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Richardson and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2005-097

Members

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

Complainant

  • Peter and Anna-Maria Richardson of Ngaruawahia

Dated

1st November 2005

Number

2005-097

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 – priest accidentally removed “Pope’s” head and sewed it back on – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, unbalanced and unfair

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

Standard 4 (balance) – not a news, current affairs or factual programme – balance not required – 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] An animated comedy series called Popetown centred around Father Nicholas, an idealistic young priest who lives in a fictional Vatican City (called Popetown) with a group of corrupt cardinals and a pogo-stick riding infantile Pope. The series was broadcast on C4 at 9.30pm.

[2] During the episode on 15 June 2005, the priest Father Nicholas accidentally removed the Pope’s head as he cut his hair. The priest sewed the head back on prior to the Pope meeting a foreign dictator.

Complaint

[3] Peter and Anna-Maria Richardson made a formal complaint about the programme to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster. The complainants argued that as Catholics, they found offensive the various portrayals of the Pope and clergy. Further, they argued that the broadcaster would not dare to show similar material that involved Muslims, Māori or any other faith or cultural group.

[4] In response to a letter from CanWest asking them to nominate which specific Standards of the Free-to-Air Code had been breached, the complainants contended that Standards 1, 4 and 6 were breached. Mr and Mrs Richardson stated that depicting the Pope as headless had implied that the Catholic church was leaderless. Considering the positive impact of the late John Paul II, they said, that was not a true reflection of reality. The complainants questioned what programmes were being shown to emphasise the good work being done by the Catholic church and the Pope.

Standards

[5] Standards 1, 4 and 6 and guideline 6g are relevant to the determination of this 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.

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 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

[6] The broadcaster noted that the Popetown programme started at a fictional secondary school where a student at the back of the class was working on a cartoon. His cartoon was Popetown, it said. As the cartoon was drawn specifically from the perspective of a disinterested teenaged boy, 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 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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 people watching the programme would appreciate that it was a story told from a particular perspective.

[9] Secondly, CanWest said the cartoon was rated PGR and screened in a PGR 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.

[10] As a final contextual factor, CanWest noted the audience expectation and its 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. This content of Popetown in this context would not be surprising or even particularly challenging.

[11] Noting the complainants’ assertion that it would not broadcast similar material involving other faiths or cultural groups, CanWest noted that bro’Town satirised many different ethnic groups.

[12] The broadcaster maintained that Popetown was appropriate to screen because it was obvious that the content was intended to be humorous and satirical. It would be apparent to the audience that the characters’ actions were exaggerated and overstated for humour, it said. CanWest argued that no viewer would think the Popetown “Pope” – a child who likes to pogo stick and paint with faeces – was a realistic representation of Pope John Paul II.

[13] 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.

Referral to the Authority

[14] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision, Mr and Mrs Richardson referred their complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. They noted that CanWest had not considered Standards 4 and 6 in its decision.

[15] Referring to CanWest’s assertion that C4 was a “more challenging” channel, the complainants said this was essentially arguing that less reputable stations were allowed to broadcast material offending good taste and decency. They also maintained that a significant number of viewers would have found Popetown to be unacceptable. A significant number, the complainants argued, did not mean a majority or even a substantive minority.

[16] Mr and Mrs Richardson also noted CanWest’s argument about viewer expectations. The complainants contended that this implied viewers knew the script or content prior to watching C4, and this could not stand up to scrutiny. For example, they said, some could simply be flicking between channels.

[17] The complainants maintained that Standards 1, 4 and 6 had been breached, adding:

To justify or excuse such outrageous content with such a level of offence by attributing the “cartoon” to a recalcitrant schoolboy is a complete non sequitur. Such an approach would excuse the most offensive material imaginable as long as one twistedly put it in the mouth or on the pen of some character who has no values or standards. C4 is grossly lacking.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[18] CanWest explained it had not received the complainants’ further letter regarding Standards 4 and 6 before sending its decision to the complainant.

[19] With respect to Standard 4 (balance), the broadcaster noted that Popetown was not a “news, current affairs or factual programme”; the standard therefore had no application.

[20] Turning to consider Standard 6 (fairness), CanWest repeated its comments that the behaviour of the Popetown characters was unrealistic. It argued that the tone and premise of the cartoon had little relation to the reality of the Catholic church.

[21] Referring to guideline 6g (denigration), CanWest contended that the material in Popetown was shown in the “legitimate context of a humorous or satirical work”. In CanWest’s view, whether or not the complainants found the cartoon funny, it was clearly intended to be a comedy and fell within the ambit of guideline 6g.

[22] Further, CanWest argued that viewers were not likely to be incited or encouraged to discriminate against Catholics. The broadcaster asserted that the programme had not blackened the reputation of any individual or group. It found that Standard 6 was not breached.

[23] Commenting on the complainants’ referral, CanWest stated that viewer expectation was part of the consideration of “context” with respect to Standard 1. It had presented the niche nature of C4 to identify the likely audience, CanWest said.

[24] The broadcaster argued that good taste and decency was an assessment of what the reasonable viewer of a programme, at that time, expects to see and hear. It did not accept that a significant number of the C4 audience would have been surprised by the programme.

[25] CanWest accepted that the satirical treatment of the Catholic church would be unacceptable to the majority of Catholics. However, it considered that there was significant public awareness of the likely content of Popetown, and found that the programme was acceptable to screen on C4.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[26] In their final comment, the complainants submitted that Standard 4 did apply, because Popetown could be construed as “current affairs” and was a question of controversial nature (guideline 4a).

[27] With respect to Standard 6 (fairness), the complainants argued that the content of the cartoon was not acceptable even if it was attributed to the pen of a fictional character. They also said that there were limits to the exception provided for by guideline 6g.

[28] Considering Standard 1 (good taste and decency), Mr and Mrs Richardson contended that an overview of the whole series should be taken into account. They argued that a significant number of people had been offended by Popetown.

Authority's Determination

[29] 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 4 (Balance)

[30] The Authority agrees with CanWest’s response on the balance complaint. Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code applies only to news, current affairs and other factual programmes. Popetown is an animated comedy, and is thus does not require balance.

Standard 1 (Good taste and decency)

[31] 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 remain within commonly accepted norms in terms of language, violence, sexual material or nudity.

[32] 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.

[33] Furthermore, contextual factors – particularly viewer expectations – are always relevant when assessing good taste and decency. In this case, the programme was broadcast on a channel that is aimed at the 15-29 demographic, 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.

[34] In essence, the complainant’s concern was that the programme was offensive to Catholics in that 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)

[35] 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.

[36] 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”.

[37] 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.

[38] 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.

[39] 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).

[40] 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 attributes 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.

[41] Popetown is a satirical comedy, using the 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.

[42] 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 was 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 declines to 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. P and A Richardson’s formal complaint – 21 June 2005
  2. CanWest’s decision on the formal complaint – 18 July 2005
  3. Mr and Mrs Richardson’s referral to the Authority – 9 August 2005
  4. CanWest’s response to the Authority – 29 August 2005
  5. Mr and Mrs Richardson’s final comment – 6 September 2005