National Radio – item on Barry Crump – bugger – offensive language
Principle 1 – context relevant – programme not targeted at children – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A play which portrayed the life and times of author Barry Crump was reviewed on Country Life, broadcast on National Radio on 29 July 2000 between 7.00–8.00am. The item contained interviews with the play’s director, actors and playwright, and included some excerpts from the play. The word "bugger" was used by one of the play’s characters.
Paul Schwabe complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language was offensive. He said it was his understanding that broadcasters were required to maintain standards consistent with good taste and decency. The word "bugger", he said, was plainly indecent language to him and to many other people. He argued that unless everyone found it acceptable, it should not be broadcast.
In its response, RNZ observed that the language had occurred in the context of excerpts from the play and pointed to recent research conducted for the Authority which it said had indicated that the word "bugger" was at the least offensive end of a range of language considered. Further, it noted, the programme had not been aimed at children. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Schwabe 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 programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
During Country Life broadcast on National Radio on 29 July 2000 between 7.00–8.00am a play about author Barry Crump’s life and times was reviewed. The item included interviews with those involved in the play, including the playwright and director, and contained some excerpts from the production. The word "bugger" was used by one of the play’s characters, a fellow deer culler, who was described by Barry Crump as having a limited vocabulary because of his overuse of the word "bugger" in conversation. That usage was demonstrated in an excerpt where the word was used in many of its permutations.
Paul Schwabe complained to RNZ that the word "bugger" was offensive. He suggested that broadcasting standards had followed the principle of the lowest common denominator, and that the influence of the "offensive Toyota advertisement" had "corrupted everyone" and destroyed the high standard which he said used to be enjoyed on National Radio.
Referring to a dictionary definition of the word, Mr Schwabe said it was offensive and this was, in his view, the very reason it was used. Mr Schwabe said he understood broadcasters were required to maintain standards consistent with the observance of good taste and decency. The word "bugger" was, he said, plainly indecent language to him and to many other people. He wrote:
Irrespective of how many people say that certain language is "all right for some people" or is "tolerable" or is "acceptable", unless everyone considers it "decent", surely you shouldn’t be broadcasting it?
And as a traditional early morning family programme, how many tender children have you corrupted? Our national radio station is now demonstrating the Social Responsibility of some of our worst commercial stations. How long will it be before you are broadcasting the "shag" and "fuck" words?
RNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, 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.
The programme, RNZ noted, consisted of a series of interviews with the play’s director, actors and the playwright, along with excerpts from the play. The language to which Mr Schwabe objected occurred in those excerpts.
RNZ argued that the language was that which could be reasonably expected in terms of the dramatic work being broadcast. RNZ added:
We were also mindful of recent research indicating that the language used was at the least offensive end of a range of language which the community generally finds acceptable.
Neither was the programme targeted at children, who make up a negligible proportion of the audience listening to National Radio between 7.00am and 8.00am on a Saturday morning.
RNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
Mr Schwabe referred RNZ’s response to the Authority, declaring that he was "appalled at the ramifications to simple decency in New Zealand society" which he said RNZ’s decision displayed.
The Authority then sought further comment from RNZ. The broadcaster provided a complete dictionary definition of the word "bugger" from the same dictionary that Mr Schwabe cited, noting that of the 11 definitions, only two had the meaning which Mr Schwabe ascribed to the word, and that neither of those definitions applied to the broadcast complained about.
The Authority notes that Mr Schwabe has complained about the use of the word "bugger" on two previous occasions, and that neither complaint was upheld (see Decision Nos: 2000-067 and 2000-080). On each occasion, the Authority referred to its 1999 research on community attitudes to language in the broadcasting context. The research reported that the results of a national survey showed that almost three quarters of those interviewed considered the word "bugger" to be acceptable. However, the Authority made it clear that its decisions did not imply that the word "bugger" was acceptable usage in all circumstances and that context was significant.
The context is a relevant factor on this occasion also. The word was used by a character in a play about Barry Crump and was consistent with the character’s persona. The extract used effectively illustrated Barry Crump’s point that the man had a very limited vocabulary and used the word "bugger" as an all-purpose expression covering almost all of its dictionary meanings except, the Authority notes, the most offensive, being the reference to anal intercourse. Its use also helped explain why the word was used in the Toyota advertising campaign in which Crump featured. Taking these matters into account, and the fact that the programme was not targeted at children, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
In light of the Authority’s research findings and its precedent decisions on the use of the word "bugger", the Authority reminds Mr Schwabe of its powers under s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989 to impose costs on a complainant if it considers a complaint to be frivolous, vexatious or one which ought not to have been made.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
30 November 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: