Ward and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2020-168 (25 May 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Peter Ward
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Warning: This decision contains language that some readers may find offensive.
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint about an episode of Paramedics, which twice played footage of a young man suffering an allergic reaction exclaiming ‘Fuck, I can’t breathe’, with the audio censored so the word was partially silenced, and the subtitles uncensored. The episode aired during an M classification time band, at 7.30pm, and was preceded by a warning which stated ‘This programme is rated M. It contains coarse language.’ The ‘ML’ rating was also broadcast after each advertisement break, with the ‘L’ advisory symbol indicating ‘language may offend’. In the context, the language used would not have caused widespread undue offence or distress, and was not beyond what viewers would have reasonably expected from the programme.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency
 Paramedics is a reality show about Australia’s ambulance crews responding to accidents and emergencies in the community, with cameras fitted to road ambulances and helicopters to follow the action in real time.
 The episode of 27 October 2020, broadcast at 7.30pm, included scenes of an ambulance crew responding to a young man suffering an allergic reaction to nuts. It twice played footage of the young man exclaiming, ‘Fuck, I can’t breathe’, with the audio censored so the word was partially silenced, and the subtitles uncensored.
 Mr Ward complained the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard because of the uncensored captioning of the word ‘fuck’.
The broadcaster’s response
 TVNZ did not uphold Mr Ward’s complaint on the basis it was unlikely to have caused widespread offence among its viewers, in light of the following contextual factors:
- ‘Paramedics deals with subject matter that may be challenging or upsetting and targets mature viewers.’
- ‘The programme aired during an M classification time band.’
- ‘The programme was classified ML, which means the episode was deemed suitable for mature audiences aged 16 years and over and contained potentially offensive language.’
- ‘The programme was preceded by a warning which explicitly stated that the episode contained coarse language.’
- ‘The patient used the word “fuck” in the context of describing his symptoms to paramedic staff. He did not use the word abusively or aggressively. He used the word once, although the shot was played twice.’
- ‘People expressing themselves in a colloquial and unvarnished manner is something viewers could reasonably expect in a programme like Paramedics, which deals with real people in stressful medical situations.’
 The good taste and decency standard1 states current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The standard protects audiences from content likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards.2
 We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 We have also considered the right to freedom of expression, which is our starting point. This includes the broadcaster’s right to offer a range of content and the audience’s right to receive it. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the broadcast has caused actual or potential harm at a level that justifies placing a limit on the right to freedom of expression. For the reasons below, we have not found such harm in this case.
Good Taste and Decency
 The context in which potentially offensive language occurs and the wider context of the broadcast are relevant to assessing whether a programme has breached the good taste and decency standard.3 In this case, the key contextual factors relevant to our determination were:
- The nature of the programme: Paramedics is a reality show about ambulance crews responding to life-threatening accidents and emergencies, including real time footage of the events and individuals involved.
- Classification and scheduling: The programme broadcast at 7.30pm during an M classification time band, which means the programme was classified as suitable for mature audiences 16 years and over and could contain violence, sexual material, offensive language, adult themes, nudity, or other content that some children and parents find challenging.
- Audience advisories: The programme included an audience advisory which stated, ‘This programme is rated M. It contains coarse language.’ The ‘ML’ rating was broadcast after each advertisement break. The ‘L’ advisory symbol indicates ‘language may offend’. We note the guidelines to the programme information standard, require the appropriate advisory symbols, in this case ML, to be broadcast prior to the content as well as after each ad break.4 However, the omission at the beginning of the programme was mitigated by the clear onscreen warning for coarse language and the electronic programme guide information which also displayed ‘M-L’.
- Target and likely audience: The target audience was adult. The programme was unlikely to appeal to children, and parents and caregivers were unlikely to allow their children to watch it unsupervised, given the type of events depicted.
- Audience expectations: The use of coarse language was within audience expectations of a reality show airing at 7.30pm, and particularly of one featuring individuals suffering and responding to life-threatening accidents and emergencies.
- Other factors: The word ‘fuck’ was used in exclamation and panic rather than in an aggressive or vitriolic way. The word was used only once, although the footage was shown twice, the second time to recap events for viewers after featuring other accidents.
 Also relevant to our consideration are the following factors:
- In our 2018 Language That May Offend in Broadcasting research, ‘fuck’ was ranked 13 out of 31 in the list of the most unacceptable words.5 Of those surveyed, 61% of respondents found the word ‘fuck’ was acceptable in some scenarios, dependant on context.6
- There has been a slight increase in tolerance for the use of the word ‘fuck’ since 2013, when it was ranked 9 out of 31 in the list of the most unacceptable words.7
 Overall, considering the factors above, in particular the classifications and audience advisories, and audience expectations, the broadcast was unlikely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. Viewers had sufficient information and signposting the programme contained coarse language, to enable them to exercise choice and control. Any potential harm was outweighed by the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression on this occasion.
 Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under this standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
25 May 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Peter Ward’s formal complaint – 27 October 2020
2 TVNZ’s response to Mr Ward – 19 November 2020
3 Mr Ward’s referral to the Authority – 30 November 2020
4 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 4 December 2020
1 Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
3 Guideline 1a
4 Guideline 2c
5 See Language That May Offend in Broadcasting (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018), page 6
6 As above
7 As above