Reel Life: The Lost Boys – documentary – language – fucking as adjective – "I’ll fucking kill everything" – offensive
Section4(1)(a) – language helped viewers understanding of young man – other contextual factors – rating – time – warning – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The documentary Reel Life: The Lost Boys looked at the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999. An actor read from the website of one of the assailants in which, among other matters, he referred to "fucking people" and said "I’ll fucking kill everything". The programme was broadcast on TV One at 9.45pm on 2 March 2001.
Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the "f" word was offensive and its use in the documentary breached the standards.
TVNZ accepted that the word was offensive but argued that its use in the context of the programme broadcast at that hour, and after a warning, did not breach the standards.
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 programme complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
The Columbine High School shooting in Denver, Colorado, in 1999, was dealt with in a documentary Reel Life: The Lost Boys broadcast on TV One at 9.45pm on 2 March. An actor read from the website of one of the assailants in order to demonstrate his state of mind. The reading included the following:
I live in Denver, and God I’d like to kill most of its residents. Fucking people with rich, snobby attitudes thinking they’re high and mighty and just come out and tell what me to do. For the rest of you, you all better fucking hide in your houses because I’m coming for everyone soon. And I’ll be armed to the fucking teeth and I’ll shoot and kill and I’ll fucking kill everything.
Mr Schwabe complained to TVNZ that the broadcast of this material breached s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He maintained that the "f" word was offensive to most New Zealanders, and that this had been confirmed by the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s research.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standard. Section 4 of the Broadcasting Act reads:
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.
TVNZ reported that it was also mindful of 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 argued that the reading from the website enabled viewers to have some perception of the young man’s state of mind, and it would have been inappropriate to remove the word "fucking". It agreed that the word was offensive to many New Zealanders, but maintained that did not preclude its broadcast in the appropriate context.
In addition to providing insight into the young man’s musings, TVNZ pointed to the time of the broadcast, the AO rating, and warning, as relevant contextual factors.
When he referred his complaint to the Authority, Mr Schwabe disagreed with TVNZ’s reasoning that viewers were like a jury in a court of law who had a duty to hear offensive language. The broadcast, he wrote, "was simply television entertainment" which should not have included offensive language.
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 occurred. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination as to whether the broadcast breached community standards of good taste and decency.
The most relevant contextual factor on this occasion is the event covered in the programme in which the language occurred. While the content of the reading was chilling, the tone and tenor and the actor’s delivery did not gratuitously highlight the word "fuck". The Authority’s research has rated the word "fuck" as the third most objectionable in a recent survey of language. In addition, its other research records that the gratuitous use of offensive language is usually found more objectionable than its spontaneous use.
However, while the Authority accepts that the use of the language by the young man, in itself, could well breach the standard, on this occasion it points to the impact that the use would have on viewers, and in particular on their understanding of the extreme behaviour later displayed by the young man.
Taking into account the situation in which the language was used, and combining this with such matters as the programme’s rating (AO), the time of screening (9.45pm), and the written and spoken warning which preceded the broadcast, 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: