The Edge – comments about Aotea College students – two references to "burning the place down" – reference to breathalysing students – ill-informed, harmful and malicious
Principle 5 – misdirected humour – negative comments – borderline – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Comments about Aotea College students, made in the course of a discussion about a secondary school stage competition, were broadcast on The Edge (a radio network) on 30 May 2001 between 3.00pm and 7.00pm. The announcer twice asked whether students from Aotea College had burned the venue down, and also asked if they had been breathalysed at the door.
Julia Davidson, the principal of Aotea College complained to The RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the comments were ill-informed, harmful and malicious.
The RadioWorks did not uphold the complaint. It maintained that the remarks were "tongue in cheek" and no malice had been intended.
Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ decision, Ms Davidson 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 read the correspondence listed in the Appendix and have listened to a tape of the broadcast. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.
Comments about Aotea College were broadcast on The Edge on 30 May 2001 between 3.00pm and 7.00pm. The comments were made during an on-air discussion about a secondary school stage competition. The announcer twice asked whether students from Aotea College had burned the venue down, and also asked if they had been breathalysed at the door.
Julia Davidson, the principal of Aotea College, complained to The RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the comments were ill-informed, harmful and malicious.
Ms Davidson said it was "clear" that the announcer had a point he wanted to make about the college, as specific reference had not been made to any other school. She said:
I have no problem with anyone ringing me directly to discuss issues that they are concerned about. I do have a problem with these comments being made on national radio when we have no chance to correct them.
The RadioWorks did not uphold the complaint. It maintained that the remarks were made "tongue in cheek" and had been directed at acquaintances of the announcer who had attended Aotea College. The RadioWorks explained that the announcer had been counselled. It said he had not intended any malice and had apologised for his comments and the distress they may have caused.
The RadioWorks concluded that, while the announcer had exercised bad judgment in his attempt at humour, no broadcasting standards had been breached.
Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ decision, Ms Davidson referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. In her referral, Ms Davidson said she was not satisfied with The RadioWorks’ response, and that the comments had been "in poor taste and very specifically targeted to Aotea College". She was particularly concerned that there was nothing in the broadcaster’s response which indicated that a similar incident would not happen in future broadcasts.
In its response to the Authority, The RadioWorks emphasised that that the comments were intended to be humorous, and not as a slight directed at Aotea College.
In her final response to the Authority about The RadioWorks’ comments, Ms Davidson said that she believed the broadcaster was trying to gloss over the incident:
He obviously has little awareness of the impact comments, such as those made by the announcer, have on the public. If the comments weren’t intended as a slight, why did he make them? I am disappointed that the announcer concerned has made no attempt to apologise for his actions.
The Authority observes that neither the complainant nor the broadcaster nominated any specific radio broadcasting standard against which to assess this complaint. The Authority therefore determines that this complaint should be considered under Principle 5 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which states:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.
The Authority notes that the comments in question specifically and exclusively referred to the students of Aotea College, and that no other group of students was targeted during the broadcast. The Authority considers that the comments themselves were negative and were made without justification, although there was no evidence provided to the Authority that the comments were malicious. Moreover, it agrees with the broadcaster’s description of the announcer’s attempt at humour as "misdirected".
The Authority considers that the comments were on the borderline of acceptability. It accepts that listeners could have interpreted the comments as reflecting adversely on students of Aotea College and the school itself. However, the Authority considers it is also possible that the comments could have been interpreted in a more light-hearted fashion, as a wind-up associated with an inter-school competition. The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster’s statutory freedom of expression in s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and prefers to adopt an interpretation of Principle 5 which is consistent with the Bill of Rights. Accordingly, on balance, the Authority considers that the comments did not breach Principle 5 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
20 September 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: