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Schwabe and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2001-219

Members

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

Complainant

  • Paul Schwabe of Auckland

Dated

17th December 2001

Number

2001-219

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
National Radio – Saturday Morning programme – host referred to rock band as "miserable buggers" – offensive language

Findings
Section 4(1)(a) – consideration of context required as specified in Principle 1

Principle 1 – language did not refer to anal intercourse or bestiality – acceptable in context – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] During the Saturday Morning programme broadcast on National Radio on 28 July 2001, the host described a rock band as the most "miserable buggers" he had ever seen.

[2] Paul Schwabe complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the word "bugger" was contrary to good taste and decency.

[3] Declining to uphold the complaint, RNZ noted that the Authority's research showed that almost three-quarters of those interviewed considered the word "bugger" to be acceptable. The broadcaster also noted that, despite repeated referral of complaints about the use of the word "bugger", the Authority had yet to find an instance in recent years where the use of the word had transgressed broadcasting standards.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Schwabe referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

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

Decision

[5] 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.

The Programme

[6] Tracey Collins was interviewed by the host of the Saturday Morning programme broadcast on National Radio on 28 July 2001, and music she had selected was played. One of the songs she selected was by the band "New Order". Commenting on his attendance at one of that band's concerts, the host said:

… they were the most miserable buggers I have ever seen … they played for forty minutes, the bass guitarist stood with his back to the crowd …

The Complaint

[7] Paul Schwabe complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the word "bugger" was contrary to good taste and decency. He said:

In New Zealand's past, "real men" used to respect people's beliefs, protect the elderly and nurture the young. Now, for some, it appears to be OK to offend people at will, to torment the elderly and to steal the innocence of children, replacing it with the darker stuff of our human nature.  Our broadcasting institution is, I believe, the major contributor to this social decline and something must be done about it.

[8] Mr Schwabe said he believed the broadcast contravened s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, which reads:

Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

The Standard

[9] Radio New Zealand assessed the complaint under Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which states:

Principle 1

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Guidelines

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.

The Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[10] RNZ responded that the programme complained about consisted of a series of music tracks interspersed with conversation between the show's host and Ms Collins. The language had been used in the context of a brief conversation about the band "New Order", it said. The show's host had asked Ms Collins whether she had ever attended one of the band's concerts, to which she replied in the negative. The show's host, "in the same conversational tone", then made the comment complained about, RNZ said.

[11] In evaluating the complaint, the broadcaster said it had been mindful of previous decisions of the Authority regarding the word "bugger". It referred to Decision No: 2000-166, in which the Authority made the following comments in reference to its research on community attitudes to language:

The research reported that the results of a national survey showed that almost three-quarters of those interviewed considered the word "bugger" to be acceptable.

[12] RNZ noted that, despite repeated referrals of complaints about the use of the word "bugger", the Authority had yet to find an instance in recent years where the use of the word had transgressed broadcasting standards. Declining to uphold the complaint, RNZ said in its view the use of the word on the current occasion complained about came nowhere near the threshold to suggest the codes had been breached. It said:

The word was used once in passing, its use was not gratuitous, its meaning was not in any way connected with bestiality and it was used in a light hearted manner.

The Referral to the Authority

[13] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Schwabe referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[14] In response to RNZ's assertion that the word had not been used gratuitously, and did not refer to bestiality, Mr Schwabe said:

I have nothing but contempt for people who claim that various indecent words mean, for example, "an unpleasant person or thing". Every offensive word in history has been used as a substitute for the phrase "an unpleasant person or thing".

[15] Mr Schwabe argued that s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act reflected Parliament's recognition that society was "dramatically influenced" by broadcasting. In relation to the Authority's research, he said:

The interpretation of statistics on people's apathy to language broadcasts which are plainly contrary to the Act s.4(1)(a) is not, I maintain, a basis for determination that those broadcasts therefore complied with the Act. This practice is permitting a pernicious cycle of degradation of all of our society's decency standards, deliberately fuelled, it seems, by broadcasters and unchecked by the very authority established to prevent it.

[16] Mr Schwabe noted that 27 per cent of those questioned did not find the word "bugger" acceptable in the broadcast scenario of the research questionnaire. The scenario concerned a television movie screened after 8.30pm, where the police had chased and were arresting a criminal, and the language was important to the story, he said.

[17] By contrast, Mr Schwabe maintained, his complaint did not relate to any of those factors. Rather, the language complained about occurred during "an ordinary Saturday morning conservative radio programme of interest particularly to young people".

The Broadcaster's Response to the Authority

[18] RNZ noted that it had referred to the 9th edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary as authority to the possible meanings of the word "bugger". RNZ said:

A word may have more than one meaning and the meaning to be ascribed to a word is dependent on the circumstances in which it is used. The instance to which the complainant refers had not the remotest possibility of referring to bestiality.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[19] Mr Schwabe strongly disagreed with RNZ's interpretation of the meaning of the word bugger. He said:

One would assume that where an insult was intended, as in this case, an offensive meaning would be intended. However, I believe it matters little what the user of offensive language actually means. If some listeners consider that language is indecent or offensive then, by definition, it is.

The Authority’s Determination

[20] When it determines a complaint alleging that a radio broadcast breached s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, the Authority is guided by Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. That principle requires the Authority to take into account the context in which the allegedly offensive language occurred. The Authority must also ensure that its decisions do not unjustifiably infringe the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression enshrined in s.14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990.

[21] On this occasion, the presenter described a rock band as "miserable buggers" when referring to the length of time the band had performed, and the fact that the guitarist stood with his back to the crowd. In the Authority's view, the description was light-hearted, was not gratuitous, and most certainly did not refer to anal intercourse or bestiality. The Authority concurs with RNZ that the word "bugger" has more than one meaning. While it notes Mr Schwabe's point that its research findings on the word "bugger" are also contextual, the Authority observes that there is a high level of community acceptance of the word when it is used in the sense of "an unpleasant person or thing". Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

[22] The Authority notes that since January 2000 it has received seven complaints about the use of the word "bugger" in various television and radio broadcasts. All but one of these complaints have been referred by Mr Schwabe. None of the complaints have been upheld as breaches of broadcasting standards. In Decision No: 2000-166 the Authority reminded Mr Schwabe of its power under s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989 to impose costs on him if it considered a complaint to be frivolous, vexatious or one which ought not to have been made. The warning was made in light of the Authority's research findings and its precedent decisions on the use of the word "bugger". The Authority will use this power should Mr Schwabe continue to complain about the word being used in similar circumstances.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
17 December 2001

Appendix

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

  1. Paul Schwabe’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 28 July 2001
  2. RNZ’s Response to Mr Schwabe – 28 August 2001
  3. Mr Schwabe’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 September 2001
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 12 October 2001
  5. Mr Schwabe’s Final Comment – 23 October 2001