Complaint under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Spooks – language – “fuck you” – allegedly offensive – warning required
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) and Guidelines 1a and 1b – context – warning not necessary – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 Spooks is a BBC drama series built around the activities of a fictional counter-terrorism unit attached to MI5. MI5 is the government agency responsible for internal security. In an episode beginning at 9.30pm broadcast on TV One on 24 February 2004, one character said to another “fuck you”.
 Ken Francis complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that such language was offensive and the programme should have been preceded with a warning.
 TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 1 and Guidelines 1a and 1b of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They read:
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.
1a Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and the programme’s classification (see Appendix 1). The examples are not exhaustive.
1b Broadcasters should consider – and if appropriate require – the use of on-air visual and verbal warnings when programmes contain violent material, material of a sexual nature, coarse language or other content likely to disturb children or offend a significant number of adult viewers. Warnings should be specific in nature, while avoiding detail which may itself distress or offend viewers.
 TVNZ pointed out that the word “fuck” was used once in a drama classified AO, and broadcast one hour after the AO watershed. Further, the drama involved some uncompromising characters working in a tough situation, and the word was not used until 10.00pm. TVNZ said the programme dealt with:
A fictional situation but one reflecting reality in which a total absence of strong language would seem to lack a certain credibility.
 TVNZ commented that if a warning was attached to every late night programme which included the minimal use of the word “fuck”, the plethora of warnings which would follow would devalue them as an informational tool. TVNZ said that it did not consider that the warning envisaged by Guideline 1b was applicable in this instance.
 It declined to uphold the complaint.
 When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Francis stated that he and his wife had watched the programme complained about because there was no warning. Consequently, they were “shocked” when the phrase “fuck you” was used.
 Contrary to TVNZ’s argument, Mr Francis maintained that one use of the word justified a warning in order to allow viewers to avoid all instances of the use of offensive language. The absence of a warning in Mr Francis’s opinion disclosed a change in TVNZ’s policy regarding warnings and was evidence of eroding standards.
 TVNZ said that there had been no policy change as contended by Mr Francis. It had been, and remained, the policy to alert viewers when strong language was pervasive in a programme or might be unexpected in view of the programme genre. Under this policy, it wrote, a warning for the episode of Spooks was not considered necessary. Further, while TVNZ approached the use of the word “fuck” with caution, it pointed out that it is widely used in society and the arts.
 TVNZ also advised that the episode was preceded with a warning – that there were “scenes which may disturb” – as it was considered that the dramatic material, rather than the single use of a swear word, might have been “a bit hard to take for some sensitive viewers”.
 Mr Francis expressed the opinion that viewers had the right to choose and, to do so, they required “salient information”. Such information, he continued, should be available at all times. A programme’s rating as AO, he said, was not sufficient. He acknowledged that “strong” language was becoming more common, but TVNZ had to accept that there were some viewers who sought protection from it.
 The members of the Authority have viewed the programme complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
 Mr Francis complained that any use of the phrase “fuck you” breached the requirement for good taste and decency – Standard 1 – as it was not preceded with a warning – Guideline 1b.
 In determining complaints which allege a breach of Standard 1, the Authority is required to take matters of context into account. The relevant contextual matters on this occasion include the following:
 The Authority also acknowledges TVNZ’s policy that, to avoid devaluing the warning about language, a warning is included in programmes starting at 9.30pm only when there is frequent use of strong language.
 The Authority notes the complainant’s contention that a warning about language should be included in all programmes containing offensive language. Nevertheless, it considers that TVNZ’s policy about the use of warnings for offensive language generally, and its application to the episode of Spooks broadcast on 24 February, recognises appropriately the requirement in Standard 1 (good taste and decency). Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
For the above reasons, the complaint is not upheld.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
17 June 2004
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: