Host John Banks described parking wardens as "low lifes" in his programme on Radio Pacific broadcast on 26 August 1999 at about 8.15am.
Adele Baulch complained to The RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster of Radio Pacific, that as a former parking warden she found the comment objectionable. She sought a public apology from Mr Banks to all parking wardens in New Zealand.
The broadcaster responded that no malice had been intended by the remark but admitted that the host’s language had been "a little strong". It apologised for distress caused to the complainant, and declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ decision, Mrs Baulch 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 which is listed in the Appendix. No tape of the programme was provided. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
At around 8.15am on 26 August 1999, Radio Pacific host John Banks described parking wardens as "low lifes".
Mrs Adele Baulch complained to the broadcaster that, as a former parking warden, she objected to the description and found it a "down right insult". She asked for a public apology. She also explained that she had telephoned Mr Banks on the programme at about 8.55am that day, and that he had asked her how many times she had been beaten up, then terminated her call.
In its response, The RadioWorks on Radio Pacific’s behalf, advised that it had considered 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.
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 said it understood why Mrs Baulch had been upset by the remarks but did not believe that Principle 1 had been violated. It declined to uphold the complaint. Further, it noted that Mr Banks had been spoken to by the station management and that he had given an assurance that no malice had been intended by the "off-the-cuff comment". The broadcaster admitted that the language used was a little strong, and apologised for any distress caused to the complainant.
When she referred the complaint to the Authority, Mrs Baulch said she would like a public apology to all parking wardens in New Zealand.
In its response to the Authority, The RadioWorks argued that the term "low life" did not exceed current norms of decency and good taste. It was, it argued, a slang expression which was widely used by a significant number of people to denote "someone who is believed by the speaker to be open to criticism". The expression of itself, it maintained, could not be said to offend against current norms of good taste.
It then examined the complaint in relation to Principle 7. That Principle reads:
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.
7a Broadcasters will not portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation; or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement does not extend to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or
is by way of legitimate humour or satire.
Arguing that the standard was relevant as the remark singled out a particular group, The RadioWorks noted that the complaint needed to be viewed in the light of the exception relating to legitimate humour or satire. It suggested that parking wardens had always been regarded by people as a legitimate target for light-hearted abuse, observing:
Parking wardens are of course merely carrying out a necessary function, but they are nevertheless seen by the public as the agents of the authorities responsible for extracting revenue from a long suffering public.
In that sense, it continued, the term "low life" was to be seen not as a criticism of Mrs Baulch or any other parking warden personally, but as a "sardonic reference" to an occupation which had habitually been the butt of public humour.
Nevertheless, the broadcaster continued, Radio Pacific was sorry that Mrs Baulch had suffered personal distress. It advised that Mr Banks had been alerted to the situation and through the station had apologised to Mrs Baulch. It repeated that Mr Banks had given an assurance that no malice had been intended.
The broadcaster advised that the relevant tape was no longer available, due to the lapse of time between the date of the broadcast and the referral of the complaint to the Authority.
In her final comment to the Authority, Mrs Baulch reiterated her view that the host had no right to refer to parking wardens as "low lifes". She pointed out that in Auckland, several parking wardens had been hurt in the course of their work. She asked, on behalf of all parking wardens in New Zealand, for a public apology.
The Authority has not been assisted in its determination of this complaint by the lack of a tape of the broadcast. The broadcaster explained that this was due to the lapse of time between the date of the broadcast and the Authority’s request for a tape. It is not apparent from the correspondence whether this delay was caused by the broadcaster’s tardiness in responding to Mrs Baulch’s letter written two days after the broadcast complained about, or whether that letter was itself delayed in transit.
As the context in which it was said that parking wardens were "low lifes" was not made clear to the Authority, it is difficult for it to ascertain whether it was said with malice or with humour. The broadcaster contends that it was a humorous remark and was not intended by the host to be insulting. Mrs Baulch however has interpreted it as a personal slight against her and other parking wardens, and has sought a public apology.
On the basis of the information available to it, the Authority concludes that the remark was not intended to be taken personally, but was a general observation about an occupation which, as the broadcaster suggests, is sometimes the butt of humour. In its view, the remark neither transgressed community standards of good taste nor denigrated parking wardens. It therefore concludes that it did not breach any broadcasting standards. Despite satirical references to parking wardens, the Authority also appreciates that such comments can be regarded as an insult. In these circumstances, it finds that the broadcaster responded appropriately in apologising to the complainant.
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 when the Authority determined this complaint:
1. Adele Baulch’s Complaint to The RadioWorks Ltd – 28 August 1999
2. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Formal Complaint – 19 October 1999
3. Mrs Baulch’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 2 November 1999
4. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Authority – 24 November 1999
5. Mrs Baulch’s Final Comment – 7 December 1999