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Lochead and RadioWorks Ltd - 2010-031

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Tapu Misa
  • Leigh Pearson

Complainant

  • Heather Lochead of Kaikohe

Dated

27th April 2010

Number

2010-031

Channel/Station

Radio Live

Broadcaster

RadioWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Talkback with Michael Laws – host made comments that communities in the Far North of New Zealand were an “underclass” whose children would be “feral” and that welfare benefits should be given to stop them having children – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, and discrimination and denigration

Findings
Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – talkback radio is a robust environment – host’s comments were extreme but encouraged discussion of a legitimate issue – did not encourage discrimination against or denigration of Māori in the Far North – not upheld

Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – contextual factors – comments did not stray beyond norms of good taste and decency – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   During Talkback with Michael Laws, broadcast on Radio Live between 9am and 12pm on Thursday 14 January 2010, the programme’s host, Michael Laws made the following comments about communities in the Far North of New Zealand:

… I’m just saying, you’d have to look at the Far North wouldn’t you, particularly some of those Māori communities in the Far North and say, you know, the difference between Haiti and them is simply the generosity of the New Zealand welfare system, wouldn’t you? I mean because essentially, the same blasted and despairing outlook on life is present.

…I don’t think you can help those people. I think they are beyond help and beyond redemption. ...They do not have sufficient initiative, intelligence or insight to be able to turn their lives around or the lives of their children. And you can provide as many programmes and policies for them as you like, but because of that fundamental lack of insight they will never be able to change their lives or the lives of their children. I would look at some of those communities in the Far North and I would say the difference between them and the Aboriginal cesspits of North Queensland is what? And the answer is, bugger all.

[In response to a caller’s comment that some female school pupils who wanted to get pregnant to get welfare benefits do not have “the thought process to really think things through and make better decisions”] ...and my contention is they never will for as long as you have those sorts of underclass breeding. For as long as that underclass breeds kids you will let – with few palpable exceptions – they will produce children who think like them and become well frankly even slightly more feral. And don’t we already have enough of the feral underclass in this country? I’m sorry to harp on a theme of 2009, but if we’re going to provide welfare let’s provide welfare for these people not to have kids, shall we?

Complaint

[2]   Heather Lochead made a formal complaint to RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the host’s comments breached standards relating to good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration. She considered that “there was an implication of entrenched welfare dependency that was intergenerational”. Ms Lochead argued that the host’s comments that there was an “underclass” in the Far North communities who “shouldn’t be allowed to breed”, and the host’s reference to a “feral” class breached Standard 1 (good taste and decency).

[3]   Ms Lochead also considered that Mr Laws’ comparing of this group with a “cesspool of Northern Queensland Aboriginal communities” breached Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration). She said that she had not heard the entire broadcast, but “the overall impression was of a racially based attack on a specific section of our community, and the Australian community”.

Standards

[4]   RadioWorks assessed the complaint under Standards 1 and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

Broadcasters should observe standards of good taste and decency.

Standard 7 Discrimination and Denigration

Broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[5]   Looking first at Standard 1, RadioWorks maintained that talkback was a robust and provocative forum, and an opinionated environment in which callers and the host expressed strong opinions, often “forcibly”. It was not a “journalistic arena”, it said. As was common in talkback, RadioWorks argued, Mr Laws’ opinions could be considered extreme by some listeners, but there was a reasonable expectation that talkback hosts would make “narrow, one-sided, hyperbolic and controversial statements ‘for effect’ and to generate discussion and debate”. It considered that this sort of comment was evident in Mr Laws’ daily programme.

[6]   RadioWorks accepted that Mr Laws’ opinion on this occasion may have been offensive to an audience not familiar with his brand of broadcasting. However, it maintained that it would not have been unexpected for his regular audience. RadioWorks concluded that, in the context of the programme, Mr Laws’ comments did not go beyond audience expectations and therefore did not breach Standard 1.

[7]   Turning to Standard 7, RadioWorks said that it must consider whether the comments amounted to hate speech or blackened the reputation of Māori in the Far North in accordance with the Authority’s definition of denigration.1 It considered that on this occasion the tone of Mr Laws’ comments was “conversational and relatively muted” and did not carry the level of invective required to amount to hate speech.

[8]   While the comments were highly critical of a section of the community, RadioWorks said, they did not encourage any adverse reaction by listeners. It considered that “the nonaggressive tone of his comments demonstrated that they were part of a debate rather than an ‘attack’ on a section of the community”, and that they were clearly distinguishable as Mr Laws’ opinion. Further, the comments were “made in the context of a conversation with a caller who tempered the discussion with measured social concern and slightly more optimism [which] ...highlighted the nature of the host’s criticisms and left listeners of his programme to make a judgement for themselves as to the relevance or insightfulness of his comments.”

[9]   RadioWorks reiterated that Mr Laws’ programme targeted an adult audience that was aware of his style in the talkback arena. It accepted that this style was not to everyone’s taste and that Mr Laws’ comments were often provocative and offensive to some people. However, Mr Laws was entitled to voice his opinions in this context, it said, and on this occasion the comments did not reach the threshold for encouraging denigration or discrimination in breach of Standard 7.

Referral to the Authority

[10]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Ms Lochead referred her complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. She accepted that talkback radio was a robust environment but considered that was not an excuse for Mr Laws’ comments on this occasion which went beyond what was acceptable.

[11]   Ms Lochead considered that Mr Laws’ comments were offensive and blackened the reputation of Māori on welfare benefits. She also was of the view that the comments about this group “not breeding” were “reminiscent of the worst excesses of Nazism”.

[12]   With regard to RadioWorks’ argument that the programme was targeted at adults, the complainant noted that the broadcast subject to complaint took place during school holidays. She considered that the programme had provided a forum for “ill-informed racist attacks”.

Authority's Determination

[13]   The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration)

[14]   Standard 7 protects against broadcasts which encourage denigration of, or discrimination against, a section of the community. In our view, Māori communities in the Far North constitute a “section of the community” to which the standard applies.

[15]   The term "denigration" has consistently been defined by the Authority as blackening the reputation of a class of people (see, for example, Mental Health Commission and CanWest RadioWorks2). “Discrimination” has been consistently defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular group to their detriment (see for example Teoh and TVNZ3).

[16]   It is also well-established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, a high level of invective is necessary for the Authority to conclude that a broadcast encourages denigration or discrimination in contravention of the standard (see, for example, McCartain and Angus and The Radio Network4).

[17]    In assessing whether a broadcast has gone too far, the Authority normally considers a number of factors, including:

  • the language used

  • the tone of the person making the comments

  • the forum in which the comments were made

  • whether the comments appeared intended to be taken seriously, or whether they were clearly exaggerated hyperbole

  • whether the comments were repeated or sustained

  • whether the comments made a legitimate contribution to a wider debate, or were gratuitous and calculated to hurt or offend.

[18]   We wish to point out that comments will not breach the prohibition against denigration or discrimination simply because they are critical of a particular group, because they offend people, or because they are rude. We recognise that allowing the free and frank expression of a wide range of views is a necessary part of living in a democracy. It is only where the expression of these views goes too far that Standard 7 will be found to have been breached.

[19]   Talkback radio is generally recognised as a robust forum in which the host and callers express strong opinions. In our view, while Mr Laws’ comments would be considered by some to be extreme and objectionable, they encouraged discussion about a legitimate issue. While expressed in provocative terms, his remarks were part of a discussion about the so-called “underclass” in Far North communities. Unlike his remarks about the Exclusive Brethren in Mason et al and Canwest RadioWorks Ltd,5 we consider that Mr Laws’ comments on this occasion were not simply denigratory abuse.

[20]   We accept that talkback hosts such as Mr Laws appeal to the prejudices of their audiences, and play on those views to provoke a response. While we may not share his opinions, as they did not cross the line into vitriol or hate speech, the genuine opinions expressed by Mr Laws are protected by the right to freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights Act 1990.

[21]   Accordingly, we find that Mr Laws’ comments did not encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, Māori communities in the Far North in breach of Standard 7.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[22]   When the Authority considers an alleged breach of good taste and decency, it takes into account the context of the broadcast. On this occasion, the relevant contextual factors include:

  • Talkback with Michael Laws was broadcast between 9am and 12pm on Radio Live

  • the programme was a talkback forum

  • Michael Laws’ target audience

  • expectations of regular listeners.

[23]   The Authority has previously noted that standards relating to good taste and decency are primarily aimed at broadcasts that contain sexual material, nudity, violence or coarse language (e.g. Yeoman and TVNZ6). Taking the above contextual factors into account, we find that Mr Laws’ statements did not stray beyond current norms of good taste and decency in breach of Standard 1.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
27 April 2010

Appendix

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

1.           Heather Lochead’s formal complaint – 15 January 2010
2.          RadioWorks’ response to the complaint – 18 February 2010
3.          Ms Lochead’s referral to the Authority – 28 February 2010
4.          RadioWorks’ response to the Authority – 11 March 2010


1As outlined in NZ Catholic Bishops’ Conference and CanWest TVWorks, Decision No. 2005-112

2Decision No. 2006-030

3Decision No. 2008-091

4Decision No. 2002-152

5Decision No. 2004-193

6Decision No. 2008-087