American Commandos – documentary about training of Green Beret soldiers – young woman "assassinated" in training exercise – unsuitable for children – unnecessarily graphic – broadcast prior to rugby match
Standard G2 – in context of soldier training – no uphold
Standard G12 – broadcast prior to important rugby match – when viewed out of context, unsuitable for children – majority uphold
Standard V8 – no uphold
Standard V12 – not violent or distressing as contemplated by the standard – no uphold
Standard V16 – not applicable – no uphold
Standard V17 – not gratuitous – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A documentary entitled American Commandos was broadcast on TV3 on 5 August 2000 beginning at 2.30pm. Soldiers training to be "Green Berets" were shown completing a number of exercises, including urban warfare training and hand-to-hand combat.
Russell Waites complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that the documentary contained a very disturbing scene in which a girl was apparently led away and executed by armed soldiers. He said he was disgusted that the programme was aired at all, let alone just before an afternoon game of rugby.
TV3 responded that the scene complained about was part of an exercise completed by the Green Beret recruits. It noted that it was clear from the footage and the context of the programme that the scene was not real and was not intended to be seen by the viewer as real. Noting that the programme was classified as PGR, TV3 maintained that it was not unsuitable for child viewers. As the footage was not graphic and was clearly acted by the soldiers, TV3 did not consider that it would have disturbed or alarmed viewers. It declined to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons given below, a majority of the Authority upholds the complaint that standard G12 was breached. It declines to uphold any other aspect.
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 the complaint without a formal hearing.
The training programme for Green Berets was the subject of a documentary entitled American Commandos which was broadcast on TV3 on 5 August 2000 beginning at 2.30pm. It followed the soldiers on a number of missions, which included urban warfare training. One dramatised incident involved the capture and "assassination" of a young woman by guerillas. The recruits were then assessed on how they reacted to the incident.
Russell Waites complained to TV3 about the sequence which culminated in an off-camera execution, and which he had seen immediately after turning on the television prior to a rugby test match. He said he did not know if the sequence he saw was a re-enactment or a mock-up, but there had been nothing to indicate to him whether it was real or not. He said he was disgusted that the programme should have been aired at all, let alone in the hour preceding an afternoon game of rugby. He said that because the programme preceded a rugby test match, many people – including children – would have inadvertently witnessed the sequence which led up to the execution. In his view, a television station had no right to depict scenes of what appeared to be children being executed.
In its response to the complaint, TV3 explained that the documentary dealt with the training of the Green Beret forces and the work they had done in Viet Nam. The final training mission undertaken by the soldiers before they matriculated was a diplomatic exercise where the trainees were required to assist a guerilla action. The incident involved a young woman being taken away and "assassinated" by guerillas. The recruits were then tested on how their reacted. TV3 emphasised that it was clear from the footage and the context of the programme that the sequence was not real and was not intended to be seen by the viewer as real.
TV3 assessed the complaint under standards G2, G12, V8, V12, V16 and V17 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standards G2 and G12 require 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.
G12 To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing hours.
The other standards read:
V8 When real or fictitious killings – including assassinations – are shown, the coverage must not be prolonged.
V12 The treatment in news, current affairs and documentary programmes of violent and distressing material calls for careful editorial discernment as to the extent of graphic detail carried. Should the use of violent and distressing material be considered relevant and essential to the proper understanding of the incident or event being portrayed, an appropriate prior warning must be considered.
Particular care must be taken with graphic material which portrays especially disturbing images, such as:
- ill-treatment of people or animals
- close-ups of dead and mutilated bodies of people or animals
- views of people in extreme pain or distress, or at the moment of death
- violence directed at children or children in distress
Material shown in the late evening may be more graphic than that shown during general viewing times.
V16 Broadcasters must be mindful of the effect any programme, including trailers, may have on children during their generally accepted viewing periods, usually up to 8.30pm, and avoid screening material which could unnecessarily disturb or alarm children.
V17 Scenes and themes dealing with disturbing social and domestic friction or sequences in which people – especially children – or animals may be humiliated or badly treated, should be handled with great care and sensitivity. All gratuitous material of this nature must be avoided and any scenes which are shown must pass the test of relevancy within the context of the programme. If thought likely to disturb children, the programme should be scheduled later in the evening.
Turning first to the complaint under standards G2 and G12, TV3 noted that the programme was classified PGR, meaning that it was more suited to adults but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of a parent or adult. It repeated that it was clear in the context of the programme that the scene was not real, and noted that the supposed "assassination" was only implied. In its view, a child watching the programme with the guidance of a parent or adult would not have been alarmed.
Under standard V8, TV3 responded that the "assassination" had not been shown. It acknowledged that it was implied and that gun shots had been heard, but said that it was clear in the context of the programme that this was a training exercise.
Turning to standard V12, TV3 emphasised that the footage had not been graphic, and that it was clear that the soldiers had been involved in a training exercise and that all the roles had been acted by other Green Berets, or actors.
For the same reasons, TV3 declined to uphold the complaint that standards V16 or V17 were breached.
TV3 concluded that no standards were breached, but acknowledged Mr Waites’ confusion, which it suggested had arisen because he had begun watching the programme part way through. However, it said, the commentary clearly indicated that the scene was simulated for the purpose of the training exercise.
When Mr Waites referred the complaint to the Authority he emphasised that for him the scene appeared very real. The filming, he noted, had been done in an "amateurish" way and the quality was somewhat grainy and shaky, adding to the impression that it was real. He said he remembered the girl being led away and hearing her shrieks of terror before some shots were fired. The voiceover had advised that she had been executed. He said he watched the following scene to find out if it was a fake, but heard no such confirmation. He said he then deduced the scene was real, and switched off the television.
Mr Waites observed that as television was primarily a visual medium, people who witnessed a disturbing scene were not likely to comprehend fully what was being said afterwards. He emphasised that this programme was broadcast immediately prior to a test match, and that children were likely to be watching at this time.
Turning to the standards, Mr Waites argued that the programme could not be considered decent in taste and behaviour and in compliance with standard G2. He suggested it would only be so if it were used for its intended purpose, as a training video for Green Berets. Further, he argued, if an adult was disturbed by the scene, then surely a child would be. He did not consider that TV3 had been mindful of children in broadcasting the programme.
Mr Waites maintained that standard V8 was breached because the girl was shown to be in a state of "sheer terror" for some minutes and there was no indication that this was simply a training exercise. The scene, he said, should not have been shown.
With respect to standard V12, Mr Waites took issue with TV3’s argument that because the scenes were acted the footage was not graphic. He noted that the programme had been described by TV3 as a documentary, which he understood presented factual information. He suggested that it was a dangerous mix to have acted scenes in a documentary. In his view, the material should have been shown late in the evening or not at all.
Under standard V16, Mr Waites argued that the scene should not have been broadcast in the middle of a Saturday afternoon prior to a major rugby test. Finally, he maintained that standard V17 was breached because the scenes and themes were disturbing to both adults and children. He considered that had the programme been handled with sensitivity this scene would have been deleted.
Turning to TV3’s argument that he had not seen the programme in its entirety, Mr Waites argued that many people, including children, were liable to turn on their televisions at any time without knowing what the content would be. He suggested that TV3 would have been well aware that many people would be preparing to tune in to the rugby.
Mr Waites added that he did not understand TV3’s reasoning that an adult could explain to a child what the scene was about. In conclusion, he emphasised that as a parent, he had never been so concerned about the effects of a programme on a child. He wrote:
I believe there is no place on TV for shows that depict girls being bound and gagged by armed soldiers, shown to be extremely distressed and finally executed by the soldiers. The scenes looked real! This was no Hollywood movie with all its technical finesse that reassures us and removes its plausibility.
The complainant contends that the documentary breached broadcasting standards both because of its content and its placement before a major rugby match.
American Commandos described, in some detail, the rigorous training undertaken by Green Beret recruits. To illustrate why the training was so demanding, some footage filmed during an actual incident in Viet Nam was included. A group of trainees was then followed as they undertook a 14 day course, which was the culmination of a year’s training. Part of the course involved training with so-called guerillas. The documentary explained that the men were subjected to mind games and were assessed on how they reacted to unexpected but plausible scenarios. One such test involved a young woman, said to be carrying explosives, who was said to have come to assassinate the guerilla leader. She was captured by the guerillas and interrogated. While one of the soldiers contemplated whether to defend her and thus risk the lives of all of his men, the woman was led away and shots were heard. The voiceover commentary advised that she had been assassinated.
It was subsequently explained that this incident was designed to test the ability of the recruits to assess and react to a difficult situation.
The task for the Authority is to determine whether, in the context, this scene breached the standards.
When the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of standard G2, it takes into account the context in which the broadcast complained about occurs. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standards of good taste and decency.
The relevant contextual factors on this occasion are the programme’s classification as PGR, the documentary format, the subject matter and the relevance and explicitness of the scene complained about. While the placement of the programme immediately preceding a major rugby game is also a contextual matter, the Authority believes that it is more appropriately considered under standard G12, which it deals with below.
The Authority considers the programme’s PGR classification sufficed to alert viewers in normal situations to the fact that the content was not suitable for unsupervised children. Further, it considers that the scenario complained about was relevant in illustrating the rigorous training programme undertaken, and the moral and ethical dilemmas which the recruits were assessed on. It concludes that the content was not sufficiently explicit to breach the standard. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect.
A majority of the Authority finds that by screening the documentary at this time, the broadcaster did not demonstrate that it was mindful that children were likely to be part of the audience. While it acknowledges that parents must take some responsibility for their children’s viewing, the majority considers it was reasonable for parents to assume the content would be suitable for unattended children who were waiting to watch the rugby following. In particular, it notes that the scenario which is the subject of this complaint had a contextual framework which was known only to those viewers who had been watching the documentary from its beginning. Such a scenario when viewed out of context was, the majority finds, likely to be disturbing to children. Further it notes that the sequence occurred in the final third of the programme, at about the time when viewers such as the complainant were tuning in for the rugby. In the majority’s view, because the broadcast preceded an important rugby match, viewers would have had a reasonable expectation that, despite the PGR time zone, the content would be suitable for a general audience which included children and would not contain adult concepts which would be unsuitable for them. The majority concludes that the broadcast breached standard G12.
The minority disagrees. While it acknowledges that the documentary was perhaps insensitively placed, given that a large family audience would be expected for the upcoming sports broadcast, the minority considers that the programme’s placement fell short of breaching standard G12 on the basis that it was a documentary, and adult guidance was indicated both by its PGR classification and the time slot in which it was broadcast.
The Authority does not consider that the standard is applicable to the scene complained about as the "assassination" was not witnessed. Furthermore, it notes, the scene was not prolonged.
The Authority does not consider the content of the scene complained about reached the threshold of violent, distressing and graphic material which this standard is designed to protect against. In reaching this conclusion, it notes that the simulated assassination was not shown and was subsequently revealed to be part of a training exercise. It declines to uphold this aspect.
The Authority notes that this standard is part of the Violence Code and relates to depictions of violence. It does not consider the standard relevant to this complaint for the reasons cited above under standard V12.
In considering the applicability of this standard, the Authority observes that although the "victim" was referred to as a girl, it was clear that she was not a child. It does not consider the content was gratuitous as the scene was relevant in illustrating the exercise undertaken by the trainees. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
For the reasons given, a majority of the Authority upholds the complaint that American Commandos broadcast by TV3 Network Services Ltd on 5 August 2000 at 2.30pm breached standard G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
The Authority declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaint.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It makes no order on this occasion, principally because the breach is considered not sufficiently serious to warrant penalty.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 December 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: