Holmes – panel discussion on Australian Rugby League’s punishment of John Hopoate who had assaulted other players on the field – humorous approach – breach of good taste and decency – inappropriate for children
Standard G2 – context – topical and newsworthy issue – humour balanced by serious debate – no uphold
Standard G12 – current affairs programme – child viewers unlikely to have been watching alone – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An item broadcast on Holmes on TV One at 7pm on 29 March 2001, focussed on Australian Rugby League’s decision to suspend John Hopoate for twelve weeks. Mr Hopoate had been found guilty of conduct contrary to the true spirit of rugby league for inserting his finger into the backsides of three players during a rugby league match. In a live studio broadcast, former rugby league coach Graham Lowe, Australian sports commentator and columnist Peter Fitzsimons, and Paul Holmes debated the misconduct under focus.
Peter Foster complained to the broadcaster, Television New Zealand Ltd, that for a significant portion of the item the discussion had treated Mr Hopoate’s actions as a joke. The broadcaster had breached standards of good taste and decency, and had not been mindful of the effect the item might have on children watching, he said.
TVNZ, while agreeing there were jokes and laughter in the item, believed the focus had been on treating Mr Hopoate as an object of ridicule for his behaviour. In its view, the issue was one of public concern which needed to be aired on prime time current affairs. It declined to uphold the complaint, explaining the humour depicted would not have been harmful to children watching.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Foster 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 item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
Australian Rugby League’s decision to impose a twelve week ban on John Hopoate for inserting a finger into the backsides of three players at a league match was the subject of discussion on Holmes. In an item broadcast at 7pm on 29 March 2001, there was a live debate between former league coach Graham Lowe, Australian sports commentator and columnist Peter Fitzsimons, and the host.
Mr Foster complained to the broadcaster, Television New Zealand Ltd, that the item trivialised the incidents. He considered that the host’s "personal flagrant enjoyment of the facetious approach to such a matter, at that time of day" was a breach of broadcasting standards.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under standards G2 and G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those standards require broadcasters, in the preparation and presentation of programmes:
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.
G12 To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times.
TVNZ acknowledged that the programme did on occasion resort to double entendres, and that it involved some laughter by the participants.
TVNZ believed, however, that Mr Foster had "perhaps overlooked the point that the jokes circulating about Mr Hopoate were, by the 29th of March, part of the story." It said Mr Hopoate was being seen as "more than a man exhibiting grubby on-field behaviour" but someone who had become a "buffoon in the eyes of the public." TVNZ considered it had been clear that both Mr Lowe and Mr Fitzsimons regarded Mr Hopoate’s behaviour with disgust, and both had been contemptuous of what they saw as Australian Rugby League’s extremely lenient sentence.
In considering G2, the [Complaints] Committee recognised that any reference to this story (undoubtedly newsworthy) would require a description of what Mr Hopoate did on the football field. There had to be reference to his finger being pushed into the backsides of three opposition players. That description had to be there regardless of whether the discussion remained serious throughout, or ventured in the area of humour that the incidents have generated.
Given the context of the story and recognising that by this time ridicule through humour had become part of the Hopoate saga, it was the Committee’s conclusion that G2 was not breached.
In reference to standard G2, TVNZ noted that news and current affairs programmes generally needed to explore issues which were often essentially adult in nature. It said freedom of speech, and freedom of information, required that some matters be aired through such programmes. The Hopoate incident was one of wide public interest, it said. It considered that any child watching the programme would have been in the company of a parent or an adult. The humour, it said, was of a "schoolyard" nature and in itself would be unlikely to harm young viewers. In declining to uphold the complaint it concluded that the genuine concern about the incident, which was reflected in the words of Graeme Lowe and Peter Fitzsimons, had arguably delivered a positive message to youngsters.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Foster contended it was not the content of the news item which breached standards of good taste and decency, but the way in which the "smutty ridicule" had been embellished in the item. He considered wrong TVNZ’s argument that as jokes were circulating it was acceptable to add to them. Such an argument, he said, led to a "lowest common denominator" approach to broadcasting.
In relation to standard G12, Mr Foster argued that the standard referred to viewing times and not to the probability of children watching. In his view, 7pm was not an acceptable time to broadcast such matters.
The Authority deals first with the good taste aspect of the complaint. In its view, the suspension of John Hopoate was a matter which was both topical and worthy of debate during a news and current affairs programme. Furthermore, in view of the behaviour which had given rise to the suspension, the Authority regards it as inevitable that there would be a humorous aspect to that debate. The Authority also considers that the inherent humour in the broadcast subject was balanced by the contributions of those interviewed, each of whom referred to the serious nature of the behaviour. In this context, the Authority concludes that there was no breach of standard G2.
As to standard G12, it is not clear to the Authority how the humorous aspects of the debate would have been likely to have a harmful effect on children. Furthermore, it accepts the broadcaster’s submission that children viewing Holmes would be unlikely to do so alone. In these circumstances, the Authority considers that the freedom of viewers to receive information, as enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, would be unjustifiably limited by a finding that the broadcast transgressed standard G12.
For the reasons given, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
21 June 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: