In a review of events surrounding the Erebus crash, it was reported that the then CEO of Air New Zealand had told a senior pilot "I’ll cut your f-ing balls off". The remark was quoted in a 60 Minutes item broadcast on 28 November 1999 at 7.30pm, the 20th anniversary of the crash of the Air New Zealand plane in the Antarctic.
Mr Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that such language was offensive, unacceptable and entirely unnecessary, particularly in a programme which dealt with a subject still painful for the friends and relatives of those killed.
TVNZ emphasised the context in which the remark was made and suggested the comment reflected the bitterness and unresolved questions arising from the disaster. In its view, the phrase spoke volumes about the emotions aroused by the debate. It noted that the pilot had not used the full word "fucking" but had chosen to say "f-ing", which in its view, reduced the potential for offence. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Schwabe 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 20th anniversary of the crash of an Air New Zealand plane on Mt Erebus was marked by a 60 Minutes report broadcast on TV One on 28 November 1999 beginning at 7.30pm. The item pointed out that there were still unresolved issues surrounding the crash of the plane. A senior pilot with Air New Zealand at the time of the disaster recounted an exchange in which the then Chief Executive had said to him "I’ll cut your f-ing balls off".
Mr Schwabe complained to TVNZ that the language used was "offensive, unacceptable and entirely unnecessary", particularly when it was in a programme which dealt with a subject still painful to the friends and relatives of those who had died "because people broke the rules".
Surely, he argued, the Broadcasting Act prevented the use of this kind of language in current affairs programmes and in the early evening. He alleged that s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 and standards G2 and G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice had been breached.
TVNZ assessed the complaint under the nominated standards. The relevant section from the Broadcasting Act reads:
s.4(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with –
The observance of good taste and decency
Standards G2 and G12 require 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.
G12 To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing hours.
In TVNZ’s view, for contextual reasons, it had been appropriate to leave the phrase in place. It noted that the item had focused on "the lingering bitterness and unresolved questions arising from the Erebus disaster", and in quoting the words of the then Chief Executive, the pilot had reflected the way in which the debate had been polarised. Some, including the pilot, challenged the view that the crash was caused by pilot error, while others, such as the Chief Executive, took the opposite view.
TVNZ further noted:
[the pilot] showed some decorum himself by not using the full word "fucking". He chose instead to say "f-ing", which, in the Committee’s view, reduced the potential for offence.
It advised that in its consideration of the complaint it had subsumed the provision in the legislation under standard G2, which included an interpretive provision. It concluded that in the context of a story about "on-going tensions and bitterness in the wake of the Erebus crash" the phrase as used did not breach accepted norms of decency and good taste.
As far as standard G12 was concerned TVNZ’s view was the viewers of current affairs programmes would be aware that those programmes would at times introduce material which was distressing and perhaps offensive to some. They would thus organise their children’s viewing accordingly. In this case, the very subject matter was inevitably distressing, it argued, and in that context, the phrase as used was informative and had little potential to harm children.
TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Schwabe took issue with TVNZ’s assertion that the phrase was necessary to demonstrate the lingering bitterness arising from the disaster. He argued that could have been demonstrated without using offensive language, and suggested that "the offensive comments" had been included to shock and gain attention for the programme. In support of his argument, he noted that the comments had been repeated three times during the programme, and had been used in promos for the programme.
Mr Schwabe also questioned TVNZ’s suggestion that parents should censor their children’s viewing, noting that this programme had been broadcast at 7.30pm on a Sunday night and was a subject of major interest to all New Zealanders, including children.
Mr Schwabe asked whether TVNZ was suggesting that it was permissible to use offensive, threatening language. In his view, such language, far from being harmless to children, was engendering "an insidious and dangerous anti-women attitude in many of New Zealand’s children, thanks largely to the declining standards of television broadcasters."
As a final point, Mr Schwabe questioned how the broadcast could have complied with the Broadcasting Act and the Codes of Practice, "unless most New Zealanders are either members of the worst gangs or are trendy liberals who talk like them."
In its report to the Authority, TVNZ advised that it had nothing further to add, other than to repeat its view that the phrase in context was appropriate. In response to the Authority’s request for information relating to the promos for the programme, it provided a further tape, a transcript of the introduction and a content guide to the item. It also made the point that the complaint had been assessed on the basis of Mr Schwabe’s original letter of complaint which was confined to the programme itself.
As a preliminary point, the Authority notes that TVNZ is correct in asking it to restrict its consideration of the complaint to the matters raised in Mr Schwabe’s first letter of complaint. In passing it notes that the additional tapes and transcripts provided by TVNZ did not contain the references which he objected to in his subsequent correspondence.
When the Authority considers complaints which allege a breach of good taste, it takes into account the context in which the language or behaviour occurred. Among the relevant contextual factors on this occasion, the Authority notes that the programme was classified as PGR, signifying that it contained adult material but was not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of an adult. In addition, it was part of 60 Minutes, a well-established current affairs programme which, in the Authority’s view, would be known to viewers as being directed at a news-watching audience.
The item highlighted the enmity which existed between those who believed that the Erebus crash was caused by pilot error, and those who believed it resulted from a systems failure. In that context, a former senior pilot reported a conversation he had had with the then Chief Executive. The pilot said:
I walked into his office because we had been pretty good friends right up to then and I said "Well, where’s your sword?" and he said "What sword?" and I said "Well I thought you’d have your sword here to cut my stripes and buttons off". He says "I’m going to cut your f-ing balls off".
The comment was reported to illustrate the bitterness of the feelings between the parties and to explain why the senior pilot, who had attempted to clear the crew of blame, felt he had to leave Air New Zealand. The Authority acknowledges that the tone as described was threatening and aggressive, but concludes that in this context, the pilot’s reporting of the remark did not breach standard G2.
As for the complaint that TVNZ had failed to be mindful of children who might be watching, the Authority concludes that the current affairs programme was appropriately classified PGR, which indicates to viewers that the broadcast will be more suited for adult audiences. Accordingly, despite the aggressive tone, it finds the reporting of the comment was not inappropriate or offensive in the circumstances. It notes also the pilot chose not to use the expletive in its complete form. It declines to uphold the complaint that standard G12 was breached.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
9 March 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Paul Schwabe’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 14 December 1999
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 23 December 1999
3. Mr Schwabe’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 25 January 2000
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 8 February 2000
5. Mr Schwabe’s Final Comment – 14 February 2000
6. TVNZ’s Further Comment – 17 February 2000
7. TVNZ’s Further Comment – 21 February 2000