One News – item about Olympic flame runner being accosted by spectator – offensive language – ballsed-up
Standard G2 – not offensive in context – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the Decision.
A news item broadcast on One News on 11 September 2000 between 6.00–7.00pm showed an athlete who was running with the Olympic torch being accosted by a spectator who was attempting to snatch the torch. The runner, when interviewed, said about the man that he had "really ballsed it up".
Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd that the phrase "balls-up" was "gutter language" which was plainly indecent and should not be broadcast.
TVNZ responded to the complaint by noting that it raised two questions. The first was whether the term exceeded norms of decency and good taste, and the second was whether the interview subject’s words should have been censored. It concluded first that the phrase would not have caused widespread offence in the context, and secondly that where possible, viewers should be allowed to hear what people say in public at a news event. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’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 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.
An Australian athlete who had run with the Olympic torch was interviewed after a spectator tried to grab it from him. When asked what he would like to say to the man, the runner said he would like to tell him:
Very smart mate. You’ve done a really good job. You’ve really ballsed it up.
The incident was reported on One News broadcast on 11 September 2000 between 6.00–7.00pm.
Paul Schwabe complained that in his view, and that of most of his generation, the expression "balls-up" was gutter language, which was plainly not in good taste and breached the requirements of the Broadcasting Act.
Mr Schwabe said that he had no confidence in TVNZ’s ability or desire to ensure what he considered to be "decent" language in broadcasting. He suggested that were it not for complaints from ordinary citizens like himself, TVNZ’s broadcasts "would have been unfit for human consumption many years ago." However, he said, he still held a slight hope that the broadcast was the result of a one-off error which had already been rectified.
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 and standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Section 4(1)(a) provides:
4 (1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with –
a) The observance of good taste and decency
Standard G2 requires broadcasters:
G2 To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.
TVNZ noted that the comment arose after a runner carrying the Olympic torch had been accosted by a spectator. In its view, the complaint raised two questions. The first was whether the term "ballsed up" exceeded currently accepted norms of decency and good taste, and the second was whether a news service should censor the words of a legitimate interview subject.
Answering the first question, TVNZ said it was satisfied that the phrase was not one which would be widely regarded as being highly offensive in this context. It was TVNZ’s view that the phrase, when used in a situation where one of the big moments in the torch runner’s life had been ruined by an apparent act of stupidity, would not have caused widespread offence.
Turning to its second question, TVNZ’s response was that viewers should be allowed to hear what people say, and that on this occasion, it contributed to the public understanding of the torch runner’s dismay. TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
When Mr Schwabe referred the complaint to the Authority, he said he did not agree with TVNZ’s interpretation of the good taste standard as relating to material which "would be widely regarded as offensive" or that "might have caused widespread offence". He asked the Authority to remind the broadcaster of its responsibility under the Act to maintain standards consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
When it evaluates a complaint alleging a breach of the good taste standard, the Authority is required to apply an objective test to the facts. Guidelines about the limits of propriety cannot be ascertained by a prescriptive approach, since context, timing and audience expectations are variable factors which have to be taken into account when the Authority determines a complaint under this standard. The context is relevant to the Authority’s determination, but not conclusive. To assist in assessing community expectations relating to standards of good taste and decency, the Authority has commissioned research on community standards. Its research findings are also relevant to its determination.
The Authority accepts that the language complained about was offensive to Mr Schwabe. However, based on objective criteria, the Authority concludes that the use of the phrase "ballsed up" in the context did not breach the standard. In reaching its decision, the Authority notes that the words were used in a live interview with a disappointed torch bearer after his run had been interrupted by a spectator. The Authority also notes that in its language research, the word "balls" was deemed offensive by one third of respondents when used as a term of abuse, but that over 54% considered it acceptable in that context. Here, the context is distinguishable as the expression was not used in an abusive manner. On an objective test, the Authority does not consider it would have caused offence. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
18 December 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: