Stepping Out – Documentary New Zealand – documentary about young urban Maori on hikoi in Far North – use of "fuck" and its derivatives – offensive language
Standard G2 – AO – warning – language used minimally – appropriate in context – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Documentary New Zealand: Stepping Out was broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on 9 October 2000. It followed six young urban Maori as they traced on foot a route taken by their ancestor Tohe down the west coast of the Far North. During the documentary, the words "fuck" and its derivatives were used on several occasions.
Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the use of such "grossly offensive language". He said the documentary gave young people the message that such language was "perfectly acceptable to society, when it plainly is not."
Observing that much of the strong language had been edited out, TVNZ argued that if it had deleted the language altogether it would have given viewers a distorted picture of the young people. The documentary had been rated Adults Only and had been accompanied by a warning about its language, the broadcaster said. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision, Mr Schwabe referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
Documentary New Zealand: Stepping Out was broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on 9 October 2000. The documentary followed the fortunes of six young urban Maori as they traced on foot a route taken by their ancestor Tohe down the west coast of the Far North.
Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the words "fuck" and its derivatives being used in the documentary. He complained that the language contravened section 4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 which requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
According to Mr Schwabe, regardless of the context or tone of voice in which the word was used, it was
a most aggressive, macho, anti-woman term and irrespective of whether it is whispered by an innocent, smiling three year old or shouted out by a villain in a movie, it is plainly grossly offensive language, the sort of material which the Broadcasting Act 1989, section 4(1)(a) intended not to be broadcast.
Mr Schwabe said the documentary had wide appeal to viewers of all ages, and could easily have been "a really decent, quality programme." Instead, the broadcast of such language had given a plain message to the young "that the use of this language is perfectly acceptable to society, which it plainly is not."
Mr Schwabe said he believed TVNZ encouraged the production of New Zealand programmes containing offensive language. He continued:
I also believe you intend to deliberately and gradually expose viewers to increasing levels of offensive language, hoping that the inclusion of indecent material will become the broadcasting norm and that you will then no longer feel obliged to even pay the meagre lip service to broadcasting decency requirements that you typically do at present – sticking up a warning notice before the programme.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under section 4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act and standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
Section 4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act reads:
s.4(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with -
a) The observance of good taste and decency
Standard G2 requires broadcasters:
G2 To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.
TVNZ observed that the documentary highlighted not only the physical difficulties faced by the group of young people, but also their "mental processes as they contemplated the journey by their ancestor who died before reaching his destination." In considering the complaint, the broadcaster had noted that the "accurate portrayal of the personalities of the young people taking part in the hikoi" was important to the documentary. TVNZ said:
These were city Maori undertaking a quite daunting odyssey and for the documentary to succeed it was essential that viewers came to know the six individuals through their reactions to given situations and their interaction with one another.
According to TVNZ, "fuck" and its derivatives had been used three or four times in the documentary, with one possible use of the word being indistinct. The word had been in "common currency" among the young people featured, and had been used frequently as a means of punctuation or emphasis, the broadcaster reported. While the producer had edited out much of the language, "viewers would have received a distorted ‘picture’ of these young people if the language had been deleted altogether. It was a part of their everyday lives."
The broadcaster said that on the occasions the word had been used in the documentary, it had not been used in anger, or in a sexual sense, or as an expletive. The broadcaster added:
Nor did it portray young people using "fucking" as verbal self-aggrandisement. It was just a normal figure of speech for them.
Used sparingly in that context, TVNZ said it did not find the language offensive.
TVNZ also denied Mr Schwabe’s assertion that the language in the programme was "sending a message to viewers". Rather, it reflected a "reality among the people it was describing," it said.
TVNZ noted that, because of the presence of the language, the documentary had been rated Adults Only and had been preceded by a warning which specifically mentioned language. As such, viewers had been in a position to make an informed choice about whether to watch it or not, it said.
Accordingly, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Schwabe challenged TVNZ’s suggestion that viewers would have received a distorted picture of the group if all the offensive language had been deleted. He suggested that "the picture would have been quite plain if there [had been] even just one operation of the ‘beep’ machine instead."
He said he strongly disagreed with the broadcaster’s suggestion that the word "fuck" was inoffensive if not accompanied by anger. He maintained that the offensiveness of the language was "inherent in the word itself."
Finally, Mr Schwabe argued that it was irrelevant whether or not the broadcaster or the subjects of the documentary found the word offensive. He said:
Surely the criteria for decency in language rests not with the individuals involved, but with NZ society, which has plainly indicated, according to the Authority’s research, that the "fucking" word etc is most definitely offensive language.
TVNZ advised the Authority it had nothing further to add. It supplied with Authority with a videotape of the documentary, which had been supplied by the production company. Noting that the videotape supplied did not include the AO symbols and the warning which had been present during the broadcast, the broadcaster confirmed that there had been an AO symbol at the beginning of the programme, and that the AO symbol had reappeared after each commercial break. TVNZ also confirmed that the AO symbol had been shown in magazine and newspaper listings of the documentary.
TVNZ said the warning which appeared at the beginning had been in both visual and verbal form. The visual warning read:
(AO) Stepping Out
Contains language that may offend some people
The accompanying verbal warning said:
Tonight’s Documentary New Zealand presentation on One – Stepping Out – contains language that may offend some people.
In his final comment to the Authority, Mr Schwabe argued that TVNZ’s priority seemed to be to convince the Authority that its broadcast had been accompanied by an AO warning. He said:
This [the AO warning] appears to be used as a tool, not to warn of the adult themes or material, but simply to "justify" the broadcast of language which is plainly in contravention of [the] Act.
In addition, he claimed that TVNZ and other broadcasters continued to "fail to maintain recordings of their actually transmitted programmes" and that they "consistently [supplied] the Authority with recordings of video and audio which [had] not actually been propagated by a transmitter at all." According to Mr Schwabe, "the failure of broadcasters to meet the recording requirement" meant the Authority was probably making decisions using "obviously false evidence." He said:
As the Authority will not supply a complainant with a copy of one of these tapes used during its deliberations, a citizen’s complaint about broadcasting standards becomes even more futile.
TVNZ responded to Mr Schwabe’s assertion that it was not fully complying with the legal requirement to retain broadcast tapes. It said:
We think it important to put it on record that TVNZ complies fully with the legal requirement to retain broadcast tapes and does not tamper in any way with tapes forwarded to the Authority in connection with complaints.
TVNZ explained that recordings from transmission tape were not always of the highest quality and that, at the Authority’s suggestion, high quality originals were sometimes provided. It said:
In this case, the programme was broadcast as produced and there seemed no valid reason why TVNZ should not provide a high quality original copy together with assurances about the presence of classifications symbols and transcripts of the visual and verbal warning.
If, however, the Authority wishes to revert to always receiving dubbings from the transmission tape, we are happy to comply.
The Authority deals first with the standards aspect of this complaint. As it always does when considering complaints alleging a breach of standard G2, the Authority takes into account the context in which the language complained about occurred. The relevant contextual factors on this occasion include the programme’s AO rating, its time of screening after the AO watershed (8.30pm), and the visual and verbal warnings about language which preceded the programme.
The Authority also considers relevant TVNZ’s arguments that it was important to the documentary to portray the young people involved accurately, and that the words "fuck" and its derivatives were not used in anger or in a sexual sense. Indeed, given the arduous physical and emotional nature of the young people’s journey, in the Authority’s view their language as broadcast was relatively restrained.
The Authority also notes Mr Schwabe’s comments about the Authority’s research findings. It observes that to fully appreciate its research, it is also necessary to consider the context to which the findings relate. The Authority accepts that the word "fuck" is high on the list of potentially offensive words used in broadcasting. As such, it does not condone its gratuitous or repeated use. However, on this occasion the Authority does not believe the words were used in a manner which would have exceeded the audience’s expectations, especially given the context. It declines to uphold the standards complaint.
The Authority turns now to address Mr Schwabe’s comments in relation to the nature of the tapes broadcasters provide to the Authority. On this occasion, the tape was a good quality copy provided by the production company. The broadcaster provided written assurance of the accompanying verbal and visual warnings, and the AO rating, the veracity of which the Authority has no reason to doubt. The Authority disputes Mr Schwabe’s assertion that broadcasters fail to maintain copies of programmes as they are transmitted. The reality is that production house copies are generally of superior quality and the Authority has requested the best possible quality tapes to be provided. The Authority puts on record that it is happy for this practice to continue. However, to put to rest any possible argument that broadcasters are not complying with their statutory responsibilities, the Authority will be asking broadcasters to also provide it with the first few minutes of transmitted programmes, so that it can ascertain the inclusion of the correct classification symbols and warnings.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
8 March 2001