ZG FM Gisborne – offensive language – "eff–off" – "piss off" – reference to complainant on air
Principles 1 and 7 – in context – no uphold
Principle 5 – reference ambiguous – no uphold
Broadcaster’s complaints procedure and process for recording programmes unsatisfactory
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
During the morning programme on 22 September 2000, an announcer on Gisborne’s ZG FM said "eff-off". On 20 October he said that by playing a certain song, he would "piss off" some colleagues. After a listener called the station to complain about his language, the announcer made reference to her complaint on 25 October, saying "I can’t say ‘piss off’ or Mrs Pascall will get hacked off about it." Then, on 8 November, the announcer referred to a television programme which had been broadcast the previous evening, saying "I bet that programme would really piss Mrs Pascall off."
Juliet Wells complained to the station that the remarks were inappropriate for broadcast and that she had been treated unfairly by being denigrated for lodging a private complaint. She also complained that the language used was unsuitable for broadcast during a time when children were listening to the radio. As the station did not respond to her complaint, Ms Wells referred the matter to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
When asked by the Authority, the station provided a response to the complaint. It acknowledged that the language complained about had been used on air but advised that it did not have a recording of the incidents because its monitoring equipment was currently being repaired. It said that it had not responded to the complaint because of other commitments. The station then reported that in a conversation with the complainant she had been advised to listen to the local Christian station which the broadcaster suggested was probably more to her taste.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
Language used by an announcer in a weekday morning programme included the phrases "eff-off" and "piss off". These comments were broadcast on 22 September, 20 October, 25 October and 8 November 2000 between 7.45 and 9.45am.
Juliet Wells complained to the station that this language was inappropriate for broadcast. Subsequently, she said, her complaint was referred to on air by the announcer in a tone which she considered was derisory. In the complainant’s opinion, the announcer, on 8 November, had referred to her as "Mrs Pascall" and said – in reference to a television programme screened the previous evening – that he bet the programme would "piss her off" and that she would probably write to the television station to complain about it. Ms Wells said she objected to being denigrated for having exercised her right to make a complaint. In her view, the announcer had not dealt justly or fairly with her. She also complained that the content of the broadcasts was unsuitable for broadcast when children were likely to be in the audience.
Ms Wells complained that the following principles of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice were breached:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
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.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
5c Programmes shall not be presented in such a way as to cause panic, or unwarranted alarm or undue distress.
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
7b Broadcasters shall be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted listening times.
As Ms Wells did not receive a response from the broadcaster, she referred the complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. In her letter to the Authority she reiterated her concerns about the manner in which her complaint by telephone had been dealt with by the station. She said that when she spoke to the station manager he had told her that he was not concerned by the language complained about and that those who were did not constitute his target audience. Ms Wells wrote:
I believe [the announcer’s] actions have been vindictive towards me as a member of the public who happened to express concern at his use on air of an obscene expression. Listening to the local radio station is no longer something that my family and I, nor many others, feel happy to do. In my case it is the only local station we can receive and therefore we find it frustrating to miss items of local news/events on account of [the announcer’s] conduct.
In its response to the Authority, the station described the complaint as being one which had grown out of proportion. It explained that the use of the term "eff-off" had been in the context of an article in the New Zealand Herald and quoted an Australian athlete from the 1970s. In its view, the term "eff-off" did not violate any codes.
The station further advised that it had apologised to Ms Wells and suggested that she might enjoy listening to the local Christian station as its programme was probably more to her taste.
It acknowledged that on 20 October at about 9.45am (when it said children should have been at school), the term "pissed off" had been used. It maintained that the conversation was "light hearted with much laughter". Unfortunately, it wrote, it did not have a recording of the incidents as its monitoring equipment was being repaired. The announcer had been spoken to, the station continued, and no complaints had been received since.
With respect to its failure to respond to the complaint, the station noted that it had been a busy time of the year.
Finally, the station acknowledged that it had received "a lot of negative feedback" but had also received praise for its breakfast show. The announcer, it said, was one of New Zealand’s most experienced and professional broadcasters, who had more than 20 years of broadcasting experience.
Part of the problem, the station considered, was that it had moved from being the only station in town to being a commercially-driven music-based station targeting adults aged between 25 and 40.
In her final comment to the Authority, Ms Wells said that the station had not recorded accurately the sequence of events relating to her complaints. The first complaint, she said, was about remarks made before 8.30am, when her nine-year-old daughter had been at home and listening. She also noted that the station had failed to respond to her concerns about the derisory manner in which she had been treated by the announcer on air.
With respect to the announcer’s broadcasting experience, Ms Wells said that she would have thought that he could therefore be expected be able to respond to a listener voicing a concern "without yelling at them" and to have the professionalism not to enter into personal attacks on listeners.
Ms Wells wrote:
I am intrigued that [the station manager] should feel that I should listen to the Christian radio station (I don’t recall him telling me that when I spoke with him – I would remember my reply) and that his target group is between 25–40. This implies that anyone who holds certain beliefs, such as avoiding disrespectful language in public, and who are outside of this age bracket cannot be catered for in a competitive market.
Ms Wells also noted that the station targeted children, and that some of its content was aimed particularly at them.
Finally, she said, the station had misrepresented her complaint. It was not just about obscenities which were used, but also about the manner in which she had been treated by the announcer. She denied that she had blown the matter out of proportion.
When the Authority first considered the complaint, it noted that the broadcaster had not responded to Ms Well’s point that she believed that she had been referred to as "Mrs Pascall". It also sought clarification from the broadcaster as to the time when the announcer had used term "pissed off". Further, the broadcaster was asked to confirm that it had processes in place to deal with complaints as required by s.5(a) of the Broadcasting Act.
The Radio Network (TRN) responded on behalf of ZG FM in Gisborne and apologised that the station manager had failed to follow TRN’s procedure. With regard to the reference to "Mrs Pascall", it advised that the particular announcer used a variety of fictional characters, and it was in no way a reference to Ms Wells. It maintained that the term "pissed off" had been used at 9.45pm, not 8.30am. TRN argued that the phrase did not breach the standards, pointing out that most nine-year-old children would be at school by 8.30am.
In her reply, Ms Wells said that ZG FM had acknowledged that the particular announcer’s "use of bad language is frequent". She insisted that the term "pissed off" was used before 8.30am. She recalled that her initial concern focused on the use of "eff…off" (in abbreviated form) at a time when children might be listening. She added that her nine-year-old often did not leave home until 8.40am. Nevertheless, "most of the bad language usage and reference to Mrs Pascall was on air prior to most primary school children leaving their homes".
Turning to the use of the term "Mrs Pascall", Ms Wells maintained that it had not been used before her telephone complaint. It had been used from a few days after her telephone complaint until she complained formally. It was also used with reference to the term "pissed off". Ms Wells said that an acquaintance who mixed socially with the announcer occasionally had told her that the reference was to her as the announcer had been very annoyed at the telephone call. Ms Wells said she was reluctant to obtain confirmation because of her relationship with the other person, and she concluded:
[The announcer] has displayed very poor taste and choice of expression on a good number of occasions… . [The announcer’s] use of fictional characters to hit back at his audience when they disagree with his methods is a misuse of his position. I cannot accept his views of the situation because I believe them to be inaccurate.
The Authority has some difficulty in determining this complaint. First, it does not have a tape of any of the broadcasts to which the complainant referred. Secondly, the initial complaint, which was quite clearly labelled as a formal complaint, was not dealt with under the procedures established by The Radio Network Ltd (TRN). TRN's Complaints Co-ordinator later acknowledged that the station manager of ZG FM in Gisborne had failed to follow the company's procedure, and he apologised for the delay in the Manager’s reply to the complainant.
Ms Wells complained about an announcer's use of the expression "eff-off" during a broadcast between 8.00-8.30am. The broadcaster did not accept that any standards had been breached because the announcer had taken the term from an article in the New Zealand Herald quoting an Australian Olympic athlete.
Given the context in which the announcer used the term, the Authority is prepared to give the broadcaster the benefit of the doubt and to accept that, in the context in which the phrase was used on this occasion, the standards were not breached.
While it is agreed the announcer used the phrase "pissed off", there is a dispute as to the time it was used. The complainant was adamant that the expression was broadcast between 7.45-8.30am, while the broadcaster insisted that the time of the broadcast was 9.45am.
In determining a complaint about the use of that language, the Authority is required to look at the context in which the expression was used. The broadcaster provided what it said was a transcript of an exchange between the announcer and a listener who apparently had phoned in with a request. In view of the requirement in Principle 8 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice that broadcasters retain a copy of tapes of open line programmes for 35 days, the Authority is concerned that the station was unable to provide it with a tape of the broadcast. A tape also could well have resolved the disagreement about the time of the broadcast.
As part of its recent research which examined community attitudes to the broadcast of specific words, about 40% of the respondents considered "piss" to be offensive. (Monitoring Community Attitudes in Changing Mediascapes) This research ranks a number of words without any reference to the context in which they might be used. The standard, however, requires context to be considered and, on balance, the Authority concludes, taking the specific context into account, that the broadcast does not breach the standards.
The complainant considered that the announcer's derogatory references to "Mrs Pascall" were in fact references to her as she had made a complaint. In its reply, the broadcaster explained that the particular announcer had a variety of fictional characters to whom he occasionally alluded and that it was "stretching credibility" to maintain that the complainant was Mrs Pascall. The Authority acknowledges that the use of the term caused distress to the complainant, but is not persuaded by the evidence produced that this was caused solely by the broadcaster’s action. Moreover, it notes that guideline 7a of Principle 7 refers to "denigration". There is a high threshold to cross before this standard is breached and even if the references to Mrs Pascall were in fact references to the complainant, the Authority records that the comments were probably insufficiently derisory to amount to a breach of the standard.
While the Authority does not uphold any aspect of the complaint, it wishes to record its dissatisfaction with the broadcaster's process. It considers that Ms Wells was not shown the level of courtesy complainants are entitled to expect.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
22 March 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: