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Winquist and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-037 (30 June 2017)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Complainant

  • Peter Winquist

Dated

30th June 2017

Number

2017-037

Programme

Saturday Morning

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

An interview was broadcast on Saturday Morning with a British comedy writer and producer. Following a discussion about causing offence to audiences, the interviewee recalled his time as a radio host and a complaint he received from the Bishop of Oxford about a crucifixion joke. He could not remember the joke, and the presenter invited listeners to ‘...send in a series of very funny jokes about the crucifixion to see if we can approximate it’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the presenter’s remark was against common decency and offensive to Christians. The remark was not intended to trivialise or make light of the act of crucifixion or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and did not reach the threshold necessary to encourage discrimination against, or denigration of, the Christian community.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Discrimination and Denigration


Introduction

[1]  An interview was broadcast on Saturday Morning with a British comedy writer and producer. The interview covered topics such as President Donald Trump and how to reconcile opposing political views, the internet’s ‘echo chamber’, the interviewee’s work on a popular television programme and his interest in religion and theology.

[2]  Following a discussion about causing offence to audiences, the interviewee recalled his time as a radio producer and a complaint he received from the Bishop of Oxford about a crucifixion joke. He could not remember the joke – only that it was ‘very funny’ – and the presenter invited listeners to ‘...send in a series of very funny jokes about the crucifixion to see if we can approximate it’.

[3]  Peter Winquist complained that it was against common decency to make jokes about crucifixion, which was ‘a slow agonising death’. In this context, he said, the joke related to the death of Jesus Christ, and the presenter’s comment was therefore denigrating and highly offensive to Christians.

[4]  The issues raised in Mr Winquist’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration standards as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The item was broadcast at 10.25am on 25 March 2017 on RNZ National. 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 threaten current norms of good taste and decency?

[6]  The purpose of the good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) is to protect audience members from viewing broadcasts that are likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. In a radio context, this standard is usually considered in relation to offensive language, sexual references or references to violence, but may also apply to other material presented in a way that is likely to cause offence or distress.

The parties’ submissions

[7]  Mr Winquist submitted that he found the presenter’s remark extremely offensive, arguing that decent human beings did not laugh at torture and murder, and it was ‘against all common decency to make jokes about a slow, agonising death such as crucifixion’.

[8]  RNZ submitted that:

  • The remark was made in the context of an exchange of light-hearted banter occasioned by the guest’s inability to remember the reason for a complaint during his time working on radio at the BBC.
  • The remark was not made with any invective or ill will against the person or image of Jesus Christ directly.

Our analysis

[9]  We acknowledge that the presenter’s comment, inviting jokes about crucifixion, caused offence to the complainant.

[10]  Nevertheless, the right to freedom of expression permits individuals to express themselves in the way they choose, and is given high value in our open and democratic society. This right must be weighed against the level of harm alleged to have been caused by the broadcast, in terms of the underlying objectives of the relevant broadcasting standards.

[11]  In this case, we are satisfied that the presenter’s comments did not threaten current norms of good taste and decency at such a level that would warrant our intervention. While we have accepted that the presenter’s remark caused offence to the complainant, in our view it was made as a result of the interviewee forgetting the joke discussed, and was not intended to make light of, or trivialise, either the act of crucifixion itself or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

[12]  The presenter’s comment was made in passing and the discussion quickly moved on to other topics. We also note that the interviewee went on to discuss his own interest in religion and theology, and made a number of positive comments about Christianity, which we consider went some way to mitigating any actual or perceived potential harm.

[13]  Accordingly we do not uphold this part of the complaint.

Did the broadcast encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, Christians as a section of the community?

[14]  The objective of the discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 6) is to protect sections of the community from verbal and other attacks. The standard protects against broadcasts which encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, 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.

The parties’ submissions

[15]  Mr Winquist submitted that the joking about crucifixion, which in this context related to the death of Jesus Christ, was denigrating to Mr Winquist’s church and its leader.

[16]  RNZ submitted that:

  • It was not clear from Mr Winquist’s submissions as to which section of the community was disadvantaged by the presenter’s comment.
  • Humour was an exception to the standard.

Our analysis

[17]  In light of the importance of the right to freedom of expression, mentioned above, a high level of condemnation, often with an element of malice or nastiness, will be necessary to conclude that a broadcast encouraged discrimination or denigration in breach of the standard (guideline 6b). ‘Discrimination’ is defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular section of the community, to their detriment. ‘Denigration’ is defined as devaluing the reputation of a class of people (guideline 6a).

[18]  We do not consider the presenter’s comments could reasonably be said to have carried undertones of malice or nastiness at a level which encouraged the different treatment of all Christians, or devalued their reputation. As we have said, the host’s remarks inviting listeners to submit jokes was made in light of the interviewee’s inability to remember the joke, and was not made with the intention to trivialise the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Weighed against the importance of the right to freedom of expression, the presenter’s comments did not reach the high threshold required to find a breach of this standard.

[19]  Accordingly we do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich

Chair

30 June 2017

 

Appendix

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

1      Peter Winquist’s formal complaint – 25 March 2017
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 27 April 2017
3      Mr Winquist’s referral to the Authority – 4 May 2017
4      RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 18 May 2016