Mclean and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-046 (10 August 2018)
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Wendy Palmer
- Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
- Paula Rose QSO
- Rene Mclean
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
During an episode of Shortland Street, one of the characters, Harper, used the exclamation ‘Oh, Jesus…’ to express her shock and disgust at a flood of sewage in her new home. A promo for this episode, broadcast during the weather report on 1 News, also included Harper using this expression. The Authority received a complaint that this language was blasphemous and offensive, and in the case of the promo, inappropriate for broadcast during 1 News at 6pm when children might be watching. The Authority acknowledged that the complainant, and others in the community, might find this type of language offensive. However, the Authority has consistently found that these type of expressions are commonly used as exclamations in our society. This was reflected in recent research undertaken by the Authority, which found that the level of unacceptability for some blasphemies was decreasing among the members of the public who were surveyed. Overall, the Authority considered the broadcast of this language did not cause harm to an extent which justified limiting the right to freedom of expression, and did not uphold the complaint.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Children’s Interests, Discrimination and Denigration
 An episode of Shortland Street followed characters Drew and Harper as they moved into a new home together. On their first night in the house, Drew discovered sewage flooding through the drainpipe in the kitchen sink. As he told Harper to stay in their room, the hallway flooded with sewage. Harper said, ‘Oh, Jesus, is that…?’ and Drew responded, ‘It’s a poo-nami!’ This episode was classified PGR (Parental Guidance Recommended) and was broadcast at 7pm on 30 April 2018 on TVNZ 2. The scene occurred during the final ten minutes of the episode.
 A promo for the episode, broadcast during the weather report on 1 News that evening, also featured Harper’s comment, ‘Oh, Jesus, is that…?’ but did not reveal to viewers what caused her reaction. 1 News is not subject to classification.
 Rene Mclean complained that the language used by Harper during this promo and the episode of Shortland Street was blasphemous, offensive and inappropriate for broadcast, particularly during 1 News at 6pm and the weather report, when children might be watching.
 The complainant said this type of language would not be expected by audiences during programmes broadcast from 7pm to 7.30pm and the timing of this promo and programme was inappropriate, as children should not be given the impression that blasphemy is normal or acceptable.
 Further, the use of the word ‘Jesus’ in this context was offensive to Christians and disrespectful to Christianity as a religion.
The broadcaster’s response
 TVNZ’s response to Mr Mclean’s complaint was that:
- The promo was broadcast during 1 News, which is aimed at an adult audience and often features material unsuitable for children.
- The phrase ‘Oh, Jesus’ was used in this particular episode to express shock at the flooding in the kitchen. It was a mild exclamation and was not intended to offend viewers.
- Shortland Street is classified PGR and intended to be viewed by children in the company of a parent or other adult.
- It pointed to previous decisions by the Authority where complaints about the use of words like ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Christ’, were not upheld because the words were used as an ‘exclamation expressing irritation, dismay or surprise’.1
- 'The use of the commonly-used phrase ‘Jesus’ to express shock, would not lead to the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section in society.
 Mr Mclean considered that TVNZ’s broadcast of both the promo and the full episode breached the good taste and decency, children’s interests and discrimination and denigration standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 The purpose of the good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) is to protect audience members from viewing broadcasts that are likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. Broadcasters should take effective steps to inform audiences of the nature of the programme, and enable viewers to regulate their own and children’s viewing behaviour.
 The children’s interests standard (Standard 3) requires broadcasters to ensure children can be protected from broadcasts which might adversely affect them.
 Finally, the discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 7) protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.
 In New Zealand we value the right to freedom of expression. So when we consider a complaint that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards, we first look at the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the value of the programme, and the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. This could be harm to an individual, or, as alleged in this case, harm to society or the audience generally.
 We acknowledge that the complainant was offended by the use of this particular blasphemy, particularly given the timing of the promo during the weather report on 1 News at 6pm, when the complainant was watching television with his family. There are many within our community, particularly those who identify as Christian, who might find the use of variations of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ unnecessary and offensive. We have dealt with complaints about this expression a number of times.2
 To understand community views around this type of language, we tested traditional swear words and blasphemies in our recent Language That May Offend research, by surveying members of the New Zealand public. The survey results showed that only 19% of respondents found the phrase ‘Jesus Christ’ to be offensive and it ranked 29th out of 31 words tested.3 The research suggests that the general level of unacceptability for this expression in the community is low.
 Part of the reason for this could be that expressions of this nature are now commonly used as exclamations, with no intention to be offensive. We have consistently found that use of these expressions did not breach broadcasting standards – though context is always critical.4
 We are satisfied in this case that the use of the exclamation by the character, to express her shock and disgust at the flooding in her home, was not outside audience expectations for either Shortland Street (New Zealand’s longest running local serial drama, which is classified PGR) or a promo broadcast during 1 News, which often contains material unsuitable for children. The broadcast of this language did not reach the threshold for finding a breach of either the good taste and decency or children’s interests standards, taking into account the right to freedom of expression.
 Finally, the use of this expression by a fictional character did not in our view encourage discrimination against, or the denigration of, Christians or Christianity. As we have said, it was clearly an expression of the character’s shock at the situation, and it did not carry any malice or nastiness towards Christians. Upholding this part of the complaint would result in an unjustified limit on the broadcaster’s freedom of expression and dramatic licence.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
10 August 2018
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Rene Mclean’s formal complaint – 1 May 2018
2 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 29 May 2018
3 Rene Mclean’s referral to the Authority – 1 June 2018
4 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 13 July 2018
1 Citing Swale and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2003-098 and Parkinson and Harvey and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2006-057
2 See for example: Stewart and Television New Zealand Ltd (Decision No. 2017-093) and Keam and Television New Zealand Ltd (Decision No. 2017-090.
3 The word ‘Jesus’ was not tested this year, given its low ranking in the previous 2013 research. See Language That May Offend in Broadcasting (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018, page 6)
4 See, for example: Foreman and NZME Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2018-012; Stewart and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-093 and Keam and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-090