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Barnett, Brown and Dicey and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2012-051

Members

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

Complainants

  • Ian and Pam Barnett of Wellington
  • James Brown of Wellington
  • Robin Dicey of Cromwell

Dated

21st August 2012

Number

2012-051

Programme

Book reading: Eggs

Channel/Station

National Radio

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd


Complaints under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Book reading: Eggs – story contained mature themes and coarse language – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency standard

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – artistic work – language and themes acceptable in context – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  A book reading of Eggs, written by New Zealand author Maxine Alterio, was broadcast on Radio New Zealand National on 6 April 2012 (Good Friday) at 6.50am. The story was told from the perspective of an “at risk youth” who attended a Polytechnic course where she and her classmates looked after eggs in order to learn parenting skills. The story contained mature themes including references to drug taking and sex, as well as some coarse language, for example, the words “shit”, “piss” and “bastard”.

[2]  Ian and Pam Barnett, James Brown, and Robin Dicey made formal complaints to Radio New Zealand Ltd (RNZ), the broadcaster, alleging that the language and themes conveyed in the story were “appalling”, “offensive” and “unacceptable”, especially when broadcast on Good Friday morning when children were more likely to be listening.

[3]  The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Did the broadcast, and specifically the language and themes in the story, threaten current norms of good taste and decency?

[4]  In assessing an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we must give proper consideration to the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Any restriction on the right to free speech must be prescribed by law, reasonable, and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (section 5).

[5]  The starting point is to assess the value of the particular speech, and then to balance this against the potential harm that is likely to result from allowing the unfettered dissemination of that speech. The story was a piece of fiction and amounted to artistic expression. It was intended primarily to entertain, though it also offered commentary on some serious themes. An online review of the author’s work indicates that she is an accomplished New Zealand writer of contemporary, and often complex, fiction and non-fiction stories.1

[6]  We note that Standard 1 (good taste and decency) is primarily aimed at broadcasts that contain sexual material, nudity, coarse language or violence.2 The Authority will also consider the standard in relation to any broadcast that portrays or discusses material in a way that is likely to cause offence or distress.3 Here, the alleged harm, in terms of the underlying objectives of the standard, was said to derive from the language and themes conveyed in the story. The complainants found the content offensive and unexpected given the context of the broadcast, and in particular its time of broadcast on Good Friday.

[7]  Relevant contextual factors in this case include:

  • the story was broadcast at about 6.50am on Radio New Zealand National
  • it was broadcast on Good Friday, a public holiday
  • it was a book reading from a work of fiction
  • the story was titled “Eggs”, potentially suggesting it was an Easter story and therefore family friendly
  • it contained mature themes
  • it contained some coarse language
  • Radio New Zealand’s adult target audience
  • expectations of regular listeners.

[8]  RNZ acknowledged that the complainants were offended by the broadcast, but argued that the language and imagery used in the story were acceptable in context. It referred to the theme running through the story, being the “poignant question of whether the storyteller’s mother had regrets about her being adopted out as a new baby. As well there was the theme of ‘loss’ in the fate of some of the eggs that were in the care of the storyteller and her classmates.” The broadcaster asserted that before 7am on a Friday morning was not recognised as a time when children would be listening to Radio New Zealand National.

[9]  As noted above, the book reading was an artistic work. We agree that it included mature themes and coarse language, and acknowledge the complainants’ concerns that it was broadcast on Good Friday morning when children could have been listening, and when it was reasonable to expect family-friendly content, for example relating to Easter. In this respect, given the title of the story, Eggs, we can understand why some regular Radio New Zealand listeners might have been offended and surprised by the content.

[10]  However, the Authority has previously acknowledged that the right to freedom of expression encompasses the right to offend, provided the harm likely to result from allowing the unfettered dissemination of the speech does not outweigh the importance of the speech to society.4 We consider that, in this instance, the potential harm in terms of the underlying objectives of Standard 1 was mitigated by a number of factors. Radio New Zealand National primarily targets an adult audience with adult content. In addition, the language was not gratuitous but rather reflected the story’s mature themes, and the colloquial dialect of the main character, a disaffected youth.

[11]  While we recognise that the scheduling of this story on a holiday morning at a time when children could be listening was unfortunate, having regard to all the relevant factors we find insufficient justification for us to interfere with the right to freedom of expression. We therefore decline to uphold the complaints.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
21 August 2012