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Shenken and The Radio Network Ltd - 2004-071

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Diane Musgrave
Dated
Complainant
  • Jonathan Shenken
Number
2004-071
Channel/Station
Newstalk ZB

Complaint under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Paul Holmes Breakfast – Newstalk ZB – Israeli Prime Minister described as the “butcher Sharon” – allegedly offensive, unbalanced, unfair and incited racial disharmony

Findings
Principle 1 (good taste and decency) – editorial context – not upheld

Principle 4 (balance) – does not apply to opinion pieces – not upheld

Principle 5 (unfair) – acceptable opinion – not upheld

Principle 7 and Guideline 7a (encouraged discrimination) – not racial epithet – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] At about 7.45am on 23 March 2004, the host of Paul Holmes Breakfast on Newstalk ZB, Paul Holmes, commented about the killing by the Israelis of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Among other critical remarks, the host described the Prime Minister of Israel as “the butcher Sharon”.

Complaint

[2] Jonathan Shenken complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that the comment was offensive, unfair, unbalanced and likely to incite racial hatred and disharmony. He described the remarks as “editorial opinion” but to which no one had been given an opportunity to respond. He added that the comments were uncivilised and insulting and while expected from people such as Osama bin Laden or Rantissi, a higher standard was expected from the host given his public profile and positions of influence.

[3] Mr Shenken requested the broadcast of an apology.

Standards

[4] TRN assessed the complaint against the standards nominated by the complainant. The principles (and relevant guidelines) in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice read:

Principle 1

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

Principle 4

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Principle 5

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.

Principle 7

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Guideline

7a  Broadcasters will not portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation; or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement does not extend to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i) factual; or

ii) a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or

iii) by way of legitimate humour or satire.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[5] TRN explained that the segment complained about was a regular satirical piece done by the host in the form of questions and answers. The issue addressed on the occasion complained about had been the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and, in question 2 of the host’s remarks, Prime Minister Sharon had been described as “the butcher Sharon”. TRN said that Mr Sharon had earned a number of sobriquets in the international media, including “the beast of Lebanon”, when he was involved in the massacre of 2000 Palestinian civilians in refugee camps.

[6] Turning to the principles nominated by Mr Shenken, TRN argued:

  • Principle 1 (good taste and decency) was not breached given Mr Sharon’s reputation, the satirical nature of the item, and Mr Sharon’s order to assassinate Sheikh Yassin.
  • Principle 4 (balance) was not relevant to the expression of an editorial opinion.
  • Principle 5 (fairness) did not apply given Mr Sharon’s international reputation.
  • Principle 7 (encouraging discrimination) was not breached as the use of one word in a satirical context did not incite racial hatred.

[7] TRN declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[8] When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Shenken did not accept that the context of an editorial piece involving satire removed the responsibility for the broadcaster to comply with broadcasting standards.

[9] With regard to Principle 1, Mr Shenken said that he was not aware of the word “butcher” being applied to any other democratically elected leader in the context of assassinations in the war against terror.

[10] As for Principle 7, Mr Shenken contended that Paul Holmes, as the host of Paul Holmes Breakfast, could be expected to have a high standard of social responsibility with regard to broadcasting standards, given his profile and influence as a broadcaster.

[11] Mr Shenken considered that the comment on this occasion was analogous to the host’s description late in 2003 of Kofi Annan (UN Secretary-General) as a “cheeky darkie”. That comment was acknowledged by the broadcaster and the Authority to be unacceptable and a serious breach of broadcasting standards.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[12] TRN advised that it had nothing to add.

Authority's Determination

[13] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[14] TRN said the sobriquet “Butcher” was one of a number which the international media used when referring to Mr Sharon. The Authority was provided with an account of Mr Sharon’s election as Prime Minister of Israel (Guardian, 4 Feb 2001) headlined “From butcher to ‘Lion’…”.

[15] The Authority emphasises that the comment complained about was contained in an editorial or opinion piece which was made in a satirical manner. Mr Shenken referred to an editorial in a similar style last year in which the same host described the UN Secretary-General (Kofi Annan) as a “cheeky darkie”. The broadcaster upheld complaints about that comment and Mr Shenken argued that the comment on this occasion was analogous.

[16] The Authority does not accept that the broadcasts are similar. First, as noted, the word “butcher”, while highly critical, has been used elsewhere in the media. Secondly, the expression on this occasion was not an epithet which implied differences based solely on racial or ethnic characteristics. In view of the distinction between the broadcasts and the use of the word “butcher” elsewhere, the Authority does not accept that the editorial breached the standards relating to good taste and decency, or fairness, or that it encouraged denigration of or discrimination against any group on account of ethnicity.

[17] The contention that the comment was unbalanced raises other issues. If the comment had been made on television, the requirement for balance would not apply as the equivalent standard in the television code is confined to “news, current affairs and factual programmes”. The Authority accepts that editorial or other opinion pieces usually are not “news, current affairs or factual programmes” as contemplated under the standard.

[18] The Authority is firmly of the view that the requirement in the Radio Code for balance should not apply to the comments made on 23 March which can be described as satirical and somewhat glib editorial observations.

[19] While the broadcaster upheld some aspects of the complaints about the reference to Mr Annan as a “cheeky darkie”, it did not uphold the complaints that those comments were unbalanced. That was one of the aspects referred to the Authority and, in Decision Nos: 2003-174/183, the Authority wrote:

[82] Some complainants maintained that the host’s comments were unbalanced. The Authority considers that the comment fell within the ambit of editorial opinion and commentary, which, by virtue of being opinion as opposed to fact, is not required to strictly observe the requirements of balance necessary in a factual news and current affairs presentation. Accordingly, the Authority finds that the issue of balance is irrelevant in this instance, and therefore Principle 4 is not applicable.

[20] The Authority accepts that these comments also apply to the present complaint.

[21] The Authority acknowledges that world leaders can be subject to harsh, indeed vitriolic, criticism by the media. It is an important aspect of the concept of freedom of speech. Such comments can be provocative, as they were on this occasion, and they are not meant to be impartial. As the comments on this occasion were clearly signalled as an editorial piece, the Authority concludes that the remarks did not breach Principles 1, 4, 5 and 7 of the Radio Code.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
1 July 2004

Appendix

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

1  Jonathan Shenken’s Formal Complaint to The Radio Network Ltd – 24 March 2004
2. TRN’s Response to Mr Shenken – 31 March 2004
3. Mr Shenken’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 16 April 2004
4. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 27 April 2004