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Sarah and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-079 (27 November 2018)

Summary

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

During an episode of Shortland Street, characters Lincoln and Jack took Nicole out for drinks to take her mind off her attacker. Lincoln, who was previously in a relationship with a man, was shown taking an illegal drug which he gave to Nicole. Later in the episode, Lincoln and Nicole were shown in bed together. In the episode broadcast the following evening, Jack asked Lincoln about being gay and sleeping with Nicole. Lincoln replied that he did not have to ‘put a label on it’, saying, ‘I’m just me’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the programme’s portrayal of Lincoln’s sexuality, by a straight actor, could have damaging effects on young viewers or those struggling with their sexuality. The character explained that he preferred not to use labels and there was no suggestion that Lincoln’s sexual orientation changed under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or that his sexual orientation was ‘a phase’. While the Authority acknowledged that ensuring diversity in casting was an important issue, the casting of straight actors to play gay or queer characters was a decision for the broadcaster. The actor’s portrayal of Lincoln was part of the programme’s fictional narrative, which in context was not in breach of standards. The Authority therefore did not identify any grounds which would justify restricting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression or dramatic license in this case.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Programme Information, Violence, Law and Order, Discrimination and Denigration, Alcohol, Balance, Accuracy, Fairness


The broadcast

[1]  During an episode of Shortland Street, characters Lincoln and Jack took Nicole out for drinks to take her mind off her attacker. Lincoln, who was previously in a relationship with a man, was shown taking an illegal drug which he gave to Nicole. Later in the episode, Lincoln and Nicole were shown in bed together.

[2]  In the episode broadcast the following evening, Jack asked Lincoln about being gay and sleeping with Nicole. Lincoln replied that he did not have to ‘put a label on it’, saying, ‘I’m just me’.

[3]  These episodes were classified PGR (Parental Guidance Recommended) and were broadcast at 7pm on 15 and 16 August 2018 on TVNZ 2.

The complaint

[4]  Jodie Sarah complained that the episode broadcast on 15 August 2018 depicted ‘homosexuality’ as ‘just a phase’, ‘and that once you are drunk you [will] go back to being straight’. The complainant argued that sexuality and sexual orientation did not work this way, and was concerned that this storyline could have damaging effects on young people and those struggling with their sexuality. The complainant was also concerned about allegedly negative comments made by the straight actor playing Lincoln and the programme’s portrayal of gay or queer characters by straight actors.

[5]  TVNZ’s response to the complaint was that:

  • Shortland Street has previously featured straight, gay and bisexual characters and Lincoln’s character depicted a different view of sexuality. There was no suggestion that Lincoln ‘went back to being straight’ through the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • The content was acceptable in the context of a PGR-classified programme, targeted at a young adult audience, and, as Shortland Street is a serial drama, audiences could expect this storyline to develop further.
  • The characters’ drug use was not glamorised, particularly given the ongoing storyline in which Jack became addicted to methamphetamine through his association with Lincoln, highlighting the negative consequences of taking illegal drugs.
  • The depiction of the characters drinking alcohol was fictional or dramatic. They were not underage or shown drinking to excess.

Our findings

[6]  In this decision, we have first set out a summary of our views on the complaint and the way in which we have considered the right to freedom of expression. Our findings on the particular standards raised by the complainant are set out below at paragraph [12].

[7]  Looking first at the right to freedom of expression, when we consider a complaint that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards, we weigh the value of the programme, and the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In particular, we have regard to the genre and context of the content aired.

[8]  The complainant has argued that this episode of Shortland Street could be harmful to those struggling with their sexuality, particularly young people who are most at risk. We understand that the complainant is concerned about the depiction of sexuality on screen and the impact this can have on our young people. We acknowledge the complainant’s concerns and recognise that these are important issues.

[9]  However, we did not agree that these episodes of Shortland Street were likely to cause harm to audiences in the manner alleged by the complainant.

[10]  Shortland Street is a fictional drama, known for testing and reflecting social and community issues. While Lincoln’s character was previously shown in a relationship with a man, he explained to Jack that he preferred not to use labels (such as ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘bisexual’) and we do not consider that there was any suggestion that the character’s sexual orientation changed under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or that his ‘homosexuality’ was ‘a phase’. In our view, these particular episodes of Shortland Street were inclusive towards queer or questioning characters, who might not identify by a particular label. We all agreed that this was a genuine depiction of sexual identity or orientation.

[11]  While we acknowledge that diversity in casting is an important issue to be considered by broadcasters, the casting of straight actors to play gay or queer characters is ultimately a decision for the broadcaster. The actor’s portrayal of Lincoln was part of the programme’s fictional narrative, which, taken in context, was not in breach of standards. Our role is limited to considering broadcast content, so we are unable to make a finding on the comments made, outside of the broadcast, by the actor playing Lincoln.

[12]  We set out our findings in relation to the particular standards raised by the complainant below:

  • Good Taste and Decency:1  This standard aims to protect audience members from viewing broadcasts that are likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. For the reasons we have outlined above, we do not consider that this broadcast was likely to cause undue harm to audiences, particularly given the clarification offered by Lincoln in the 16 August episode, which explained his views about his sexual identity. The context of this programme, which is known to raise provocative social and community issues, is also relevant to our assessment under this standard.
  • Programme Information:2  As noted above, Shortland Street is classified PGR and this particular episode was preceded by a warning recommending guidance for child viewers. As outlined by TVNZ in its submissions, Shortland Street is targeted towards ‘a relatively sophisticated young adult audience’, and we do not consider that this particular episode would have been outside audience expectations for the programme.
  • Violence:3  There was no violent content in this episode that might have been in breach of the violence standard, which requires broadcasters to exercise care or discretion when portraying violence.
  • Law and Order:4  While two of the characters in this episode were shown taking illegal drugs, the abuse of drugs is not actively promoted or encouraged in the programme,5 particularly given the ongoing storyline which highlighted the negative consequences of methamphetamine addiction. The law and order standard does not prohibit the depiction of illegal behaviour, and taking into account the context of the programme as a fictional drama series, we were satisfied that this broadcast was consistent with the maintenance of law and order.
  • Discrimination and Denigration:6  We do not consider that this episode or Lincoln’s ongoing storyline encouraged discrimination or denigration of any section of the community. The standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of legitimate drama,7 and while Jack was surprised at Lincoln’s behaviour given his assumption that Lincoln was gay, there was no malice or nastiness directed at Lincoln on account of his sexual orientation.
  • Alcohol:8  The depiction of alcohol consumption during this episode was appropriate to the programme genre (a fictional, dramatic series). The characters were not underage or shown drinking in a socially irresponsible way.

[13]  The balance and accuracy standards apply only to news, current affairs and factual programmes and therefore cannot be considered in relation to Shortland Street, a fictional drama.9

[14]  Finally, the fairness standard is intended to protect people and organisations taking part or referred to in a broadcast, rather than fictional characters.10

[15]  Overall, we were satisfied that this episode of Shortland Street depicted sexuality in fictional drama in a way that was inclusive and genuine. We have therefore not identified any grounds which would justify restricting the broadcasters right to freedom of expression or dramatic license in this case.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judge Bill Hastings
Chair

27 November 2018

 

 

Appendix

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

1     Jodie Sarah’s formal complaint – 17 August 2018
2     TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 20 September 2018
3     Jodie Sarah’s referral to the Authority – 20 September 2018
4     TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 9 Oc


 

1 Standard 1 – Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 35

2 Standard 2 – Programme Information, as above

3 Standard 4 – Violence, as above, page 36

4 Standard 5 – Law and Order, as above

5 Guideline 5a 

6 Standard 6 – Discrimination and Denigration, as above, page 37

7 Guideline 6c

8 Standard 7 – Alcohol, as above

9 Standard 8 – Balance and Standard 9 – Accuracy, as above, page 39

10 Standard 11 – Fairness, as above, page 41