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Bowman and RadioWorks Ltd - 2012-049

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Alana Bowman
Number
2012-049
Broadcaster
RadioWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio Live # 2

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Michael Laws Talkback – included discussion on a study which showed a link between domestic violence and animal abuse – host made a number of comments that were critical of the women who took part in the study and of women who stayed in violent relationships because of their pets – for example, he said that they were “morons”, “probably deserved to be abused”, and were “born sub-normal” – host made comments that were critical of the White Ribbon campaign – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, accuracy, and discrimination and denigration standards

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – talkback is a robust and opinionated environment – host’s approach could be considered offensive and provocative but was for effect and to generate a response – overall, programmes were balanced – contextual factors – not upheld

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – comments limited to women who took part in the study and to those who stayed in violent relationships because of their pets – these groups of women are not sections of the community to which the standard applies – in any event, the comments did not reach the necessary threshold to encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, women as a section of the community – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – comments amounted to Mr Laws’ personal opinion and were therefore exempt from standards of accuracy under guideline 5a – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  During Michael Laws Talkback, broadcast on Radio Live on 28 and 29 March 2012, the host discussed the results of a study conducted by Women’s Refuge and the SPCA, titled “Pets used as Pawns in Domestic Violence”. The study showed “that one in three women won’t quit a violent relationship, worried that their animals will be tortured or killed”. Mr Laws expressed views, throughout the programmes, which were critical of the women who took part in the study and of women who stayed in violent relationships because of fears for their pets’ safety. For example, he said that they were “morons”, “probably deserved to be abused”, and were “born sub-normal”.

[2]  Alana Bowman made a formal complaint to RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programmes breached broadcasting standards because Mr Laws’ comments were inaccurate and in bad taste. In addition, she argued that his comments encouraged discrimination against, and the denigration of, women experiencing domestic violence, and those who participated in the White Ribbon campaign.

[3]  The issue is whether the programmes, and specifically Mr Laws’ comments, breached Standards 1 (good taste and decency), 5 (accuracy), and 7 (discrimination and denigration) of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

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

Nature of the programmes and freedom of expression

[5]  We recognise the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and acknowledge the importance of the values underlying that right. The right to free expression includes the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form. Any restriction on the right to freedom of expression must be prescribed by law, reasonable, and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (section 5).

[6]  The comments subject to complaint were made by Michael Laws, a well-known talkback host with a presentation style that is often controversial and provocative. The topic under discussion was a survey conducted by Women’s Refuge in partnership with the SPCA, which found a link between animal cruelty and domestic and family violence in New Zealand.1

[7]  Mr Laws made comments that questioned the veracity of the study. Specifically, he questioned whether the research was independent enough to be reliable, stating:

But this survey is being conducted by Women’s Refuge and the SPCA. So I am questioning the fundamental impartiality of it, and I don’t think that those women exist in great legions.

[8]  He made a number of comments that were critical of the women who took part in the study and which extended to all women who stayed in abusive relationships because of fears for their pets’ safety. For example, in the 28 March broadcast he said:

For those women who took part in that survey and who said that [they would stay in a violent relationship because of fear for their pet’s safety], I am now going to abuse you myself. Are you a moron, seriously, are abused women morons? Let me get this right, “I won’t leave an abusive relationship because you might hurt my pet, or an animal, so I am going to stay in an abusive relationship, presumably with my children, who will be exposed to this, because I am worried what you are going to do to Kitty.” Are you joking? Seriously, don’t let these women breed.

I’m going to say something and I know it’s going to be controversial, but I am going to say this, bugger it all anyhow. If you’re in an abusive relationship and you’ve decided that you’re going to stay and put yourself in danger or [your] children [in danger] because of your pet, you probably deserve to be abused. You know seriously, because that kind of thinking is so fundamentally flawed and unbelievably inhuman, that you would therefore place your children at risk because of “Kitty” or “Fido”. I am not sure you deserve to have children, I am not sure you deserve to have a relationship. I am not sure you deserve to be taken seriously, if that’s the way you think.

[9]  It is clear that Mr Laws’ views related, to some extent, to what he considered to be a choice – a choice by women in violent relationships to put their own safety and the safety of their children at risk, in order to protect their pets. Mr Laws invited listeners to call in and give their thoughts and opinions and he explicitly invited listeners to challenge his views. In this respect, he stimulated discussion and debate on a serious social problem (domestic violence). There was a level of public interest in the broadcasts, which the courts have suggested is an indicator that speech is socially important.1

[10]  We therefore think we should be cautious about interfering with the programmes’ broadcast and reception.

Did the programmes, and specifically Mr Laws’ comments, threaten current norms of good taste and decency?

[11]  Standard 1 states that broadcasters should observe standards of good taste and decency. The standard is primarily concerned with the broadcast of sexual material, nudity, coarse language or violence.3 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.4

[12]  When we consider an alleged breach of good taste and decency, we take into account the context of the broadcast, which here includes:

  • Michael Laws Talkback was broadcast between 9am and 12pm
  • talkback radio is recognised as a robust and opinionated environment, in which the host and callers often express strong or provocative views
  • the programme on 28 March included discussion from callers who disagreed with Mr Laws’ views
  • the programme on 29 March included an interview with the Chief Families Commissioner (the Commissioner) who criticised and challenged Mr Laws’ views
  • Mr Laws’ target audience
  • expectations of regular listeners
  • Mr Laws is well-known for his presentation style, which is often controversial and provocative.

[13]  RadioWorks argued that Mr Laws’ comments were acceptable in context. In particular, it said that talkback radio was a robust and provocative forum, and that while the opinions of Mr Laws could be considered extreme by some listeners, there was a general expectation that talkback hosts would make narrow, one-sided, hyperbolic and controversial statements for effect and to generate discussion and debate.

[14]  In our view, this was a typical example of how talkback is designed to operate, and an illustration of its value to society. The Authority has consistently recognised that “the host’s role in talkback programmes is to elicit audience reaction by taking a strong position on a topical issue”, and that “the very nature of talkback, which has an open line format, allows for listeners to call and put forward alternative perspectives on a controversial issue of public importance”.5

[15]  Here, Mr Laws, in the course of discussing a serious and ongoing social problem, raised a point of view which he was entitled to hold and to share with his audience. He made his approach clear from the outset, when he stated, “I’m going to say something and I know it’s going to be controversial, but I am going to say this, bugger it all anyhow”. While Mr Laws chose to express that view in language that could be considered offensive and provocative, he did this for effect and to draw a response from the audience. 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.6 In Blissett and RadioWorks, the Authority stated:7

In some situations, the value of the speech will be such that the importance of there being a freedom to express what is being said means that the cost of the resulting offensiveness has to be carried by society.

[16]  In taking this approach, Mr Laws was successful in drawing extensive and wide-ranging comment on the issue, from his general audience and significantly, in our view, from the Commissioner. He invited discussion and debate, stating, “Can I just ask people, what is your opinion of women, or any individual, who stays because of ‘Fido’ or ‘Kitty’?”, and, “Your thoughts on that – do these women deserve to be abused, in fact invite it, if that’s their reason for staying?”

[17]  Mr Laws’ comments were balanced by callers who relayed their own experiences and offered opinions that were supportive of women who stayed in violent relationships because they feared for their pets’ safety. The debate continued into the following day’s broadcast, when Mr Laws read out an email from the Chief Families Commissioner (the Commissioner) in response to the previous day’s broadcast. The email stated:

To suggest that somehow women can be deserving of violence is not only uninformed, it is abhorrent. With an average of 14 women killed a year in family violence incidents, all New Zealanders should take violence against women seriously, including Michael Laws.

[18]  The 29 March programme consisted wholly of an interview with the Commissioner, during which he offered alternative views to those expressed by Mr Laws, openly challenged his opinions, and criticised the view that “somehow women were deserving of violence”. Importantly, in our view, the Commissioner put forward the view that the issue was not so clear-cut, and that Mr Laws’ opinions on the matter came from what he considered to be a position of ignorance.

[19]  Taking into account the context of the broadcasts, and giving full weight to the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, we find that upholding the Standard 1 complaint would be an unjustified limit on the right to free speech. Accordingly, we decline to uphold this part of the complaint.

Did the programmes, and specifically Mr Laws’ comments, encourage the denigration of, or discrimination against, any section of the community?

[20]  Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) 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.

[21]  The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as blackening the reputation of a class of people (see, for example, Mental Health Commission and CanWest RadioWorks)8. “Discrimination” has been consistently defined as encouraging the different treatment of the members of a particular group to their detriment (see for example Teoh and TVNZ9).

[22]  It is also well-established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, a high level of invective is necessary for the Authority to conclude that a broadcast encourages discrimination in contravention of the standard (see, for example, McCartain and Angus and The Radio Network10).

[23]  Ms Bowman argued that Mr Laws’ comments “perpetuate the most harmful of generalisations and stereotypes about the nature of domestic violence and its victims, and specifically the belief that women want or deserve abuse by their intimate partners”. She maintained that Mr Laws’ comments about the White Ribbon march, and in particular that those who took part should be “ashamed about themselves”, were “degrading to the campaign and specifically to its participants”.

[24]  RadioWorks asserted that Mr Laws’ comments were directed at, and limited to, the women who participated in the “Pets as Pawns” survey and did not extend to women in general, nor to all women in abusive relationships; his comments were directed at “just those who would stay to protect their pets”, it said. The broadcaster did not consider that Mr Laws’ use of the term “moron” amounted to “hate speech” or “vitriol”. Further, it noted that Mr Laws received a wide range of opinions from callers, including people who disagreed with him, and that he participated in these discussions in a “measured and relatively respectful manner”.

[25]  We agree that Mr Laws’ comments were limited to the women who took part in the study and to those who stayed in violent relationships because of fears for their pets’ safety. These groups of women are not “sections of the community” to which Standard 7 applies (see paragraph [20]). We have nevertheless considered whether the broadcasts encouraged the denigration of, or discrimination against, women in general as a section of the community that is recognised by the standard.

[26]  In determining whether Mr Laws’ comments reached the high threshold required for encouraging discrimination or denigration, the wider context of the broadcast is relevant. As noted above, Mr Laws chose to express his views in language that could be considered offensive and provocative. However, the Authority has consistently stated that comments will not breach the prohibition against denigration or discrimination simply because they are critical of a particular group, because they offend people, or because they are rude.11

[27]  Mr Laws’ comments formed part of a discussion on talkback radio, which is recognised as a robust forum in which the host and callers express strong opinions on issues which provoke extreme viewpoints.12 The comments were made by a well-known host renowned for his challenging style and in the context of a discussion about a legitimate and topical issue, as opposed to being sustained denigratory abuse.13 The approach taken by Mr Laws encouraged discussion on that issue and his comments were balanced by callers who disagreed with him and by the Families Commissioner who participated in a long discussion with Mr Laws in the 29 March programme.

[28]  We recognise that allowing the free and frank expression of a wide range of views is a necessary part of living in a democracy. This is reinforced by guideline 7a(iii) to Standard 7, which states that the standard is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material that is a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion. It is only where the expression of these views goes too far that Standard 7 will be found to have been breached. Here, we are satisfied that the comments did not cross the line into vitriol or hate speech, and so the opinions expressed by Mr Laws should be afforded protection under the right to freedom of expression.

[29]  Accordingly, we find that Mr Laws’ comments did not reach the threshold for encouraging the denigration of, or discrimination against, women as a section of the community, and we decline to uphold the Standard 7 complaint.

Were the programmes inaccurate or misleading?

[30]  Standard 5 (accuracy) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.14

[31]  Ms Bowman argued that Mr Laws’ comments, in particular his assertion that women experiencing domestic violence “invite abuse” and were “moronic”, amounted to “mere opinion”, based on hyperbole and sensationalism and not factual evidence.

[32]  Guideline 5a to Standard 5 states that the accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion. Guideline 5b states that talkback radio will not usually be subject to the accuracy standard, except where the presenter makes an unqualified statement of fact.

[33]  As Mr Laws’ comments were clearly his personal comment and opinion (which is accepted by the complainant), we find that Standard 5 is not applicable. Accordingly, we decline to uphold the accuracy complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
21 August 2012

Appendix

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

1                  Alana Bowman’s formal complaint – 13 April 2012

2                 RadioWorks’ response to the complaint – 2 May 2012

3                 Ms Bowman’s referral to the Authority – 14 May 2012

4                 RadioWorks’ response to the Authority – 8 June 2012

5                 Further submissions from RadioWorks – 19 July 2012


1http://www.womensrefuge.org.nz/WR/News/Pets-used-as-Pawns-in-Domestic-Violence.htm

 2See, for example, Tipping J in Hosking v Runting PDF317.33 KB [2003] 3 NZLR 385 (CA).

3Turner and TVNZ, Decision No. 2008-112

4Practice Note: Good Taste and Decency (Broadcasting Standards Authority, November, 2006)

5For example, Kiro and RadioWorks, Decision No. 2008-108

6Blissett and RadioWorks, Decision No. 2012-006 at paragraphs [12] to [18]

7Blissett and RadioWorks, Decision No. 2012-006 at paragraph [16]

8Decision No. 2006-030

9Decision No. 2008-091

10Decision No. 2002-152

11See, for example, Freeman and Purchase and RadioWorks, Decision No. 2011-034

12See, e.g. Lochead and RadioWorks, Decision No. 2010-031

13Mr Laws’ comments in the present case can be distinguished in this way from his comments about Exclusive Brethren in Simmons and Others and Canwest RadioWorks, Decision No. 2004-193

14Bush and TVNZ, Decision No. 2010-036