BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

McIntyre and Manawatu Access Radio Charitable Trust - 2002-042

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
  • B Hayward
  • Ivy McIntyre
Manawatu Sounz AM 999

Song "Goodnight Irene" – lyrics offensive

Principle 1 – not offensive in context – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] The song "Goodnight Irene" was one of collection of tracks played by Manawatu Sounz AM 999 between 7.45–8.15am on 27 January 2002. The song was written by a black American blues singer, known as Leadbelly, early in the 20th century.

[2] Mrs McIntyre complained to Manawatu Access Radio Charitable Trust, the broadcaster, that the lyrics in the third verse, in particular the phrase "I’ll take morphine and die", were offensive.

[3] In response, Manawatu Access Radio explained that the lyrics were in the original song and were not an unusual example of lyrics written at that time in that they reflected the precarious existence of poor people. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster's decision, Mrs McIntyre referred it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

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


[5] The members of the Authority have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix, which includes the lyrics of the song complained about. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Unannounced music from a CD "Juke Box" was broadcast between 7.45–8.15am on 28 February 2002 on Manawatu Sounz AM 999.

[7] The song "Goodnight Irene" by Leadbelly was played and the third verse runs:

I love Irene, God knows I do,
I’ll love her till the seas run dry
But if Irene should turn me down,
I’d take the morphine and die

The Complaint

[8] Describing the song as one of her favourites, Mrs McIntyre complained to Manawatu Access Radio that she found the words offensive, adding that she did not believe they had been contained in the original version.

The Standard

[9] The broadcaster assessed the complaint against Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. It reads:

Principle 1

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.


1a  Broadcasters will take into consideration current norms of decency and good taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs and the wider context of the broadcast eg time of day, target audience.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] Manawatu Access Radio advised that the song "Goodnight Irene" written by Huddie Leadbetter, was well-known and had been recorded by a number of artists. It attached the lyrics attributed to the original writer which had been obtained from the Smithsonian Institute in the United States.

[11] The broadcaster argued that the type of lyrics contained in the third verse were common among blues writers and singers in the early twentieth century, as a reflection of the precarious lifestyles of the poorer people at the time. The broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[12] As she objected to the words in the third verse, and as she considered that they were recent additions, Mrs McIntyre was dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision. She referred her complaint to the Authority for review.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[13] Manawatu Access Radio insisted that the third verse was contained in the original lyrics. Moreover, as they considered that the lyrics did not promote or condone the use of drugs, it did not consider them offensive. It repeated that the lyrics reflected the life and misery of the writer and were similar to other lyrics written at that time. Moreover, the Authority was advised, all the CDs were fully previewed to ensure that no unsuitable material was broadcast.

The Authority’s Determination

[14] When it determines a complaint about whether a broadcast contravenes Principle 1 of the Radio Code, the Authority is required to determine whether the material complained about breaches currently accepted standards of good taste and decency, taking into account the context of the broadcast. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breaches the Principle. Accordingly, the Authority has considered the context of the song.

[15] The Authority notes the history of the song "Goodnight Irene" supplied by the broadcaster and, because of the source given, accepts that the lyrics contained in song as broadcast can be attributed to Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly).

[16] Having read the lyrics provided by the broadcaster, the Authority does not accept that they promoted the use of drugs. As the broadcaster explained, the Authority accepts that the lyrics reflected "the very difficult and precarious lifestyles of many of the poorer people" of that time the song was written. As it does not find the lyrics offensive or otherwise inappropriate, the Authority concludes that Principle 1 was not breached.

[17] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Judy McGregor
18 April 2002


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

  1. Ivy McIntyre’s Complaint to the Manawatu Access Radio Charitable Trust (through the Broadcasting Standards Authority) – 29 January 2002
  2. Manawatu Access Radio’s Response to Mrs McIntyre – 18 February 2002
  3. Mrs McIntyre’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 February 2002
  4. Manawatu Access Radio’s Response to the Authority – 4 March 2002
  5. Mrs McIntyre’s Final Comment – 13 March 2002