Breakfast session – Lakes FM – skit about felling trees for runway extension in Rotorua – bad taste – unbalanced – irresponsible
Principle 1 – sensitive issue, but not precluded from satirical treatment – no uphold
Principle 2 – no uphold
Principle 4 – other viewpoints aired – no uphold
Principle 7 – humour – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
In a broadcast on Lakes FM on 19 September 2000 at about 7.20am, two breakfast session hosts joked about felling trees to enable the runway at Rotorua airport to be extended. The background noises included the sound of chainsaws.
Ngati Rangiteaorere, the owners of a stand of trees adjacent to the airport, complained through their solicitors to Lakes FM about the broadcast. The complainants contended that the programme clearly encouraged a breach of law and order, was unbalanced and in bad taste, and incited violence against trees owned by them.
The station responded that this was a one-off humorous skit which was not intended to cause offence. It explained that humour and parody were a large part of the breakfast show’s content. With respect to the complaint that the item was not balanced, the station asserted that the principle requiring balance was only relevant to talkback or current affairs radio stations. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision, Ngati Rangiteaorere 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. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
During the breakfast show broadcast on Lakes FM on 19 September 2000 at about 7.20am, the hosts joked about cutting down trees to facilitate an extension to the runway at the Rotorua airport. They intimated that they were at a place not far from the airport. After a number of attempts, they managed to start up a chainsaw and rev its motor. Then one of the hosts yelled "someone’s coming, let’s get out of here".
Ngati Rangiteaorere, through its solicitors, complained to Lakes FM about the broadcast. The complainant explained that the airport company was currently in discussion with Ngati Rangiteaorere seeking its agreement to trim some of the trees in a stand of kahikatea trees which were more than 180 years old, so that the runway could be extended. It was a delicate issue, the complainant contended, which deserved informed discussion, not inflammatory comment. Though no reference was made to Ngati Rangiteaorere’s trees, the complainant maintained that the issue was well known locally and the inference plain. It said that the owners considered the broadcast to be offensive and dangerous.
It was the complainant’s understanding, the complaint continued, that the presenters had conducted a campaign relating to the felling of the trees over the course of the previous week, and had implied that another instalment of that campaign was to run the next day.
According to the complainant, the broadcast breached principles 1, 2, 4, and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. 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.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
Ngati Rangiteaorere contended that the programme had been in bad taste in view of the context of the debate over the trees and their significance to the hapu. Secondly, it argued that it clearly encouraged a breach of law and order by feigning cutting down the trees. In addition, it contended that the status of the trees was a controversial issue, and that no attempt had been made to provide balance. Finally, it said that the programme incited violence against trees owned by Ngati Rangiteaorere and that it was socially irresponsible in recommending the destruction of privately owned property.
The complainant sought an apology and withdrawal of the broadcast.
In its response, Lakes FM, a division of The RadioWorks Ltd, said it did not accept that any broadcasting standards were breached. The item was presented as "humour and parody" and was played as a one-off item, it wrote. There had been no build-up campaign, and no follow-up was conducted, other than to advise listeners to tune in to a later programme to hear the station’s solution to the airport extension controversy.
Lakes FM said it was sorry that the complainant had taken offence to the item, emphasising that it was certainly not intended to be offensive. Humour and parody were a large part of the breakfast show’s regular content, it noted.
With regard to the complaint under Principle 4 relating to balance, Lakes FM argued that the principle did not apply to it, contending it only applied to talkback and current affairs stations.
When Ngati Rangiteaorere referred the complaint to the Authority, it reiterated the grounds for its complaint. It noted that the airport sought to trim the trees in order to increase the runway capacity, but that Ngati Rangiteaorere "knew that to do so would kill them." The trees, it said, were listed as a heritage item, and the tribe was anxious to have its taonga preserved.
Ngati Rangiteaorere acknowledged that the broadcast did not refer in particular to its trees, but argued that because of widespread public awareness of this local issue, the only possible inference was that the broadcast was referring to its kahikatea stand.
With respect to the complaint under Principle 1, Ngati Rangiteaorere emphasised that it considered the programme to be in bad taste, and that it was not appropriate to satirise the issue in such a manner. It reiterated that the programme clearly encouraged a breach of law and order. The complainants claimed it was obvious the hosts knew that the alleged behaviour was illegal, as they joked about hurrying up.
The matter of the airport extension and the stand of trees was a high profile and controversial issue in Rotorua, Ngati Rangiteaorere continued. It said it did not accept the station’s contention that the item was a skit involving humour and parody, and lamented that its view had not been put by the station.
Ngati Rangiteaorere said that it did not accept the station’s assertion that it was exempt from the provisions of Principle 4. It argued that having chosen to enter a debate on a serious current affairs issue, the station had to present a balanced view.
The complainant also contended that the station had not acted in a socially responsible manner by advocating that private individuals take the law into their own hands. It wrote:
The programme encouraged reckless and illegal behaviour. It advocated trespass and the destruction of private heritage status property, namely the trees owned by Ngati Rangiteaorere. In particular, the statement that they were trying to "hurry up other people" could be misinterpreted as a direction to listeners to imitate their behaviour.
Ngati Rangiteaorere asked the Authority to order a number of remedies, including requiring the station to broadcast an apology and a summary of this Decision.
Responding to the Authority, Lakes FM emphasised that the item was not intended to be offensive, or to incite others. It pointed out that the whole skit had been acted out in the station’s car park in the centre of town in real time, and nothing had been recorded or scripted. Its style, it said, was intended to be "tongue-in-cheek, flippant and fun" and there was no intention to antagonise any listeners.
Finally Ngati Rangiteaorere argued that the manner in which the broadcast was made was irrelevant. In its view, the statements made by the hosts had indicated a clear intent to promote the extension of the runway by cutting down the trees. It suggested that humour and parody were often a cloak for a more serious message, and here the message was to suggest felling the trees.
In the complainant’s view, the intention of the broadcaster was irrelevant. Broadcasters were required to adhere to certain standards, it said. It claimed that the broadcast was dangerous, irresponsible, insensitive and possibly malicious, and had added an uninformed and reckless aspect to the debate over the trees.
First the Authority acknowledges that this was a controversial issue in Rotorua, particularly for Ngati Rangiteaorere who own the stand of kahikatea near the proposed runway extension. It also acknowledges the significance of the trees to the hapu and recognises that sensitive negotiations were being conducted regarding their future.
The complainant has contended that the broadcast had the potential to compromise the negotiation process. It also maintains that the issue was of such importance that it should not have been satirised by the broadcaster.
With reference to the complaint under Principle 1, the Authority accepts that the issue was a sensitive one in Rotorua, but it does not consider that its sensitivity precludes it from being the subject of satirical comment. Having listened to the tape of the broadcast, the Authority is satisfied that it did not cross the threshold of causing offence so as to breach the good taste standard. In reaching this conclusion, the Authority takes into account the fact that the skit was clearly intended to be humorous.
Concerning the complaint that the skit incited listeners to take the law into their own hands thus breaching Principle 2, the Authority does not consider that it would have encouraged listeners to break the law, even though felling the trees in such circumstances would have been an illegal act. It considers the humorous intent was sufficiently evident to avoid a breach of the principle.
The station’s assertion that the complaint under Principle 4 did not apply as it was not a talkback or current affairs station invites comment. In the Authority’s view, this is not a correct reading of the principle which is derived from s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act, and applies to all broadcasters, regardless of programme format. The Authority notes with concern that the station is apparently ignorant of its statutory obligations in this regard.
Applying the facts to the principle, the Authority concludes that the editorial decision to proceed with this broadcast may have been insensitive, given the controversy surrounding the planned airport extension and the known response of the tribe. However, notwithstanding this assessment, the Authority finds no breach of the standard. Although the broadcast presented only one point of view, the skit presupposed knowledge of the issues, and it can be assumed that other viewpoints had been aired during "the period of current interest", as required under the principle.
Finally, the Authority deals with the complainant’s argument that inciting people to cut the trees down would have been socially irresponsible because it was illegal, and thus in breach of Principle 7. The Authority is not persuaded that the effect of the broadcast was as the complainant contends. In its view, the humour was apparent and saved it from being a breach of the principle.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
7 December 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: