Following talkback host John Banks’ observations about those who supported Winston Peters in the upcoming election, a caller to Radio Pacific was told by him that she was stupid for supporting Mr Peters. The comments were alleged to have been broadcast on the morning of 19 November 1999 between 6.00–9.00am.
Joyce Rhodes, the caller, complained to The RadioWorks (the broadcaster of Radio Pacific), that the host’s treatment of her deserved a severe reprimand and that he should be fined for his insulting and degrading observations. She also objected to having been cut off without having an opportunity to be heard.
In its response, The RadioWorks apologised to Ms Rhodes for having cut her off, and emphasised that it was not its policy to do this to callers. It advised that it had addressed the matter to the programme’s producer. As for the host’s opinion that Ms Rhodes was stupid, The RadioWorks contended that the expression was "a relatively mild form of criticism" which did not exceed community norms of good taste. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ decision, Ms Rhodes 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 item was provided. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
After the host (John Banks) gave his views about Winston Peters’ supporters, he told a caller that she was stupid for supporting Mr Peters. The remarks were apparently broadcast on the morning of 19 November 1999 between 6.00–9.00am.
Joyce Rhodes (the caller) complained to The RadioWorks about the manner in which she was treated. Ms Rhodes explained that after listening to the host abuse old people who supported Mr Peters, she had decided to ring the station herself. When she did, she was told that the subject was closed and that no further calls would be accepted. She said that she had protested and had been cut off by the producer on two occasions, but on the third occasion she had got through to Mr Banks. She said that when he asked whether she supported Mr Peters, she had answered that she did and was proud of it, but that the host had interrupted and cut her off by saying that she was stupid. Ms Rhodes contended that cutting off a caller was a misuse of radio rights, and was made worse because she had been cut off without being heard. In her view, it was time Mr Banks was taken off the air, and at least severely reprimanded and fined for what she described as his insulting and degrading observations.
The RadioWorks, which broadcasts Radio Pacific, responded 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.
Apologising first for the distress which Ms Rhodes had experienced, The RadioWorks explained that its policy was to eliminate callers who wished to continue with debates or topics which were no longer relevant. However, it said, it was not its policy to rudely cut callers off.
The broadcaster advised that the programme’s host had been spoken to regarding his telephone manner and how callers must be treated. It declined to uphold this aspect of the complaint. As for the host’s remark that she was stupid, The RadioWorks responded that the expression was a relatively mild form of criticism which was in the same category as "silly old fool" or "you are silly". Essentially, it argued, it was a slang expression used in everyday conversation in many sectors of the community, and did not therefore contravene Principle 1. It declined to uphold this aspect.
In concluding, The RadioWorks apologised for the "anguish" the incident had caused her and assured Ms Rhodes that both the producer and the host had been made aware of her concerns.
When she referred the complaint to the Authority, Ms Rhodes emphasised that the host had been offensive to other callers before she had telephoned the station, and that the purpose of her call had been to protest at his rude behaviour, to criticise his habit of cutting off callers, and to point out that callers should have the right to express their views.
She noted that The RadioWorks had advised the programme’s producer how callers must be treated and said that she took that as an acknowledgment that the callers were not treated correctly and that her complaint should therefore have been upheld.
Ms Rhodes also took exception to the broadcaster equating the remark "You are stupid" with "Silly old fool" and "You are silly". She also rejected the suggestion that the phrase was a slang expression in everyday use, adding:
All you are hereby confirming is that Mr Banks comes from the milieu where such slang appears to be common. It is an insult and the fact that it comes from him increases rather than diminishes its impact.
She concluded that the station had failed to abide by required standards in selecting the host for this programme.
In its response, the broadcaster argued that the host’s treatment of callers was a programming issue and not a matter for the Authority. As for the comment that Ms Rhodes was stupid, The RadioWorks repeated that it believed the expression to be a relatively mild form of criticism and that it did not breach Principle 1. It said it viewed the complaint as having wasted both its and the Authority’s time, adding that it appeared the complainant was motivated by a dislike of Mr Banks and that there was no substance to her complaint.
Finally it advised that, having listened to a tape of the broadcast on 19 November, it had found no recording of the conversation with Ms Rhodes. It suggested the conversation had taken place on another date and time and said it would be happy to follow this up if the correct date and time could be verified.
Ms Rhodes’ final comment began by noting that she had not met Mr Banks personally and that therefore her complaint did not stem from a personal dislike. However, she said, his remarks riled her and other listeners as well.
She objected to the broadcaster’s assertion that the complaint had been a waste of the Authority’s "valuable time", and rejected its contention that "you are stupid" was commonly used by many sectors of the community. Ms Rhodes emphasised that in her view the phrase was not radio language, and was not civilised. She suggested the station should have checked the tapes of both 17 and 18 November also to verify the date of the broadcast.
The Authority turns first to the absence of a tape of the broadcast. It notes that Ms Rhodes’ letter of 19 November was clear that the broadcast was that day, but that the broadcaster, having reviewed the tape of that morning’s programme, was unable to locate the remarks complained about. As the complainant did not identify any other specific date, the Authority considers it was not reasonable to expect it to make further inquiries. However, it also notes that the broadcaster did not dispute what was said, accepting Ms Rhodes’ account of the exchange.
Turning to the subject of the complaint, the Authority makes the observation that the host’s talkback style is very familiar to his listeners and that those who call in to air their views would be aware of the manner in which he operates. Ms Rhodes herself acknowledges that she had listened to and been irritated "for a long time" by this host. As explained by Ms Rhodes, she attempted to speak on air after the subject had closed and although the producer had told her no further calls were allowed, she was eventually permitted to speak. It was then that she was told that she was stupid for being a supporter of Winston Peters.
In response to the complaint, The RadioWorks has apologised to the complainant, and has given her an assurance that the producer had been spoken to regarding his telephone manner with callers. In the circumstances, the Authority considers that the broadcaster has acted appropriately. As for the substantive matters, the Authority’s view is that while the remark was discourteous and caused offence to Ms Rhodes, it does not offend against current community standards, particularly when it is noted that the exchange occurred in the talkback forum where robust and opinionated exchanges appear to be the norm. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
17 February 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered when the Authority determined this complaint:
1. Joyce Rhodes’ Complaint to The RadioWorks Ltd – 19 November 1999
2. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Formal Complaint – 24 November 1999
3. Ms Rhodes’ Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 2 December 1999
4. The RadioWorks’ Response to the Authority – 20 December 1999
5. Ms Rhodes’ Final Comment – 5 January 2000