Nine to Noon – offensive language – "nigger"
Principle 1 – context – used to explain another word’s offensiveness – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The word "nigger" was used by presenter Kim Hill in Nine to Noon broadcast on National Radio on 3 May 2000 just after 11.00am.
John Lowe complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the use of the word was unacceptable and unnecessary on public radio, and breached the good taste and decency standard.
RNZ explained that the word arose in the context of a discussion about the origin of the word "munted" which had apparently been used on the programme earlier that day. According to a fax received from a South African listener, the word "munted" had the same derogatory meaning as "nigger". In that context, RNZ did not consider its use breached any broadcasting standards and declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Lowe referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
The word "nigger" was used by the presenter during Nine to Noon broadcast on National Radio on 3 May 2000 just after 11.00am.
John Lowe complained to RNZ that as the word had been conclusively shown to be unacceptable by the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s own research, its use on this occasion breached the requirement to observe standards of good taste and decency.
RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 1 and 7 and Guideline 7a of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. These read:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
1a Broadcasters will take into consideration current norms of decency and good taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs and the wider context of the broadcast eg time of day, target audience.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
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) is by way of legitimate humour or satire.
RNZ began by explaining the context in which the word arose. It noted that the presenter was exploring the origins of the word "munted" which had been used earlier in the day. She said she had received a fax from a South African listener which advised that the word referred to black people in the same derogatory manner as "nigger".
In investigating the complaint, RNZ noted that the programme piece was factual in nature, did not dwell on the word "nigger", and did not draw conclusions or result in further comments being made. The word, it added, had not been used gratuitously either. It wrote:
In making sense of the listener’s objections, it was necessary to use the word "nigger" to highlight the objection that had been taken to the use of the word "munted".
In RNZ’s view, the use of the word "nigger" fell far short of breaching current norms of decency and good taste. It advised that it was well aware of the need for caution in the use of potentially objectionable words on air, and reported that all staff had been reminded of the language which had been highlighted in the research as being less than acceptable by listeners.
Turning to the complaint under Principle 7 and Guideline 7a, RNZ noted that the test used by the Authority was that adopted by the High Court, which interpreted "denigration" as "severe blackening". In its view, the use of the word "nigger" in this context fell short of breaching the principle.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Lowe argued that as RNZ had a policy to ban outright the word "fuck", it should also ban the word "nigger" because that was less acceptable, according to the Authority’s survey results. He maintained that, in dismissing the complaint, RNZ was encouraging a double standard. He objected to its apparent dismissal of the views registered in the Authority’s research.
In its response to the Authority, RNZ advised that it did not have a policy of banning certain words on air. In the past, it noted, it had upheld complaints citing the use of an offensive word on air, and on other occasions it had not upheld complaints about the use of the same word. The difference on this occasion was the context in which the word was used.
RNZ emphasised that the word complained about had been used by way of reference only, and no particular emphasis or intonation had been used in its delivery which would lend weight to the claim that it breached Principle 1.
In his final comment, Mr Lowe referred to the Authority’s research which had shown that the word "nigger" was regarded by respondents as among the four most unacceptable. He argued that, by rejecting his complaint, RNZ had essentially dismissed community views as being of no consequence.
When it deals with complaints relating to the good taste standard, the Authority is required to take into account the context in which the language occurs. As RNZ has pointed out, here the word "nigger" was used to explain the degree of offensiveness of the word "munted", which had been used on the programme earlier in the day. The presenter read out a fax from a listener who likened it to the word "nigger" which, as Mr Lowe points out, is shown by the Authority’s research findings to be highly unacceptable.
However, the Authority considers that, notwithstanding its research findings on acceptable language, in the context of the broadcast it was quite legitimate to use the word "nigger", because it effectively demonstrated the listener’s point about the offensiveness of the word "munted". As a further point, it notes that the word discussion was dispassionate and measured and considers it was unlikely to have caused offence. The Authority finds no breach of Principle 1 and declines to uphold the complaint.
The Authority notes that RNZ dealt with the complaint under Principle 7. As this was not raised by the complainant, the Authority makes no finding on this aspect.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
3 August 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. John Lowe’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 3 May 2000
2. Mr Lowe’s Further Complaint to RNZ – 29 May 2000
3. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 6 June 2000
4. Mr Lowe’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 16 June 2000
5. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 21 June 2000
6. Mr Lowe’s Final Comment – 3 July 2000