BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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Dixon and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2005-141

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Norma Dixon
Number
2005-141
Programme
Close Up
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Close Up – item about a church’s campaign to stop the use of “Jesus” as a swear word – “Jesus” and “Christ” repeated a number of times as examples of the language complained about – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, unbalanced and unfair

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – used as an expression of dismay and surprise – accepted colloquial use – not upheld

Standard 4 (balance) – subsumed

Standard 6 (fairness) – Pastor Driscoll treated fairly in the item – item did not encourage denigration of Christians – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] An item on Close Up at 7pm on TV One on 12 October 2005 reported that the Rangiora New Life Church had launched a campaign to stop the use of “Jesus” as a swear word. Included in the item was an interview with Pastor Peter Driscoll who argued that using “Jesus” as a swear word was to take the Lord’s name in vain. Mike Grimshaw, senior lecturer in Religious Studies at Canterbury University, argued that the word was not used in a blasphemous sense and had been part of colloquial English for 500 years.

[2] The presenter introduced the item and warned that viewers would hear “Jesus Christ” used as a swear word. This occurred five times in quick succession near the beginning of the item, and another four times during the rest of the piece.

Complaint

[3] Mrs Norma Dixon complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the repeated use of “Jesus” and “Christ” as swear words. Mrs Dixon stated that the presenter’s warning did not prepare her for the item’s content. She maintained that it was beyond the bounds of good taste and decency to encourage the name of Jesus Christ to be used as a swear word, and added that the programme was shown at a time when children would be watching.

[4] The complainant argued that the programme was unbalanced, because it appeared that Pastor Driscoll was unaware that his interview would be punctuated by people using the words which he found objectionable. For every person who swore, she said, there should have been an equal number supporting Pastor Driscoll. Good journalism should be presented in a fair and balanced way, the complainant noted.

Standards

[5] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 4 and 6 and guidelines 1a, 6b and 6g of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They provide:

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. The examples are not exhaustive.

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Guidelines

6b Contributors and participants in any programme should be dealt with fairly and should, except as required in the public interest, be informed of the reason for their proposed contribution and participation and the role that is expected of them.

6g Broadcasters should avoid portraying persons in programmes in a manner that encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, sections of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, or occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i) factual, or

ii) the expression of genuinely held opinion in news, current affairs or other factual programmes, or

iii) in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[6] In its response, the broadcaster pointed out that examples of the language being discussed had not only been inserted during Pastor Driscoll’s interview, they had also been inserted into the interview with Mr Grimshaw. From a production point of view, it said, it was clear that the inserts were there to remind viewers what phrases were being discussed, and to provide a brief opportunity for the audience to consider points in the argument being advanced.

[7] Turning to consider Standard 1 (good taste and decency), TVNZ took into account the context in which the potentially offensive language was used. It noted that the use of the words “Jesus” and “Christ” was directly relevant in an item about a local church’s campaign to eliminate a long standing swear word from the New Zealand language. Further, the broadcaster noted that an alternative dictionary meaning of “Jesus Christ” was an exclamation “expressing irritation, dismay or surprise”.

[8] TVNZ observed that the Authority had declined to uphold most prior complaints about the use of Christian holy words as exclamations. It referred to Decision Nos. 2003-098, 2005-032 and 2003-068.

[9] Looking at Standard 4 (balance), the broadcaster considered that the major element of balance was between the comments of Pastor Driscoll and those of Mr Grimshaw. It added that the inserts demonstrating the use of “Jesus Christ” as an exclamation were balanced by:

…other imagery which showed messages of faith connected with the church (one displayed prominently over Pastor Driscoll’s shoulder), an extract from the television advertisement paid for by one of Pastor Driscoll’s congregation, and the singing of a hymn, “How sweet the name of Jesus” towards the end.

[10] TVNZ considered that Pastor Driscoll and Mr Grimshaw were both treated fairly in the item (Standard 6). Both were able to get their views across in a clear and articulate manner. The broadcaster said that it did not understand why the complainant thought Pastor Driscoll “was not able to reply to the obscenities about which he was complaining”. Quite clearly, it said, he was talking about the very language which was included in the inserts.

[11] As far as guideline 6b was concerned, Pastor Driscoll knew why he was being interviewed and he was not impeded in making his views known. Turning to guideline 6g, TVNZ did not accept that the programme denigrated devout Christians, or encouraged discrimination against them. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[12] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mrs Dixon referred her complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. She maintained that if the name “Jesus Christ” was used as a curse, then it must be blasphemous.

[13] With respect to Standard 1 (good taste and decency), the complainant considered that broadcasting a programme during peak family viewing time showed a complete disregard for good taste, and an intolerance for parents who were trying to maintain a standard of decency in their homes. She argued that the use of “Jesus Christ” on this occasion was more than an expletive used in an unexpected situation, it was “a barrage of expletives which tended to suffocate the content of Pastor Driscoll’s message”.

[14] Mrs Dixon maintained that the item was in breach of Standard 4 (balance). She argued that the exclamations had a far greater impact than the singing of a hymn or the other messages of faith.

[15] The complainant agreed that Pastor Driscoll knew why he was being interviewed, but she suspected that he was not aware what “cutting and pasting” was done to his interview. She considered that the programme had denigrated the religious beliefs of all Christians, not just devout Christians, and maintained that it was unfair.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[16] In its response to the Authority, TVNZ pointed out that the presenter had informed viewers that the word “Jesus” would be used as a swear word in the item. It disagreed with Mrs Dixon’s view that the use of the word was blasphemous, stating:

With respect to Mrs Dixon we suggest that in order for something to be blasphemy, there has to be intent to denigrate the religious faith or religious person referred to. It is not, we submit, a blasphemy when the phrase “Jesus Christ” or the word “Jesus” is used as an expletive to express alarm, surprise, dismay or irritation.

[17] In response to Mrs Dixon’s observation that the item was broadcast in “family viewing time”, TVNZ pointed out that Close Up was a current affairs programme. As such, it was not subject to censorship or the “strictures of the classification system” because it must deal with topics which were inherently disturbing or distressing to various societal groups. In this case, the broadcaster said, the “group” might be devout Christians upset by any suggestion that “Jesus” was an acceptable colloquialism. That should not mean that the topic, of interest to the wider public audience, should not be shown in the context of Close Up.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[18] In her final comment, the complainant reiterated her view that the careless use of “Jesus Christ” was blasphemous. She also maintained that Pastor Driscoll was treated unfairly in the item.

Authority's Determination

[19] 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)

[20] When the Authority considers a complaint that alleges a breach of good taste and decency, it is required to consider the context of the broadcast. The Authority notes that Close Up was broadcast at 7pm, was preceded by a specific warning and, as a current affairs programme, was unclassified.

[21] The Authority accepts that some Christians regard any inappropriate use of the words “Jesus” and “Christ” as blasphemous. However, this item was about a local church’s campaign to eliminate the use of those words as swear words. In that context, the Authority considers that the words were legitimately used to illustrate the point being made by the church and Pastor Driscoll.

[22] The Authority observes that the words “Jesus” and “Christ” were used in the item as an expression of dismay and surprise. Both words are defined as such in the dictionary, and the Authority finds that their use in the programme would have been an accepted colloquial use to a large proportion of New Zealanders.

[23] The Authority considers that standards of good taste and decency were not breached in the broadcast, and it declines to uphold this part of the complaint.

Standard 4 (balance)

[24] With respect to Standard 4, Mrs Dixon argued that Pastor Driscoll was unaware that his comments were being interrupted with examples of “Jesus” being used as a swear word. As such, the Authority finds that Mrs Dixon’s main concern was that Pastor Driscoll was treated unfairly in the item, not that any significant perspectives were missing. Under these circumstances, it has subsumed its consideration of this matter under Standard 6 (fairness) below.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[25] TVNZ assessed the fairness complaint with respect to guidelines 6b and 6g. The Authority has considered each of these guidelines in turn.

[26] Mrs Dixon was concerned that Pastor Driscoll was unaware that his interview was going to be “chopped” at intervals to show examples of “Jesus” and “Christ” being used as swear words. Guideline 6b states that, except when a different approach is justified in the public interest, participants should be informed of the reason for their participation and the role expected of them. The Authority considers that TVNZ complied with its obligation under this guideline. It was clear from the footage that Pastor Driscoll knew why he was participating in the programme. Inserting examples of people saying “Jesus Christ” was a matter of editorial discretion, and the Authority finds that TVNZ was not obliged to advise Pastor Driscoll that this would occur.

[27] In addition, the Authority has considered Mrs Dixon’s concerns about the overall treatment of Pastor Driscoll in the item. The Authority observes that the Pastor had ample opportunity to present his point of view. It also finds that the interruption of his interview with examples of “Jesus” and “Christ” being used as swear words did not detract from the message he was conveying. Accordingly, the Authority concludes that Pastor Driscoll was treated fairly in the programme.

[28] Guideline 6g prohibits denigration of identifiable sections of the community. The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as meaning a blackening of the reputation of a class of people (see for example decisions 1994-062 and 2004-129). It is also well established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act, a high threshold is required before the Authority will find that a broadcast encourages denigration to such an extent that it amounts to a breach of guideline 6g (see for example Decision No 2004-001).

[29] In this case, the Authority finds that the threshold for denigration was not approached. It agrees with TVNZ that discussing the use of “Jesus” and “Christ” as swear words did not encourage denigration of Christians or their beliefs. Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the fairness complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
21 March 2006

Appendix

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

  1. Norma Dixon’s formal complaint – 14 October 2005
  2. TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 15 November 2005
  3. Mrs Dixon’s referral to the Authority – 9 December 2005
  4. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 24 January 2006
  5. Mrs Dixon’s final comment – 5 February 2006