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Armstrong and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2002-201

Members

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

Complainant

  • Janet Armstrong of Feilding

Dated

17th December 2002

Number

2002-201

Programme

Off the Wire

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Off the Wire – radio comedy – National Radio – reporting relating masturbation to religion – offensive

Findings
Principle 1, Guideline 1a – not offensive in context – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Off the Wire, a radio comedy, was broadcast live on National Radio at 12.15pm on Sunday 4 August 2002. A participant in the programme related an item that had previously been reported in the media in the United States. He stated: "A Sunday school teacher was convicted of a misdemeanour for counselling a teenage boy that a good way to curb his masturbation habit was to write ‘what would Jesus do’ on his penis".

[2] Janet Armstrong complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the nature of the item. She described it as highly offensive to Christians and other listeners.

[3] In response, RNZ said that the comment was made in the context of a comedy and wrote "to restrict the use of such programmes would place an unreasonable restriction on the broadcaster". It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mrs Armstrong referred her 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] Off the Wire is a radio comedy where participants relate humorous incidents that have been previously reported in media around the world. It was broadcast live to air on National Radio at 12.15pm on Sunday 4 August 2002.

[7] One participant related the following story: "A Sunday school teacher was convicted of a misdemeanour for counselling a teenage boy that a good way to curb his masturbation habit was to write ‘what would Jesus do’ on his penis".

The Complaint

[8] Janet Armstrong complained about the content of this item, stating that she considered it highly offensive to Christians and other listeners.

The Standards

[9] In view of the matters raised in the complaint, RNZ assessed it under Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Principle and relevant Guideline 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.

Guidelines

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.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] RNZ emphasised that in terms of Principle 1, context had a strong influence on the outcome of any consideration. In this instance, it wrote, the item had to be considered in the context of a comedy or satirical works, which had been preceded by a warning that listener discretion may be required.

[11] RNZ said that when evaluating creative work recorded in a live situation it was required to take into account the expression of what the participants said, or in this case, reported. It noted that in this instance the words used were the actual reportage of what had been previously published in the United States.

[12] RNZ also noted that the programme was broadcast at a time when children were not normally listening, and explained that the demographics of National Radio listeners largely included an adult audience.

[13] Finally, RNZ referred to the right to the freedom of expression enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

[14] In view of these matters, RNZ found that the language used, while perhaps not acceptable in some situations, was appropriate in the context of this broadcast and therefore declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[15] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mrs Armstrong referred it to the Authority saying the fact that the programme did not seek to target children was not the main issue. She wrote:

Does it not matter that many older people, who turn on their radio at that time of day in readiness for the main national news would be offended. That the words used were an actual reportage of what had been (printed in the media) previously in the United States carries no weight either…do we in New Zealand have to emulate their conduct?

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[16] RNZ was of the view that in the context of the programme the item was a legitimate expression of humour and to restrict the use of such programmes would place an unreasonable restriction on the broadcaster, contrary to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[17] In Mrs Armstrong’s view she could do no more to convey how distasteful she found the words used. She wrote:

If such comments [as she heard] were made about a male world leader (that their name was to be written on someone’s penis to stop them masturbating) there would be real outcry. Yet that the name of the leader of the Christian Church with millions of followers is used in such a way, is deemed to be acceptable.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] When the Authority determines a complaint that a broadcast contravenes Principle 1 of the Radio Code, it 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 principle. Accordingly, the Authority has considered the context in which the material complained about was broadcast.

[19] The Authority considers that the relevant contextual matters on this occasion include the nature of the programme, the day and time the programme was broadcast, the station on which it was broadcast (National Radio) and the warning that listener discretion may be required which, the broadcaster said, preceded the broadcast. The Authority also considers that the tone in which the matter was dealt with is also a relevant contextual matter. The Authority notes that while it is conceivable that children would be listening, it considers it is unlikely that National Radio is a prime listening station for young people.

[20] The Authority also notes that the material complained about had been previously published in the media in the United States, and was simply repeated on the programme in the context of a comedy. The Authority acknowledges that the material complained about may have offended some Christian and other listeners, but it was of the opinion that, in this instance and for the contextual characteristics previously cited, the item did not breach the current norms of good taste and decency. The Authority therefore concludes that on this occasion there has been no breach of the Principle.

[21] 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 reasons given above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
17 December 2002

Appendix

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

  1. Janet Armstrong’s Formal Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 18 August 2002
  2. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 20 September 2002
  3. Mrs Armstrong’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 7 October 2002
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 25 October 2002
  5. Mrs Armstrong’s Final Comment – 9 November 2002