Radio Pacific talkback – John Banks – critical of Italian team at America’s Cup – greasy Italians – unfair – offensive language – discriminatory – incomplete tape
Principle 1 – offensive – uphold
Principle 7 – no uphold
Costs to the Crown in the sum of $1000
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
During his talkback programme broadcast between 6.00–9.00am on 23 February 2000 on Radio Pacific, host John Banks referred to an incident which had occurred in the America’s Cup race the previous day when the Italian challenger had experienced a number of mishaps and a crew member suffered a head injury. Among other things, he was said to have described the team as "greasy Italians who should be sunk to the bottom of the Waitemata Harbour."
John Buckland of North Shore City and Ian Hoffer of Kawakawa each complained to The RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that such remarks fell below reasonable standards of broadcasting and the expectations of the public. They both objected in particular to what they described as a racially discriminatory description of the team as "greasy Italians".
In its response to Mr Buckland, The RadioWorks advised that its surveys revealed that host John Banks’ show was becoming increasingly popular, although it acknowledged that he did tend to polarise people. It suggested that if Mr Buckland disagreed with the host, he should telephone him on-air. Its response to Dr Hoffer conceded that the language used by the host had been "unnecessary". However it did not agree that the comments were discriminatory or had racist connotations. It advised that the host had been spoken to about his language and had changed his stance in subsequent broadcasts.
Dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ response, Mr Buckland and Dr Hoffer referred their complaints to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority upholds the complaints that Principle 1 was breached. It orders the broadcaster to pay costs to the Crown in the amount of $1000.00.
The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of parts of the broadcast and read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendices. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.
The day after the Italian team had experienced a number of mishaps in its America’s Cup challenge, talkback host John Banks allegedly described them among other things as "greasy Italians". His remarks were broadcast during his programme on Radio Pacific between 6.00–9.00am on February 23 2000.
According to the complainants, some of his comments included:
"…greasy Italians who should be sunk to the bottom of the Waitemata Harbour."
"That’s where they belong – the snivelling little rats."
"We don’t need these greasy little sun-tanned Italian cowards. Bury the bastards."
"I object to these greasy poncy Italians."
John Buckland and Ian Hoffer complained to The RadioWorks that the comments fell short of reasonable broadcasting standards because they were inflammatory and encouraged racial discrimination against Italians. Mr Buckland described the host’s comments as distorted and unfair. He said the terms used were "unthinking judgments which could cause some listeners to reject Italians as unworthy people." As a role model for young people being encouraged to play fair, he said he considered the remarks about the team’s loss as "disgraceful". Mr Buckland noted that on the morning of 24 February, the host, after admitting that he had been asked by management to "clean up his act", praised Italians as good people "bronzed in their G-strings, great in their singing". Such comments were still negative stereotypes, he maintained, and did not serve to redress the previous day’s outburst.
Dr Hoffer said he found it offensive to listen to the host propagate repeatedly the racially discriminatory slur of "greasy Italians" as it was inflammatory and totally unnecessary. In his view, the comments had been a slur based on ignorance and hatred.
In its response to Mr Buckland, The RadioWorks reported that it relied on independently conducted audience surveys to determine its talkback hosts’ future. It advised that John Banks was a host who was becoming increasingly popular, and his listenership was increasing. It acknowledged that he did polarise people, and said that Mr Buckland was welcome to hold his views. It suggested that he should telephone the host on-air and debate the issues with him.
Dr Hoffer received two responses from The RadioWorks. In the first, the Programme Director advised that the issue raised had been "addressed at length with John Banks". The Programme Director apologised "unreservedly" for the remarks made.
In its second response, The RadioWorks agreed that the language used by the host was "unnecessary". However, it did not agree that it constituted a racially discriminatory slur, or that it had been initiated through ignorance and hatred. While it acknowledged that the description of the Italians had not been necessary, it argued that "greasy Italians" was merely a slang expression which had been used for a number of years. The RadioWorks advised that the host had been spoken to at the time of the broadcast.
Both complainants were dissatisfied with The RadioWorks’ responses and referred the complaints to the Authority for investigation and review.
In its response to Mr Buckland’s complaint, The RadioWorks agreed that the descriptions which had been used by the host "were somewhat on the strong side", but maintained that they did not contravene any broadcasting standards. It advised that the host had been spoken to after the broadcast and had agreed to "tone down" his descriptions of Italians. It added that its hosts were encouraged to hold strong opinions on many issues, noting that some listeners agreed with them and some did not.
Responding to Dr Hoffer’s complaint, The RadioWorks advised that it had twice written to him offering apologies for what it described as "unnecessary" language. It also advised that the host had been spoken to about the remarks made. It concluded that Principle 7 had not been breached, and that appropriate action had been taken by the station. As a final point it advised that there was no reference to "greasy Italians" in the tape provided.
When he made his final comment, Mr Buckland repeated that he was dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s justification of Mr Banks’ statements. In his view, the fact that the host had been spoken to by management indicated the seriousness of its concern about his behaviour. There was, he noted, no attempt to apologise on air for "the offensive and uncalled-for denigration of the yachting crew members."
In his final comment, Dr Hoffer repeated that he had been offended by the propagation of racial discrimination committed by the host. In his view, the host should himself apologise on air.
He expressed surprise that the tape provided by The RadioWorks did not contain the reference to "greasy Italians" which he said he heard repeated several times during the morning broadcast. He suggested that the Authority obtain access to the original recordings to ascertain whether they had been tampered with.
The RadioWorks provided the Authority with an edited tape of the 3 hour talkback programme broadcast on 23 February 2000. As noted above, that tape did not contain the statements complained about. The Authority then sought an unedited tape from The RadioWorks and, although a tape was provided, it too had been edited and was of no assistance in determining the complaint. The Authority has expressed its concern in previous decisions about the failure of The RadioWorks to comply with Principle 8 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. It finds it entirely unsatisfactory that the broadcaster was unable to locate the references which were specifically complained about on this occasion. In the circumstances, the Authority accepts the complainants’ versions of what was apparently said on the programme, noting that The RadioWorks, while claiming that it could not find the reference to "greasy Italians" on the tape, did not deny that the remarks complained about had in fact been made.
The RadioWorks assessed the complaints only under Principle 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. On the basis that both complainants referred to the broadcast as being offensive, it is the Authority’s view that the complaints should also have been assessed under Principle 1. 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.
Guideline 1a refers to current norms of decency and good taste. The Authority’s task is to reflect community standards in its decision-making, while taking into account the context in which any broadcast occurred. It acknowledges that the host is known for being provocative and for his outspoken views. In addition, it notes that listeners were given the opportunity to call in to the programme to offer a contrary view. However, even when it takes these matters into account, the Authority finds the comments made by the host about the Italian team unacceptable. In its view, it would have been offensive to most listeners – as indeed it was to the complainants – to hear visitors to New Zealand who were participating in an international competition described in the terms used by the host. Accordingly, it upholds this aspect of the complaint.
Next, the Authority turns to the complaint that the broadcast encouraged denigration of or discrimination against Italians. The 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
by way of legitimate humour or satire.
The RadioWorks’ response to the complaint was somewhat ambiguous. Although it declined to uphold the complaints, it advised both complainants that the host had been spoken to about the broadcast and had "altered his harsh stance in following broadcasts". It denied that the remarks were racially discriminatory, or that they had been initiated through ignorance and hatred as Dr Hoffer had contended.
Notwithstanding that it finds that the unpleasant stereotyping was offensive and in breach of Principle 1, the Authority does not consider that the remarks breached Principle 7. It notes that the comments arose in connection with a sporting event which was of great national interest, and in relation to which the host was demonstrating a heightened and somewhat exaggerated patriotic fervour. In addition, this was a talkback programme in which the Authority considers the host’s language was not unexpected. Bearing these factors in mind, it finds the comments fell marginally short of the level of advocacy which is contemplated before a breach of Principle 7 occurs. The stereotypes to which the host resorted were, as the Authority noted above, more calculated to crudely offend than to encourage discrimination. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
As a final point, the Authority again expresses its displeasure about the manner in which the complaints were dealt with by the broadcaster. It is apparent that The RadioWorks does not have in place a proper system for dealing with complaints as required under s.5 of the Broadcasting Act. The Authority took this matter into account when it dealt with the question of penalty.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority upholds the complaint that a broadcast on Radio Pacific on 23 February 2000 between 6.00–9.00am breached Principle 1 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
It declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaint.
Having upheld a complaint, the Authority may make orders under s.13 and s.16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. It invited the parties to make submissions as to penalty.
The broadcaster submitted that the reason for the incomplete tape of the broadcast and in particular, the absence of the piece complained about, was that a member of its staff had used the tape for a sales promotion and had not returned it to its place.
In response to this submission, the Authority notes that this explanation does not account for why some parts of the tape were provided.
The complainants also had an opportunity to make submissions. Dr Hoffer considered an apology from the host would be an appropriate remedy, as well as a financial penalty on the broadcaster. Mr Buckland submitted that The RadioWorks should be required to broadcast a summary of the decision, and he too recommended that a financial penalty should be imposed.
In the Authority’s view, the breach of standards is here exacerbated by the manner in which the complaints were dealt with by the broadcaster. Again it reminds The RadioWorks of the requirement under s.5 of the Act to have in place proper systems for dealing with complaints and that it is also obliged, under Principle 8 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, to retain tapes of all open line and talkback programmes for a period of 35 days after the broadcast.
The Authority also notes that there have been seven occasions this year alone where The RadioWorks failed to provide a tape of a broadcast relating to a talkback programme on Radio Pacific. In the Authority’s view, this demonstrates The RadioWorks’ serious disregard for its responsibilities under the Act.
Pursuant to its powers under s.16(4) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, the Authority orders The RadioWorks Ltd to pay the sum of $1000.00 by way of costs to the Crown within one month of the date of this decision.
The Order shall be enforceable in the Wellington District Court.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
29 June 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined the complaint:
John Buckland’s Complaint to The RadioWorks – 26 February 2000
The RadioWorks’ Response to the Complaint – 8 March 2000
Mr Buckland’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 30 March 2000
The RadioWorks’ Response to the Authority – 19 April 2000
Mr Buckland’s Final Comment – received 5 May 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined the complaint:
Ian Hoffer’s Complaint to The RadioWorks – 9 March 2000
The RadioWorks’ Response to the Formal Complaint – 21 March 2000
The RadioWorks’ further Response to the Complaint – 23 March 2000
Dr Hoffer’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 29 March 2000
The RadioWorks’ Response to the Authority – 17 April 2000
Dr Hoffer’s Final Comment – 28 April 2000