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Leaper and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2005-096

Members

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

Complainant

  • Stephen Leaper of Hamilton

Dated

1st November 2005

Number

2005-096

Programme

Popetown

Channel/Station

C4

Broadcaster

CanWest TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Popetown – animated comedy set in a fictional Vatican City – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency and unfair

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

Standard 6 (fairness) and guideline 6g (denigration) – high protection given to satire and comedy – programme had clear satirical and humorous intent – did not encourage denigration – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] C4 broadcast an episode of Popetown at 9.30pm on 22 June 2005. The series was set in a fictional Vatican City (called Popetown), and was centred around a young priest called Father Nicholas, a group of corrupt cardinals and a child-like Pope character.

[2] During the episode on 22 June 2005, Father Nicholas became a wrestling hero after accidentally knocking out pro-wrestler “Ivan the Invincible”. As a subplot, the Pope decided that he wanted to fly on his birthday.

Complaint

[3] Stephen Leaper made a formal complaint to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was offensive, biased and misleading. In the complainant’s view, the programme served no purpose “except the promotion of anti-Catholic propaganda and discrimination”.

[4] In particular, Mr Leaper alleged that Standard 6 (fairness) was breached because the programme portrayed the Pope and the Catholic Church in a derogatory manner. He said that there was no fairness in the portrayal of religious and secular groups because only the Pope and Catholics were ridiculed. Mr Leaper contrasted this with programmes such as Father Ted, in which he argued that the characters were not based on real people and the humour was not focused on a particular group.

[5] In the complainant’s view, the entire focus of Popetown was the denigration of the Pope and the Catholic Church. As such, he contended that it was not a legitimate “humorous or satirical work” (guideline 6g).

Standards

[6] CanWest assessed the complaint under Standards 1 and 6 and guideline 6g of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. 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.

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.

Guideline 6g

Broadcasters should avoid portraying persons in programmes in a manner that encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, sections of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, or occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i) factual, or

ii) the expression of genuinely held opinion in news, current affairs or other factual programmes, or

iii) in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work,

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[7] The broadcaster noted that the Popetown programme started at a fictional Catholic secondary school where a student at the back of the class was working on a cartoon. His cartoon was Popetown, it said.

[8] As the cartoon was drawn specifically from the perspective of a disinterested teenaged schoolboy, CanWest argued, it could be expected that his cartoon would be irreverent. The characters he drew were caricatures and exaggerations. The broadcaster asserted that this opening scene set up the expectation that what would be seen would not be a satirical look at the Catholic Church in general, but a more distorted view from the perspective of a teenaged boy.

Standard 1 (Good taste and decency)

[9] CanWest contended that in order to constitute a breach of Standard 1, a programme must be unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it is shown. It argued that there were several relevant contextual factors on this occasion.

[10] First, the broadcaster noted that Popetown screened at 9.30pm – an hour after the AO watershed. It also argued that C4 was an “accepted niche channel” that was known for screening more challenging programmes than conventional stations. Further, CanWest said that the later timeslot ensured that a more mature audience was watching, and they would appreciate that it was a story told from a particular perspective.

[11] Second, CanWest said the cartoon was rated PGR and screened in an AO timeslot because it contained material more challenging than could be expected from a G-rated cartoon. In this context, the broadcaster argued that the language and the depiction of the inhabitants of Popetown would readily be understood as satire. CanWest maintained that there was no AO content in the cartoon, and said that a warning was not required.

[12] Third, CanWest noted the audience expectation and their knowledge of cartoons based around the sensibilities of teenaged boys. As examples, the broadcaster cited well-known cartoons like Beavis & Butthead, bro’Town and The Simpsons. It said:

The New Zealand audience is well versed in the type of humour that this perspective shows – for example fart and faeces jokes, sexual humour and a general disrespect for authority. The content of Popetown in this context would not be surprising or even particularly challenging.

[13] Finally, CanWest noted that an expected part of the cartoon genre was that events do not have to follow reality – for example, cartoon characters could walk off a cliff and not fall. The broadcaster argued that viewers would understand that the actions and storylines of Popetown did not relate to the Catholic Church except in the most trivial of ways. CanWest did not agree that anything in the cartoon implied that the real Pope or the Catholic faith was actually like the characters or events depicted in Popetown. The purpose of the cartoon was not to promote “anti-Catholic propaganda” as suggested by the complainant; rather, its purpose was to entertain.

[14] Taking these factors into consideration, the broadcaster did not agree that a significant number of viewers would find the cartoon offensive or in bad taste. It also found that the average viewer of cartoons of this nature would have expected the content and perspective of the storyline.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[15] CanWest reiterated its view that Popetown had little relation to the reality of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Rather than the content causing discrimination against people of the Catholic faith, CanWest agreed with the Communications Director of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, Lyndsay Freer, who had said she “couldn’t take it seriously enough to consider it harmful or offensive”.

[16] Looking at guideline 6g, CanWest argued the material was shown in the “legitimate context of a humorous or satirical work” and would not lead to the denigration of or discrimination against Catholics.

[17] With regard to Mr Leaper’s comment that it was only the Catholic Church that was ridiculed, CanWest did not consider that fairness would be served by ridiculing other groups. Instead, it argued that fairness in this case was served by the tone of the programme itself. The broadcaster did not uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[18] Dissatisfied with CanWest’s response, Mr Leaper referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He argued that cartoons were directed to a lower age group who may have little experience of the real Catholic Church. In Mr Leaper’s view, those viewers would be more vulnerable to the underlying message of anti-Catholicism.

[19] Referring to CanWest’s response, Mr Leaper argued that Popetown could not be compared to cartoons such as bro’Town or The Simpsons. Those cartoons, he noted, were based on fictional characters and dealt with a wide variety of stereotypes. Conversely, Popetown was very specific in location, characters and religion. Mr Leaper also maintained that the brief shot of the teenage boy at the beginning was lost in the rest of the programme.

[20] The complainant asserted that the time of screening and PGR-rating was irrelevant, because his complaint was not about whether a specific age group should be watching. Referring to CanWest’s remarks about the cartoon genre, Mr Leaper observed that cartoons had been used for propaganda for centuries. He added:

C4 states that Popetown is obviously unrealistic and does not relate to the real Catholic Church. That view relies on the viewers having enough understanding of the things portrayed to be able to make that judgment. I would say that most viewers of Popetown would not have that background knowledge and are therefore at the mercy of what Popetown serves up.

[21] Mr Leaper contended that CanWest showed a lack of understanding when it stated that a significant number of viewers would not have found the cartoon offensive. He argued that there were nearly 500,000 Catholics in the country, which he would call a significant number. The complainant stated that the programme would have an impact on Catholics even if they had not seen it, because it instigated anti-Catholic feeling.

[22] The complainant advised that after further viewing, the Catholic Communications Director had reversed her earlier view and was looking to make a complaint to the Authority.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[23] In its response to the Authority, CanWest noted that the Catholic Communications Director had not made a formal complaint. CanWest disputed that broadcasters should be prevented from satirising specific groups; satire, it said, should be open to a “wide variety of situations and stereotypes”.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[24] In his final comment, Mr Leaper disagreed with CanWest. He said the cartoon was only a medium to convey a message, and it was the message that was important. The complainant argued that there was no precedent where a whole series was so against one particular societal group. For example, he said, political satire focussing on one group would be unacceptable; but satire covering a range of parties would be tolerated.

Authority's Determination

[25] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape 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)

[26] The Authority accepts that the lampooning of an institution or a group in a satirical context is likely to offend at least some members of the group or institution. But such offence is outside of the gamut of the broadcasting standards relating to good taste and decency. This standard requires programming to meet commonly accepted norms in terms of language, violence, sexual material or nudity.

[27] The Authority considers that an animated satirical comedy based on the Catholic Church, which contains no offensive language, violence, sexual material or nudity, does not go beyond commonly accepted norms of good taste and decency.

[28] Furthermore, contextual factors are always relevant when assessing good taste and decency. In this case, the programme was broadcast on a channel that is aimed at the 1529 demographic, and well-known for its challenging “youth culture” programming. In these circumstances, and taking into account the likely expectations of the C4 audience, the Authority considers that the good taste and decency standard was not breached.

[29] Essentially, the complainant’s concern was that the programme was offensive to Catholics because it denigrated the church. This, in the view of the Authority, is more appropriately addressed under the fairness standard, and in particular guideline 6g, which prohibits denigration.

Standard 6 (Fairness)

[30] The starting point for the Authority in considering a complaint such as this is the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, protected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990:

Freedom of expression Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

[31] The right to freedom of expression is fundamental to a democratic society. Under section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act, the Authority may restrict this freedom only where such limitation is reasonable, and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

[32] One of the inevitable consequences of the right to free expression is that people will sometimes be offended by what others have to say. The Authority accepts that the complainant is genuinely offended by the depictions of his religion. But, in light to the right to free expression, the fact that offence has been taken – even if it is widespread offence – is not of itself sufficient justification for finding that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards.

[33] The question for the Authority is instead whether the programme encouraged denigration of Catholics on the basis of their religious belief, prohibited by guideline 6g.

[34] The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as meaning a blackening of 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 threshold is required before the Authority will find that a broadcast encourages denigration to such an extent that it amounts to a breach of guideline 6g (see for example Decision No 2004-001).

[35] The Authority also notes that the prohibition against denigration is not intended to prohibit a broadcast offered “in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work”. This exception to guideline 6g reflects the importance that society assigns to the freedom of legitimate humorous or satirical expression. While there may be cases in which a satirical or humorous work may breach the standard – if it amounted to hate speech, for example – the code is clear that such works are afforded a high degree of protection.

[36] Popetown is a satirical comedy, using the fictional setting of life at the Vatican as a vehicle for an irreverent “youth culture” comedy. In the view of the Authority, there was nothing in the programme that went beyond the boundaries of legitimate satire, into the realm of vitriol or hate speech.

[37] It is the nature of satire that many of the topics it addresses invite a strong response from listeners or viewers. The Authority considers that the fact that a programme causes offence should not of itself prevent the broadcast of legitimate satire; this is especially so when the satirical and humorous intent is as overt as it is in the present case. The Authority has consistently recognised the right of broadcasters to satirise politics, religion or culture (see decisions 1990-011, 1991-050, 2004-152, 2004-184, and 2004-187). It sees no reason to depart from that position in the present case.

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
1 November 2005

Appendix

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

  1. Stephen Leaper’s formal complaint – 24 July 2005
  2. CanWest’s decision on the formal complaint – 29 July 2005
  3. Mr Leaper’s referral to the Authority – 9 August 2005
  4. CanWest’s response to the Authority – 29 August 2005
  5. Mr Leaper’s final comment – 4 September 2005