papa. It argued that it was

television's role to inform viewers about the subject of the controversy, and expressed

the view that it had not exceeded the bounds of good taste and decency. Further,

TVNZ wrote, it did not believe the item represented Christians as inherently inferior,

or encouraged discrimination against them. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, Dr Thomas 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 declines to uphold the complaint.


Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed the item complained about and have read

the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). On this occasion, the Authority

determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

A controversial exhibit which was displayed at the National Museum, Te Papa, was

the subject of a news item on One Network News on 14 March 1998, broadcast

between 6.00–7.00pm. The exhibit was a small statue of the Virgin Mary which was

covered with a condom. According to the item, the exhibit had aroused the ire of

many people, who found its display in a national museum offensive and

inappropriate. A large number of protestors were shown marching around the

museum building.

Dr Thomas complained to TVNZ that, as a Christian, he found the image highly

offensive. He said that he considered a majority of Christians would also be offended.

He believed, he said, that it was unacceptable for national television to be showing

images which were so offensive to a religious group. He sought a public apology from

TVNZ.

When it considered the complaint, TVNZ assessed it against standards G2 and G12 of

the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters:

G2    To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and

taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which

any language or behaviour occurs.

G13   To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently

inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of

the community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational

status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or

political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the

broadcast of material which is:

i) factual, or

ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or

current affairs programme, or

iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.


TVNZ began by stating that it recognised that Dr Thomas was genuinely offended by

the statue, as were many other committed Christians and people who sympathised

with their feelings. It emphasised that the furore which had built up around the

exhibit had highlighted an important debate about the balance between the freedom of

expression, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights Act, and the potential to cause offence.

However, TVNZ argued, the issue was one for viewers to decide upon for themselves.

How, it asked, could they make such a judgment without seeing a picture of the object

which had given rise to the controversy?

In determining whether there was any breach of standards, TVNZ contended that its

role was not to decide whether the statue itself was offensive, but whether the news

item which chronicled the debate surrounding the statue exceeded the standards of

good taste and decency. TVNZ was emphatic that the item had not breached standard

G2, repeating that no informed public debate could have occurred had viewers not

been allowed to see what was causing the controversy.

Assessing the complaint under standard G13, TVNZ denied that by showing the item,

it had represented Christians as inherently inferior, or had encouraged discrimination

against them. On the contrary, TVNZ argued, it had drawn attention respectfully and

sympathetically to the fact that the very presence of the statue had caused

widespread distress and concern for Christians. It declined to uphold any aspect of

the complaint.

Dealing first with the complaint that standard G2 was breached, the Authority

stresses that the standard requires analysis within a contextual framework. It notes

that this was a news item about a matter which was controversial at the time, and

which was the subject of widespread debate. The Authority accepts that the image of

the Virgin Mary sheathed in a condom was offensive not only to the complainant, but

to a large number of people.

The issue for the Authority, however, is whether the display of the object on screen

transgressed community norms of decency and good taste. It notes that the image was

included within a brief news item which focussed principally on the reaction to the

exhibit by a group of protestors attempting to apply pressure to the museum staff to

remove the piece from display. The Authority decides that in the context of the news

item, the brief shots of the statuette were appropriately used to illustrate the object of

the controversy. In its view, there was no prurience or sensationalism in the portrayal

and therefore the standard was not transgressed.

Next the Authority turns to the complaint that by the portrayal, Christians were

represented as inherently inferior, or that discrimination against them was encouraged.

The Authority finds no evidence that Christians or their beliefs were targeted in the

item, and while it again acknowledges that many Christians would have been offended,

the Authority is not persuaded there was a breach of this standard.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Lyndsay Loates
Member
28 May 1998

Appendix


Dr Glyn Thomas's Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 15 March 1998

Dr Thomas of Palmerston North complained to Television New Zealand Ltd about an

item on One Network News broadcast on 14 March 1998 between 6.00-6.30pm. The

item, he wrote, showed a picture of a statue of Mary wrapped in a condom. He

continued:

As a Christian I find this image highly offensive and believe it is offensive to

the majority of Christians. I believe it is unacceptable for national television to

be showing images that are so offensive to a religious group and it is extremely

religiously insensitive for them to do so.


He sought a public and formal apology and an assurance that TVNZ would cease

showing such things.

TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint – 31 March 1998

TVNZ considered the complaint under standards G2 and G13 of the Television Code

of Broadcasting Practice.

TVNZ said that it recognised that Dr Thomas was genuinely offended by the statue

on display in the National Museum and that his views were shared by a large number

of other committed Christians and people who sympathised with their feelings.

However, it asked, was it fair to blame television?

TVNZ pointed out that the statue was being displayed at Te Papa, and would be

there if it were noticed by the media or not. It suggested that the furore surrounding

the exhibit had given rise to an important debate about whether freedom of expression

should override the offence sometimes caused by the exercise of that freedom. It

continued:

It's an issue that each individual has to decide for her or himself. How can our

viewers be expected to make such a judgement without being shown the object

which has given rise to the controversy?

We are tempted to believe that in lodging your complaint you have confused

the message (that a statue you regard as deeply offensive is on show in

Wellington) with the messenger (TVNZ, which revealed the presence of the

statue and told you about the uproar it caused).

TVNZ emphasised that it was not its role to decide whether the statue was offensive

per se, but that it had to decide whether the inclusion of pictures of the statue

exceeded the bounds of good taste and decency. In TVNZ's view, it most

emphatically did not. It argued that no informed public debate could have occurred

had viewers not been allowed to see what was causing the row.

As far as standard G13 was concerned, TVNZ did not believe that by showing the

item it represented Christians as inherently inferior or encouraged discrimination

against them. On the contrary, it argued, it drew attention respectfully and

sympathetically to the fact that the very presence of the statue had caused

widespread offence and distress to Christians. TVNZ declined to uphold the

complaint.

Dr Thomas's Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 6 April 1998

Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, Dr Thomas referred the complaint to the

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

In Dr Thomas's opinion, TVNZ's arguments did not hold water. He suggested that

on that logic, TVNZ could legitimately show anything related to a news item on

television and claim that it was informing the public. For example, he suggested, why

not show full nudity, or dead bodies, including those of the children recently killed in

the USA. He continued:

It could be argued that if a case comes before the courts regarding paedophilia

then television could show us the images to keep us informed!


Dr Thomas emphasised that for many people in New Zealand the images shown were

offensive and did not keep within currently accepted standards of decency and good

taste.

In Dr Thomas's opinion, the images did denigrate the Christian faith and hold it up to

ridicule, thus denigrating Christians. He maintained that it showed total disrespect for

Christian beliefs and values, and this could only encourage disrespect and

discrimination.

He repeated that TVNZ should apologise to all Christians for showing the pictures,

and cease showing them.

TVNZ's Response to the Authority – 16 April 1998

TVNZ suggested that Dr Thomas's response indicated that he misunderstood why

the statue was shown in the news item.

In response to his proposition that TVNZ might just as well show full nudity on

television, TVNZ wrote:

Our response is that we would not show full nudity for any gratuitous

purpose, but we would do so if the nudity itself was an issue in which the

New Zealand public had become embroiled. A few years ago, at a Wellington

Arts Festival, there was a controversy over a painter who used his naked body

to spread the paint upon the canvas. TVNZ showed the man on that occasion

because our viewers could make no judgement for themselves without having

seen what he was doing.


The same applies to the Virgin in a condom, TVNZ argued. It did not believe viewers

could make up their own minds about it unless they were able to see it. It noted that

other branches of the media had also shown pictures of the statue, most recently in

The Listener.


TVNZ said that it held to the view that Christians were not portrayed as inferior, or

denigrated by the item.

In passing, TVNZ noted that Dr Thomas appeared to make the claim to speak for all

Christians – a claim it suggested he was not entitled to make. In its view, there was

ample evidence that some Christians recognised a message in the statue, and either

supported or at least respected the point of view being expressed.

Dr Thomas's Final Comment – 22 April 1998

Dr Thomas emphasised first, that he had not purported to speak on behalf of all

Christians, but was writing his complaint as a concerned individual. He considered

that TVNZ would be well aware that many Christians were extremely offended by the

images.


He also took issue with TVNZ's argument that it was acceptable to show images

which people found offensive and contentious in order that they could make up their

own minds. Dr Thomas wrote:


On this argument TVNZ is obliged to show paedophilic material if it related to

a current news story so that we can all make up our own minds whether it is

offensive or not!


Thirdly, he suggested that the argument that showing the images was acceptable

because others were doing it was irrelevant and ridiculous. Dr Thomas suggested: "try

telling that to the police when you are caught speeding."