BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Stein and Discovery NZ Ltd - 2020-096 (9 February 2021)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Timmi Stein
Number
2020-096
Programme
Newshub
Broadcaster
Discovery NZ Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary  

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

The Authority did not uphold a complaint about a reference to ‘the heebies’ in a Newshub item canvassing reactions to Judith Collins’ appointment as leader of the National Party. The reporter asked then National MP Paula Bennett on camera, ‘Will this give Jacinda Ardern the heebies, do you reckon?’ The complainant argued the term could be interpreted as offensive slang for Jew. The Authority considered most viewers would have understood the term as common slang used to express a feeling of nervousness or anxiety, rather than embedding derogatory connotations about Jewish people as a section of the community. Given the ambiguity around the term’s origins, it found its use in the context was unlikely to encourage discrimination or denigration, or threaten community standards of taste and decency.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Discrimination and Denigration


The broadcast

[1]  A Newshub story on 15 July 2020 (channel Three) canvassed reactions of politicians and the public to Judith Collins being appointed as the National Party leader. Towards the end, the reporter asked then National MP Paula Bennett on camera, ‘Will this give Jacinda Ardern the heebies, do you reckon?’

The complaint

[2]  Timmi Stein complained it breached broadcasting standards for the following reasons:

  • The word ‘heebies’ is offensive and anti-Semitic. The use of the word in the item amounted to ‘unconscious anti-Semitism’.
  • The word ‘is as wrong as the N word is deemed’.
  • The phrase ‘heebie-[jewbie]’ is defined in the Urban Dictionary as: ‘the creeping fear… that the Jewish conspiracy to take over the world may in fact be true’; and ‘heebie’ as ‘slang for Jew, short for Hebrew (descended from Habiri, the old philistine word for Hebrew). Popularised in “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python.’

The broadcaster’s response

[3]  Ms Stein did not identify particular broadcasting standards in her original complaint. MediaWorks addressed the complaint under the good taste and decency standard and did not find any breach, saying:

The committee is satisfied that the reference to ‘the heebies’ by the reporter was intended to mean the ‘heebie-jeebies’ which is widely understood in New Zealand to mean ‘a state of nervous fear or anxiety’. There was no anti-Semitic intent in the comment.

[4]  Ms Stein then also raised the discrimination and denigration standard in her referral to us. Our decision is limited to the standards raised, either explicitly or implicitly, in the original complaint.1 Based on the wording of the original complaint, for example describing ‘the heebies’ as ‘anti-Semitic’, we agreed it implicitly raised the discrimination and denigration standard. We accordingly invited MediaWorks’ comments. 

[5]  MediaWorks responded, ‘we strongly maintain there was no anti-Semitic intent in the comment and considering this, we maintain the comment could not contain the level of malice required to be considered a breach of the discrimination and denigration standard’.

The standards

[6]  Good taste and decency2 states broadcasters should maintain current norms of good taste and decency consistent with the context of the programme and the wider context of the broadcast. It protects audiences from viewing or listening to broadcasts likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.3

[7]  Discrimination and denigration4 states broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community on account of race or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief. It protects recognised sections of the community from verbal and other attacks and fosters a commitment to equality.5

Our analysis and the outcome

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

[9]  We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, which is valued and protected under the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Our task is to weigh the right to freedom of expression, and the value and public interest in the broadcast, against the level of actual or potential harm caused. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint when the resulting limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified in light of the harm.

Interpretation of ‘the heebies’

[10]  While it is not the Authority’s role to determine the origins and meanings of words, we have looked into the possible interpretations of the term complained about to inform our decision under the relevant standards. Different meanings and origins have been cited by the complainant and the broadcaster so it appears there is some ambiguity about the possible meaning of ‘the heebies’ as it was used in abbreviated form in this broadcast.

[11]  Some sources we considered attribute the term ‘heebie-jeebies’ (relied on by the broadcaster as the extended form of ‘the heebies’) to American cartoonist William Morgan (Billy) DeBeck, known for creating a number of memorable comic strip characters of the 1920s and 1930s and several neologisms still used today (such as ‘hotsy-totsy’, ‘horsefeathers’ and ‘google’).6 

[12]  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘the heebie-jeebies’ as ‘jitters’ or ‘creeps’ and states the first known use of the term in that sense was in 1923.7 Other online sources also indicate the term has been commonly used and understood in this way.8 For example:

  • A segment on Wayword Radio, a radio show examining history and culture of language, noted Mr DeBeck’s comic strip was the earliest known use of the term (1920s).9
  • The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as ‘a state of nervous fear or anxiety’ with its origin noted as US, 1920s,10 and the Cambridge Dictionary similarly as ‘strong feelings of fear or worry’.11
  • One scientific paper classifies the emotional response evoked by disgust stimuli as ‘the heebie-jeebies’.12
  • ‘Heebie Jeebies’ was also the title of a song made famous by jazz musician Louis Armstrong, recorded in 1926. Several jazz musicians released versions of the song.

[13]  The complainant argues there is an alternative, derogatory or anti-Semitic interpretation of ‘the heebies’ as used in the item. Although many of the online sources generated by a search of ‘the heebies’ aligned with the meaning of ‘heebie-jeebies’ as outlined above, we found two Urban Dictionary entries (in addition to the two cited by the complainant in paragraph [2]): ‘Hebe’ defined as ‘slur for a Jewish person’; and ‘Hebrew Jeebies’ defined as ‘something you feel when a person of Jewish descent leaves you with an unsettling feeling’.13

Good taste and decency

[14]  Context is crucial to our assessment of potential harm under this standard, and whether or not the broadcast seriously violated community norms of good taste and decency.14 Relevant contextual factors include:

  • Newshub is an unclassified news programme with an adult target audience (although it may be viewed by children).
  • The story was a political report covering reactions to Judith Collins’ newly-announced leadership of the National Party, and carried public interest.
  • The relevant term was used once by the reporter, essentially inviting Paula Bennett’s comment on how Jacinda Ardern may perceive Ms Collins as an opponent given the upcoming general election.
  • The term ‘heebies’ could be open to viewers’ interpretation depending on their understanding of its origins, as discussed above.
  • The term ‘heebies’ was not tested, and was not otherwise identified by research participants as a potentially offensive term, in the Authority’s research on Language That May Offend in Broadcasting.15

[15]  We acknowledge the complainant was offended by the phrase, based on her understanding of its origins. It is possible others may have similarly interpreted the term and been offended. However, given the nature and focus of the story, we concluded it was more likely in the New Zealand context viewers would take it to mean ‘the heebie-jeebies’ as the broadcaster intended – asking Ms Bennett if she thought Jacinda Ardern would feel nervous with Ms Collins as her opponent.

[16]  For these reasons, we have not found actual or potential harm at a level that warrants regulatory intervention or restricting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression. We therefore do not uphold the good taste and decency complaint.

Discrimination and denigration

[17]  For the purpose of considering the potential harm under this standard, ‘discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment. And ‘denigration’ as devaluing the reputation of a particular section of the community.16

[18]  The key question for us is whether the use of the term in the news item encouraged discrimination against, or denigration of, the Jewish community. This includes considering whether the use of the term would have the effect of embedding an existing trope (a ‘word or image that evokes prejudicial ideas’) or a negative stereotype.17 Recent examples of this, which we found to be in breach of the standard on the basis they reinforced derogatory connotations about a particular group, include references to ‘Jewish billionaires’18 and ‘Gypsy Day’19.

[19]  This case is distinguishable in our view. As noted above, there is doubt whether ‘the heebies’ carries the pejorative connotations suggested by the complainant. Given this ambiguity around its origins, use and implications, we consider it was unlikely to evoke prejudicial ideas for the majority of New Zealand viewers. Use of it in the manner alleged in the complaint does not appear to be common parlance in New Zealand. On this basis, it does not reach the threshold for finding the broadcast encouraged discrimination against, or the denigration of, Jewish people as a section of the community. The potential harm did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression.

[20]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint under the discrimination and denigration standard.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

9 February 2021

 


Appendix

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

1  Timmi Stein’s formal complaint to MediaWorks – 16 July 2020

2  MediaWorks’ decision on the complaint – 13 August 2020

3  Ms Stein’s referral to the Authority – 14 August 2020

4  MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comments – 29 September 2020

5  Discovery’s (formerly MediaWorks) comments on discrimination and denigration, invited by the Authority – 1 December 2020


1 Broadcasting Act 1989, s 8(1B)
2 Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
3 Commentary: Good taste and decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
4 Standard 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
5 Commentary: Discrimination and denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16
6 For example, Enacademic.com “Billy DeBeck” <www.enacademic.com>; Lambiek Comiclopedia “Billy DeBeck” <www.lambiek.net >
7 Merriam-Webster Dictionary “heebies-jeebies” <www.merriam-webster.com>
8 Ben Zimmer “How did we get the Heebie-Jeebies” Visual Thesaurus (online ed, 29 July 2015); The Phrase Finder “what is the meaning of heebie-jeebies” <www.phrases.org.uk>
9 Wayword Radio (5 April 2008) “A Way with Words” <www.waywordradio.org>
10 Lexico “heebie-jeebies” (online ed) <www.lexico.com>
11 Cambridge Dictionary “heebie-jeebies” <www.dictionary.cambridge.org>
12 Khandis R. Blake, Jennifer Yih, Kun Zhao, Billy Sung and Cindy Harmon-Jones “Skin-transmitted pathogens and the heebie jeebies: evidence for a subclass of disgust stimuli that evoke a qualitatively unique emotional response” Cognition and Emotion (online ed, 5 July 2016)  
13 Urban Dictionary <www.urbandictionary.com>
14 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
15 Language That May Offend in Broadcasting (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018), page 13
16 Guideline 6a
17 Waxman and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-042 at [12]
18 As above
19 Cant and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2020-071