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Bartlett and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-093 (4 February 2019)

  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Susie Staley
  • Morton Bartlett

Warning: This decision contains language that some readers may find offensive


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

During an interview on Breakfast about a proposed cull of Himalayan tahr, the Minister of Conservation, Hon Eugenie Sage, appeared to use the word ‘cunters’ when referring to the educational effort undertaken by tahr hunters. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the Minister’s use of this word during this interview breached the good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration standards. The use of the word was an accidental slip of the tongue and it was clear that the Minister intended to refer to ‘hunters’ during this section of the interview. The use of the word was not deliberate nor was it used with any malice or invective. The Minister herself acknowledged that she could have enunciated the word ‘hunters’ more clearly during the interview and apologised for any offence it caused. Overall, the Authority found that the use of this term, in the particular context, did not meet the threshold tests for breach of the relevant standards.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Discrimination and Denigration

The broadcast

[1]  During an interview on Breakfast about a proposed cull of Himalayan tahr, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage appeared to use the word ‘cunters’ when referring to the educational effort undertaken by tahr hunters.

[2]  In the extended live interview, the Minister appeared to say the following:

…and the cunters too have committed to do a big educational effort so that they shoot the female tahr, not just bulls which have this magnificent mane which they like to hunt. So, it’s a more collaborative process going forward…

[3]  The interview was broadcast on TVNZ 2 on 3 October 2018 at 6.48am.

The complaint

[4]  Morton Bartlett complained that the broadcast breached the good taste and decency and discrimination and denigration standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, for the following reasons:

  • The word is highly offensive and vile.
  • The Minister used the word deliberately, it was not a slip of the tongue as she had already discussed ‘cullers’ before moving on to discussing the Tahr Liaison Group (which includes hunters).
  • It is unacceptable for the broadcaster to allow this sort of language without an apology to the public.
  • It is well known that the Minister does not like hunters and her use of this word was a deliberate attempt to denigrate hunters and ridicule their massive contribution to wild animal control.

The broadcaster’s response

[5]  TVNZ recognised that Mr Bartlett found the word offensive but submitted that the standards were not breached, for the following reasons:

  • The use of the word was not deliberate.
  • The Minister’s comment where the slip occurred is clearly intended to be a positive and encouraging one about how hunters are part of a collaborative process to reduce tahr numbers. It is highly unlikely that an offensive term would be deliberately used towards or about a group which is being complimented.
  • The Breakfast Executive Producer spoke to the Minister’s press secretary immediately after the broadcast and was informed the Minister’s use of the word was a simple slip of the tongue. The Executive Producer considered the word was likely a portmanteau of ‘cullers’ and ‘hunters’ and was not intentional.
  • The Minister also made a statement about the slip, acknowledging that she did not enunciate the ‘h’ sound in ‘hunters’ clearly enough and that she regretted any offence caused.

The standards

[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.

[7]  The discrimination and denigration standard (Standard 6) 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.

[8]  A high level of condemnation, often with an element of malice or nastiness, will be necessary to find that a broadcast encouraged discrimination or denigration in breach of the standard.1

Our analysis

[9]  In New Zealand we value the right to freedom of expression. However, this is an example of one of the perils of live broadcasting where, at times, even with the best of intentions, mistakes do take place. We accept this instance was a trivial and accidental slip of the tongue and, as explained below, the standards, which are designed to provide boundaries for freedom of expression, are not likely to be breached in this type of situation. 

Good Taste and Decency

[10]  We accept that the word ‘cunt’ and derivations of it are ordinarily not acceptable in broadcasting, particularly during breakfast shows. The word ranked first in our 2018 Language That May Offend in Broadcasting research, with 63% of respondents considering its use completely unacceptable in all scenarios.2 However, context is always a key consideration in determining whether the word’s use was likely to cause widespread offence.

[11]  In this case, there are a number of contextual factors which mitigate against a breach of broadcasting standards:

  • The word was not used deliberately by the Minister. The Minister’s press secretary informed the Breakfast Executive Producer that Minister Sage’s use of this word was a slip of the tongue.
  • Given Minister Sage was talking about cullers and hunters during the interview, we agree that it is possible she accidentally created a portmanteau of the two words. It was clear from the context of the discussion that Minister Sage intended to refer to ‘hunters’ during this section of the interview.
  • The word was used in the context of a positive comment from Minister Sage about the efforts of hunters to work collaboratively with the Government. In this context it was unlikely to have been used deliberately and offensively. There was no apparent malice or invective in the use of the word.
  • Ms Sage also made a statement that she would ‘never use that word in relation to anyone’ but also acknowledged her mis-enunciation, saying ‘I regret that that momentary lapse of enunciation has offended you.’

[12] We also note the following contextual factors:

  • Breakfast is aimed at an adult audience and children were unlikely to be watching.
  • The interview was broadcast live, meaning there was no opportunity for the broadcaster to edit out any potentially offensive statements.
  • Neither the Minister nor the hosts of the programme reacted to or acknowledged the word. They continued to behave professionally, so did not draw attention to it.

[13]  Given Minister Sage’s use of this word was clearly a slip of the tongue, we do not consider that the expression was likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. 

[14]  Accordingly we do not uphold this complaint under the good taste and decency standard.

Discrimination and Denigration

[15]  Taking into account the contextual factors referred to above, it was clear the comments were not made with the condemnation or malice required to find a breach of this standard.

[16]  Accordingly we do not uphold this complaint under the discrimination and denigration standard.

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




Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Judge Bill Hastings
4 February 2019



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

1     Morton Bartlett’s formal complaint – 5 October 2018
2     TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 1 November 2018
3     Mr Bartlett’s referral to the Authority – 2 November 2018
4     TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 9 November 2018

1 Commentary: Discrimination and Denigration, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 16

2 See Language that May Offend in Broadcasting (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018, page 32