Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Classic Hits – host told a joke about two people in a “mental hospital” – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, fairness and social responsibility standards
Principle 1 (good taste and decency) – contextual factors – not upheld
Principle 5 (fairness) – standard only applies to people taking part or referred to in a programme – not upheld
Principle 7 (social responsibility) – item was clearly signalled as a joke – legitimate use of humour – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 An item broadcast on Classic Hits Breakfast at 7.45am on 13 June 2007, included a segment called “the 7.45 funny” in which the following joke was broadcast:
Jim and Edna were both patients at a mental hospital. One day while they were walking past the hospital swimming pool, Jim suddenly jumped into the deep end and sank to the bottom of the pool, and stayed there. Edna promptly jumped in to save him…she swam to the bottom and pulled Jim out.
When the Head Nurse became aware of Edna’s heroic act she ordered her to be discharged from the hospital, as she now considered her to be mentally stable. She went to tell Edna the news and said “now Edna I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you’re being discharged since you were able to rationally respond to the crisis by jumping in and saving Jim…but the bad news is that Jim hung himself in the bathroom with his belt right after you saved him and I’m sorry, but he’s dead”.
Edna said “well he didn’t hang himself I put him there to dry. How soon can I go home?”.
 Janet Chapman made a formal complaint to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, arguing that the joke was made in bad taste and had breached Principle 1 of the Radio Code. She argued that a number of people had hung themselves in the Taranaki region last year and that joking about a man hanging himself in the shower was in extremely poor taste for a number of New Zealand families.
 The complainant believed that the joke would have caused undue stress to people who had been affected by suicide and that this was unfair to them.
 Ms Chapman maintained that the joke was socially irresponsible because it had encouraged the denigration of, and discrimination against, people who suffered from mental illness. She argued that children could have been listening to the 7.45am broadcast and that this type of humour was not appropriate for them to hear. The complainant also believed that the joke was not a legitimate use of humour or satire and that people would have been disturbed by its “offensive” content.
 Principles 1, 5, and 7, and guidelines 1a, 7a and 7b of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice are relevant to this complaint. They provide:
Principle 1 Good taste and decency
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
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.
Principle 5 Fairness
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
Principle 7 Social responsibility
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
Broadcasters will not portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation; or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement does not extend to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual; or
ii) a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or
iii) is by way of legitimate humour or satire.
Broadcasters shall be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted listening times.
 In response to Ms Chapman’s complaint, TRN argued that the show had an adult target audience and that the show received jokes of varying quality, some average, some hilarious and others which, like the one complained of, had a “cringe element”. It maintained that the complainant had drawn the wrong conclusion that the man had committed suicide, when in fact the joke explained that the woman had put the man there to dry out. It argued that “in the context of a clearly signalled joke”, the broadcast had not breached Principle 1 and it declined to uphold the good taste and decency complaint.
 The broadcaster argued that the broadcast had not intended to glorify suicide or denigrate people with mental illnesses. It maintained that humour and satire took various forms and frequently entered sensitive areas, and that the joke “simply highlighted good and bad judgement”. TRN believed the joke was a legitimate use of humour and therefore it declined to uphold the social responsibility complaint.
 Dissatisfied with the TRN’s decision, Ms Chapman referred her complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The complainant did not agree with TRN that the show was targeted at adults and argued that around half of the birthday calls that morning were to children 16 years of age or under.
 Ms Chapman believed that Principle 5 was relevant and that TRN should have considered her complaint in relation to fairness and reiterated her argument that the joke was distasteful.
 The members of the Authority have listened to 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.
 When the Authority considers a complaint that alleges a breach of good taste and decency it is required to take into consideration the context of the broadcast. On this occasion the relevant contextual factors include:
 The Authority agrees with the broadcaster that the item was clearly intended to be humorous. While the joke may not have appealed to all listeners, the Authority considers that it was relatively mild. Taking into account the above contextual factors, the Authority finds that the joke did not amount to a breach of the good taste and decency standard.
 Ms Chapman argued that the joke was unfair to people who had been affected by suicide. Because the fairness standard only applies to “people taking part or referred to” in a broadcast, the Authority finds that the standard does not apply to Ms Chapman’s complaint. Therefore it finds that Principle 5 was not breached.
Guideline 7a (denigration)
 In its response, TRN concluded that the joke did not encourage the denigration of mentally ill people. The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as meaning blackening the reputation of a class of people (see for example decisions 1994-062 and 2004-129). It is also well-established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act, a high level of invective is necessary for the Authority to conclude that a broadcast encourages denigration in contravention of the standards (see for example Decision No. 2002-152).
 The Authority considers that the item was clearly signalled as a joke, was light-hearted in nature and was a legitimate piece of humour. It agrees with TRN that the item lacked the necessary invective to contravene Principle 7 in terms of denigration.
Guideline 7b (child listeners)
 Turning to Ms Chapman’s concern about child listeners (guideline 7b), the Authority has considered the contextual factors listed above in paragraph 11. Further, it notes that the joke did not contain any obscene language or imagery. Taking into account these contextual factors, the Authority finds that TRN was mindful of the effect the item would have on child listeners. Accordingly, the Authority finds that Principle 7 was not breached.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
29 October 2007
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Janet Chapman’s formal complaint – 2 July 2007
2. TRN’s response to the formal complaint – 26 July 2007
3. Ms Chapman’s referral to the Authority – 30 July 2007
4. TRN’s response to the Authority – 13 August 2007