ten Hove and MediaWorks Radio Ltd - 2020-044A (14 October 2020)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
ProgrammeMagic Afternoons with Sean Plunket
BroadcasterMediaWorks Radio Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority1 has not upheld a complaint about the use of the phrase ‘Jesus Christ’ during Magic Afternoons with Sean Plunket. Mr Plunket interviewed the Chief Executive of Universities New Zealand about the charging of holding fees for accommodation at university halls of residence during the COVID-19 lockdown period. At the end of the interview, Mr Plunket used the phrase, ‘Jesus Christ’, reacting to the interviewee’s responses before hanging up on him. Noting it has previously determined that the use of variations of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ as exclamations or expressions of frustration or surprise did not threaten community standards, the Authority did not find any breach of the good taste and decency standard in this case.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency
 During Magic Afternoons with Sean Plunket, Mr Plunket phoned and interviewed the CEO of Universities New Zealand about universities charging students holding fees for accommodation at halls of residence during the COVID-19 lockdown period, even when they were not staying there.
 After an exchange during which Mr Plunket repeatedly challenged the CEO to provide a reasonable explanation for this policy, the conversation ended in the following manner:
Mr Plunket: [Interjecting] Jesus Christ… I rang you because you are the Chief Executive of the Universities of New Zealand, I thought you might have a vague bloody idea about what their policies are and how they came to them.
CEO: I’ve got a, in principle, idea, but at the end of the day they’re…
Plunket: Hey… I can’t be bothered, you don’t know what you’re talking about, goodbye. [Universities NZ CEO] there who’s just making vague, bloody stupid excuses. I guess we will have to go to all the individual universities. There’s a man who didn’t want to take any responsibility or engage in any meaningful way on the actual facts of what is happening to these poor university students. If you’re not in your bloody room, if you can’t use your room, why you’re paying anything for it, a holding fee my arse…
 The item was broadcast on Magic Talk on the afternoon of 28 April 2020.
 In considering this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the item and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 The complainant submitted that Mr Plunket’s use of the phrase ‘Jesus Christ’ was offensive and blasphemous, adding that ‘Mr Plunket has frequently ridiculed Christians on his show’. He also considered that Mr Plunket, as an experienced journalist, should not have ‘acted unprofessionally in losing his temper’.
The broadcaster’s response
 MediaWorks first apologised for not responding to the original complaint. It advised that the complaint (which was emailed to Magic Talk) had not been appropriately passed on to the MediaWorks Standards Committee due to the COVID-19 lockdown period. While we acknowledge the challenges and pressures faced by the broadcasting sector during this time, it remains important that broadcasters discharge their duty to receive and consider formal complaints about programmes broadcast by them,2 including by having internal processes in place to ensure that any formal broadcasting standards complaints are identified and directed to the appropriate person or department for a response.3
 Responding to Mr ten Hove’s referral to the Authority, MediaWorks considered the complainant’s concerns with reference to the good taste and decency standard of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The broadcaster apologised to the complainant for the offence caused by the broadcast. However, in its view the complaint should not be upheld on the basis that ‘variations of “Jesus” used as an exclamation for the purpose of expressing irritation, dismay or surprise, does not amount to “coarse language” and has come to be widely used as part of everyday colloquial speech.’
The relevant standard
 The good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) states that current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The purpose of this standard is to protect audience members from viewing or listening to broadcasts that are likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or undermine widely shared community standards. Context is crucial in assessing a complaint under this standard, including the context of the particular content complained about, as well as the wider context of the broadcast.4
 The right to freedom of expression is an important right in a democracy and so when we consider any complaint that broadcasting standards have been breached, it is important that we weigh the right to freedom of expression against the harm that may have potentially been caused by the broadcast. We may only uphold a complaint where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.
 In considering the harm alleged to have been caused in this case with respect to the good taste and decency standard, we considered the following contextual factors to be relevant:
- Magic Afternoons is a talkback programme that is branded as ‘the free speech hotline for no-holds barred common sense talk’.5
- The programme has an adult target audience, although it is broadcast during a time that children may be listening.
- Mr Plunket has a reputation for having a robust and challenging interviewing style and for offering strong, sometimes controversial opinions for the purpose of generating discussion and debate6 (although this does not give a broadcaster free rein, and conduct and comments will be considered on a case-by-case basis).
- The subject matter of the interview (challenging universities’ decisions to charge students a holding fee for accommodation even though they were not residing there during the lockdown period) carried high public interest.
 Considering the above factors, we do not consider that the use of the word ‘Jesus Christ’ in this particular context was likely to cause widespread undue offence. The Authority’s research on Language That May Offend in Broadcasting shows that the phrase ‘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.7 While we acknowledge some members of the public, including the complainant, may nevertheless be offended by this language, the Authority has consistently found that the expression ‘Jesus Christ’ and similar expressions, used as exclamations or to express frustration or anger, do not reach the threshold for finding they threatened standards of good taste and decency.8 The same reasoning applies in this case, where the phrase was used in a colloquial manner to express Mr Plunket’s frustration with the interviewee’s responses to his questions, on a topic of high public interest.
 The complainant also said that Mr Plunket should not have acted ‘unprofessionally in losing his temper’. Mr Plunket’s manner in questioning the CEO intensified the context in which he used the words ‘Jesus Christ’. We acknowledge some may have found him rude. However, we consider that Mr Plunket’s use of the words ‘Jesus Christ’ in the context of robust questioning on a matter of significant public interest, did not reach the threshold for finding a breach of the good taste and decency standard that would justify regulatory intervention.
 In these circumstances, 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
Judge Bill Hastings
14 October 2020
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Anton ten Hove’s complaint to MediaWorks – 29 April 2020
2 Mr ten Hove’s referral to the Authority (on the basis of no response) –
22 May 2020
3 MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 17 June 2020
4 Mr ten Hove’s further comments – 17 July 2020
1 Leigh Pearson declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the determination of this complaint.
2 Section 6(1)(a) Broadcasting Act 1989
3 See also Shierlaw and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-068 at 
4 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
5 < https://www.magic.co.nz/home/shows/talk/magic-afternoons.html>
6 Marra and MediaWorks Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2019-023
7 Language That May Offend in Broadcasting (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018), page 6
8 See for example, Keam and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-090 and Foreman and NZME Radio Ltd, Decision No. 2018-012