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Russell and TVWorks Ltd - 2011-094

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Mary Anne Shanahan

Complainant

  • Doug and Jane Russell of Whitianga

Dated

13th September 2011

Number

2011-094

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

TVWorks Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Inside New Zealand: High Time? – documentary discussed whether cannabis should be legalised in New Zealand – person said “holy fuckin’ Jesus” – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, and discrimination and denigration standards

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – combination of “Jesus” and swear words more offensive to some people – however was not unexpected in context of documentary about cannabis preceded by clear warning for language – not upheld

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – phrase was an expression of awe rather than a comment on Christian people – programme did not encourage denigration of or discrimination against Christians as a section of the community – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Broadcast

[1]  An episode of the documentary series Inside New Zealand, entitled “High Time?”, was broadcast on TV3 at 8.30pm on Wednesday 13 July 2011. This episode canvassed the arguments for and against legalising cannabis in New Zealand. At approximately 8.45pm, footage was shown of a man entering a room where an abundance of cannabis was growing. The man exclaimed, “Holy fuckin’ Jesus”.

[2]  The programme was preceded by the following written and verbal warning:

This programme is rated Adults Only and contains language that may offend some people.

Complaint

[3]  Doug and Jane Russell made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the use of the phrase “holy fuckin’ Jesus” breached standards relating to good taste and decency, and discrimination and denigration. They considered that the phrase constituted offensive language, and that it denigrated the Christian faith.

Standards

[4]  Mr and Mrs Russell nominated Standards 1 and 7 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice in their complaint. These provide:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

Broadcasters should observe standards of good taste and decency.

Standard 7 Discrimination and Denigration

Broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[5]  TVWorks noted that the documentary was classified Adults Only and preceded by a warning for language that may offend. It argued that, given the clear warning and the challenging subject matter of the documentary, viewers would not have been surprised by the language subject to complaint. TVWorks was of the view that the word “Jesus” and its variations was a “commonly used exclamation, employed instinctively by the man in this case to express awe toward his crop of cannabis”. It noted that dictionaries defined the word as a “strong expression of disbelief, dismay, awe, disappointment, pain, etc.” and that the word was used in this sense on this occasion, rather than in a religious sense. The broadcaster maintained that nothing in the segment suggested that the man’s remark was intended as an attack on religion or as a slight against religious people. TVWorks concluded that, in light of the “widespread colloquial use” of the word “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” as an exclamation, the comment did not breach Standard 1.

[6]  Turning to Standard 7, TVWorks noted that the Authority had consistently defined denigration as blackening the reputation of a class of people.1 It argued that the programme did not reach this threshold in relation to Christians, and that nothing in the programme could be considered hate speech or vitriol towards Christians as a section of the community. It also noted that the Authority had previously stated:2

...the Authority rejects the idea that New Zealand’s broadcasting codes require that special consideration be given to matters of religion. While the complainant asserts that religion is an issue of great sensitivity, the Authority is not persuaded that in modern New Zealand society it is of any greater sensitivity or importance than issues of race, colour, sexual orientation or political belief. While it should be afforded equal protection, it should not be given special consideration.

[7]  Accordingly, TVWorks declined to uphold the complaint under Standard 7.

Referral to the Authority

[8]  Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr and Mrs Russell referred their complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[9]  The complainants noted that the phrase was used at 8.45pm, when younger people could still be viewing, and that no attempt was made to censor the offensive words. They considered that the definition of “Jesus” as the core of Christianity preceded the dictionary definition cited by the broadcaster. Mr and Mrs Russell noted that Jesus’ name was used in conjunction with an inappropriate swear word. With regard to the Authority’s previous comments, the complainants considered that on this occasion, “the misuse of these words did not offer any protection [to religion] let alone give any special consideration”.

Authority’s Determination

[10]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[11]  When we consider an alleged breach of good taste and decency, we take into account the context of the broadcast. On this occasion, the relevant contextual factors include:

  • Inside New Zealand was classified AO
  • it was broadcast at 8.30pm
  • the comment subject to complaint occurred at approximately 8.45pm
  • the programme was preceded by a written and verbal warning for language that may offend
  • the programme’s subject matter
  • the programme’s adult target audience
  • audience expectations.

[12]  At the outset, we accept that the combination of Jesus’ name and various swear words can be particularly offensive to some people. In research conducted by the Authority, a similar phrase, “Jesus fucking Christ”, was considered unacceptable in all scenarios by 63 percent of people surveyed; 29 percent were of the view that it depended on the scenario in which the word was used, and eight percent considered it acceptable in all scenarios.3 We note that the research did not test the phrase’s acceptability in this particular context – that is, a documentary about drugs broadcast after 8.30pm. In these circumstances, and taking into account that the phrase subject to complaint was not tested as part of the research, we are of the view that the research findings can only be a guide, and that it is vital for us to carefully consider the particular circumstances and contextual factors relating to this case.

[13]  In our view, the use of the phrase “holy fuckin’ Jesus” on this occasion was borderline in terms of its acceptability. Inside New Zealand was an AO-classified documentary screened at 8.30pm outside of children’s viewing times. We consider that its subject matter – a discussion of whether or not cannabis should be legalised in New Zealand – indicated that the programme might contain more challenging material. More importantly, we emphasise that the programme was broadcast in Adults Only time and was preceded by a clear warning for “language that may offend”. We note in this respect that the programme contained relatively frequent coarse language leading up to the comment subject to complaint. In our view, the phrase, used in this context, would not have been unexpected for most viewers.

[14]  Accordingly, taking into account the above contextual factors, in particular the programme’s classification, adult target audience, and pre-broadcast warning, we decline to uphold the complaint that the broadcast breached Standard 1.

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration)

[15]  Standard 7 states that broadcasters should not encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, any section of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religion, culture or political belief.

[16]  The Authority has consistently defined “denigration” as blackening the reputation of a class of people (see, for example, Mental Health Commission and CanWest RadioWorks4), and “discrimination” as encouraging the different treatment of members of a particular group, to their detriment (for example, see Teoh and TVNZ5).

[17]  It is also well-established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act, a high level of invective is necessary for the Authority to conclude that a broadcast encourages denigration or discrimination in contravention of the standard (see, for example, McCartain and Angus and The Radio Network6).

[18]  The Authority has previously declined to uphold complaints under Standard 7 about the use of the phrase “Jesus Christ”. In Collier and TVNZ,7 the Authority said:

We consider that it is a fact of modern secular society that such language will often be used to convey different meanings and will be coloured by the context of its expression. To illustrate this point, the Authority has consistently referred to the definition of “Christ” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which includes “exclamation, expressing irritation, dismay, or surprise”. While we acknowledge that the use of the words “Jesus Christ” as an exclamation is offensive to some people, we note that for many New Zealanders it is a common part of everyday colloquial speech.

[19]  As noted above, we accept that the combination of the phrase “Jesus Christ” or variations of that phrase with coarse language compounds its offensiveness for some people. However, we are satisfied that on this occasion the phrase “holy fuckin’ Jesus” was employed in the manner described above, that is, as the man’s instinctive expression of awe and surprise at how much cannabis he had discovered. It was not intended to be derogatory or offensive, or to make a comment on Christians or their beliefs. Nor could it be said to amount to hate speech or vitriol.

[20]  Accordingly, we consider that the use of the words “holy fuckin’ Jesus” as an exclamation could not be seen as encouraging discrimination against, or the denigration of, Christian people as a section of the community. We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 7 complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
13 September 2011

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1                  Doug and Jane Russell’s formal complaint – 13 July 2011

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 14 July 2011

3                 Mr and Mrs Russell’s referral to the Authority – 18 July 2011

4                 TVWorks’ responses to the Authority – 29 July and 4 August 2011


1For example, New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference and CanWest TVWorks, Decision No. 2005-112

2New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference and CanWest TVWorks, Decision No. 2005-112

3What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting (Broadcasting Standards Authority, 2010) at page 19

4Decision No. 2006-030

5Decision No. 2008-091

6Decision No. 2002-152

7Decision No. 2010-123