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Schwabe and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-111

Members

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor

Complainant

  • Paul Schwabe of Auckland

Dated

20th September 2001

Number

2001-111

Programme

Strassman

Channel/Station

TV2

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint
Strassman – fuck– offensive language

Findings
Section 4(1)(a) – consideration of context required as specified in Standard G2

Standard G2 – acceptable in context – no uphold; comment – offensive language in end credits – bordering on the gratuitous

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

An episode of Strassman broadcast on TV2 at 9.30pm on 19 June 2001 included the word "fuck" as part of the dialogue. Strassman is a comedy series featuring ventriloquist David Strassman.

Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language was offensive.

In response, TVNZ contended that the language was not unacceptable in context, and declined to uphold the complaint. It pointed out that the Broadcasting Standards Authority had declined to uphold an earlier complaint from Mr Schwabe about such language in Strassman.

Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Schwabe referred the complaint to the Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

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.

Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about offensive dialogue used on Strassman broadcast at 9.30pm on TV2 on 19 June 2001. Strassman is a New Zealand made comedy series featuring ventriloquist David Strassman. The dialogue included the word "fuck" which Mr Schwabe described as the most offensive word he knew of.

TVNZ assessed the complaint under s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, along with standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Section 4(1)(a) provides:

(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;

Standard G2 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 acknowledged that the language complained about was used "occasionally". It also acknowledged that Strassman used props associated with children’s humour in a comedy made for adults. TVNZ then noted a number of contextual issues it considered relevant to the determination of the complaint. They included that the programme was broadcast at 9.30pm (AO time) and was preceded by a warning which drew specific attention to the language.

TVNZ also referred to an earlier Authority decision when the Authority declined to uphold a complaint from Mr Schwabe about the use of the word "fuck" in an earlier episode of Strassman, (2000-156, 6.11.00).

When he referred this complaint to the Authority, Mr Schwabe wrote:

In my complaint I referred to complicity in the broadcast of the "F" word. I include a lot of people in this complicity, not just a few in TVNZ but other broadcasters, our moral leaders, our role models, the apathetic and those who could really help, know it is wrong, but do nothing. I include myself in this complicity for just tinkering with the system and succeeding only in providing broadcasters with licence to continue their consolidation of a broadcasting decency status of which, on our death beds, few of us are likely to be proud.

There is no doubt in my mind that the well established regime of legal manipulation by broadcasters is increasing some people’s tolerance of, or at least, apathy to, offensive language broadcasts. Ultimately, if broadcasters have their way, they will become the industry norm.

He also referred to the Authority’s research where the vast majority of respondents considered that the use of the word "fuck" on television was unacceptable. Challenging the Authority to conclude that the use of the word "fuck" on this occasion breached s.4(1)(a) of the Act, Mr Schwabe concluded:

There is no doubt from your research that the "F" word and its derivatives are still considered by society to be seriously offensive words. I consider them the most aggressive of macho words, generally used as verbal self-aggrandisement and carrying a dangerous, insidious antisocial interference of complete contempt of all females of our species, young and old.

These words have no place in this nation’s free to air broadcasting spectrum which is specifically protected from indecency and bad taste by an Act of Parliament.

In its response, TVNZ drew to the Authority’s attention Decision Nos: 2000-137 and 2000-156 which declined to uphold as breaches similar use of the word "fuck".

The Authority’s Findings

In determining a complaint which alleges a breach of s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, the Authority acknowledges the requirements contained in standard G2.

When the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of standard G2, it takes into account the context in which the material complained about occurs. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standards of good taste and decency.

The Authority considers the relevant contextual factors on this occasion include the programme’s AO classification, its broadcast at 9.30pm, and the visual and verbal warning about language which preceded the programme and which reminded viewers that it was deemed suitable for an adult audience. To a lesser extent, it is relevant that this was a comedy programme devised for a night-club setting which was clearly presented as adult entertainment. As such, the Authority considers that its content would have been within the expectations of the audience.

Similar observations were made by the Authority last year when it determined a complaint about the use of the word "fuck" in the Strassman programme (2000-156, 6 November 2000). They remain applicable to this complaint.

However the Authority notes one difference between the broadcast last year and the programme which is the subject of the current complaint which is of concern.

Strassman is presented as if in a night-club location where the studio audience does not object to the language used. However, in the episode complained about, the Authority notes, there are comments from Mr Strassman and his dummies both during and after the credits at the end of the programme. These comments include the use of the word "fucking". In the Authority’s view, this sequence does not fit into the night-club setting and the use of such language at this end point in the programme borders on the gratuitous. The contextual factors which save the subject language from a standards breach do not, in the Authority’s view, extend easily when juxtapositioned in the credits.

The Authority observes that to find a breach on this occasion, without first issuing a warning, would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to unreasonably restrict the broadcaster's statutory right to freedom of expression contained in s14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. On this occasion, the Authority will adopt an interpretation of the standard which is without constraint and which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.

 

For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
20 September 2001

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1. Paul Schwabe’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 29 June 2001
  2. TVNZ’s Response to Mr Schwabe – 10 July 2001
  3. Mr Schwabe’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 5 August 2001
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 9 August 2001