Higgins and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2021-22 (21 July 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Douglas Higgins
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint that use of the phrase ‘how the hell’ in an item on Breakfast breached the good taste and decency standard. The Authority found the use of the word would not have caused widespread undue offence or distress or undermined widely shared community values.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency
 During a segment of an episode of Breakfast, broadcast at 7.00am on 18 January 2021, the host, John Campbell used the word ‘hell’ twice when discussing American politics. Mr Campbell said:
I just wonder where the hell will people get the civics lessons from…and the understanding from? Because depending on your tribe, that determines what media you consume. Now, you've written about this Kill the Messenger, the media's role in the fate of the world. So if you are a Fox viewer, then you are disproportionately likely to believe the lie that…the election was stolen from Donald Trump. If you are a CNN viewer, then you are disproportionately... So how the hell do we do the civics lesson in the context of a polarised and not always truthful media environment?
 Earlier in the broadcast, co-host, Jenny May Clarkson used the term ‘what the heck’ twice in the context of discussing the America’s Cup racing. We have also considered this language in our decision.
 Mr Higgins complained the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard for the following reasons:
- The phrase ‘how the hell’ was used repeatedly.
- Acknowledging that the use of the phrase may be the norm for some households, Mr Higgins observed that it is not the norm for many households and commented that a mainline media channel should not be normalising such language.
- Parents should be able to have confidence that national television will apply appropriate language standards. It is naïve to assume parents are exercising discretion around viewing news and current affairs programmes with their children at what is a busy time of the day for families.
The broadcaster’s response
 TVNZ did not uphold Mr Higgins’ complaint for the following reasons:
- Breakfast is aimed at an adult audience.
- The Authority has acknowledged in previous decisions that children of a vulnerable age are unlikely to watch the news unattended.
- News and current affairs broadcasts often discuss current events which include content regarding serious crime or disasters.
- The word ‘hell’ was used as an exclamation and is very low-level coarse language which is acceptable in the context of news and current affairs programming aimed at adults.
- The tone of the programme was typical of the light-hearted approach which would be expected by viewers and the use of the word ‘hell’ in this context would not offend or disturb viewers.
 The good taste and decency standard1 states current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The standard is intended to protect audiences from content likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.2
 We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 As a starting point, we considered the right to freedom of expression. As we may only intervene when the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified, we weigh the right to freedom of expression against any harm potentially caused by the broadcast.3
Good Taste and Decency
 Attitudes towards taste and decency differ widely and continue to evolve in a diverse society such as ours. The standard ensures broadcasts fall within the broad limit of not seriously violating community norms of taste and decency.4 Context is crucial in the consideration of whether a broadcast is likely to cause widespread undue offence, or undermine widely shared community standards.5
 We have considered the following contextual factors:6
- The nature of the programme and likely audience: Breakfast is a news/current affairs programme with an adult target audience.
- Audience expectations of the programme: The segment was consistent with the kind of light-hearted and colloquial discussion typically on Breakfast and the tone and language used would be within general audience expectations of the programme.
- The use of the words: The words were used as an exclamation and in an offhand or colloquial way. The words were not targeted at an individual or used in an aggressive way.
 The words ‘heck’ and ‘hell’ were not tested in our offensive language research (2013 and 2018).7 They were also not terms commonly identified by survey respondents as ‘other unacceptable words’.8 This suggests the general level of unacceptability of these terms are low.9
 Accordingly, we find the phrases were unlikely to cause widespread undue offence, or distress, or to undermine widely shared community standards. The terms were used by the hosts as exclamations and were not directed at anyone, or intended to cause offence.
 With regard to the complainant’s concerns about children’s exposure to the programme, children were not the target audience. As identified by TVNZ, the Authority has consistently expressed its expectation that parents exercise discretion around viewing news and current affairs programmes with their children as such programmes are likely to contain material that is inappropriate for children.10 While we accept 7.00am can be a challenging time to maintain parental oversight, viewers may also exercise their discretion by turning such adult-targeted programmes off.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
21 July 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Douglas Higgins’ original complaint to TVNZ – 18 January 2021
2 TVNZ’s response to Mr Higgins – 16 February 2021
3 Mr Higgins’ referral to the BSA – 9 March 2021
4 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 16 April 2021
1 Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
3 Freedom of Expression: Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6
4 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
5 As above
6 Guideline 1a
7 See Broadcasting Standards Authority (June 2018) “Language that may offend in Broadcasting” <www.bsa.govt.nz> and Broadcasting Standards Authority (September 2013) “What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting” <www.bsa.govt.nz>
8 See Broadcasting Standards Authority (September 2013) “What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting” <www.bsa.govt.nz> at 28; and Broadcasting Standards Authority (June 2018) “Language that may offend in Broadcasting” <www.bsa.govt.nz> at 13
9 Jefferies and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-081 at 
10 See, for example, Bracey and EE and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2013-084