The film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man was broadcast on TV2 on 7 October 1999, beginning at 11.00pm. It was an action movie in which two men stole mob money to prevent their friend’s bar from being closed down.
Laurie Collier complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the language and "gross violence" contained in the film breached broadcasting standards. In particular, he complained about the excessive use of the "f word" and what he called "the blood and guts violence".
TVNZ’s informal response emphasised the relevance of context in ascertaining whether the language exceeded community expectations. When Mr Collier sought a review of TVNZ’s decision, it provided a more substantive response, again emphasising contextual factors. It noted that the film began at 11.00pm, well into adult viewing time, that it was preceded by a warning, and that it was classified as AO. In considering the language in the film, it contended that it would not have exceeded the expectations of the late-night audience, while the violence portrayed had, it suggested, an element of farce about it. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Collier 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 which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
The film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man was broadcast on TV2 beginning at 11.00pm on 7 October 1999. It was described in its publicity as an action movie in which two men stole mob money to prevent their friend’s bar from being closed down.
Mr Collier complained to TVNZ about the language, particularly the continued use of the "f word", and what he called the gross violence portrayed in the film. In his view, the film should not have been screened, despite the AO rating.
TVNZ responded to the complaint informally, and as he was dissatisfied with that response, Mr Collier referred it to the Authority for review. In that referral he argued that the broadcast of films such as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man contributed to the rapidly deteriorating standards of decency in the community.
In its substantive response to the complaint, TVNZ advised that it had assessed it under standards G2 and V1 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. 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.
The other standard reads:
V1 Broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that any violence shown is justifiable, ie is essential in the context of the programme.
In addition to emphasising the contextual factors, TVNZ argued that it also had to consider the views of those who wanted to see movies in as near a form as was possible to the way their directors intended them to be. It accepted that this film would have been unacceptable in family viewing time, but argued that it was very different when it was shown at 11.00pm, a time when a broadcaster was entitled to believe there was largely a mature audience.
TVNZ also noted that the film carried an AO certificate, and was preceded by a verbal and visual warning advising that it contained offensive language and was judged suitable for a viewing audience of people aged 18 and over. In its view, the audience was provided with sufficient information to decide for itself whether the film would be their viewing choice.
In the context of a programme starting at 11.00pm, it did not consider that the language exceeded the expectations of the audience. Its reason for not beeping the language was that at 11.00pm, it had an opportunity to show the film in full, and in that context, it observed that it was the decision of the director to include the language in the process of developing the characters. It concluded there was no breach of standard G2 with respect to the language.
In assessing the violence, TVNZ’s view was that while there was a good deal of it, the violence was portrayed within a comic-adventure scenario. As a consequence, it argued, much of it had an element of farce about it, while there were other sequences which came close to being comic-strip in nature. It concluded that the violence was necessary in a fictional story involving two "unlikely heroes" battling the mob.
When he referred the complaint to the Authority, Mr Collier maintained that it was irrelevant what time of the day or night such material was broadcast and that it was unacceptable for TVNZ to claim that the broadcast was justified on the basis of its being directed to a mature audience.
Mr Collier suggested there was a general public opinion that standards in broadcasting had deteriorated. He said that people he knew were not prepared to lodge complaints because of the process required and the "lack of penalties". In his view, there was a need for a much stricter code to which broadcasters must abide with respect to language, violence and sex scenes.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ re-emphasised the relevance of the film’s context. It pointed to precedent decisions of the Authority which indicated that the time of broadcast and the classification of the programme were both relevant contextual factors to be taken into account. In addition, it repeated, the film carried an AO certificate and had been preceded by a warning that it was only suitable for those over 18 years of age.
Mr Collier, in his final response, advised that he had nothing more to add. He said that he had no doubt that his complaint would not be upheld. In his view, broadcasting standards had dropped generally, and he said he believed they needed to be tightened.
When the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of standard G2, it takes into account the context in which the broadcast complained about occurs. The context is relevant, but not decisive to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached community standards of good taste and decency.
The relevant contextual factors on this occasion are the time of the broadcast, the film’s AO classification, and the verbal and visual warning preceding the film which referred to the language, and reminded viewers that it was deemed suitable for an adult audience.
The Authority acknowledges that the content was offensive to the complainant but concludes that, given the time of broadcast and the unambiguous warning which preceded the film, standard G2 was not transgressed. In addition it concludes that the words objected to were not inappropriate in the context of the film.
Turning to the complaint about the portrayal of violence, the Authority also concludes that, in the context of the film’s theme, the violence shown was justifiable. Furthermore, it notes, the types of violence portrayed were consistent with the film’s genre and the manner in which the characters were portrayed. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that standard V1 was not transgressed.
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. Laurie Collier’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 12 October 1999
2. TVNZ’s Informal Response – 21 October 1999
3. Mr Collier’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority –
24 October 1999
4. TVNZ’s Further Correspondence – 1 November 1999
5. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 12 November 1999
6. Mr Collier’s Second Referral to the Authority – 22 November 1999
7. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 26 November 1999
8. Mr Collier’s Final Comment – 1 December 1999