Complaint under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Newstalk ZB – talkback host Tim Drover – terminated two calls perfunctorily – one caller described as “old witch” with a “brain the size of a pea” – allegedly unfair, offensive, unbalanced, and denigratory
Principle 5 (fairness) – calls terminated to prevent the broadcast of racist views – comments borderline unfair – not upheld
Principle 1 (good taste and decency) – not offensive in talkback context – not upheld
Principle 4 (balance) – not unbalanced – not upheld
Principle 7 (social responsibility) and Guideline 7a (denigration) – not socially irresponsible to avoid the expression of racist views – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 A caller to Newstalk ZB referred to her visit to Porirua City but the host (Tim Drover) interrupted her. After a brief exchange, in which he referred to the caller as an “old witch” with “a brain the size of a pea”, he cut her off. Shortly beforehand, he had apparently terminated a call when he accused the caller of saying Pakeha were superior to Maori. The calls occurred between 8.30 and 9.00am on Wednesday 7 January 2004.
 Maxine Arnold complained formally under the Broadcasting Act 1989 to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN), the broadcaster. She contended that it was unnecessary to terminate the calls in such an insulting manner. While accepting that talkback hosts were entitled to be provocative, she maintained that neither caller had been “rude, belligerent or nasty”.
 TRN initially assessed the complaint under Principle 5 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. It provides:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
 The complainant later argued that Principles 1, 4 and 7 were applicable. They read:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain 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.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
7a 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) by way of legitimate humour or satire.
 TRN explained that the host believed that the talkback programme that morning was heading towards “caller racism” and he was determined to stop it. He terminated the calls complained about, TRN continued, when he perceived that the callers were about to express racist views. While the first caller was terminated without comment, TRN noted that the host’s comments in relation to the second could be regarded as abusive.
 Nevertheless, TRN declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of Principle 5 (fairness), stating:
… taken in the context of the discussion and the environment of robust talkback it could be taken as just passable.
 Dissatisfied with TRN’s responses, Ms Arnold referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 First, describing the words used as “downright rude and abusive”, Ms Arnold contended that the comments breached Principle 1 (good taste and decency). Secondly, on the basis that the callers were not able to present significant points of view, she argued that the broadcast breached Principle 4 (balance). Finally, as both callers “sounded elderly”, she considered that the broadcast denigrated them (Principle 7).
 Ms Arnold explained that she had participated in robust debates in the public arena for many years and stated that the use of such terms as “evil witch” and “having a brain the size of a pea” would have required an immediate withdrawal and apology.
 Expressing the opinion that Principle 5 covered the issues, TRN said it was happy nonetheless to consider the complaint under the principles later raised by the complainant.
 With regard to Principle 1, TRN reiterated that talkback radio was robust and opinionated and the language was not unacceptable for callers advancing views verging on racism.
 Under Principle 7, TRN argued that the host was acting socially responsibly in “refusing to allow the taint of racism” to intrude.
 TRN declined to uphold the complaint as a breach of either Principle 1 or 7.
 Expressing surprise at TRN’s vigorous defence to the complaint, Ms Arnold said that she would have been satisfied with a response that it did not condone verbal abuse. She observed that broadcasters held great power and contended that the host required training in “communication skills”.
 The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the exchange between the host and the second caller and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority notes that the broadcaster referred to an earlier call, but did not provide a tape of that exchange. The Authority is disappointed that it was not able to hear the earlier call but considers that it is able on this occasion to determine the complaint. Furthermore, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 The Authority accepts that talkback radio is a robust environment in which hosts sometimes display bad manners. The Authority also points out that bad manners in themselves are unlikely to amount to a breach of standards. However, where this behaviour involves abusing the caller, the approach and language used may well amount to a breach of the requirement to deal with people fairly.
 On this occasion, the Authority has listened to the second call complained about, and notes that a previous caller had been “cut off” by the host without comment, after expressing racist views. The Authority is prepared to accept that the host’s justification for terminating the calls, and describing the second caller as an “old witch” with the “brain the size of a pea”, was his reasonable belief that racist views were about to be expressed.
 The Authority believes that the call could have been terminated in a more civil manner. Nonetheless, it considers that the approach adopted and the language used came close, but did not amount, to a breach of the fairness requirement in Principle 5.
 The Authority agrees with the broadcaster that the requirement for fairness in Principle 5 covered the entire complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
6 May 2004
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: