Bookmarks – book reading – offensive language; unsuitable for children
Principle 1 – potential breach averted by words being beeped – no language or concepts which would offend – not targeted at children – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
An extract from the book "They who do not Grieve" by Sia Figiel was read by her on the Bookmarks programme broadcast on National Radio on 2 December 1999 beginning at 7.00pm. Part of the extract was masked by an audible beep.
Douglas Bacon complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd that the extract read was vulgar and that he could hardly believe the "obscenities" it contained. He said he took into account that it was broadcast during the early evening when younger people could be listening.
In its response, RNZ noted first that its target audience was a mature one, with a negligible audience of children at the hour of broadcast. In addition, it pointed out, producer judgment had already been exercised in that some of the language had been beeped out. Considering the context in which the language was used, RNZ concluded that the broadcast fell short of exceeding current norms of decency and good taste. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Mr Bacon 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 listened to 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.
An extract was read from a book entitled "They who do not Grieve" by Sia Figiel in Bookmarks broadcast on National Radio on 2 December 1999 beginning at 7.00pm. The reading was followed by an interview with the author.
Douglas Bacon complained to RNZ that he was "wholeheartedly disgusted" at the material broadcast. He noted that the reading was aired at a time when younger people could be within earshot, and said he found it hard to conceive that the person responsible for selecting the item had any social conscience. To his knowledge, he said, there was no prior warning to listeners of the contents which followed.
He reminded the broadcaster that there was an element in society which thrived on "indecency, perverseness and immorality" and suggested that young people could be pushed "into the chasm of social decline". He asked RNZ for an assurance that his concerns had been heard and that some positive action had been taken to reverse what he called the current trend in public radio.
In its response to the complaint, RNZ advised that it had assessed it in the context of Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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.
RNZ emphasised that the Guideline’s provision for context must be taken into account. First, it noted, the programme’s target audience was a mature one, with a negligible audience of children at the hour at which it was broadcast. Further, it pointed out that some language in the reading had been edited with an audible beep, which indicated that producer judgment had been exercised prior to the broadcast. Clearly, it argued, this demonstrated that producers were aware of the provisions of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice and prevailing standards of decency and good taste.
Next, RNZ continued, the language complained of was used in the context of a reading from a novel containing "imaginative and mythical writing" concerning women’s issues. As a further point, it noted that the programme reviewed a variety of publications, not all of which would appeal to all of the audience. In light of these points, RNZ concluded that the language did not exceed current norms of decency and good taste and declined to uphold the complaint.
Mr Bacon referred the matter to the Authority for review. He said he was dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision not to uphold his complaint as a breach of Principle 1. He also disagreed with its contention that there was only a negligible audience of children at that hour, and maintained that the programme had warranted the broadcast of a warning.
Mr Bacon said it was of interest to him that RNZ had edited certain words. That, he said, confirmed his view that the programme had not been suitable for a general audience.
RNZ advised that it had little further to add. It noted that the possibility of a broadcast warning before the programme had been considered, but had not been found necessary. The programme had been reviewed before broadcast however, and the beep had been inserted. RNZ repeated that the number of children listening to National Radio at 7.00pm was negligible, and noted that they were not the target audience of this type of programme.
In his final comment, Mr Bacon said he accepted RNZ’s claim that the programme did not target children. However, he still contended that at that time of the night, children were well within earshot of any radio broadcast and were effectively passive listeners. He said he noted with interest that RNZ had not responded to his suggestion that the minor censorship it had undertaken was indicative that the programme was not for a general audience.
The Authority acknowledges that the concept of good taste and decency is a subjective matter, and accepts that the extract read offended the complainant. However, the Authority notes, its task is to reflect community standards when it determines complaints under this principle. To that end, it has commissioned research to inform it. Having listened carefully to the author reading the extract from her book, it is not convinced that it contained language or concepts which would have offended community norms of decency and good taste. In reaching this conclusion, it has taken into account the fact that a potential breach of the principle was averted by an audible beep which masked some words used. In the Authority’s view, that was an appropriate measure for the broadcaster to have taken.
In reaching its decision on this complaint, the Authority also notes that the guideline relating to the interpretation of the good taste standard in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice emphasises that the context in which any language or behaviour occurs shall be taken into account when assessing whether the principle has been breached. On this occasion, the Authority considers that the programme would have been unlikely to appeal to younger listeners and highly unlikely that they would have selected it as a preferred entertainment choice. However, even if there were a small number of children in the listening audience at that time, the Authority does not consider the extract would have been harmful to them. Accordingly it declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
4 May 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Douglas Bacon’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 20 December 1999
2. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 15 February 2000
3. Mr Bacon’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 February 2000
4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 4 April 2000
5. Mr Bacon’s Final Comment – 12 April 2000