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Hadfield and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2002-172

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor

Complainant

  • Elaine Hadfield of Blenheim

Dated

17th October 2002

Number

2002-172

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Spin Doctors Election Special drama – public relations company, satirised while suggesting election campaign strategies – "piss-head" – offensive language – imitation vomit – offensive behaviour

Findings
Standard 1 – not offensive in context – no uphold

Standard 9 – not unsuitable for older children – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] An election special episode of Spin Doctors was broadcast at 9.00pm on TV One on 10 July 2002. It satirised the staff of a public relations company as they were shown trying to put together election campaign strategies for a number of political parties.

[2] Elaine Hadfield complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about some of the language used and the behaviour depicted with reference to the Prime Minister. She said that the Prime Minister deserved respect, not ridicule.

[3] In response, TVNZ said that the satire was not inappropriate for an AO classified programme screening at 9.00pm. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Miss Hadfield 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 programme 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] Spin Doctors is a series which lampoons the public relations industry. In the episode broadcast at 9.00pm on TV One on 10 July, the staff of a public relations company were shown trying to put together election campaign strategies for a number of different political parties.

The Complaint

[7] Noting that the listing for the programme in the local newspaper had not included a programme classification, Elaine Hadfield complained to TVNZ about some of the language used and some of the behaviour depicted. Specifically, Ms Hadfield said that one of the characters was portrayed lying while talking on a mobile telephone. Then, she stated, the Prime Minister was referred to as a "piss-head" and a yellow liquid similar to vomit was squirted in the shoulder of a life-size cut-out of the Prime Minister.

[8] Miss Hadfield described the programme as "repugnant". She maintained that the Prime Minister deserved respect, not ridicule, and expressed concern about teenagers who could have been watching during the school holidays. "Offensive programmes", she concluded, should not be screened.

The Standards

[9] As the complainant did not nominate specific standards, TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 1 and 9 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.

Guidelines

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 9 Children’s Interests

During children’s normally accepted viewing times (see Appendix 1), broadcasters are required, in the preparation and presentation of programmes, to consider the interests of child viewers.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] Dealing first with the absence of a classification in the newspaper listing, TVNZ explained that Spin Doctors aimed to be as topical as possible, and the classification on this occasion was not available to meet newspaper deadlines. TVNZ added that the episode was classified AO, and the AO symbol appeared at the beginning of the programme and after each commercial break.

[11] Turning to the programme, TVNZ questioned whether Miss Hadfield had recognised its satirical nature, writing:

Spin Doctors satirises the New Zealand public relations industry, making fun of the pretensions and the people it attracts.

[12] TVNZ explained that the scene complained about arose when one of the characters suggested "outrageous" ways that small political parties could attract attention at minimal cost. It noted that the suggestions were ridiculed by the character’s colleagues.

[13] Commenting that the enjoyment of comedy was a personal matter, and pointing to the long tradition of political satire, TVNZ wrote:

The [complaints] committee felt unable to conclude that in the context of satire, screened at 9pm at night with an AO certificate – and during the height of an election campaign – this programme was in breach of the requirement set down in standard 1 to observe ‘good taste and decency’. The standard (guideline 1a) specifically allows for context.

[14] In regard to Standard 9, TVNZ acknowledged that the programme was broadcast during school holidays. However, it stated, the programme did not begin until 9.00pm, "by which time young children would be in bed", and it did not regard Spin Doctors as unsuitable for older children.

[15] TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[16] When referring her complaint to the Authority, Miss Hadfield expressed her concern that programmes rated AO were broadcast before 10.00pm. "Children", she added, were anyone up to the age of 18 years and, she wrote:

Judging from promos of television AO programmes, the majority contain attitudes of anger and hate. There are frequently sex scenes or themes, violence, course language, broken relationships. I cannot understand why they are even allowed to be produced let alone screened. Who watches them? I had always had my suspicions (because of promos) about Spin Doctors and it was by chance that it was being screened when I turned the television on 9.12pm, July 10.

[17] In response to TVNZ’s comments about satire, Miss Hadfield maintained that it was unfair to ridicule any public figure and, she concluded:

Programme standards (and advertising standards too) continue to fall and many minds, both young and old, are being polluted by what they see and hear. The flow-on effect is then a society with increasingly dreadful things happening. Better standards could have the flow-on effect of less demands on police, courts, welfare agencies and health services.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[18] As she found some television programmes "dreadful and injurious", Ms Hadfield questioned why they were produced. In view of the "deplorable attitude" towards the Prime Minister in the programme complained about, she sought a reprimand for TVNZ.

The Authority’s Determination

[19] 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 programme complained about was broadcast.

[20] Miss Hadfield also complained that the broadcast was unsuitable for teenage children who might have been watching television at 9.00pm during school holidays. Guideline 9c requires broadcasters to acknowledge that children may stay up later during school holidays and that their "normally accepted viewing times" may not end at 8.30pm.

[21] In response, TVNZ pointed out that programme did not begin until 9.00pm and considered that the programme would not have been unsuitable for older children who might still be up at that hour. The Authority accepts that it is unlikely that younger children would be viewing a programme beginning at 9.00pm on a week night even during the school holidays. Accordingly it declines to uphold the complaint as a breach of Guideline 9c. Based on the definition in the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989, children are defined in that Code as a boy or girl under the age of 14 years.

[22] As for Miss Hadfield’s concern that the programme listing in the local newspaper did not include a classification, the Authority observes that the publication in newspapers of a programme’s classification is not a matter of broadcasting standards. The Authority notes TVNZ’s explanation as to why the classification was not available and notes with approval that classifications are screened regularly within programmes by broadcasters for the information of viewers.

[23] Turning to the programme complained about, the Authority considers that while some of the language could be described as coarse, Spin Doctors is a satirical series.

[24] As a satire about the public relations industry, it makes fun of people who work in the industry, and their pretensions. The specific episode was also a political satire as it lampooned the use the industry and political parties made of each other during an election campaign. Given the type of programme complained about and context in which the issues were dealt with, the Authority concludes that neither Standards 1 or 9 were contravened. It declines to uphold the complaint.

[25] 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 and applies them in a manner 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
17 October 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Elaine Hadfield’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 22 July 2002
  2. TVNZ’s Response to the Complaint – 2 August 2002
  3. Miss Hadfield’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 15 August 2002
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 23 August 2002
  5. Miss Hadfield’s Final Comment – 9 September 2002