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Cook and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2008-021

Members

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Paul France
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave

Complainant

  • Frank Cook of Wellington

Dated

4th June 2008

Number

2008-021

Programme

One News

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1C)(C)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – reference to China as “the godless state” – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, balance and accuracy standards

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – “godless” used in this context to mean “without a god”, not “wicked” – not upheld

Standard 4 (balance) – item did not constitute a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – use of the word “godless” to mean “without a god” did not jeopardise editorial independence – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on One News, made by the BBC, was broadcast at 6pm on 25 December 2007. It discussed the persecution by the communist government of underground Christian churches in China, a new Bible factory in Beijing that would make one million Bibles a month, and the official state-approved church in Beijing which received the Bibles. During the item, the BBC reporter commented that “what may be the biggest Bible factory in the world”, was “quite something, for the godless state”.

[2]   Earlier in One News, the presenter announced that the item was coming up, saying:

But coming up first... Chinese Christians celebrate Christmas in the godless state with a booming Bible trade.

Complaint

[3]   Frank Cook complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the broadcast breached standards of good taste and decency, balance and accuracy.

[4]   Mr Cook was concerned with the presenter’s use of the term “godless state” to describe China. He said the primary meaning of “godless” was “wicked or unprincipled, without proper moral standards, and not religious ‘like us’”. He said that sort of labelling was “totally inappropriate” on Christmas day.

[5]   Mr Cook accepted that the presenter may have intended the term “godless” to mean “without a god”, but said it was normally intended to be disparaging, and “still carries a pejorative and exclusive connotation not conducive to sound relations in today’s multi-faith world”. He said the term was typically associated with Nazism and Communism as “godless religions which killed tens of millions of people”, which meant the application of the term to China was “highly emotive and controversial”.

[6]   Mr Cook cited guideline 1a, and argued that the broadcaster had failed to consider current norms of good taste and decency by allowing the use of the term “godless state” to denote China within the context of the main news broadcast on Christmas day. He said on that day in particular “one might expect a reduction in the use of insulting and deprecating language”.

[7]   The complainant acknowledged that the item itself used the phrase “the godless state”, but he still felt it was inappropriate for the item to be introduced by One News in that manner.

[8]   Mr Cook argued that the use of the term “godless state” to describe China breached guideline 4a because it did not demonstrate impartiality.

[9]   The complainant maintained that guideline 5c had been breached because in screening the item the broadcaster had not ensured editorial independence of the news. He also contended that guideline 5d had been breached because the “factual identification of the country China by the announcer was not distinguishable from her particular view of it as a ‘godless state’”.

Standards

[10]   Mr Cook nominated Standards 1, 4 and 5, and guidelines 1a, 4a, 5c and 5d of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice in his complaint. They provide:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Guideline 1a

Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and then programme’s classification (see Appendix 1). The examples are not exhaustive.

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Guideline 4a

Programmes which deal with political matters, current affairs, and questions of a controversial nature, must show balance and impartiality.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Guidelines

5c    Broadcasters must ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.

5d    Factual reports on the one hand, and opinion, analysis and comment on the other, should be clearly distinguishable.

Referral to the Authority

[11]   Having received no response from TVNZ, Mr Cook referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1C)(c)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[12]   TVNZ apologised to Mr Cook for not replying to his original complaint, saying it had not been forwarded to the appropriate department for a response.

[13]   TVNZ stated that it had searched for the term “godless”, and that it appeared that its primary meaning was “recognising or worshipping no god”. It asserted that it was appropriate to use the term to describe China, in both the item and the “coming up tease”, because one of the central tenets of a communist government was that it did not recognise any god. China was a communist state and its government was officially atheist, it said.

[14]   TVNZ contended that for Standard 1 to be breached the broadcast material must have been unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it was shown. It noted that relevant contextual factors in this case were the broadcast’s adult target audience and the fact that the broadcast was “a legitimate news story about the somewhat ironic fact that a communist country was set to become the world’s largest producer of Bibles”.

[15]  TVNZ maintained that the term “godless” was not meant as an insult, and that the item clearly stated and recognised that many individuals in China do follow religious beliefs. Accordingly, TVNZ found that the use of the term “godless state” to describe the official position of a communist country would not have been likely to offend viewers. It declined to uphold the Standard 1 complaint.

[16]   With reference to Standard 4, TVNZ asserted that it was not controversial to state that China was a communist country. The government did not recognise any god as part of its political structure, “i.e. it is essentially ‘a godless state’”. Further, the item highlighted the fact that there were many people in China who follow different religions. The broadcaster concluded that the use of the phrase in the “coming up tease” for the item did not breach the requirement for impartiality, and declined to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

[17]   Looking at Standard 5 (accuracy), TVNZ noted that the comment was a scripted part of the item, rather than a reflection of the One News presenter’s personal view. It maintained that it was not inaccurate to claim that China did not have religious beliefs as a central part of its political system, and emphasised that the item clearly recognised that many Chinese people followed religious beliefs and that some forms of worship were allowed by the Chinese Government. Accordingly, TVNZ concluded that no breach of Standard 5 had occurred.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[18]   The complainant maintained that Standard 1 had been breached. He disagreed with TVNZ’s argument that the primary meaning of “godless” was “without a god”. He said the Collins English Dictionary indicated that the primary meaning was “wicked or unprincipled”, the second meaning was “lacking a god” and the third was “refusing to acknowledge a god”. Mr Cook attached a number of “usage examples” from pre-19th century and 19th century literature which he said supported his argument that the primary meaning was “wicked or unprincipled”.

[19]   The complainant also maintained that TVNZ had suggested throughout its response that “godless state” was synonymous with “communist state”. He said that meaning was not supported by the usage examples he provided, and did not fit any of the meanings offered by the Collins dictionary.

[20]   Mr Cook believed TVNZ’s statement that “people may belong to an approved church as long as they are members of the communist party” was inaccurate. He said that just because the “approved” churches had to be registered did not make their followers communist party members.

[21]   Turning to Standard 4, Mr Cook said while it may be correct that “it is not controversial to state that China is a communist country”, that was irrelevant to the complaint. He said it in no way effectively countered his claim that guideline 4a had been breached.

[22]   With regard to Standard 5, the complainant argued that TVNZ’s claim that “godless state” was used to describe China’s political structure was “ludicrous, far-fetched and patently false”. He said that most modern Western societies have a political structure which could be described as “godless” in the sense that TVNZ invoked.

[23]   Further, while accepting that it was not inaccurate to state that China does not have religious beliefs at the centre of its political system, Mr Cook said that did not counter his claim that the use of the term breached guidelines 5c and 5d. He said that TVNZ’s case rested wholly on the assumption that “godless state” was not pejorative, and was “synonymously and objectively equivalent to ‘communist state’”. He said that the broadcaster had not provided any evidence to that effect.

Authority's Determination

[24]   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)

[25]   While the Authority accepts that one of the definitions of “godless” is “wicked”, it is in no doubt that the word was used in this instance to mean “without a god”, particularly given the context in which it was used.  The Authority agrees with TVNZ that the phrase was used to highlight the irony of the mass production of Bibles in a country which is officially atheist.

[26]   Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the complaint that the presenter’s use of the term breached Standard 1.

Standard 4 (balance)

[27]   Standard 4 requires broadcasters to provide balance when discussing controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs and factual programmes. Mr Cook argued that the use of the term “godless state” to describe China breached guideline 4a because it did not demonstrate impartiality.

[28]   The Authority finds the balance standard is not applicable on this occasion. The item was a factual report about possibly the world’s largest bible factory, which was due to open in a country where many people were forced to practise religion underground. The item did not constitute a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance as envisaged by Standard 4. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[29]   Mr Cook’s complaint under Standard 5 was predicated on his assumption that the term “godless” was intended to mean “wicked or unprincipled”. He argued that the use of this word jeopardised the editorial independence of the news (guideline 5c), and that it was not clearly distinguishable as the presenter’s opinion (guideline 5d).

[30]   The Authority has found above that the word “godless” is primarily accepted to mean “without a god”. As Mr Cook’s complaint is based on a misunderstanding of the way in which the reporter used this word, the Authority finds that Standard 5 was not breached in the manner alleged by the complainant.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
4 June 2008

Appendix

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

1.            Mr Cook’s formal complaint – 1 January 2008
2.           Mr Cook’s referral to the Authority – 23 February 2008
3.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 2 April 2008
4.           Mr Cook’s final comment – 16 April 2008