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Bibby and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2010-062

Dated

5th August 2010

Number

2010-062

Programme

Close Up

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Close Up – interview with Professor Richard Dawkins about his views on religious faith – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, controversial issues, fairness, discrimination and denigration, and responsible programming standards

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – contextual factors – not upheld

Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints) – item focused on Professor Dawkins’ views – no discussion of a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – no person or organisation treated unfairly – not upheld

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – guideline 7a exception for legitimate expression of opinion – comments did not contain sufficient invective to encourage denigration or discrimination – not upheld

Standard 8 (responsible programming) – programme would not have caused panic, alarm or undue distress – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   During Close Up, broadcast on TV One at 7pm on 17 March 2010, the presenter conducted an interview with Professor Richard Dawkins about his views on religion. The presenter introduced the interview saying, “the world according to Richard Dawkins is quite simple: if science can prove it, it’s real. If not, forget it.” A clip from Professor Dawkins’ television programme was shown, in which he explained his view that “the time has come for people of reason to say enough is enough. Religious faith discourages independent thought, it’s divisive and it’s dangerous.” Returning to Close Up, the presenter explained that “I spoke to the professor before he left the country and suggested that his views imply anyone who embraced religion was a mug”.

[2]   The interview was then screened. In his opening comments, Professor Dawkins stated, “If you met an individual who believes some of the things that they believe, you’d think he was mad. Turning water into wine or walking on water or something, you’d say yes, yes, put him away, but it’s because millions believe it that we don't do that. We’re expected to believe it because so many people believe it.”

[3]   During the interview, the presenter asked, “What is the biggest threat to science right now?” The following exchange took place:

Dawkins:
Well, unreason generally. But I think a particular cause of unreason probably is religious indoctrination among children. If I could do one thing, if I was allowed to do one thing, it would be to free children from the automatic assumption that they’re going to inherit the religion of their parents. I don't want to indoctrinate children in my way, any more than I want them to indoctrinate children their way. I want children to think for themselves.

Presenter: You called it child abuse, didn’t you?

Dawkins:
I call things like telling children about hell fire child abuse – that, I think, is child abuse. I think that strong labelling of children, making the automatic assumption that a child of Catholic parents is a Catholic child, child of Muslim parents is a Muslim child, I think that’s a form of child abuse. But just teaching children about religion, no, I don't think that’s child abuse.

[4]   A clip was shown of Professor Dawkins having a discussion with a clergyman about how the eye was formed. After the clip, the presenter asked, “When you have one-on-one conversations with people, and you’re talking to them and saying, listen that thing, that core of what you stand for is nonsense and it can’t be proven and science disproves it, how do they react to you? Do they just think you’re misguided?” Professor Dawkins responded saying, “Yes, I suppose they do. I mean different ones do it in different ways. I mean some of them say, well I just know in myself that my God is real and I talk to him. Once again, if one person said that you’d say he was mad – hearing voices in your head is a classic sign of insanity. But if lots of people do you have to treat it with a bit more respect.”

Complaint

[5]   Brenda Bibby made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programme breached a number of broadcasting standards.

[6]   Mrs Bibby argued that “to allow Richard Dawkins to call anybody who believes in God mad... is highly offensive to a large percentage of the population” and therefore breached Standard 1 (good taste and decency).

[7]   The complainant contended that the programme only presented Professor Dawkins’ viewpoint in breach of Standard 4 (controversial issues). She considered that “a representative from the people being criticised should be given a talking spot on the same programme in the near future for both points of view to be heard”, specifically the CEO of Creation Ministries International.

[8]   With regard to fairness, Mrs Bibby considered that it went hand in hand with Standard 4, and argued that “it was very unfair for the interviewer... to be nodding and smiling in agreement with [Professor] Dawkins’ comments as an interviewer should be neutral.”

[9]   The complainant maintained that the programme was both discriminatory and denigratory in breach of Standard 7. She argued that it was “certainly discriminatory for only [Professor] Dawkins’ denigrating comments to be heard”. She also objected to the presenter’s question, “Is that what you have to put up with?” in relation to comments from a man who was shown in a clip debating religion with Professor Dawkins. She said that the presenter’s “discriminatory and denigrating opinion should not be given in a programme of this nature”.

[10]   Finally, Mrs Bibby argued that it was “not responsible programming to interview [Professor] Dawkins when children would be listening.” She considered that this breached Standard 8 (responsible programming).

[11]   Mrs Bibby concluded her complaint by requesting that TVNZ offer a member of Creation Ministries an opportunity to respond to the “biased, one-sided interview”.

Standards

[12]   TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. These provide:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

Broadcasters should observe standards of good taste and decency.

Standard 4 Controversial Issues – Viewpoints

When discussing controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 6 Fairness

Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

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.

Standard 8 Responsible Programming

Broadcasters should ensure programmes:

  • are appropriately classified;
  • display programme classification information;
  • adhere to time-bands in accordance with Appendix 1;
  • are not presented in such a way as to cause panic, or unwarranted alarm or undue distress; and
  • do not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[13]   TVNZ argued that to constitute a breach of Standard 1 the broadcast material must be unacceptable in the context in which it was shown including programme classification, time of broadcast, intended audience, and the use of warnings. It noted that the Authority had previously stated that Standard 1 was primarily aimed at broadcasts containing sexual material, nudity, violence or coarse language. It did not consider that the programme contained any such material. However, TVNZ accepted that the Authority would also consider any material likely to cause offence or distress. It maintained that the interview was not likely to cause offence or distress because Professor Dawkins did not at any stage explicitly say that “anybody who believes in God [is] mad” as argued by Mrs Bibby. TVNZ noted that Professor Dawkins’ actual statement was:

...if you met an individual who believes some of the things that they believe, you’d think he was mad. Turning water into wine or walking on water or something you’d say yes, yes, put him away, but it’s because millions believe it that we don't do that. We’re expected to believe it because so many people believe it.

[14]   TVNZ argued that the point being made was that “if one person alone espoused the religious perspective it could be perceived as ‘mad’ because of unusual and highly unlikely things... but because millions of people believe in the ideas, they are treated with respect.” It considered that viewers would have understood Professor Dawkins’ message on this point “as it was clearly explained”. TVNZ therefore concluded that the interview did not breach Standard 1.

[15]   Turning to Standard 4, the broadcaster did not consider that Richard Dawkins’ opinion on whether God exists was a controversial issue of public importance to which the standard applied. Even if it was, TVNZ noted that the standard allowed for programmes which approach an issue from a particular perspective. It considered that the focus of the item was clearly defined in the introduction to the programme which stated:

Right now, the man who puts fear into the hearts of those that believe in God. The world according to Richard Dawkins is quite simple: if science can prove it, it’s real. If not, forget it. So if you believe in God, any God, you’re deluded. Homeopathy: a con. Preaching hellfire and damnation to kids: child abuse. Richard Dawkins as you might expect has made a few enemies over the years but supporters flock to his lectures. I spoke to the professor before he left the country and suggested that his views imply anyone who embraced religion was a mug.

[16]   TVNZ argued that within the interview the presenter challenged several points raised by Professor Dawkins which provided balance. The broadcaster also noted that balance could be achieved across programmes within a period of current interest, and that there was no “stopwatch” method for determining if balance had been achieved. Accordingly, it declined to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

[17]   Looking at fairness, TVNZ maintained that the presenter’s behaviour was appropriate and acceptable in the context of a one-on-one interview. His behaviour was typical of his interviewing style and was a necessary part of a successful interview, it said; “the interviewer has to establish a level of collegiality in order that the interviewee feels comfortable.” It did not consider there was any unfairness to the groups referred to, as the item was clearly a discussion of Professor Dawkins’ opinion. The discussion was not pejorative and did not amount to “hate speech”, it said. TVNZ did not uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

[18]   With regard to Standard 7, TVNZ noted that the Authority had, since 1992, consistently defined denigration as blackening the reputation of a class of people, and that a high threshold must be crossed to find a breach, in light of the Bill of Rights Act and the right to free speech. It contended that the Authority had found that a broadcast encourages denigration when it:

  • contains a high level of invective directed against a section of the community

  • portrays a section of the community as inherently inferior, or as having inherent negative characteristics

  • portrays a section of the community in a highly offensive way

  • encourages negative racist stereotypes

  • amounts to hate speech or vitriol.

[19]   TVNZ maintained that comments would not breach the standard “simply because they are critical of a particular group, because they offend people, or because they are rude; the [Authority] recognises that allowing the free and frank expression of a wide range of views is a necessary part of living in a democracy”.

[20]   The broadcaster asserted that, in assessing whether a broadcast had breached the denigration standard, the Authority would consider a number of factors, including:

  • the language used

  • the tone of the person making the comments

  • the forum in which the comments were made, for example talkback radio is recognised as a “robust” forum

  • 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.

[21]   TVNZ contended that encouraging discrimination meant to encourage the different treatment of members of a particular group, to their detriment. It maintained that it was clear that Professor Dawkins had firm views on the subject of religion, and noted that he was internationally renowned for his perspectives on the topic. Throughout the interview he offered his firmly held beliefs in this regard, it said, which he was entitled to do and which was permitted under the standards.

[22]   TVNZ noted that, following a clip of Professor Dawkins discussing the evolution of the human eye with a person of religious belief, the Close Up presenter asked the question, “When you have one-on-one conversations with people, and you’re talking to them and saying, listen, that thing, that core of what you stand for is nonsense and it can’t be proven and science disproves it, how do they react to you? Do they just think you’re misguided?” TVNZ maintained that the presenter had not said, “Is that what you have to put up with?” as argued by the complainant.

[23]   The broadcaster concluded that Professor Dawkins’ comments had not reached the threshold for encouraging discrimination against, or denigration of, religious groups in New Zealand and it declined to uphold the Standard 7 complaint.

[24]   Finally, looking at Standard 8 (responsible programming) TVNZ maintained that there was no content in the item that was presented in such a way as to cause panic, unwarranted alarm or undue distress. It said that the item presented an accurate portrayal of Professor Dawkins’ perspective. His views on children and religion were clearly explained by him, and it was clear that those points were his personally held beliefs. TVNZ noted that the presenter asked him to explain a widely publicised remark that he considered religion to be a form of child abuse, and that an exchange took place between them in which Professor Dawkins explained his position (paragraph [3]). TVNZ considered that this content would not have disturbed or alarmed viewers and that the material was appropriate for screening during Close Up. It declined to uphold the Standard 8 complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[25]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mrs Bibby referred her complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[26]   Mrs Bibby disagreed that viewers would not have been offended by the programme, noting that 55.6 percent of New Zealanders considered themselves to be Christian. She maintained that Professor Dawkins had said that anyone who believed some of the things that Christians believe would be seen to be mad, and that “the time has come for people of reason to say enough is enough” which implied that “Christians are not people of reason which is highly offensive”.

[27]   The complainant maintained that Professor Dawkins’ opinion was a controversial issue of public importance that would have had a “significant potential impact on or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public”, for example there had been moves to stop the opening prayer in Parliament and the national anthem, “God defend New Zealand”. She reiterated her view that someone from Creation Ministries should be given an opportunity to appear on Close Up and defend the existence of God as a creator.

[28]   Mrs Bibby noted that guideline 6e to the fairness standard stated that children referred to in a programme should not be humiliated or unfairly identified, and considered that children had been humiliated because they were “accused of not thinking for themselves”. She said she believed the discussion was pejorative.

[29]   With regard to Standard 7, Mrs Bibby contended that Professor Dawkins’ views were intended to be taken seriously and were calculated to hurt and offend. She considered that he had encouraged the different treatment of Christians to their detriment by saying they were mad and should be put away. The complainant maintained that the presenter had said, “Is that what you have to put up with?” after a clip showing Professor Dawkins discussing with a clergyman how the eye was formed. She reiterated her view that the programme encouraged discrimination against a section of the community on account of legitimate expression of religion, in breach of Standard 7.

[30]   Finally, Mrs Bibby argued that the programme was presented in a way that would cause unwarranted alarm and undue distress by including Professor Dawkins’ comments that “unreasonable parents are indoctrinating their children with dangerous beliefs (as if religion was not true)”. She said that “[Professor] Dawkins goes on to say that parents are committing child abuse by teaching their children about hell fire, so he is trying to deceive and disadvantage the children and cause them unwarranted alarm and undue distress by criticising aspects of their religion.”

[31]   Mrs Bibby concluded by again requesting that Close Up interview a representative of Creation Ministries International.

Authority's Determination

[32]   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 1 (good taste and decency)

[33]   When we consider an alleged breach of good taste and decency, we take into account the context of the broadcast. On this occasion, the relevant contextual factors include:

  • Close Up was broadcast at 7pm during children’s viewing times

  • it was an unclassified current affairs programme

  • the programme’s adult target audience.

[34]   The Authority has previously stated (e.g. Yeoman and TVNZ1) that standards relating to good taste and decency are primarily aimed at broadcasts that contain sexual material, nudity, violence or coarse language.

[35]   Taking into account the above contextual factors, and in particular that Close Up was an unclassified current affairs programme targeted at adults, we do not consider that Professor Dawkins’ comments – which were clearly his opinion and for which he is renowned – strayed beyond current norms of good taste and decency in breach of Standard 1. We therefore decline to uphold this part of the complaint.

Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints)

[36]   Standard 4 states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[37]   In our view, the focus of the item was Professor Dawkins and his personal views about religion. We agree with the broadcaster that the introduction for the item clearly defined the scope of the interview, when the presenter said, “the world according to Richard Dawkins is quite simple: if science can prove it, it’s real. If not, forget it. ...I spoke to the professor before he left the country and suggested that his views imply anyone who embraced religion was a mug.”

[38]   While Professor Dawkins’ opinions may be controversial, we do not consider that an interview with one man about his personal views on religion amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance for the purposes of Standard 4. Because the item was clearly focused on Professor Dawkins, it was not necessary, in the interests of balance, for Close Up to interview a representative from Creation Ministries as argued by the complainant.

[39]   Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[40]   Standard 6 states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme.

[41]   Mrs Bibby argued that “it was very unfair for the interviewer... to be nodding and smiling in agreement with [Professor] Dawkins’ comments as an interviewer should be neutral.” She did not specify who it was that she considered had been treated unfairly by this. In any case, we note that nodding and smiling are common interview techniques used to encourage an interviewee to continue speaking, and they do not necessarily imply that a host agrees with the views being expressed.

[42]   The complainant also argued that children were treated unfairly by the broadcaster. As no individual children were taking part or referred to in the programme, we find that the standard does not apply in this respect.

[43]   We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration)

[44]   Standard 7 protects against broadcasts which encourage denigration of, or discrimination against, a section of the community.

[45]   Mrs Bibby argued that it was “certainly discriminatory for only [Professor] Dawkins’ denigrating comments to be heard” and that the presenter’s “discriminatory and denigrating opinion should not be given in a programme of this nature”. She did not identify any section of the community in her original complaint, though she referred to Christians in her referral to the Authority.

[46]   The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as blackening the reputation of a class of people (e.g. 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).

[47]   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).

[48]   We consider that it was clear that Professor Dawkins was being interviewed because he was internationally renowned for his views on religion, and that his comments were his personal opinion. Guideline 7a to Standard 7 states that the standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion. This does not mean that comment, analysis and opinion are given unchecked freedom; their specification in guideline 7a simply reflects the fact that democratic societies place a high value on these forms of expression, and limitations should be imposed only in extreme circumstances which take a broadcast outside of a “legitimate context”. We consider that comment, analysis or opinion would have to move towards the realm of hate speech or vitriol before the threshold would be crossed.

[49]   No such speech occurred in this broadcast. Professor Dawkins’ comments were conveyed in a calm, matter-of-fact way. They did not carry sufficient invective to reach the threshold for encouraging denigration of, or discrimination against, Christians or people who hold religious beliefs. Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 7 complaint.

Standard 8 (responsible programming)

[50]   Standard 8 requires that programmes are correctly classified and screened in appropriate time-bands, that programmes are not presented in a way that might cause viewers unnecessary panic, alarm or distress, and that programmes do not deceive or disadvantage viewers.

[51]   Mrs Bibby argued that it was “not responsible programming to interview [Professor] Dawkins when children would be listening.”

[52]  Close Up was an unclassified current affairs programme which screened during the PGR time-band. As already stated, we consider that Professor Dawkins was entitled to voice his views, and we do not consider that the interview was presented in a way that would have caused viewers alarm or distress to children. We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 8 complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
5 August 2010

Appendix

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

1.            Brenda Bibby’s formal complaint – 19 March 2010

2.           TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 23 April 2010

3.           Mrs Bibby’s referral to the Authority – 10 May 2010

4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 23 June 2010


1Decision No. 2008-087

2Decision No. 2006-030

3Decision No. 2008-091

4Decision No. 2002-152