Newstalk ZB – offensive language – illegal – callous remark about shooting militia men in East Timor
Principle 1 – flippant remark but not so offensive as to breach – no uphold
Principle 2 – no uphold
Principle 7 – not applicable
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Host Larry Williams, when listing topics for discussion on his programme, mentioned that New Zealanders had shot a militia man in East Timor, adding: "There’s plenty left to go." This comment was broadcast during his programme on Newstalk ZB at about 4.12pm on 27 September 2000.
Mrs J K Sanders complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that the host’s remark was "totally unacceptable and objectionable". In her view, the remark was contrary to the law and to standards of common decency. She requested that the station take "appropriate action" against the host.
Emphasising that the programme was one of "comment and opinion" TRN responded that the host took a stand on a variety of issues. With respect to East Timor, it said, it was legitimate to talk about shooting "the enemy". It argued that there was nothing against the law in talking of shooting when war was being discussed. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with the action taken by TRN, Mrs Sanders referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given, 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. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
When he listed the topics to be covered in his programme on Newstalk ZB on 27 September 2000, host Larry Williams said, in reference to East Timor, that Kiwis had shot a militia man, "but there’s plenty left to go".
Mrs J K Sanders complained to TRN that the remarks were totally unacceptable and objectionable. She asked the station to take appropriate action so that listeners would no longer be subjected to "flippant remarks about killing people", which she said were contrary to the law and to standards of common decency.
TRN responded first that the programme was one of comment and opinion and that the host took a stand on a variety of issues each day. In its view, in the context of East Timor, where militiamen had killed a New Zealander, TRN said it was legitimate to talk about shooting "the enemy". It argued that there was nothing against the law in talking about shooting when war was being discussed. It reported that the matter had been discussed with the host.
When she referred the complaint to the Authority, Mrs Sanders repeated that it was unacceptable to make a "flippant, revengeful, self-righteous commentary about war death". She accepted that it was legitimate to discuss shooting in the context of war, but said it was not what was discussed that was the subject of her complaint, but how it was discussed.
Mrs Sanders said that she had nothing against the programme’s emphasis on comment and opinion, but that she objected to the way in which the views were presented. With respect to TRN’s advice that her letter had been discussed with the host, Mrs Sanders said that, based on her previous correspondence with TRN over the host’s "extreme comments", she did not accept the broadcaster’s explanation. She concluded:
Flippant remarks about death, in whatever situation, are offensive and have no place in a civilised society.
In its response to the Authority, TRN argued that the host had done no more than express an opinion. It noted that this was the only complaint it had received and that it stood by its earlier comments. It also added that Mrs Sanders had not identified her complaint as a formal one.
Mrs Sanders provided a final comment in which she reiterated her concern about the nature of the remarks broadcast. In response to TRN’s argument that hers was the only complaint received, Mrs Sanders noted that the law did not require that there be more than one complaint before an investigation took place. She also took issue with its view that she had not identified her complaint as a formal one. She noted that the Broadcasting Act did not specify how a complaint should be laid, and that under s.10(2) of the Act, the Authority was required to avoid formality and technicality.
Some procedural matters relating to this complaint require to be addressed in the first instance.
The Authority notes that under s.5 of the Broadcasting Act broadcasters are required to have a proper procedure for dealing "with complaints relating to broadcasts". Section 7(2) requires a broadcaster to notify the complainant in writing of the decision and s.7(3) requires that complainants are notified of their right of referral to the Authority.
It is the Authority’s view that TRN’s dealing with this complaint fell short of its statutory obligations. It considers that Mrs Sanders’ complaint properly complied with the requirements for a formal complaint under the Act, and should have been recognised as such by TRN, and that she should have been advised of her right of referral to the Authority. Further, it concurs with Mrs Sanders that it is irrelevant that hers was the only complaint received, and reminds the broadcaster that it is not a defence to claim that only one complaint was received about a broadcast.
The Authority also notes that TRN’s initial response did not connect the complaint to any of the principles under the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
In the Authority’s opinion, the complaint raised issues under Principles 1 and 2. Those principles 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 maintain standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.
When it deals with a complaint relating to the good taste principle, the Authority takes into account the context in which the language or behaviour occurs. On this occasion, it is relevant that the remarks arose in the talkback medium, which the Authority is aware attracts robust and opinionated contributors and equally opinionated host contributions. It notes that the reference arose in the context of the host listing the topics which would be discussed later in his programme. While the remark could have been interpreted as a callous reaction to the killing of a militia man in East Timor, the Authority considers that the manner in which the comment was delivered made it clear that it was not intended to be interpreted as a serious statement on war casualties. It was a flippant, offhand remark, arguably offensive but not, the Authority finds, so offensive as to be in breach of the principle. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
With respect to the complaint that the remarks were contrary to the law and therefore in breach of Principle 2, the Authority finds no evidence of any illegality or action which could be perceived as being inconsistent with the maintenance of law and order. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
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: