BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Brown and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2003-068

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Margie Brown
Number
2003-068
Programme
Intrepid Journeys
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
Intrepid Journeys presenter Michael Laws exclaimed "Jesus Christ" – blasphemy – offensive

Finding
Standard 1 and Guideline 1a – not blasphemy in context – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Michael Laws was the presenter of the episode of Intrepid Journeys broadcast on TV One at 7.30pm on 31 March 2003 in which he travelled through Ecuador. Intrepid Journeys was a documentary series in which well-known New Zealanders toured remote foreign locations which provided some degree of personal challenge.

[2] Margie Brown complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the presenter’s use of the phrase "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation during the programme. Such use, she wrote, amounted to blasphemy and was offensive.

[3] In response, TVNZ questioned whether the use of the phrase during the programme was blasphemy, as it was not used in a religious sense. Nevertheless, as it did not consider that the use of the phrase breached community standards of good taste and decency, it declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mrs Brown referred her complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a video of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Michael Laws was the presenter of the episode of Intrepid Journeys broadcast on TV One at 7.30pm on 31 March 2003 in which he travelled through Ecuador. Intrepid Journeys was a documentary series in which well-known New Zealanders toured remote and challenging foreign locations.

The Complaint

[7] Margie Brown complained about the presenter’s use of the phrase "Jesus Christ". The use of a blatant blasphemy was offensive, she wrote and, unlike the presenter’s use of the word "fuck", was not bleeped out.

The Standard

[8] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 1 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The Standard and relevant Guideline provides:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Guideline

1a   Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and the programme’s classification (see Appendix 1). The examples are not exhaustive.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] Pointing out that the programmes in the series were not orthodox travel documentaries, TVNZ stated that, in the episode complained about, presenter and personality Michael Laws had visited some "remote, poverty stricken, and isolated locations" in Ecuador. He had acknowledged during the broadcast, TVNZ added, that he was outside his "comfort zone", especially in regard to personal hygiene. TVNZ wrote:

An important level of interest in the programme was to see Michael Laws, the extroverted former politician, columnist and religious tutor, transposed into an environment which for much of the time was totally unfamiliar and uncomfortable for him. Viewers saw his familiar mannerisms, and his occasional use of language and references to sex reflected the Michael Laws with which New Zealanders are familiar. But these took on an extra dimension when set in surroundings in which Mr Laws was clearly "not at home".

[10] With regard to the use of the phrase "Jesus Christ" as an expletive, TVNZ questioned whether its use on this occasion amounted to blasphemy as it had been used as an oath, rather than as a comment about a religion. Nevertheless, TVNZ accepted that the complainant had been offended and it apologised. It declined to uphold the complaint, arguing that the use of the colloquial phrase in a moment of distress or alarm did not stray outside the norms of decency and taste and, consequently, breach the standard.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[11] Mrs Brown was dissatisfied that TVNZ considered that the phrase complained about reflected "surprise, indignation and shock". She challenged TVNZ’s argument, especially because the presenter appeared to use the word "fuck" to express his surprise and indignation, but this was bleeped out.

TVNZ’s Response to the Authority

[12] TVNZ had little to add other than to point out that it considered, and research confirmed, that the word "fuck" was regarded as more offensive in the community than "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ". "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ", it wrote, was now described in the dictionary as a vulgarity.

The Authority’s Determination

[13] When it determines a complaint that a broadcast contravenes Standard 1 of the Television Code, the Authority is required to determine whether the material complained about breaches currently accepted standards of good taste and decency, taking into account the context of the broadcast. The context is relevant, but does not determine whether the programme breached the standard. Accordingly, the Authority has considered the context in which the exclamation complained about was broadcast.

[14] The complainant argued that the presenter’s use of the phrase "Jesus Christ" was blasphemy and offensive. In response, TVNZ contended that the phrase had been used as a colloquial expression of distress and alarm, rather than a religious comment.

[15] The Authority has referred to the Concise Oxford which includes, under "Jesus Christ", the definition: "exclamation, informal expressing irritation, dismay, or surprise". Accordingly, while noting the complainant’s concern, the Authority accepts that its use on this occasion, given the context, fitted into the category of an exclamation of irritation and alarm, and it declines to uphold the complaint.

[16] The Authority has also referred to the research "Monitoring Community Attitudes in Changing Mediascapes" published in 2000, which records the phrase "Jesus Christ" as 10th out of 22 words ranked by order of unacceptability. "Fuck", on the other hand, was ranked 4th.

[17] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
24 July 2003

Appendix

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

  1.    Margie Brown’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 31 March 2003
  2.    TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 28 April 2003
  3.    Mrs Brown’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 6 May 2003
  4.    TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 16 May 2003