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Smith and The Radio Network Ltd - 2002-188

Members

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

Complainant

  • Wayne Smith of Orewa

Dated

28th November 2002

Number

2002-188

Channel/Station

Newstalk ZB

Broadcaster

The Radio Network Ltd


Complaint
Newstalk ZB host Leighton Smith – caller used word "mongrel" to describe bad parents – denied it was a racist interpretation – offensive language – racist

Findings
Principle 1 – context – no uphold

Principle 7 – threshold not reached – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Parenting was one of the topics discussed on the Leighton Smith Morning Show on 27 August 2002 in view of some murders committed recently by young people. One caller said that "two mongrel dogs" would produce "a mongrel pup", and that it was illegal to "beat that mongrel out of the pup". The Leighton Smith Morning Show is broadcast by TRN each weekday between 8.30am – midday via the Newstalk ZB network. It is a talkback programme hosted by Leighton Smith.

[2] Wayne Smith complained to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN), the broadcaster, that the use of the word to refer to people of "mixed blood" was both offensive and racist.

[3] In response, TRN said that the host, after clarifying what the caller meant by the word, disagreed with him. TRN declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TRN’s decision, Mr Smith referred his 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 listened to a tape 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] Parenting was one of the topics discussed on the Leighton Smith Morning Show in view of some murders committed recently by young people. One caller said that "two mongrel dogs" would produce "a mongrel pup", and that it was illegal to "beat that mongrel out of the pup".

[7] The Leighton Smith Morning Show is broadcast by TRN each weekday between 8.30am–midday via the Newstalk ZB network. It is a talkback programme hosted by Leighton Smith.

The Complaint

[8] Wayne Smith complained to TRN about the use of the word "mongrel", noting that the word was used by a caller to refer to people of mixed blood.

[9] Mr Smith referred to a recent decision from the Authority (No: 2002-055, 9 May 2002) when the Authority upheld a complaint (from Mr Smith) that the host’s use of the word "mongrel", when referring to people, was both abusive and contemptuous and was unacceptable and in breach of Principle 1 of the Radio Code. Principle 1 requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

[10] Mr Smith noted that the host had pointed out to two callers since May that the use of the word "mongrel" was unacceptable. However, on the occasion complained about, Mr Smith continued, the host had not advised the caller that the word was unacceptable and, rather than terminating the call, participated in a discussion in which the word was used.

[11] Emphasising that the earlier decision found that the word was unacceptable and had made no reference as to whether it was used by the host or a caller, Mr Smith contended that its use by both the host and caller on this occasion breached Principles 1 and 7 of the Radio Code. He sought the suspension of the host from the programme, and a statement from Newstalk ZB explaining the reasons why it had taken that action.

The Standards

[12] TRN assessed the complaint against the Principles in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice nominated by the complaint. The Principles, and relevant Guidelines, read:

Principle 1

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Guideline

1a  Broadcasters will take into consideration current norms of decency and good taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs and the wider context of the broadcast eg time of day, target audience.

Principle 7

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Guideline

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) is by of legitimate humour or satire.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[13] In its response to Mr Smith, TRN’s letter contained part of the transcript when the word "mongrel" was used. It pointed out that a caller had used the word, and that the host had disagreed with his interpretation of the word. TRN maintained that the host, having clarified what the caller meant, then disagreed with his viewpoint.

[14] TRN said that the word not been banned, as it is used to describe the gang, "The Mongrel Mob", and as a sporting term for players with the necessary "mongrel" (ie aggression) was acceptable. TRN distinguished the present use from the earlier upheld complaint from Mr Smith in view of the analogy used by the caller, the probing by the host, and the host’s expressed disagreement. It declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[15] Maintaining that the breach was "blatant", Mr Smith stated that part of the conversation for which a transcript was given "in no way" reflected the full conversation. He persisted in his complaint that the use of the term "mongrel" to refer to people of "mixed blood" breached the standards, and considered that the call, in view of the earlier decisions should have been terminated.

[16] Mr Smith then cited the earlier decision when the Authority found the use of the word "mongrel" to be both abusive and contemptuous, and beyond the boundaries of acceptability for talkback radio. Its use on this occasion, he argued, was again outside the boundaries and by allowing the broadcast of the caller’s blatantly racist views, TRN had breached Principles 1 and 7 of the Radio Code.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] TRN disputed the complainant’s claim that the quotes used were selective. Moreover, it wrote:

However ‘way out’ the views of the caller were, they were challenged by the host and discussed rationally.

[18] Furthermore, TRN said, the complainant failed to appreciate that talkback radio raised ‘on the edge’ issues, and the host’s approach on the occasion complained about showed how balance and sense could be brought to such matters.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[19] Expressing concern that a tape made available to the Authority might not be identical to the broadcast complained about, Mr Smith said that he did not argue that "mongrel" was a banned word. He maintained that its use on the occasion complained about was similar to its earlier use. He said that the caller had made a direct link between the breeding of mongrel dogs and the "breeding of people with mixed blood". The host’s response, he continued, was irrelevant. Its use, he wrote, went beyond the acceptable boundaries of talkback radio.

The Authority’s Determination

[20] In Decision No: 2002-055 (9 May 2002), the Authority upheld a complaint from Mr Smith that the use of the word "mongrel" by a host on Newstalk ZB, when describing a specific group of protesters, was in breach of Principle 1 of the Radio Code. The Authority considered that the host’s use of the word on that occasion was intended to be both abusive and contemptuous.

[21] In the broadcast complained about now, a caller used the word "mongrel" when he drew a parallel between poor parenting and genetics. When probed by the host, the caller distanced himself from any racial connotation. The host told the caller he disagreed with his use of the word "mongrel" as it implied racial overtones.

[22] On this occasion, the host’s response was reasoned and, the Authority concludes, the use of the word "mongrel" by the caller in a robust, if often ill-informed, talkback environment did not amount to a breach of Principle 1.

[23] The earlier decision is not a precedent that the use of the word "mongrel" by itself is in breach of the standards on all occasions. Principle 1 requires, as Mr Smith notes, that consideration be given to context, and the contexts of its use on the two occasions complained about differ to a significant extent. Indeed, the host’s responsible attitude and reasonable tone, apparent on this occasion, is to be commended.

[24] Mr Smith also argued that the broadcast breached Guideline 7a of Principle 7. The Authority has ruled on a number of occasions that there is a high threshold to be attained before Principle 7 is contravened. The Authority does not accept that the comments on this occasion amounted to a denigration or discrimination, and it declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint also.

[25] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret 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
28 November 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Wayne Smith’s Complaint to The Radio Network Ltd – 2 September 2002
  2. TRN’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 12 September 2002
  3. Mr Smith’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 24 September 2002
  4. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 9 October 2002
  5. Mr Smith’s Final Comment – 16 October 2002