Drama Priest – depiction of homosexual sexual activity – incest – blasphemy – offensive behaviour – offensive language
Standard G2 – programme started at 9.10pm – warnings – no explicit sexual behaviour – no breach
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
A British drama entitled Priest was broadcast on TV One at 9.10pm on 11 November 2000. It highlighted the inner conflict experienced by a priest as he tried to reconcile the contradictory demands of his faith and his homosexuality.
Ken Francis complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that scenes which depicted homosexual sexual activity were offensive and breached broadcasting standards. The film also contained incest and blasphemy themes, he noted, which he also found offensive.
TVNZ responded that the film had been broadcast well after the Adults Only watershed hour, and had been preceded by a visual and verbal warning advising viewer discretion. The scenes complained of, it argued, had been presented tastefully and were not gratuitous. In its view, as such scenes would have been acceptable in a heterosexual context, they were also acceptable in a homosexual context.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Francis referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.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 film complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
A priest’s moral dilemma in trying to reconcile his faith with his homosexuality was the theme of the drama Priest broadcast on TV One on 11 November 2000 beginning at 9.10pm. The film contained scenes which depicted homosexual sexual activity.
Ken Francis complained to TVNZ that the film’s content was offensive. In particular he objected to the depictions of homosexual sex which he described as "disgusting". He also complained that the programme contained incest and blasphemy, but emphasised that it was the gay sex which offended him most. Mr Francis suggested that the more this kind of material was foisted on viewers, the more normalised it became and, he said, "we don’t want that".
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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.
It noted that the film had started at 9.10pm, fully 40 minutes after the AO watershed. It pointed out that it had been given an AO certificate and that the AO symbol had been shown at the beginning of the film and after each commercial break. AO material, it observed, was defined in the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice as:
Programmes containing adult themes or those which, because of the way the material is handled, would be unsuitable for persons under 18 years of age.
In addition, the film was preceded by a verbal and visual warning which said:
This movie is rated Adults Only and is recommended for a mature audience 18 years and over. It contains sexually explicit material and scenes and language that may offend some people. We strongly advise discretion.
In TVNZ’s view, there was a place on television for drama aimed at an adult audience, and it was of the opinion that this film fell into that category.
Applying the standard, TVNZ asked first whether the scenes depicted would have been acceptable had they represented heterosexual activity. In its view the scenes would be acceptable in a heterosexual context, and it "had no right to suggest they were not acceptable in a homosexual context". Referring to standard G13 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, it noted that broadcasters were required to avoid portraying people in a way which represents them as inherently inferior on account of their sexual orientation. It argued that to indicate by censorship that homosexual love scenes were unacceptable but heterosexual ones were would implicitly label homosexuals as "inherently inferior".
In TVNZ’s view, the scenes were tastefully presented and not gratuitous, and were relevant in the context of the plot. It declined to uphold the complaint.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Francis said that he disagreed with TVNZ’s argument that it would have been discriminatory to homosexuals not to have shown similar sexual activity as is depicted in relation to heterosexuals. First, he said, he was not happy with the explicitness of heterosexual sexual activity which was often shown. However, he challenged the point that heterosexuals and homosexuality "should be treated with similar reverence". He argued that a homosexual sex act was more extreme and less acceptable in the continuum of good taste and decency. He wrote:
Despite TV1’s political correctness and modern, liberal, tolerant view of gay sex, I contend that we as a society are not there yet. This seems to me another case of TV driving society, rather than vice versa.
Mr Francis asked the Authority to find that the showing of this programme – at any time – was in breach of the good taste standard, and indeed that any explicit portrayal of sexual activity between men breached that standard. He contended that society must be protected "from further moral erosion and decline".
When considering whether a broadcast breaches the requirements in standard G2 referring to the community norms of taste and decency, the Authority is required to take into account contextual issues.
The Authority considered the following contextual matters to be relevant on this occasion:
Taking into account these contextual issues, the Authority is inclined to the view that standard G2 was not contravened.
Mr Francis expressed particular concern about the depiction of homosexual sexual activity. In its response, TVNZ argued that the scenes would have been acceptable if they had represented heterosexual activity. It maintained that it would be a breach of standard G13 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice for the Authority to rule that the scenes breached standard G2 because homosexuality was depicted.
The Authority does not accept TVNZ’s argument based on standard G13, which is a standard aimed at avoiding denigration on the grounds of sexual orientation, not a standard requiring equal representation of heterosexuality and homosexuality.
The Authority also notes that its Changing Mediascapes research, which examines attitudes towards issues of good taste and decency, discloses that depictions of homosexual sexual activity gain a much higher level of disapproval from respondents then depictions of heterosexual sexual activity.
The Authority is guided by its research results regularly when determining complaints as it is required to reflect community standards and, accordingly, attitudes towards the portrayal of homosexual sexual activity should be taken into account.
In reaching its decision whether standard G2 was transgressed, the Authority takes into account both the contextual matters listed above and its research, and moreover, it seeks to balance the right to freedom of expression contained in s.14 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 with the express provision in s.4 of the Broadcasting Act 1989, which requires broadcasters to observe standards of good taste and decency.
Having weighed up the competing rights and freedoms and having considered the relevant contextual factors, the Authority concludes that, while the Priest was not to all viewer's taste, the broadcast did not breach standard G2.
The Authority acknowledges that the video of the film supplied by TVNZ was not a copy of the transmission tape and, as a result, it did not include the warnings and AO symbols. At the Authority’s request, TVNZ usually provides an original dub of the programme complained about, rather than a copy of the transmission tape, because the quality of the dub is much higher.
In view of its experience with TVNZ’s complaints process, the Authority accepts that the warnings and symbols were screened as TVNZ advised. The Authority also notes that the complainant did not question TVNZ’s letter on this point. Nevertheless, to ensure that it is able to confirm to complainants that warnings are indeed broadcast, especially when their screening is a contextual matter of some relevance, the Authority intends to ask TVNZ in future to include a copy of the first five minutes of the transmission tape, as well as the original dub.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
8 March 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: