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McArthur and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2007-069


Complaint under section 8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
South Park – picture of a statue of Jesus Christ – voice said “Look at me, I’m Jesus. Would you like me to crap on you Mr Bush?” – accompanied by “farting” noises, brown pellets scattered across the screen – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, law and order, privacy, balance, accuracy, fairness (denigration) and violence

Findings
Standard 2 (law and order), Standard 3 (privacy), Standard 4 (balance), Standard 5 (accuracy), guideline 6(c) (deception), Standard 10 (violence) – no application to broadcast – not upheld

Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – content of programme did not breach standard in light of contextual factors – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) and guideline 6(g) (denigration) – programme was legitimate satire within meaning of standard – threshold aligned to vitriol or hate speech – did not amount to attack on Christians – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  South Park is an animated programme which highlights social, political and other current issues in a controversial and provocative manner. On 1 May 2007 at 9.30pm, C4 broadcast the second part of an episode entitled “Cartoon Wars”. In part one, shown the previous week, characters Cartman and Kyle were at war over the popular cartoon Family Guy; Cartman hated the show and Kyle loved it.

[2]   In part two, Cartman tries to stop a TV network from broadcasting an episode of Family Guy containing the image of the prophet Mohammed. The episode lampooned recent outrage among Muslims when cartoons depicting the prophet were published in several countries.

[3]   Towards the end of the programme, a cut-out picture of a statue of Jesus Christ was shown along with cartoon images of high profile Americans including President George W Bush. A voice said “Look at me, I’m Jesus. Would you like me to crap on you Mr Bush?” Accompanied by “farting” noises, brown pellets scattered across the screen.

Complaint

[4]   Ms S A McArthur made a formal complaint about the programme to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster. She argued that Standards 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice were breached.

[5]   With respect to Standard 1 (good taste and decency), Ms McArthur argued that good taste and decency had been “abandoned” because the programme had mocked Jesus Christ and portrayed him defecating. She contended that the programme had been broadcast at 8.30pm when children may have still been watching.

[6]   Ms McArthur maintained that the programme had treated world leaders and the USA flag with disrespect and ridicule. She contended that this amounted to a breach of Standard 2 (law and order).

[7]   Looking at Standard 6 (fairness), Ms McArthur maintained that the programme had encouraged the denigration of Christians.

Standards

[8]  The following standards in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice were nominated by the complainant:

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.

Standard 2 Law and Order

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.

Standard 3 Privacy

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the privacy of the individual.

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.

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.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Standard 10 Violence

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.

Referral to the Authority

[9]   Because she did not receive a response from the broadcaster within the statutory timeframe, Ms McArthur referred her complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[10]   CanWest apologised for failing to respond to the complainant, explaining that her original complaint had been overlooked. It noted that the programme had been broadcast at 9.30pm, not at 8.30pm as alleged by the complainant, and had been rated Adults Only. The following visual and verbal warning had preceded the programme:

This programme is recommended for Adults Only viewing. Certain scenes and language may offend.

[11]   Looking at Standard 1 (good taste and decency), the broadcaster found that several contextual factors were relevant. These were the time of the broadcast, the use of a warning, the programme’s classification, and audience expectations of South Park. It also noted that C4 targeted a 15 to 29 year-old audience, and it contended that the content of South Park “would not be surprising or even particularly challenging to the C4 audience”. Taking into account these contextual factors, CanWest concluded that Standard 1 had not been breached.

[12]   With regard to Standard 2 (law and order), the broadcaster found nothing in the episode which it considered to be a glamorised or realistic depiction of criminal activity or anti-social behaviour, or likely to incite viewers to commit unlawful acts. Accordingly it found that the law and order standard had not been breached.

[13]   CanWest contended that the Authority had previously determined in Decision No. 2006-022 that Standards 3 (privacy), 4 (balance), 5 (accuracy), 6 (fairness), and 10 (violence) did not apply, as South Park was animated satire. This was because the animation was simple and crude and bore no resemblance to reality, and because the content was fictional, unrealistic and farcical in nature, CanWest said.

[14]  Turning to denigration (guideline 6g to Standard 6), the broadcaster found nothing in the programme that was not legitimate humour or satire, and “certainly nothing that encouraged denigration of, or could be considered an attack on, Christians”.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[15]   Ms McArthur reiterated her view that several broadcasting standards had been breached on this occasion.

Authority's Determination

[16]   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.

[17]   The Authority notes its concern at the procedural lapses that have occurred in the handling of this complaint. Ms McArthur’s formal complaint was not addressed by CanWest within the timeframe allowed under the Broadcasting Act 1989. Furthermore, Ms McArthur’s referral was sent to CanWest for comment on 11 July 2007, and the broadcaster did not provide a response to the Authority until 17 September 2007. In the Authority’s view, these are unacceptable delays to the complaints process. It reminds CanWest of its responsibility under section 5(a) of the Broadcasting Act to establish a proper procedure to deal with formal complaints.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[18]   When the Authority considers a complaint which alleges a breach of good taste and decency, it is required to take into consideration the context of the broadcast. On this occasion, relevant contextual factors include:

  • the programme was rated AO
  • the programme screened at 9:30pm, an hour after the AO watershed
  • the programme was preceded by a visual and verbal warning
  • South Park is well-known for its challenging material
  • C4, and South Park in particular, target an audience between 15 and 29 years of age.
  • the animation in the sequence complained about was simplistic and crude, and bore no resemblance to reality.

[19]   In the Authority’s view, the sequence complained about was of such a farcical, absurd and stylised nature that it did not breach standards of good taste and decency in the context in which it was offered. With respect to Ms McArthur’s concern that children may have been watching the broadcast, the Authority notes that 9.30pm is outside children’s normally accepted viewing times. It declines to uphold the Standard 1 complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness) and guideline 6g (denigration)

[20]   Ms McArthur nominated guidelines 6c and 6g in her fairness complaint. Guideline 6c relates to obtaining information through misrepresentation or deception. The Authority finds that this guideline is not applicable on this occasion.

[21]   With respect to guideline 6g (denigration), Ms McArthur complained that the segment encouraged the denigration of Christians. The Authority noted in Decision No. 2006-022 that a programme’s humorous or satirical intent is a highly relevant factor in assessing a complaint about denigration. It wrote:

Guideline 6(g)(iii) is explicit in this respect – the standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material offered in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work. This does not mean that drama, humour or satire are given unchecked freedom; their specification in guideline 6(g)(iii) simply reflects the fact that democratic societies place a high value on these forms of artistic expression, and limitations should be imposed only in extreme circumstances which take a broadcast outside of a “legitimate context”.

[22]   The Authority concluded in Decision No. 2006-022 that South Park was satire within the meaning contemplated by the Free-to-Air Television Code, and it reaches the same conclusion on this occasion. Accordingly, the broadcast was entitled to a significant amount of protection. The Authority stated in Decision No. 2005-112 that a satirical or humorous work would have to move towards the realm of hate speech or vitriol before it would be in breach of the denigration guideline.

[23]   As noted above, the Authority considers that the segment involving a picture of a statue of Jesus Christ was highly unrealistic, and the crude animation and accompanying sound effects were childish and simplistic. While the segment was clearly irreverent, the Authority considers that it was far from being a vicious or vitriolic attack on Christians and their beliefs.

[24]   For these reasons, the Authority concludes that the broadcaster did not portray Jesus Christ in a manner that encouraged the denigration of Christians as a consequence of their religion. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the denigration complaint.

Other Standards Nominated by the Complainant

[25]   In addition to Standards 1 and 6, Ms McArthur also raised Standards 2 (law and order), 3 (privacy), 4 (balance), 5 (accuracy), and 10 (violence).The Authority considers that none of these other standards has any application to the present case. For this reason, it addresses them succinctly below.

Standard 2 (law and order)
[26]   The Authority has stated on a number of occasions that the intent behind the law and order standard is to prevent broadcasts that encourage viewers to break the law, or otherwise promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity. In the present case, the Authority finds nothing in the broadcast that encouraged viewers to break the law, and no criminal activity was shown. Accordingly, it does not uphold the law and order complaint.

Standard 3 (privacy)
[27]    South Park is fictional, and did not broadcast “facts” about any person. The privacy standard accordingly does not apply.

Standard 4 (balance)
[28]   The balance standard applies only to “news, current affairs, or factual programmes”. As animated satire, South Park did not fall into any of these categories and was accordingly not subject to the balance standard.

Standard 5 (accuracy)
[29]   Like balance, the requirement for accuracy applies only to news, current affairs, or factual programmes. The standard has no application to the present case.

Standard 10 (violence)
[30]   Standard 10 requires broadcasters to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence. The complainant argued that showing a picture of a statue of Jesus Christ seemingly defecating on a cartoon of George Bush amounted to “violence” for the purposes of Standard 10. The Authority disagrees. The segment was absurd and unrealistic, and conveyed no sense of violence. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that this standard does not apply.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
29 October 2007

Appendix

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

1.            S A McArthur’s formal complaint – 20 May 2007
2.           Ms McArthur’s referral to the Authority – 8 July 2007
3.           CanWest’s response to the Authority – 17 September 2007
4.           Ms McArthur’s final comment – 26 September 2007
5.           CanWest’s final comment – 3 October 2007