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Swale and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-098

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • Tapu Misa

Complainant

  • Evan Swale of Rangiora

Dated

18th September 2003

Number

2003-098

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Lexus Sunday Theatre: Hound of the Baskervilles Promo – Jesus Christ – blasphemy

Findings
Standard 1 and Guideline 1a – context – no uphold

Standard 6 and Guideline 6a – did not encourage denigration – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] "Jesus Christ" was the phrase uttered by a character shown in the promo for The Hound of the Baskervilles. The promo for the Sherlock Holmes drama, to be screened on "Lexus Sunday Theatre", was broadcast on TV One at about 7.15pm on 31 May 2003.

[2] Evan Swale complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that use of the phrase "Jesus Christ" was denigratory, and insulting and offensive.

[3] In response, TVNZ acknowledged that the use of the phrase in that way could cause offence to devout Christians. However, it argued that the phrase was also commonly used in a non-religious way as an exclamation. As it had been used in that way on this occasion, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Swale referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the promo complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] A promo for the Sherlock Holmes drama, Lexus Sunday Theatre: The Hound of the Baskervilles, was broadcast at about 7.15pm on Saturday 31 May 2003 during Country Calendar. During the promo, a voice used the phrase, "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation.

The Complaint

[7] Evan Swale complained to TVNZ that, as a Christian, he found the derogatory use of the name "Jesus Christ" to be "insulting and offensive". The name "Jesus Christ" he wrote, was very sacred to the 10% of the population who were Christians. Why, he asked, were broadcasters allowed to be offensive towards Christians when the Advertising Standards Complaints Board (ASCB) had ruled that an advertisement showing a group of butchers, chanting like Hare Krishnas, to be unacceptable.

The Standards

[8] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 1 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standards, and relevant Guidelines, 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.

Guideline

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.

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] Expressing regret that Mr Swale had found the promo to be offensive, TVNZ contended that the phrase "Jesus Christ" was a commonly used exclamation. It referred to the Concise Oxford where, it noted, that "Jesus Christ" was defined as a central figure of the Christian religion and, in a separate definition, it was said to be an exclamation "expressing irritation, dismay or surprise".

[10] TVNZ contended that the use of the phrase in the promo was not derogatory as the speaker was not referring to Jesus Christ or Christianity. Rather, it said, the speaker used the phrase "Jesus Christ" as an "expression of dismay or surprise".

[11] With regard to Mr Swale’s comment about other religions, TVNZ said phrases could on one hand refer to a central religious figure or, on the other, be used as an exclamation. TVNZ declined to comment on the ASCB’s decision, as it was not made under the Television Code. Declining to uphold the complaint, TVNZ concluded:

Looking at standard 1, it was the [complaints] committee’s conclusion that the phrase ‘Jesus Christ’ used in a programme trailer by a speaker registering dismay or surprise did not stray beyond ‘current norms of decency and taste’. The phrase was not used aggressively or with intent to offend Christians.

Turning to standard 6, and specifically to guideline 6g, the committee was unable to conclude that the use of the phrase ‘Jesus Christ’ in this context either encouraged the denigration of Christians or encouraged discrimination against them. Instead it was used according to the second dictionary definition and so, in the sense in which it was heard, was remote and distant from any religious connotation.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[12] When he referred his complaint to the Authority Mr Swale said that the use of the phrase "Jesus Christ" as an expletive was highly offensive to many New Zealanders. It was no defence, he argued, that the speaker did not intend to cause offence. He concluded:

In many cases and instances in New Zealand, people are willing to respect important and sacred aspects of other cultures and religions, which I think is commendable. However, it seems that this respect is completely lacking when it comes to the use of the name Jesus Christ – a name that Christians hold sacred.

The Authority’s Determination

[13] When it determines a complaint that a broadcast contravenes Standard 1 of the Television Code, the Authority is required to determine whether the material complained about breaches currently accepted standards of good taste and decency, taking into account the context of the broadcast. The context is relevant, but does not determine whether the programme breached the standard. Accordingly, the Authority has considered the context in which the exclamation complained about was broadcast.

[14] The complainant argued that the use of the phrase "Jesus Christ" during the promo, was blasphemous and offensive. In response, TVNZ contended that the phrase had been used as a colloquial expression of distress and alarm, rather than a religious comment.

[15] The Authority has referred to the Concise Oxford which includes, under "Jesus Christ", the definition: "exclamation, informal expressing irritation, dismay, or surprise". Accordingly, while noting the complainant’s concern, the Authority accepts that its use on this occasion, during the promo, fitted into the category of an exclamation of irritation and alarm, and it declines to uphold the complaint that Standard 1 was contravened.

[16] Given the tenor of its use, the Authority does not consider that the broadcast encouraged denigration of, or discrimination against, Christians.

[17] The Authority also notes its research publication "Monitoring Community Attitudes in Changing Mediascapes" published in 2000, which records the phrase "Jesus Christ" is tenth out of 22 words ranked by order of unacceptability.

[18] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
18 September 2003

Appendix

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

  1.    Evan Swale’s complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 15 June 2003
  2.    TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 26 June 2003
  3.    Mr Swale’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 12 July 2003
  4.    TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 23 July 2003