Inventions from the Shed – documentary – rated G – bugger – offensive language
Section 4(1)(a) – applied under standard G2 – word not used gratuitously – acceptable in context – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The documentary Inventions from the Shed described some inventions created by men and women while pottering in their sheds. One invention involved a gadget for making sheep shearing easier, and the inventor, while describing it, used the word "bugger", or variations of it, on three occasions. The programme was broadcast on TV One at 8.30pm on 18 June 2001.
Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the use of the offensive word "bugger" in a G rated programme breached broadcasting standards.
In response, TVNZ argued that the dialogue was natural for the inventor shown, and it declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Schwabe referred his 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 aspect of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
Inventions from the Shed was the title of a documentary broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd at 8.30pm on TV One as the Documentary New Zealand programme on Monday 18 June 2001. The documentary described some ingenious inventions created by men and women while pottering in their sheds. One invention involved a gadget for making sheep shearing easier, and the inventor, while describing it, used the word "bugger", or variations of it, on three occasions.
Pointing out that the programme was rated "G" and apparently aimed at a family audience, Paul Schwabe complained to TVNZ that there was no place for "the ‘bugger’ word or any other offensive language" in a G rated programme. Mr Schwabe argued that the use of that word breached the requirements of the broadcasting standards. He emphasised that his complaint focused not on the use of the word by the inventor, but its broadcast by TV One.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under the standard nominated by the complainant. Section 4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the observance of good taste and decency. Standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice requires 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.
TVNZ explained that the documentary introduced viewers to "distinctly kiwi characters who produced new ideas". It quoted the dialogue of the inventor who used the phrase "bugger me" to show it was a natural part of his vocabulary. TVNZ concluded:
It was the [complaints] committee’s conclusion that in the context, and allowing for the G certificate attached to the programme, [the inventor’s] use of "bugger" was unlikely to cause widespread offence and did not stray beyond ‘currently accepted norms of decency and taste’. It decided that neither Section 4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, nor standard G2 were infringed. Accordingly your complaint was not upheld.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Schwabe referred his complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
Mr Schwabe described TVNZ’s argument that the language was unlikely to cause widespread concern as "absurd" as, in his opinion, ordinary New Zealand blokes did not use offensive language when talking to women and children.
Reiterating his arguments about the programme’s target audience and the context in which the language had been used, Mr Schwabe maintained that the word was offensive. He attached a photograph which, he said, was well known and depicted, he argued, two men about to bugger some sheep. He added:
This picture epitomises the offensive nature of the "bugger" word to me and a widespread section of New Zealand society, including some in broadcasting and probably includes those involved in the dialogue complained about. Perhaps most of us grew up when the Concise Oxford read:
bugger – sodomite, man having unnatural intercourse with beast of man, when buggery (etc.)
In conclusion, Mr Schwabe argued that the word would never be considered "decent" by most New Zealanders, and that its broadcast in a programme rated "G" breached the standards.
TVNZ contended that the meaning of swear words changed over time and their manner of expression was very important in deciding whether the use of the word was offensive. As an example of a word changing meaning, TVNZ noted that "feisty" – now sometimes used as a compliment – originally meant "malodorously flatulent".
Mr Schwabe argued that if language offended people, then by definition it was offensive. He pointed out that language which offended was not used in certain situations. Referring specifically to the programme complained about, Mr Schwabe maintained that the use of "bugger" was traditionally offensive. While acknowledging that the actual degree of offensiveness was debateable, he contended that the "bugger" words were still recognised as swear words, and they were unsuitable for children under the age of 14 years. Mr Schwabe concluded:
Finally, a plea to each of you. It is almost certain that, like the parents of everyone involved in this sorry affair, your parents had received and in turn gave you, protection from exposure to swearing, by personal effort and the development, support or just simple respect of laws. Surely you will not deny present and future children the opportunity for the same protection which your parents gave you.
The Authority's task in assessing this complaint under standard G2 is to determine whether the language complained about breached currently accepted norms, in the context in which it occurred. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority's determination of whether the programme beached standards of good taste and decency.
Mr Schwabe complained about the word "bugger" being used on three occasions. He described the word as offensive and referred to the dictionary definition of "bugger" as a participant in anal intercourse.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (Tenth Edition) gives the literal meaning of "bugger" on which Mr Schwabe relied. It also records that it can be used in a vulgar way to mean a contemptible person, and that "bugger-all" means nothing.
In the programme complained about, the inventor used the word on three occasions to mean, respectively, that he had a bit of a problem, that he had a sore back, and as an expression of surprise. The Authority notes that the inventor did not use the word gratuitously, and nor did he use it for effect. While it accepts that on each occasion the language could be considered to be mildly offensive by more sensitive viewers, at no time did it suggest the meaning raised by Mr Schwabe.
In view of the manner in which the word bugger was used during the broadcast, the Authority considers that standard G2 was not threatened.
For the above reasons, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
25 October 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint.