Stewart and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2017-093 (16 February 2018)
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
- Paula Rose QSO
- Margaret Stewart
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Warning: This decision contains language that some readers may find offensive.
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
During an episode of the crime thriller series Paula, one of the characters used the phrase ‘Jesus fucking Christ’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the use of this phrase in the context of the programme breached the good taste and decency standard. The Authority acknowledged that many people may find this phrase offensive. However, taking into account the nature of the programme, the pre-broadcast warning for frequent use of coarse language, the Adults Only classification, the time of broadcast and audience expectations of the programme, the Authority did not consider the use of the phrase threatened community norms of taste and decency, or justified restricting the right to freedom of expression.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency
 Paula is a three-part crime thriller series following a chemistry teacher whose life is turned upside down because she is being stalked. During the second episode of the series, one of the characters said, ‘Jesus fucking Christ’.
 Margaret Stewart complained that the use of Christ’s name and the ‘f word’ together was offensive and amounted to ‘obscene blasphemy’.
 The issue raised in Mrs Stewart’s complaint is whether the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 The episode was broadcast at 8.30pm on Friday 22 September 2017 on TVNZ 1. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
Did the broadcast threaten current norms of good taste and decency?
 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.1
The parties’ submissions
 Mrs Stewart submitted:
- The use of the phrase was offensive and she had not heard this phrase used on television before.
- The use of the ‘f word’ has become common place in ‘novels and TV action and thriller programmes’, as has the use of Christ’s name. However, combining ‘the f word’ and Christ’s name amounted to ‘obscene blasphemy’ and went beyond audience expectations, even in a crime series like Paula.
- Other TVNZ 1 programmes typically broadcast at 8.30pm (eg, Broadchurch, Law and Order: True Crime) create an audience expectation that programmes broadcast in this timeslot will not contain such obscene language.
- Nothing in part one of the series prepared viewers for the ‘obscene blasphemy’ that occurred in the second episode. Nor did the use of coarse language earlier in this particular episode prepare viewers for, or allow, the use of this particular phrase later in the episode.
- There are limits to the amount and type of coarse language that can be included in a scene and in an episode, even with a pre-broadcast warning for ‘frequent use of coarse language’.
 TVNZ submitted:
- Paula was classified Adults Only and screened during the AO timeband, on a channel aimed at an older viewing demographic.
- It was preceded by a written warning which advised of the AO classification and that the programme contained frequent use of coarse language.
- The phrase complained about was consistent with expectations of the programme in terms of the type of language used, and what would be expected of an AO programme which carried a warning for coarse language.
- The coarse language occurred well into the programme, and viewers would have expected this type of coarse language through signposting from both the pre-broadcast warning and other coarse language within the programme.
 When we determine a complaint alleging a breach of broadcasting standards, we first give consideration to the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the value of the broadcast programme, as well as the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast.
 In considering the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused, and the good taste and decency standard as a whole, we give consideration to the context of the broadcast,2 as well as the particular language complained about.
 Looking first at the language itself, we acknowledge that many people may find the phrase complained about offensive. The phrase was ranked as the third most offensive phrase or word in the Authority’s 2013 What Not to Swear research, by those surveyed.3
 However, an assessment of the level of offensiveness of a particular word or phrase used in a programme is heavily context dependent. Relevant contextual factors in this case include:
- The programme was classified AO (Adults Only) and broadcast at 8.30pm.
- The programme featured a pre-broadcast, on-screen warning for frequent use of coarse language.
- Paula is a crime thriller series with an adult target audience.
- The narrative context of the scene, which was important to the developing rapport between Paula and a police detective investigating her situation.
- The use of frequent coarse language throughout the episode, and leading up to this particular scene.
- The phrase complained about occurred 55 minutes into the broadcast.
- The phrase was used as an exclamation; it was not used in an abusive manner or directed towards any person.4
 The approach developed by this Authority is to require broadcasters to give viewers sufficient information to regulate their own, and their children’s, viewing behaviour.5 In other words, where broadcasters take effective steps to inform the audience of the nature of the programme, the standard is less likely to be breached.
 In this case we consider the factors outlined above, including the timing of the broadcast, the pre-broadcast warning, and the use of other coarse language throughout the episode, created a reasonable audience expectation and clearly signalled the type of content that would follow in the programme, including frequent coarse language.
 We do not consider that the use of the particular phrase complained about took the episode as a whole beyond audience expectations, or that it elevated the programme to a level which threatened community norms of good taste and decency. There was clear signposting of the type of language used in the programme prior to this scene occurring 55 minutes into the broadcast, meaning viewers had a reasonable opportunity to make a different viewing choice.
 We therefore find the broadcast did not reach the threshold necessary to find a breach of the standard, or to justify limiting the right to freedom of expression.
 Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
16 February 2018
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Margaret Stewart’s formal complaint – 22 September 2017
2 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 20 October 2017
3 Mrs Stewart’s referral to the Authority – 15 November 2017
4 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 5 December 2017
1 Guideline 1b to Standard 1 – Good Taste and Decency
2 Guideline 1a to Standard 1 – Good Taste and Decency
3 What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting, 2013, page 9
4 The Authority has previously found that, while some people may find the use of variations of ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ unnecessary and offensive, expressions of this nature are commonly used as exclamations, without any intention to be offensive. For example, see Lough and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-080 and Campbell and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2016-069.
5 Guideline 1b