According to the complainant, a Radio Pacific talkback host referred to a caller as a "stupid old cow" at around 10.35pm on 26 September 1999. The complainant reported that, later the same evening at around 11.45pm, the same host talked about a Coronation Street episode and said a male character was "knocking off" two female characters. The complainant also reported that the host frequently used the expression "My God".
Lillian Cannell complained to Radio Pacific, now managed by The RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language used by the host was offensive, and that his use of "blasphemy" was also quite unacceptable.
The broadcaster responded that the language used by the host was strong in nature, but was in "the slang category" and did not contravene broadcasting standards. The broadcaster advised that the host had been spoken to and assured Miss Cannell that the language used during the programme would improve. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s decision, Miss Cannell referred her 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 which is listed in the Appendix. No tape of the broadcast was provided. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
According to the complainant, whose version was not disputed by the broadcaster, a talkback host (Ritchie Watson) on Radio Pacific made the following comments during a late evening broadcast on 26 September 1999. First, he called a listener a "stupid old cow". Secondly, he talked about Coronation Street and said a male character was "knocking off" two female characters.
Lillian Cannell complained that the language used by the host was offensive. She also complained that the host frequently said "My God". No specific instance where this phrase was used was cited. She said it was "blasphemy" and quite unacceptable, although she conceded that he was not the only announcer she had known to use the expression.
The broadcaster assessed the complaint under Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. That principle reads:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.
The broadcaster described the language as "strong in nature", but in the "slang category", and "nothing more". It advised that the host had been spoken to and assured Miss Cannell that his language on the programme would improve. It declined to uphold the complaint.
When Miss Cannell referred the complaint to the Authority, she commented that:
Calling a woman a "silly old cow" does not seem to me to be "nothing more than slang".
In its report to the Authority, the broadcaster noted that the guidelines which accompany Principle 1 in the Code emphasise the need to bear in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. The guidelines read:
1a Broadcasters will take into consideration current norms of decency and good taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs and the wider context of the broadcast eg time of day, target audience.
The broadcaster wrote that the comment was apparently made in reference to a caller who had disagreed with the host on the issue of capital punishment, "but was then unable to provide a coherent basis for her view". It described the term complained about as a relatively mild form of criticism. It added that, while there could be said to be:
a mildly abusive aspect to the term, it carries no real sting and, in some circumstances, the expression could even carry affectionate overtones.
The broadcaster repeated its description of the term as a slang expression and said it was used in everyday conversation by many sectors of the community. It repeated that the host had been spoken to and he had given his assurance to endeavour to take greater care in his use of language.
The broadcaster then commented that it was "noteworthy" that the person to whom the remark was made had not chosen to complain about it.
Finally, the broadcaster advised that no tape of the broadcast was available, as it had been recorded over earlier on the same day the Authority’s request for a response was received by it.
In her final comment, Ms Cannell wrote that there was no way that the expression "silly old cow", as used by the host, carried affectionate overtones. She described the host as "very angry". She also commented that she found it "rather extraordinary" that the broadcaster had recorded over its tape of the broadcast, in circumstances where she had made a formal complaint. In response to the broadcaster’s comment that the person to whom the remark was made had not chosen to complain about it, she replied that this was probably because the caller did not hear it. Finally, she wrote that everyone she had spoken to about the matter had found it as offensive as she had.
In assessing the complaint under Principle 1, the Authority has to test the comments complained about against current community standards of good taste and decency. In doing so, it is required to bear in mind the context in which the comments were made.
The Authority considers, as relevant contextual factors, the nature of the programme and the late time of its broadcast. It observes that talkback programmes usually contain a somewhat robust level of debate. It believes that the programme’s audience would probably expect this.
The Authority has not been assisted in its determination by The RadioWorks’ inability to provide a tape of the item complained about. It finds The RadioWorks’ explanation about the absence of a tape unacceptable, and reminds The RadioWorks of its obligation to be able to provide tapes of broadcasts under Principle 8 of the Radio Code. The RadioWorks has now given the Authority an assurance that problems which have been experienced to date will not recur. The Authority warns that future problems will likely give rise to the imposition of a penalty against The RadioWorks.
The Authority begins its assessment of the specific aspects of the complaint by noting that the absence of a tape has prevented it from assessing the tone of comments and the context in which they were made. The Authority’s approach where there is no tape and there is disagreement about these matters between the parties is to adopt the version most favourable to the complainant.
Therefore it accepts Miss Cannell’s description of the host as being very angry when he called a caller a "stupid old cow", and her view that the comment carried no arguably affectionate overtones. However, while the Authority considers that the comment was discourteous and acknowledges that it caused offence to Miss Cannell, it does not find that it offended against current community standards of good taste and decency, taking contextual factors into account.
As to the host’s comment about a male character "knocking off" two female characters on Coronation Street, the Authority finds this did not breach principle 1. In the context of a late night radio broadcast, the Authority concurs with The RadioWorks that this was acceptable slang.
The Authority makes no finding in relation to the expression "My God", as Miss Cannell did not complain about any specific broadcast of the expression.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
10 February 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Lillian Cannell’s Complaint to The RadioWorks – 27 September 1999 (as reproduced in
her letter to the Authority of 12 October 1999)
2. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Formal Complaint – 19 October 1999
3. Miss Cannell’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 26 October 1999
4. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Authority – 23 November 1999
5. Miss Cannell’s Final Comment – 29 November 1999