Classic Hits FM: comments about Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones expecting a child: (1) racist remarks – offensive language; (2) denigrated Jewish people
(1) Principle 1 – majority – no breach, not racist – no uphold
(2) Principle 7 – majority – legitimate use of humour – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
In a broadcast on 31 January 2000, a presenter on Classic Hits FM announced that Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were expecting a child, and that Ms Zeta-Jones was considering converting to Judaism. The presenter added "and I suppose the baby will have a long nose and be good with money. Only joking."
Nicholas Koenig complained to The Radio Network Ltd that the comment was both offensive and derogatory. He sought a formal apology.
The broadcaster responded that the comment was clearly intended to be humorous and therefore did not breach any broadcasting standards. Furthermore, it maintained that the remark was not intended to offend or defame the Jewish community as a whole. Dissatisfied with TRN’s response, Mr Koenig referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, a majority of 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.
A presenter on Classic Hits 90 FM reported that Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were expecting a child, and that Ms Zeta-Jones was planning to convert to Judaism. The presenter then added "and I suppose the baby will have a long nose and be good with money. Only joking." The report was broadcast on 31 January 2000.
Mr Koenig complained first by telephone to the station, seeking an apology for what he considered to be an offensive and derogatory remark. The station responded that it was the Network Manager’s opinion that such a comment did not fall within the category of a racist remark. It noted that the presenter had not disputed Mr Koenig’s version of what was said, but that she had pointed out that she had made it clear that this was humour, rather than a racial slur. The station noted that there was latitude within the codes of practice for humour, and in this case there was no breach of standards.
Mr Koenig then submitted a formal written complaint. He reiterated that he found the remarks offensive and derogatory, and advised that as the station’s response did not constitute an apology, it was inappropriate.
In its response to the formal complaint, the broadcaster emphasised that it had been made clear by the presenter that her remarks were not to be taken seriously. In fact, it continued, there was a degree of fact to support both claims. It pointed to the success of the Jewish community in the financial sector and in Hollywood. It continued:
These examples leave little doubt that the Jewish community are very good in the management of their money and have been afforded more success than most other races through their diligence and hard work.
Secondly, the broadcaster argued, there were a number of high profile Jewish people in the media with larger than average nose size.
It concluded that the presenter’s remarks were directed at the couple and were not intended to "offend, defame or cast a slur on the Jewish community as a whole." The Radio Network advised that there was no formal transcript or recording of the comment as it was not required under the Codes to monitor its music stations.
It reported that it had discussed the complaint with the presenter and "provided the appropriate counselling".
In his referral to the Authority, Mr Koenig said he found the response from the broadcaster "both sad and offensive and even more serious coming from management." In Mr Koenig’s view, it was an attempt to justify racial stereotyping.
The Radio Network advised it had nothing further to add.
The complaint was considered in the context of Principles 1 and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. Those principles read:
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.
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:
i) factual, or
ii) a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or
iii) is by way of legitimate humour or satire.
Despite the absence of a tape of the broadcast, the Authority notes that the parties did not dispute the content of the reported remarks. The contentious issue is whether the comment was humorous as contended by the broadcaster, or offensive and derogatory as contended by the complainant.
The Authority is divided in its determination of both aspects of this complaint. A majority of the Authority is of the view that the presenter’s comment was not intended to be offensive but was an attempt at humour at the expense of a high-profile celebrity couple who were contemplating marriage and the birth of their first child. In the majority’s view, the remarks were insensitive and borderline but not sufficiently offensive as to breach standards of good taste and decency, particularly when the presenter made it clear that she was "only joking". The majority therefore declines to uphold the complaint that Principle 1 was breached.
The minority disagrees. It considers that the remark was founded on a racist stereotype and contained connotations which were likely to be offensive to Jewish people. Notwithstanding that the presenter did not intend to cause offence, the minority upholds the complaint as a breach of Principle 1.
Next the Authority turns to a consideration of the complaint that Principle 7 was breached. The majority finds that even if there were a breach of this principle – which it has some doubts about – the remark falls within the exemption under Guideline 7a (iii), being legitimate humour. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.
For the same reasons that it found the remark breached Principle 1, the minority finds it also breached Principle 7, as it was based on a stereotype which was pejorative and encouraged denigration of Jewish people. Furthermore, the minority finds that as the remark was not clearly framed within a humorous context – ie as part of a comedy programme, or made by a comedian for comedic effect – the exemption therefore does not apply. It upholds this aspect of the complaint.
As a final point the minority makes the observation that, in its view, the offensiveness of the broadcast was exacerbated by the broadcaster’s response to the complaint when it sought to argue that there was a factual basis for the remarks.
For the reasons set forth above, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
11 May 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Classic Hits 90 FM Wellington’s Response to Mr Koenig’s telephoned complaint
– 2 February 2000
2. Nicholas Koenig’s Formal Complaint to The Radio Network Ltd – 10 February 2000
3. The Radio Network’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 23 February 2000
4. Mr Koenig’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 17 March 2000
5. The Radio Network’s Response to the Authority – 30 March 2000