BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Scarlett and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2021-043 (21 July 2021)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • William Scarlett
Number
2021-043
Programme
Seven Sharp
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary  

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

In a Seven Sharp item, a presenter expressed his surprise by asking an interviewee ‘how the bejesus did a snake get into New Zealand’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint the item breached the good taste and decency standard. While acknowledging terms such as ‘Jesus’ and its variations like ‘bejesus’ may be offensive to some, the Authority found expressions of this nature used as exclamations, will not likely cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency


The broadcast

[1]  On 11 March 2021, Seven Sharp featured an item about a dead python found on an Auckland construction site. In the item, presenter Hayden Jones interviewed Dr Catherine Duthie from Biosecurity New Zealand opening the interview with the question:

How the bejesus did a snake get into New Zealand?

The complaint

[2]  Mr Scarlett complained the use of the word ‘bejesus’ was ‘grossly offensive’ and the item breached the good taste and decency standard:

‘The taking of The Lord Jesus, name in vain by using it in a figure of speech and being totally unrelated to the subject at hand, is an appalling use of the name of The Lord Jesus. To use this vulgar language on prime time tv, demonstrates his complete lack of regard towards Christians…’

[3]  In his referral, Mr Scarlett requested that his complaint also be considered under the discrimination and denigration standard.1 However, pursuant to section 8(1B) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, we are only able to consider Mr Scarlett’s complaint under the standards raised in the original complaint to the broadcaster. The High Court has clarified that in certain circumstances:2

…it is permissible [for the Authority] to fill gaps… or cross boundaries between Code standards…but only if these things can be done within the wording, reasonably interpreted, of the original complaint, and if a proper consideration of the complaint makes that approach reasonably necessary…

[4]  In this case, we do not consider Mr Scarlett’s original complaint, which was focused on the offensiveness of the term, can be reasonably interpreted as raising the discrimination and denigration standard. Nor is that interpretation necessary to properly consider the complaint.

[5]  Accordingly, our decision addresses the good taste and decency standard only.

The broadcaster’s response

[6]  TVNZ did not uphold Mr Scarlett’s complaint for the following reasons:

  • ‘Oxford Languages defines bejesus as an expression of surprise and Collins dictionary says the term is an exclamation of surprise, emphasis, etc, regarded as characteristic utterance of Irish people.’
  • The word was used as a ‘mild exclamation and [was] not intended to offend’.
  • ‘Such language is not found by the majority of New Zealanders to be unacceptable.’

The standard

[7]  The good taste and decency standard3 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.4

Our analysis

[8]  We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[9]  Our starting point is always to consider the right to freedom of expression. Our task is to weigh the right to freedom of expression 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.5

Good Taste and Decency

[10]  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.6 Context is crucial in the consideration of whether a broadcast is likely to cause widespread undue offence, or undermine widely shared community standards.7

[11]  We have considered the relevant contextual factors including:8

  • Seven Sharp is a news and current affairs programme aimed at an adult audience.
  • Seven Sharp is known for taking an informal entertainment-based approach to current affairs9 and often includes light-hearted colloquial chat.10
  • The word was used once, as an exclamation expressing surprise.
  • The item contained information of public interest, including identifying Biosecurity NZ as a relevant point of contact in such situations (ie discovery of potential biosecurity hazards in the country).
  • The word ‘bejesus’ was not tested in our offensive language research. However, ‘Jesus Christ’ ranked at the bottom (29th out of 31) in the list of words tested in terms of its level of offensiveness among those surveyed.11

[12]  We acknowledge this type of language may offend some. However, we have consistently found the use of variations of the word ‘Jesus’ as an exclamation does not, in our current society, amount to a breach of broadcasting standards.12

[13]  Considering the contextual factors and the reasons set out above, we do not find the word, used in this context, has potential to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards in breach of the standard.13  We therefore we do not uphold this complaint.

 
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

21 July 2021

 


Appendix

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

1  William Scarlett complaint to TVNZ – 11 March 2021

2  TVNZ’s response to Mr Scarlett – 8 April 2021

3  Mr Scarlett’s referral to the Authority – 12 April 2021

4  TVNZ’s response to referral – 19 May 2021

5  Mr Scarlett’s confirming standards referred – 2 June 2021

6  TVNZ’s final comments – 25 June 2021


1 Standard 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Standards
2 See Attorney General of Samoa v TVWorks Limited, CIV-2011-485-1110 at [62]
3 Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
5 Freedom of Expression: Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6
6 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
7 As above
8 Guideline 1a
9 Conn and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No.2020-011 at [12]
10 Keeley and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-094 at [10]
11 Broadcasting Standards Authority (June 2018) “Language that may offend in Broadcasting” <www.bsa.govt.nz> at 6
12 See for example Shone and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2012-078 at [6] and Lough and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-080 at [16]
13 See for example Hargreaves and MediaWorks Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2020-044B and Kearn and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-090