Ally McBeal – drama – male applicants for law practice required to take off shirts – discrimination against men – sexual harassment in the workplace – inconsistent with maintenance of law and order
(1) Standard G13 – no discrimination or denigration – legitimate dramatic work – no uphold
(2) Section 4(1)(b) – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An episode of Ally McBeal was broadcast on TV2 on 5 July 2000 at 8.30pm. A sequence in the programme featured two women interviewing male applicants for a position in a legal practice. The applicants were asked to remove their shirts during the interview process.
S Smith complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the sequence represented "illegal" sexual harassment of the men involved, and encouraged discrimination against men.
TVNZ explained that the programme was fictional, and a light-hearted social comment on community double standards. It did not believe that the sequence breached broadcasting standards relating to discrimination or the maintenance of law and order.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Smith 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 viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
A sequence broadcast during an episode of Ally McBeal featured two female lawyers interviewing male applicants for a new law practice. During the interviews, the men were asked to remove their shirts, and were shown complying with this request. The programme was broadcast on TV2 on 5 July 2000 at about 8.30pm.
S Smith complained to TVNZ that the programme had breached broadcasting standards relating to the maintenance of law and order, and to discrimination. In his view, the sequence portrayed sexual harassment against men in the workplace as "a bit of fun" for the women characters who were the interviewers. He considered that the behaviour was exacerbated because, as lawyers, the women characters ought to have been aware that sexual harassment was illegal. He believed the programme had seemed to sanction the behaviour, and in his view, that message breached broadcasting standards.
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act and standard G13 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Section 4(1)(b) provides:
4(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation standards which are consistent with –
(b) The maintenance of law and order.
Standard G13 requires broadcasters:
G13 To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual, or
ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs programme, or
iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.
TVNZ considered that the sequence Mr Smith had complained about "appeared to be light-hearted social comment on double standards in the community". In TVNZ’s view, neither s.4(1)(b), nor standard G13 was relevant to the complaint. It emphasised that the programme was a work of fiction, commenting that:
Telling a story of fiction does not represent an activity inconsistent with the maintenance of law and order.
TVNZ did not consider that the sequence seriously encouraged anyone to regard men as "inherently inferior" or to discriminate against men on the grounds of their gender. Furthermore, TVNZ submitted that even if standard G13 was relevant, the sequence took place "in the legitimate context of a dramatic work" and was subject to the exception in clause (iii) of standard G13.
TVNZ declined to uphold Mr Smith’s complaint.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Smith contended that TVNZ had not addressed his point that the programme could be taken as endorsing what he called an "illegal activity". He reiterated his concern that the "illegal act of sexual harassment" had been portrayed as "a bit of fun and acceptable". He maintained that this was inconsistent with the maintenance of law and order.
Mr Smith also repeated his view that standard G13 had been breached. He submitted:
For all the reasons that sexual harassment of women is now seen as denigration of women, it must be that harassment of men must be seen as harassment also.
As to TVNZ’s comments about the fictional nature of the programme, Mr Smith said he considered that fiction could be a very powerful influence over its audience, and this alone did not justify the broadcast. He submitted that there were limits on the acceptability of fictional storylines. To illustrate this point he contended that television programmes "never show[ed] sexual harassment by men of women as okay and as legal". In his view, sexual harassment of women was always portrayed as a social evil, where the men involved were reprehensible and the women were "denigrated victims".
When TVNZ responded to the Authority, it observed that Mr Smith had used the word "endorsement" to describe what he believed the programme was doing in relation to sexual harassment. TVNZ maintained that the programme did not endorse anything, and repeated its view that what had occurred was "story-telling".
In his final comment, Mr Smith restated his view that storytelling could influence people, and said he was concerned that this influence was not handled responsibly by TVNZ.
The Authority begins by assessing this complaint against standard G13. In its view the portrayal of men in the sequence complained about did not amount to either discrimination or denigration. The Authority agrees with TVNZ’s assessment of the sequence as a light-hearted, fictional comment on societal double standards. The Authority records that even if there had been evidence of discrimination or denigration, the broadcast would not have breached standard G13, as it falls squarely within the exception of broadcast of material which is in the legitimate context of a humorous or dramatic work.
The next task for the Authority is to consider whether s.4(1)(b) is breached by the broadcast. The Authority does not express a view about the legality of the behaviour portrayed in the programme. The Authority does not consider it necessary or desirable to do so, given that the behaviour portrayed took place in the context of a humorous or dramatic work which, as noted above, it accepts was a light-hearted social comment about double standards. It considers that s.4(1)(b) was not breached by the broadcast.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
5 October 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. S Smith’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 13 July 2000
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 31 July 2000
3. Mr Smith’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 10 August 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 18 August 2000
5. Mr Smith’s Final Comment – 24 August 2000