New Zealand Festival: Virginity – language – "did you fuck him?" – offensive
Section 4(1)(a) – not gratuitous – acceptable in context – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The programme New Zealand Festival: Virginity was broadcast on TV One at 9.35pm on 19 February 2001. One of the seven women who spoke of their first sexual experiences reported that she was later asked by an acquaintance, "did you fuck him?"
Mr Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the word "fuck" was grossly offensive. He argued that the classification of a programme as AO and the inclusion of a warning did not excuse the broadcaster from the requirement to maintain standards of good taste and decency.
TVNZ responded that, as the question portrayed the impact of the woman’s behaviour on her and her friends, it was appropriate in context. Further, it was broadcast in a programme which began at 9.35pm and had been preceded with a warning. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Schwabe referred the 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.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
The documentary New Zealand Festival: Virginity was screened on TV One on 19 February beginning at 9.35pm. It featured seven women who ranged in age from 18 to 89 talking about their first sexual experiences. After one of the women admitted to her friends that she had lost her virginity, she said she was approached by an acquaintance who asked "did you fuck him?"
Mr Schwabe complained to TVNZ that the use of "plainly grossly offensive language" breached the requirement for good taste and decency. He observed that the word was unnecessary in a programme which had otherwise dealt with a delicate subject with reasonable taste. Mr Schwabe added that despite classifying a programme as AO and including a warning, TVNZ had contravened the requirement in s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 to maintain standards consistent with "the observance of good taste and decency".
In assessing the complaint, TVNZ took into account 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.
TVNZ said the programme portrayed seven women talking candidly about an intimate moment. It continued:
The phrase "did you fuck him?" was made by one of the women to describe how her reputation as a "slut" had spread among her acquaintances after she admitted to losing her virginity. It had just been explained that her admission had led to a notoriety which led to her changing schools, only to encounter an acquaintance from a much earlier period of her life who had also heard of her admission. She was seen as being unable to escape from the consequences of admitting to having had sex.
TVNZ argued that the phrase had been used naturally in the context, and had emphasised the impact the loss of virginity had had on the woman and her relationships.
Moreover, TVNZ noted, the programme had not started until 9.35pm, one hour after the watershed, and had been preceded with a warning. It declined to uphold the complaint.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Schwabe argued that use of the AO classification and the inclusion of a warning were used by broadcasters to defeat the intention of s.4(1)(a). Furthermore, he argued, the word "fuck" was "not even remotely decent and in good taste".
In its report to the Authority, TVNZ maintained that the use of the phrase recounted exactly what the woman recalled was said to her. It
… graphically indicated the level of ignominy she felt as a consequence of talking about the loss of her virginity. The sense of ignominy would be lost in a bowdlerised version.
TVNZ repeated that the programme did not start until 9.35pm, had been preceded by a warning and carried an AO certificate.
In his final comment, Mr Schwabe urged the Authority to consider only the relevant broadcasting standards.
When the Authority considers a complaint under section 4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act or standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, it takes into account the context in which the broadcast complained about occurs. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination as to whether the programme breached community standards of good taste and decency.
The contextual factors which the Authority considers relevant on this occasion include the programme’s rating (AO), the time of screening (9.30pm), the warning which preceded the broadcast, and the tone and tenor of the acquaintance’s question.
Nevertheless, while these contextual matters suggest a liberal view should be taken of the use of the word "fuck" in this broadcast, the Authority also notes that it was the word rated the third most objectionable in its research findings.
On this occasion, however, the Authority does not believe its use breached the standard. Its use was not gratuitous. Rather, it portrayed very clearly the attitude of disapproval which the woman’s acquaintance held towards the woman’s behaviour. Accordingly, taking into account both its research and the contextual aspects of the use of the word Mr Schwabe found offensive, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
14 June 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint.