BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Banks and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2011-062

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Christopher Banks
Number
2011-062
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers – host commented that teenagers were “mental”, “mad”, “not right in the head” – showed sketch of “Mad Uncle Jack” who had been released from psychiatric facility – allegedly in breach of standards relating to good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – content subject to complaint intended to be humorous and educational rather than offensive – contextual factors – not upheld

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – comments were host’s personal opinion with regard to teenage behaviour – he was not making a comment on people with mental illness as a section of the community – comments did not contain invective necessary to encourage denigration or discrimination – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]  An episode of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers was broadcast on TV One at 8pm on Wednesday 9 March 2011. Introducing the programme, the host Nigel Latta stated:

And you think having small kids was a mission, and then they grow into teenagers and things get completely out of control. They are moody, totally unreasonable and just not right in the head. Some days you wonder if anyone is going to get out alive. I am clinical psychologist Nigel Latta, I have been working with families for 20 years and I have created a one-man show aimed at putting some humour and commonsense back into [parenting], because it shouldn’t be that hard.

[2]  The episode subject to complaint focused on the developmental changes occurring in teenagers’ brains, particularly with respect to the mechanisms used in determining risk, and how this could lead to the kind of behaviour often associated with unruly teenagers. Introducing this topic, Mr Latta stated:

How does a sweet, loving child suddenly become a grumpy, surly, horrible teenager? To explain all this, tonight we are actually going inside teenagers’ brains because there is stuff going on in there that you wouldn’t believe.

[3]  A short segment of animations and sketches was shown as Mr Latta stated, via voiceover, “This episode we look at why teenagers act so outrageously: because they are mental, they are not right in the head, and I’ve got the hard science to prove it...” He then outlined the content of the episode, before stating, “But first, a basic principle for understanding the adolescent brain...” The programme cut to footage of Mr Latta on stage speaking to a live audience, as he continued, “Adolescence is more like a mental illness than a developmental phase”, and the audience laughed.  

[4]  This was followed by a sketch involving a typical family with two teenagers, and a character called “Mad Uncle Jack”, who was wearing an orange jumpsuit and had been released from a local psychiatric facility. The father said to the mother, “I don’t care what your sister says, he’s not staying. Remember what happened last time”. Footage of “Mad Uncle Jack” standing on the roof of the house screaming and crying in front of a crowd of onlookers was shown. Returning to the mother and father, the mother said, “He’s harmless, besides the kids love him”, and the father responded, “Yeah, that’s because they are as crazy as he is”.

[5]  Back on stage, Mr Latta explained the sketch, “If, for instance, the local psychiatric unit closed down and all of the people had been moved out into the community, including your uncle Jack, who was, let’s face it, mad and he smells a bit of pee...” He then proceeded to compare “Mad Uncle Jack” to teenagers in terms of their behaviour, for example, he said that they will say “mad stuff just to hurt you and break you down, and if you take it seriously you are a mug, you have just got to think, oh it’s just ‘Mad Uncle Jack’”. Mr Latta then used another fictional character, Harold the teenager, to illustrate his point. He stated, “What [Harold’s mum] doesn’t understand is that her darling Harold is a little loose in the loafers. He’s a few fries short of a happy meal. The wheels are spinning but the hamster is dead. In short, Harold is as mad as a meat-axe.”

[6]  Following an advertisement break, the episode returned to the sketch involving “Mad Uncle Jack”, as Mr Latta stated, “To recap, your average teenager is as mad as ‘Mad Uncle Jack’. Why? Because connections between their pre-frontal cortex and the rest of their brain are being rewired and this causes them to sometimes act like complete spazzers...”

[7]  At the end of the episode, Mr Latta stated, by way of summary, “Teenagers are as mad as ‘Mad Uncle Jack’, so don’t get too upset when they go off at you and say dreadful things”. Again, footage of “Mad Uncle Jack” standing on the rooftop shouting and crying was shown.

Complaint

[8]  Christopher Banks made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the episode breached standards relating to good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration.

[9]  The complainant considered that Mr Latta’s comments were “degrading and demeaning to people with experience of mental illness”. He referred to the “offensive and out-of-date” stereotype of the mad uncle escaping from an asylum, which, in his view, reinforced unsubstantiated public fears linking mental illness and violence.

[10]  Mr Banks considered that the host’s argument was, “don’t get strung up by strange teenage behaviour, because they’re nuts anyway”. In his view, this was irresponsible as it suggested that mental illness and its symptoms should be ignored.

[11]  The complainant referred to a number of comments posted on his Facebook blog about the episode, including the following:

Being bipolar myself, I am absolutely appalled at the backwards language this public figure has used... If this was any other sector of disability, he would have been sacked instantly, but because it is ‘just mental health’ it is allowed to be ridiculed with totally careless commentary.

[12]  Mr Banks maintained that the broadcast encouraged denigration and a lack of respect for people with mental illness, particularly teenagers. He said, “If you make a blanket statement like ‘all teenagers are mental’, then you’re potentially going to miss picking up on kids that really are struggling with their mental health, and the ultimate consequence of that – in extreme cases – is self-harm and suicide attempts”. The fact that Mr Latta was a clinical psychologist, “the sort of [person] we’re expected to turn to in times of mental crisis”, compounded the damage caused by the broadcast, he argued.  

Standards

[13]  TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 1 and 7 and guideline 7a of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which 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.

Guideline 7a   

This standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is:

  • factual
  • a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion; or
  • legitimate humour, drama or satire.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[14]  TVNZ said that to constitute a breach of Standard 1, the broadcast material must be unacceptable in the context in which it was shown, including the time of broadcast, the programme’s classification, the target audience, and the use of warnings.

[15]  The broadcaster said that The Politically Incorrect Guide to Teenagers was a follow-up series to The Politically Incorrect Parenting Show, in which clinical psychologist Nigel Latta presented an “irreverent and common-sense” approach to dealing with troublesome teenagers, detailing the various developmental factors that may contribute to their behaviour. This episode was rated PGR and was a “mix between Nigel Latta hosting in a manner akin to stand-up comedy, animation, filmed sketch segments and narration of the understood facts over old-fashioned educational film footage”, it said.

[16]  TVNZ did not consider that the episode would have offended or distressed viewers. It contended that Mr Latta was using humour to illustrate his point about the normal development of the human brain, and that “There is no suggestion that teens are inferior because of the way their brains are wired”. In the broadcaster’s view, Mr Latta’s comments were intended to be light-hearted, rather than pejorative or discriminatory towards people with mental illness. The scenario involving “Mad Uncle Jack” was exaggerated for comedic effect and the audience would have realised that it was not realistic, it said. Overall, the broadcaster considered that Mr Latta’s comments were his personal opinion “packaged in a humorous way (with situations exaggerated for humorous effect)”, which it said were protected by the right to freedom of expression in the Bill of Rights Act 1990.

[17]  For these reasons, the broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint that the episode breached Standard 1.

[18]  Turning to consider Standard 7, TVNZ argued that the episode was clearly intended to educate, rather than denigrate, and that this was facilitated by its humorous tone. For example, it noted that when Mr Latta stated that being a teenager was akin to having a mental illness, he contextualised it by reference to differences between adolescent and adult brain function. It said that it was clear that Mr Latta was exaggerating for comedic effect and that the statement was not intended to be taken seriously.

[19]  Similarly, TVNZ said that segments involving “Mad Uncle Jack” were used to demonstrate “that parents should not take the actions and statements of misbehaving teenagers to heart”. It considered that the character reinforced that Mr Latta’s “every word” was not intended to be taken seriously.

[20]  The broadcaster asserted that the intent of the episode was to reassure, educate and promote understanding and patience, rather than to incite discrimination against teenagers or the mentally ill. It stated, “Some teenagers may not behave in all the ways outlined, but the programme is clearly intended to discuss the influence the normal adolescence developmental stage has on those that do, and to reassure parents that they are not the only ones dealing with such behaviour.”

[21]  In the broadcaster’s view, the host’s comments lacked invective and instead consisted of “gentle gibes and obvious hyperbole”. It reiterated that the host’s tone was clearly light-hearted.

[22]  Accordingly, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint that Standard 7 had been breached.

Referral to the Authority

[23]  Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Banks referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He maintained that the episode reinforced stereotypes and encouraged discrimination against people with experience of mental illness.

[24]  With regard to the broadcaster’s contention that the content amounted to legitimate humour, the complainant stated that there was a difference between the audience laughing “with us” and “at us”. He said that, while the former could be considered light-hearted banter, the latter amounted to denigration, which in his opinion occurred on this occasion. Further, he said, at no stage did the host clarify that he was not intending to be pejorative towards people with mental illness. The complainant provided the Authority with a copy of an article from the “Herald on Sunday”, which reported that TVNZ had cut the following statement (made by Mr Latta) from the episode due to time constraints:

Now I’m not for a moment disparaging or in any way downplaying the sufferings of families when the kids have actual psychiatric illness because that’s terrible and there’s a big stress on families.

[25]  Mr Banks considered that it was the content of the episode and not the intention behind it that should determine whether or not the broadcast encouraged discrimination. While he accepted that the episode was about parenting teenagers, he maintained that Mr Latta used stereotypes of those with mental illness to illustrate “how bad teenage behaviour could be, and included a sketch of a mentally ill person [who] came to stay with a family and encouraged the teenagers to behave badly”. He considered that the “shameless” use of stereotypes about the mentally ill reinforced an “outcast mentality”, which was made even worse by the fact that it came from an expert psychologist.

[26]  In order to convey his argument, Mr Banks referred to other groups that could have been substituted for “Mad Uncle Jack”, for example, “Spazzo Steve” who was intellectually disabled, or “Tama the Thug” who was a Māori criminal. He said that evidence showed that the brain functions of these groups worked differently from “normal people”, and that while “a lot of people would find it funny [to compare these groups to teenagers, it is] also incredibly politically incorrect and offensive, and similar in nature to the ‘Mad Uncle Jack’ example”.

[27]  Mr Banks considered that the comments posted on his Facebook blog in support of his complaint showed that those targeted in the broadcast (people with experience of mental illness), were “upset, disturbed and offended” by the comments. He maintained that Standards 1 and 7 had been breached.

Authority’s Determination

[28]  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)

[29]  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:

  • The Politically Incorrect Guide to Parenting was broadcast at 8pm
  • it was classified PGR
  • the programme’s adult target audience
  • the programme’s title which indicated that it was “politically incorrect”
  • the expectations of regular viewers.

[30]  The complainant argued that the host’s remarks were degrading and demeaning towards people with mental illness, and that the stereotype of the mad uncle escaping from an asylum reinforced unsubstantiated public fears linking mental illness and violence.  

[31]  The Authority has previously stated (e.g. Yeoman and TVNZ1) that standards relating to good taste and decency are primarily aimed at broadcasts that contain sexual material, nudity, violence or coarse language. The content subject to complaint did not fall within any of these categories. However, the Authority has also said that it will consider the standard in relation to any broadcast that portrays or discusses material in a way that is likely to cause offence or distress.

[32]  In our view, the premise of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Parenting was that it was intended to take an unconventional and humorous approach to issues associated with modern parenting. We consider that it was implicit in the programme’s title that it was likely to contain material that some people may find offensive or unorthodox. We note that, introducing the programme, Mr Latta stated, “I have created a one-man show aimed at putting some humour and commonsense back into [parenting]”. In our view, the nature of the programme is an important contextual factor in assessing this part of the complaint.

[33]  In light of the right to freedom of expression, the Authority affords high protection to satire and comedy, particularly in terms of assessing standards of good taste and decency. This means that while the lampooning of an institution or group in a satirical context may offend at least some members of that group or institution, the programme will have to be particularly vicious or vitriolic in order to reach the necessary threshold to find a breach of Standard 1.

[34]  We consider that, in making the remarks subject to complaint, the host was not intending to be offensive or abusive towards people with mental illness. Rather, he was endeavoring to use humor and satire as a means of conveying his opinions, and educating parents, about adolescent behavior and brain development. For example, at the end of the episode he stated, “To recap, your average teenager is as mad as ‘Mad Uncle Jack’. Why? Because connections between their pre-frontal cortex and the rest of their brain are being rewired and this causes them to sometimes act like complete spazzers”. Similarly, the “Mad Uncle Jack” sketch was clearly an exaggeration, which was intended to be humorous, rather than pejorative. We disagree that the sketch was designed to link people with mental illness and a propensity for violence.

[35]  Taking into account the relevant contextual factors, in particular, the nature of the programme and its humorous intent, we find that the content subject to complaint did not breach Standard 1.

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration)

[36]  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.

[37]  The Authority has consistently defined “denigration” as blackening the reputation of a class of people (see, for example, Mental Health Commission and CanWest RadioWorks2), and “discrimination” as encouraging the different treatment of members of a particular group, to their detriment (for example, see Teoh and TVNZ3).

[38]  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 Network4).

[39]  As noted above, the content subject to complaint was intended to be humorous and light-hearted. It was not vitriolic and did not incite hatred or contempt towards people with mental illness; the exaggerated and comedic nature of the “Mad Uncle Jack” sketch reinforced this. A programme’s humorous or satirical intent is a highly relevant factor in assessing an allegation of discrimination or denigration.5 This is explicitly recognised by guideline 7a to Standard 7, which states that the standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material offered in the context of a legitimate dramatic, humorous or satirical work. This does not mean that drama, humour or satire are given unchecked freedom; their identification by guideline 7a simply reflects the fact that democratic societies place a high value on these forms of artistic expression, and limitations should be imposed only in exceptional circumstances.

[40]  On this occasion, we consider that the purpose of the episode was to advise and educate parents about how to manage their teenage children’s risk-seeking behaviour, while understanding that it was a natural part of their growth and brain development. The focus of the programme was teenagers; it was not intended to make a comment on people with mental illness. The programme was clearly not intended to denigrate people with mental illness on the basis of some perceived group characteristic. Nor could it be said to have encouraged the different treatment of people with mental illness to their detriment. 

[41]  Taking into account the nature of the programme and its humorous intent, we do not consider that the high threshold necessary for finding a breach of Standard 7 has been reached. In our view, Mr Latta’s comments and the sketch involving “Mad Uncle Jack” clearly did not carry the invective necessary to encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, people with mental illness as a section of the community.

[42]  Accordingly, we 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
9 August 2011

Appendix

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

1                  Christopher Banks’ formal complaint – 29 March 2011

2                 TVNZ’s response to the formal complaint – 27 April 2011

3                 Mr Banks’ referral to the Authority – 13 May 2011

4                 TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 1 July 2011


1Decision No. 2008-087

2Decision No. 2006-030

3Decision No. 2008-091

4Decision No. 2002-152

5New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference and CanWest TVWorks Ltd, Decision No.2005-112