Song "You Suck" – Yeastie Girls – offensive language – oral sex described – 8.30pm – student radio – targeted to gay and lesbian listeners
Principle 1 – despite context, content exceeded community expectations of good taste – uphold
Costs to Crown in the sum of $250
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
During a programme entitled Around the Bend broadcast on 95bFM on 30 April 2000 at about 8.30pm a song by the Yeastie Girls entitled "You Suck" was played. It concerned oral sex.
Barbara Faithfull, on behalf of the Credo Society, complained to 95bFM, the broadcaster, that the song was "nauseatingly indecent, morally repugnant and human degradation personified" and breached broadcasting standards.
In its response, 95bFM reported that this was a "joke song" created in response to the "overt sexism" of songs by the Beastie Boys. In its view, the lyrics had to be interpreted in the context of the gender-political issues which the song addressed. In addition, it noted that the song was played at 8.30pm during a programme targeted at gay and lesbian listeners. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, the Credo Society 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 upholds the complaint that Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice was breached. The Authority ordered the broadcaster to pay costs to the Crown in the sum of $250.00.
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. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
A song entitled "You Suck" was played during a programme targeted at gay and lesbian listeners at about 8.30pm on 30 April 2000. It contained explicit descriptions of oral sex.
The Credo Society, through its secretary Mrs Barbara Faithfull, complained to 95bFM that the lyrics were offensive and in breach of the requirement for broadcasters to observe standards of good taste and decency. The song, it said, was "nauseatingly indecent, morally repugnant and human degradation personified", and included lyrics which said:
Now you suck…lick it hard and move your tongue around…It’s on your face I’m gonna sit. You can wriggle…your tongue at my clit.
To suck my cunt when I’m on the rag, how do you think I feel when I gag on your erection? Get your face between my thighs. Now you suck, lick it hard…
The Credo Society noted that the song had been introduced by a lesbian guest presenter on the programme, who had said: "It’s so rude. It’s really rude, and it’s got x-rated language, so turn off now if you are under age." At the conclusion of the song, the Society noted that a male had remarked to the male presenter "Those lesbian lyrics! They’re terrible."
The Society asked the station to justify why it considered it acceptable to broadcast "such repulsive material", what action it intended to take on the complaint and that it should ensure it was not played again.
In its response, the station maintained that there was no violation of broadcasting standards. The relevant principle is Principle 1, which reads:
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.
95bFM explained that the song had first been aired by it in 1993, and that it was a satirical response to the overt sexism of songs by the Beastie Boys, a rap group which was popular at that time. "You Suck", it said, was a joke song created in response to those more extreme examples of sexism.
In the context of gender-political issues addressed by the song, the station noted that it was held by women, and the lesbian community in particular, to be a "feminist anthem" and that it was occasionally broadcast in such features as Around the Bend.
The station said that it accepted it had a responsibility to acknowledge the diversity of opinions held by all sectors of society and, in order to minimise causing offence, it scheduled programmes such as Around the Bend in a later time zone.
Next, 95bFM noted that there had been a warning prior to the broadcast that the song contained "x-rated" language and that it had been broadcast at 8.30pm, "a time which is generally accepted by all broadcasters to be suitable for broadcasting contentious material."
As a final point, the station noted that the complainant had on previous occasions complained about the content of programmes targeted at gay and lesbian listeners. It wrote:
…it is perfectly legitimate for 95bFM to air a one hour feature once a week that addresses gay and lesbian issues in a format that is suitable for any adult with an open mind. If you do not support the legal and moral rights of homosexuals, then I suggest you don’t tune in to a specialist show that caters for the specific needs of this target audience.
Concluding, the station said that although individuals might not always agree with the views expressed in shows such as Around the Bend, it defended the right to express them.
When it referred the complaint to the Authority, the Credo Society asked:
…if such material as this can be deemed fit to broadcast, at any time and in whatever context, let alone at 8.30pm on a Sunday night on a student radio station’s homosexual programme, when even school children are among its audience, can there be anything at all in the area encompassing standards of good taste and decency that can be proscribed as unfit to broadcast?
Turning to the station’s response to the complaint, the Society argued that the claim that it had given the matter "careful consideration" had not been borne out. It objected to the station’s manager having apparently considered the complaint alone and that she had defended the material as being a "feminist anthem".
The Society described as "fatuous" the argument that the song had been broadcast at a time "unlikely to attract an audience other than its target group", as it said it was impossible to know who was listening at any given time. Further, it argued, the warning prior to the song was an acknowledgment that younger people could have been listening. In its view, the warning would not have been taken seriously, and could well have encouraged people to stay listening.
As for it having lodged complaints in the past about gay and lesbian programmes, the Society described this as "utterly irrelevant". It also objected to the implication contained in the broadcaster’s response that anyone who did not find the material offensive had a closed mind.
Next, the Credo Society referred to a previous decision of the Authority regarding a complaint about an item on 95bFM. There the Authority wrote that just because a programme was targeted at a particular audience the broadcaster was not absolved from complying with broadcasting standards.
The Society also took issue with the station’s defence of freedom of expression, noting that such freedom was fettered by broadcasting standards.
In the station’s response to the Authority, it expressed its concern at what it called the vituperative tone adopted by the complainant in its correspondence. The station defended the fact that the complaint had been dealt with by the station manager alone, arguing that the implication that she was incapable of addressing the complaint in an impartial manner was "offensive and invalid".
95bFM then dealt with the substantive issues. It repeated that the song was a satirical response to the overt sexism of the boy rappers, the Beastie Boys. In its view, the song was "a prime example of the legitimate use of satire in a humorous manner to illustrate gender-political issues of common (and legal) sexual practices between consenting adults."
As for the content of the lyrics, the station responded that oral sex was not widely considered to be "squalid and decadent" or "sickeningly vulgar" behaviour, as alleged by the complainant.
The station maintained that the underlying issue in the song was one of empowerment and equality between the sexes. It noted that it contained a serious message about safe sex. In its view, the issues of contraception and sexual empowerment were valid for all age groups.
In considering whether the song breached Principle 1, the station responded:
…that is a somewhat subjective judgment which depends entirely on whether you are comfortable talking about issues of social responsibility relating to the sex act and oral sex in particular.
Finally, the station clarified its comment about the Credo Society’s history of complaints. It noted that since 1994, eight complaints had been laid relating to the broadcast of editorial comment concerning homosexuals, all but one of which had not been upheld.
In its final comment, the Credo Society focused first on the content of the broadcast which it described as "depraved material". In its view, a significant concern with formulating broadcasting standards had always been that of the public good, and respect for prevailing community standards. It argued that the station had failed in its statutory obligation under Principle 1 of the Radio Code.
The Society then commented on 95bFM’s analysis of its formal complaints record, noting that the station’s summary was incorrect. It noted that six, not eight complaints lodged by the Society had been homosexuality-related, and two, not one, had been upheld. As a final point, the Society made some observations on the general decline in standards on 95bFM over the last decade, expressing concern on behalf of parents about the proliferation of what it called harmful material bombarding young people.
When it considers complaints relating to a breach of the good taste and decency principle, the Authority examines the content in the context in which it occurs. The contextual factors which the Authority takes into account are that the broadcast occurred on a student radio station, that the programme was targeted to gay and lesbian listeners, that it was preceded by a warning and was broadcast at 8.30pm.
The Authority’s task is to decide whether, in light of the context, the lyrics of this song were appropriate for broadcast on radio at 8.30pm. On previous occasions, the Authority has held that broadcasts on student radio stations present a special case when it considers the application of the good taste standard. (See, for example, Decision Nos: 1993-145, 1996-068 and 1997-029). Nevertheless, those decisions acknowledge that although it is accepted that the boundaries of acceptability will be tested on those stations, the requirements of the Broadcasting Act and the Radio Code of Practice still apply. Notwithstanding the special contextual factors in operation at the time the song was broadcast, and the song’s satirical intent, the Authority concludes that its unusually graphic and sexually explicit content exceeded community expectations of good taste and decency. Despite the fact that the target audience was gay and lesbian listeners, the broadcaster must be aware that it is unable to restrict its audience to such a limited group.
As for the broadcaster’s argument that 8.30pm is normally considered to be a time at which "contentious material" may be aired, the Authority observes that there is no designated watershed in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice and points out that 8.30pm is a time which is likely to include a younger audience.
Finally, the Authority records that it considers this is an occasion when the right to freedom of expression is subject to a reasonable limitation as provided in s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. In its view, the limitation on the right of listeners to receive information is justified. The Broadcasting Act requires all broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with good taste and decency, and on this occasion the Authority is satisfied that "You Suck" exceeded those boundaries, both for the reasons noted above and in particular because the broadcast was accessible to all listeners, and was played during the earlier part of the evening.
For the reasons given, the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast of the song "You Suck" during Around the Bend on 95bFM on 30 April 2000 at 8.30pm breached Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. Accordingly, it invited the parties to make submissions on penalty.
The complainant submitted that the song had been broadcast with the intention to shock listeners, and that the penalty should reflect that the content was at the top of the spectrum of bad taste. It also sought reimbursement of legal expenses and costs which it said it had incurred in pursuing the complaint.
The broadcaster submitted that the song had been played across all time zones for the past seven years. It rejected the complainant’s argument that it had been intended to shock and offend. It recommended that the Authority not reimburse the complainant for its costs and expenses.
Taking into account the matters raised in the submissions, the Authority makes the following order:
Pursuant to s.16(4) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Broadcasting Standards Authority orders 95 bFM to pay, within one month of the date of this decision, the sum of $250.00 by way of costs to the Crown.
The Order shall be enforceable in the Wellington District Court.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
13 October 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: