BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Francis and SKY Network Television Ltd - 2019-088 (9 March 2020)

  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
  • Ken Francis
Prime TV


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

The Authority upheld complaints that the broadcast of potentially offensive language in two episodes of Inside the Red Arrows breached the good taste and decency and children’s interests standards. The complainant made separate complaints about each episode. The broadcaster did not respond within the required 20 working day statutory timeframe, although once the complaint was referred to the Authority, it responded to Mr Francis advising that his complaint about the first episode was upheld. It later advised the Authority that the second complaint was also upheld. Upon considering the substance of the complaints, the Authority recognised the value of the documentary series, however, it found that as the episodes were broadcast at 7.30pm, which is a time that children may be watching, and they were not preceded by any warning for language, the broadcasts breached the good taste and decency and children’s interests standards. Audiences were not given sufficient information about the episodes to exercise choice and control over their and their children’s viewing.

Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Children’s Interests.

No orders

The broadcasts

[1]  Inside the Red Arrows is a six-part documentary series following the Red Arrows (the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team) as they prepared for the Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary celebrations. This matter concerns episodes three and five of the series, which contained several instances of coarse language, uttered by Red Arrows pilots and also written in full in on-screen captions:

  • ‘Oh, for fuck sake! My white’s [white smoke is] fucked in this jet!’ (episode three, approximately 7.40pm)
  • ‘Fucking hell! That was a demo?’ ‘You’ve got to laugh at Lowesy’s first Rollback. Fuck me.’ (episode three, approximately 7.47pm)
  • ‘Fuck sake! Come on!’ (episode five, approximately 7.44pm)

[2]  The series was broadcast during August and September 2019, at 7.30pm on Prime. Episode three was broadcast on 7 September 2019 and episode five was broadcast on 21 September 2019.

[3]  In considering this complaint we have viewed recordings of the two broadcasts complained about. We have also read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[4]  Ken Francis complained to SKY on 8 September 2019 following the broadcast of episode three of the programme. Mr Francis, who said he was watching the programme with his grandson, noted that the ‘F-word was uttered three times before 8pm’ as well as being written in full in the captions on-screen. He considered this breached the good taste and decency (Standard 1) and children’s interests (Standard 3) standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  On 22 September 2019, following the broadcast of episode five, Mr Francis made a further complaint about the use of the word (which also appeared in the caption on-screen). Mr Francis raised the issue that while SKY received his earlier response, nothing was done, and the word was again used in this later episode.

[6]  Having not received any response from SKY within 20 working days of his first complaint, Mr Francis referred his complaints to the Authority on 12 October 2019.

The broadcaster’s response

[7]  SKY subsequently responded to Mr Francis on 16 October 2019. It stated that the complaint ‘was considered by our Complaints Committee in September, and our formal response was inadvertently not sent to you within the 20 working-days timeframe.’

[8]  In response to Mr Francis’ first complaint relating to episode three, SKY advised it had upheld Mr Francis’ complaint, saying:

We apologise for the offence caused to you and your family by this mistake. Upon investigating your complaint, we regrettably found that through human error the language in the episode was missed. We take the certification of our content very seriously at Prime and have followed up with the people involved to ensure such an error does not happen again, and to ensure any language in the final episode due to air on the 29th September has the correct warnings applied to the episode.

[9]  SKY did not specifically address Mr Francis’ additional complaint concerning episode five in its response to him, although it has advised the Authority:

Mr Francis’ email on 22 September was treated as a follow up to his original complaint – we are looking into what has happened here but it is obviously an uphold as well.

Procedural points

[10]  We first noted that, ordinarily, where a broadcaster advises it has upheld a complaint, the issue for the Authority is whether the broadcaster has taken sufficient action having acknowledged there was a breach of broadcasting standards. However, in this instance, SKY did not respond to Mr Francis within the required statutory timeframe, and he referred his complaints to us on that basis. Therefore, in the first instance, our task was to consider and determine whether the broadcasts breached the good taste and decency and children’s interests standards, although SKY’s view that these standards were breached and the action it took to remedy the harm are relevant factors in our assessment.

[11]  We also noted that, although Mr Francis complained to SKY about two separate episodes, his complaints raised the same concern about the use of the ‘F word’, under the same standards (good taste and decency and children’s interests). Therefore, we agreed that we should consider the two episodes together in this decision.

The relevant standards

[12]  The good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) requires broadcasters to maintain current norms of good taste and decency consistent with the context of the programme and the wider context of the broadcast. In other words, context is crucial to the Authority’s assessment under this standard, including the programme’s classification and time of broadcast, the target and likely audience, and any pre-broadcast warnings for certain content (guideline 1a).

[13]  Equally important is the notion of choice and control. Where broadcasters take effective steps to inform their audiences of the nature of their programmes, and enable viewers to regulate their own and their children’s viewing behaviour, they are less likely to breach the good taste and decency standard (guideline 1b).

[14]  The children’s interests standard (Standard 3) requires broadcasters to ensure children can be protected from broadcasts which might adversely affect them, including material that unduly disturbs them, is harmful, or is likely to impair their physical, mental or social development. It is concerned in particular with material that is outside audience expectations of the programme’s classification (guideline 3a).

Our analysis and the outcome

[15]  The starting point in our consideration of complaints is the right to freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression is an important right in maintaining a healthy democracy, and it protects both broadcasters’ right to screen a wide range of content, and the audience’s right to receive that content and choose what they wish to view on television. However, this is not an absolute right and may be limited where the exercise of the right has, or may, cause harm. Our role, when we consider complaints, is to weigh the right to freedom of expression and the value or public interest in the broadcast, against the harm that may have potentially been caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.

[16]  Looking first at the value of the broadcasts complained about, we agreed that this documentary series, Inside the Red Arrows, would be of interest to the viewing public and carried value. The two episodes we have viewed offered an interesting insight into the work of the Red Arrows and the personal experiences and challenges for the Royal Air Force pilots involved.

[17]  Against that value we considered the potential harm alleged to have been caused, through the broadcast of several instances of uncensored variations of the word ‘fuck’, at a time when children may be watching. It is also relevant that such a programme may be of interest to children who are engaged in or attracted to planes and adventures of pilots.

[18]  The broadcaster has acknowledged that the broadcast of such language breached the good taste and decency and children’s interests standards nominated in Mr Francis’ complaint. Having regard to the following factors, we agreed there was a breach of standards in relation to both of the episodes complained about:

  • In recent research conducted by the BSA looking at potentially offensive language, the word ‘fuck’ ranked 13th (out of 31 words tested) for unacceptability, with 39% of those surveyed considering the word ‘totally unacceptable in ALL scenarios’.1
  • The research also showed that people have become less accepting of the use of offensive language in reality television programmes. For Inside the Red Arrows, this is the most comparable genre context tested in the research. In the reality TV context, 61% of those surveyed considered the use of the word ‘fuck’ to be fairly or totally unacceptable.2
  • The programme was broadcast at 7.30pm which is during children’s accepted viewing times.
  • The programme’s subject matter is likely to be of interest to some children (including Mr Francis’ grandson).
  • The instances of the use of variations of the word ‘fuck’ were not censored in any way.
  • Given the nature of the programme and its PGR classification, the language was outside what the audience would reasonably expect from the programme, particularly in the absence of any warning for language.
  • Episodes three and five were not preceded by any warning for language. The broadcaster acknowledged that it had not taken effective steps to advise the audience of the language in the episodes. Further, no additional steps were taken to review further episodes, following Mr Francis’ complaint about episode three.

[19]  Specifically in relation to the children’s interests standard, parents and caregivers – including Mr Francis – were not given any opportunity to exercise discretion and protect children from the offensive language, given there was no warning. The broadcaster did not sufficiently enable children to be protected from unsuitable content, and we therefore find that the children’s interests standard was breached.

[20]  For the same reasons, the broadcasts were more likely to offend the general audience, who were not given sufficient information about the programme’s content to exercise choice and control in regards to their own viewing, contrary to the good taste and decency standard. In the absence of any warning for language, viewers were unlikely to expect several instances of the word ‘fuck’ both spoken and written on-screen in a programme classified PGR.

[21]  In these circumstances, while we recognise the value in the broadcast programmes, we consider that the potential harm caused by the language justifies us intervening and limiting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression. We are satisfied that upholding the complaint under Standards 1 and 3 places a reasonable limit on this right. Warnings are an important tool for audience members to enable them to make informed viewing choices for themselves and children in their care. The broadcaster in this instance did not  give due consideration to appropriate warnings in relation to episode three, and despite being alerted to the issue through Mr Francis’ complaint this was not remedied in the later episode on 22 September 2019. However, we do note that the broadcaster, while failing to respond within the required timeframes, eventually acknowledged the breach of standards in its correspondence to both Mr Francis and the Authority, and has provided an explanation for the failure to apply a warning or to censor the language.

[22]  For the above reasons, we have upheld the complaints under both standards.  

For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaints that the broadcast by SKY Network Television Ltd of episodes of Inside the Red Arrows on 7 and 21 September 2019 breached Standards 1 and 3 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[23]  Having upheld Mr Francis’ complaints, we may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. We do not intend to do so on this occasion. We consider the publication of this decision is sufficient to publicly notify the breach of the good taste and decency and children’s interests standards, and to censure the broadcaster. We encourage the broadcaster to ensure that complaints and errors of this nature are responded to in a timely way in the future.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority



Judge Bill Hastings


9 March 2020






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

1.  Ken Francis’ formal complaint – 8 September 2019

2.  Mr Francis’ further complaint to SKY – 22 September 2019

3.  Mr Francis’ referral to the Authority – 12 October 2019

4.  SKY’s response to the complainant – 15 October 2019

5.  SKY’s correspondence with the Authority regarding Mr Francis’ two complaints and advising the complaints were upheld – 22 October-18 November 2019

1 Language That May Offend in Broadcasting, Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018, page 6
2 As above, page 25