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Moore and TV3 Network Services Ltd - 2000-198

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor

Complainant

  • W M Moore of Auckland

Dated

20th December 2000

Number

2000-198

Programme

Nightline

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

TV3 Network Services Ltd


Complaint
Nightline – item about Irish singer Sinead O’Connor’s new album - old footage of O’Connor ripping up photo of Pope – breach of good taste/decency – encouraged discrimination against/denigration of Catholics

Findings
Standard G2 – footage not gratuitous – context highly relevant – no uphold

Standard G13 – item did not encourage discrimination against/denigration of Catholics – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

A news item about the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor’s latest album, broadcast on Nightline on TV3 just before 11pm on 1 August 2000, included eight-year-old footage of O’Connor ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II.

W M Moore complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item breached standards of good taste and decency and encouraged denigration of, or discrimination against, Catholics.

TV3 responded that the footage was relevant to the item given O’Connor’s controversial religious beliefs and the fact that she had released her first album in six years. The footage was not gratuitous when screened as part of the late news bulletin, and editing it out would have infringed the singer’s freedom of expression, the broadcaster said.

Dissatisfied with TV3’s decision, W M Moore 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.

Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.

On 1 August 2000, just before 11pm, TV3 broadcast an item on Nightline about the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor. The item discussed O’Connor’s recent release of a new album after a six year silence, and took a retrospective look at her work. To illustrate the religious controversy O’Connor had generated throughout her career, the broadcaster included an eight-year-old clip of the singer ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. The voiceover explained that O’Connor was a Rastafarian and an ordained Priest of a breakaway Catholic group. She was shown in an interview claiming that Jesus Christ had been murdered for "destroying the Temple" and that if he was alive today he would also be ripping up pictures of popes.

W M Moore complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item breached standards of good taste and decency and encouraged denigration of, or discrimination against, Catholics.

The complainant argued that the footage of O’Connor ripping up the picture of the Pope was "absolutely unnecessary" to the story. The complainant said the footage encouraged others to "denigrate and persecute the Catholic Church and Catholics, especially those who hold the Pope in great esteem. People like me." The complainant added:

Why is it that TV3 would certainly not air footage of a symbolic action of hate, as this was, directed against the Maori Queen or others, yet you are happy to air this?

TV3 advised that it had assessed the complaint under standards G2 and G13 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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.

G13  To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

  1. factual, or

  2. the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs programme, or

  3. in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.

In its response to the complainant, TV3 stated that the "critical part" of standard G2 was the word "context". The broadcaster acknowledged that iconoclastic religious actions depicted on television were always going to offend some members of the community. However, TV3 argued that O’Connor’s current philosophy was relevant to the item, given that the artist was well known for her controversial religious beliefs and had recently released her first album in six years. The footage was not gratuitous or irrelevant to the overall interview, particularly in light of it having screened as part of the late news bulletin, the broadcaster said.

As to standard G13, TV3 said that it had carefully scrutinised the interview and could not detect any endorsement of O’Connor’s views. TV3 said:

Her views were identified and she spoke to them. They were clearly her fervently held views and to edit out them would have constituted an infringement of her freedom of expression.

TV3 concluded by saying that, although it had not upheld either aspect of the complaint, it appreciated viewer feedback which "sometimes leads to a review of our policies and protocols."

In referring the complaint to the Authority, the complainant observed that:

I’ve noticed that in New Zealand, virtually any wolf can get away with any hurtful act under the sheepskin of "context", especially if it attacks organised religion, especially the Catholic Church and the Holy Father.

The complainant argued that the time the programme screened had nothing to do with whether or not standard G2 had been breached, stating:

Many adults watching were gutted and intimidated by what they saw. Many Catholic teens and younger children stay up this late watching TV, and they too would have been hurt.

According to the complainant, the item could have commented on O’Connor’s "mean-spirited act against the Pope" without actually showing the offending footage.

In response to TV3’s argument that editing out O’Connor’s views would have constituted an infringement on her freedom of expression, the complainant stated that this was "the most ridiculous comment I have heard in years and serves as a wonderful snapshot of today’s PC-driven madness in New Zealand, especially the media."

The complainant went on to recall a personal experience as a newspaper journalist, when editors frequently made editorial decisions in order to meet style requirements and their particular paper’s philosophy. The complainant argued:

[TV3] editors would make hundreds of decisions every newscast on what goes to air. They do not include every comment or shot of what Helen Clark or Jonah Lomu or Tama Iti or anyone else fervently believes, because of time constraints, libel laws, requirements of good taste and decency etc. They try to keep in contents that will tell the story and attract viewers, and they edit out what they don’t like. If they had to keep in O’Connor’s fervently held views, why not those of every other person on the news?

The complainant then suggested that, based on TV3’s rationale for including the offending footage, it would have been similarly defensible to include footage of, for example, O’Connor undergoing abortions or attempting suicide, on the grounds that to do otherwise would infringe her freedom of expression.

The complainant continued:

Am I saying that tearing up a photo of the Pope in any way compares to televising an abortion or suicide? Of course not. I am pointing out that editors have a right and duty to prevent some things from going to air – especially acts of hatred that intimidate, and that encourage similar or worse behaviour. The excuse offered by [the broadcaster] for airing the piece would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

The Authority’s Findings

When the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of standard G2, it is required to take into account the context in which the broadcast complained about occurs. The item to which this complaint relates was about the singer Sinead O’Connor having recently released a new album. The item took a retrospective look at the singer’s work, given that this was her first album in six years. In that context, the Authority is of the view that her current philosophy was relevant to the story. The footage of O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope was used to illustrate that the singer continued to hold the controversial religious views for which she was well known.

The Authority notes the broadcaster’s observation that iconoclastic religious actions shown on television are always going to offend some members of the community. It notes that whether an item breaches standards of good taste and decency must be looked at objectively, bearing in mind the context. In the Authority’s view, the footage in its context was not sufficiently offensive as to breach the standard and it accepts that the footage was not used gratuitously. In addition, the broadcast was not screened until just before 11pm, outside children’s normal viewing times and at a time when viewers can reasonably expect more adult themes to be dealt with. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint

As to the complaint that the broadcast breached standard G13, the Authority is unable to find any evidence that the item encouraged the denigration of, or discrimination against, Catholics. The footage was used merely to illustrate the singer’s strongly held views. The Authority finds no evidence that the broadcast encouraged viewers to endorse O’Connor’s philosophy or actions. It declines to uphold the complaint under this standard.

 

For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
20 December 2000

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1. W M Moore’s Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd – 2 August 2000
  2. TV3’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 24 October 2000
  3. W M Moore’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 October 2000
  4. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 27 November 2000