Dobson and TVWorks Ltd - 2008-067
- Joanne Morris (Chair)
- Diane Musgrave
- Tapu Misa
- Paul France
- Martin Dobson
Channel/StationTV3 # 3
Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Dexter – fictional drama about a forensic expert leading a double life as a serial killer – allegedly in breach of law and order and violence standards
Standard 2 (law and order) – programme did not promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity – not upheld
Standard 10 (violence) – broadcaster exercised sufficient care and discretion with violent scenes and themes – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 The first episode of a programme called Dexter was broadcast at 9.30pm on TV3 on Monday 28 April 2008. The series revolved around a Miami Metro Police Department forensic expert in blood patterns, Dexter Morgan. Dexter was leading a double life as a serial killer who, based on a code instilled in him by his foster father (a policeman), hunted down people who had escaped justice. Dexter was shown to be incapable of having normal emotions and feelings for other humans – even his sister – and unable to maintain relationships with women because of a lack of sexual desire.
 The episode began with Dexter killing a man who had killed several young boys. The man was bound to a table using plastic wrap, and Dexter was shown switching on an electric saw which he appeared to apply to the man’s face or head before the shot cut away to the sound of the man screaming. Dexter also captured another man – who he believed had killed a young mother of two – and took a large cleaver to the man while he was still alive. Dexter was shown cleaning up the scene afterwards, including placing a bloodied foot into a rubbish bag.
 The episode also centred around the murders of several prostitutes, whose bodies had been cut into several parts and drained of blood. The programme showed the severed body parts a number of times.
 The following verbal and visual warning was played prior to the programme:
This programme is rated adults only and is recommended for a mature audience. It contains violence that may disturb and language that may offend some people.
 Martin Dobson made a formal complaint about the programme to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, arguing that it breached standards of law and order, and violence.
 Looking at Standard 2 (law and order) and guideline 2c, Mr Dobson stated that Dexter was portrayed as “suave, and funny and charming” and “guilt-free about his crimes”. He stated that the programme implied that it was “ok to do what Dexter does to people (murder them and cut them up)”, and that Dexter’s father approved of what he did. The complainant said that this, along with depicting Dexter’s methods such as using rubber sheets and cutting up the bodies, showed viewers how to replicate his actions and invited imitation.
 Mr Dobson maintained that strapping people down naked and then cutting them up alive was “certainly an unfamiliar method of inflicting pain and death” (guideline 2d), and was readily imitated if a person was so inclined. He argued that showing these scenes was not in the public interest.
 In the complainant’s view, Dexter had profited from his crimes because they assisted him in solving cases and made him appear clever to his peers and superiors. He wrote:
Dexter’s apparent cleverness, suave uncaring attitude and humour, and the fact that he profits from his crimes, definitely is glamorizing murder and should not be shown.
 Turning to Standard 10 (violence) and guideline 10a, Mr Dobson contended that the violence in Dexter was gratuitous and could not be justified by context. He stated that the broadcaster was looking for “shock value” in showing “naked people strapped down and being cut into pieces”. He argued that other programmes involving violent crimes did not involve “75% of the show being bodies in pieces, or blood everywhere”.
 Mr Dobson argued that the entire programme was violent, and that TVWorks had not been mindful of the cumulative effect of this (guideline 10b). He also stated that close-up shots of dissected bodies and blood were needlessly explicit (guideline 10f).
 The following standards and guidelines in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice are relevant to the determination of this complaint:
Standard 2 Law and Order
In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the maintenance of law and order.
2c Programmes should not depict or describe techniques of crime in a manner which invites imitation.
2d Ingenious devices for, and unfamiliar methods of, inflicting pain, injury or death, particularly if readily capable of easy imitation, should not be shown, except in exceptional circumstances which are in the public interest.
2e The realistic portrayal of anti-social behaviour, including violent and serious crime and the abuse of liquor and drugs, should not be shown in a way that glamorises these activities.
Standard 10 Violence
In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.
10a Broadcasters should ensure that any violence shown is not gratuitous and is justified by the context.
10b Broadcasters should be mindful of the cumulative effect of violent incidents and themes and should avoid any impressionthat violence is dominating a single programme, a programme series, or a line-up of programmes screened back-to-back.
10f When real or fictitious killings, including executions and assassinations, are shown, the coverage should not be explicit, prolonged, or repeated gratuitously.
Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant
 TVWorks declined to uphold Mr Dobson’s complaint that the broadcast had breached Standard 2 (law and order). It argued that viewers would have known that the programme was a fictional drama that was not meant to be prescriptive for everyday behaviour. It wrote:
Although serial killers and their victims are at the heart of the plot, murder is considered by almost everybody as deeply immoral and it is unlikely that a television programme like Dexter would change a normal person’s position on the issue – even when the murderer seems to be using the flaws in his personality “for good”.
 The broadcaster disagreed with Mr Dobson that the programme would encourage people who had a tendency towards such anti-social behaviour any more than other environmental factors. Although it was inferred that Dexter used unusual methods to trap and kill his targets, it wrote, these methods were unrealistic and not shown in detail. TVWorks noted that the programme was targeted at adults who “it is fair to presume have already developed the faculty to make their own judgment about what is morally right or wrong”.
 TVWorks said that the Authority had previously stated that the intent behind Standard 2 was to prevent broadcasts that encouraged viewers to break the law or otherwise promoted, glamorised or condoned criminal activity. The broadcaster considered that nothing in the episode of Dexter encouraged viewers to break the law, or promoted breaking the law.
 Looking at Standard 10 (violence), TVWorks noted that Dexter was rated AO and restricted to screening after 9.30pm because it contained stronger adult material than could be expected of earlier Adults Only programmes. Acknowledging that the episode contained scenes of violence, the broadcaster contended that “overall the episode contained suggestive film noir techniques” that created “an implicit sense of dark suspense and menace” rather than explicit scenes of violence.
 The broadcaster pointed to the opening scene of the episode where Dexter kidnapped an accused paedophile using a garrotte from the backseat of his car. It argued that low light techniques and a camera shot that panned quickly from the victim to Dexter were used to “mute the scene’s explicitness”. TVWorks said that later, when the same victim was lying on a table slab, Dexter’s body position obstructed a view of the murder he committed. In the broadcaster’s opinion, the scenes were more suggestive than explicit.
 TVWorks argued that the violent scenes were not gratuitous, but were central to the plot of the series. It found no breach of Standard 10.
Referral to the Authority
 Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Dobson referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
 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 2 (law and order)
 The Authority has stated on previous occasions (e.g. Decision No. 2007-066) that the intent behind the law and order standard is to prevent broadcasts that encourage viewers to break the law, or otherwise promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity.
 The complainant’s main concern is that the programme glamorised criminal activity by depicting the character Dexter as “suave, funny and charming”. Mr Dobson felt that viewers would empathise with Dexter and therefore the programme invited imitation of his crimes. The Authority disagrees. It considers that Dexter was portrayed as a sociopath, incapable of forming relationships or having feelings for other human beings. He had a girlfriend who he only dated to appear normal, but had no interest in a sexual relationship with her. Dexter did not even have genuine love for his adoptive sister.
 The Authority acknowledges that the character did have some redeeming qualities – he would never hurt children and would only kill serial killers. However, in the Authority’s view, it is highly unlikely that viewers would have felt any empathy with this dysfunctional character, who committed a number of violent murders in a callous and brutal fashion. Further, it was clear that Dexter’s actions were illegal and that he would face serious consequences if he was caught, hence his meticulous disposal of evidence.
 Accordingly, the Authority finds that the programme did not promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity. It declines to uphold the Standard 2 complaint.
Standard 10 (violence)
 Standard 10 requires broadcasters to exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence. The Authority acknowledges that Dexter contained several violent scenes and themes of murder. In considering whether Standard 10 was breached, the following contextual factors are relevant:
- the programme was classified AO 9.30pm
- Dexter was broadcast at 9.30pm, an hour after the AO watershed
- the programme was targeted at an adult audience
- a visual and verbal warning preceded the programme.
 The Authority notes that most of the violence in Dexter was implied rather than explicit. Although the episode showed Dexter’s victims strapped to a table, the camera cut away as he was about to kill them. In this respect, the Authority considers that the programme left much to viewers’ imaginations. Although some of the scenes contained body parts and blood, the Authority finds that most of this material appeared unrealistic. Further, the violent scenes were integral to the plot of this programme, which focused on Dexter’s double life as a serial killer.
 Taking into account the above contextual factors, particularly the warning and 9.30pm time of broadcast, the Authority considers that TVWorks exercised sufficient care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence. It declines to uphold the Standard 10 complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
18 September 2008
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Martin Dobson’s formal complaint – 14 May 2008
2. TVWorks’ decision on the formal complaint – 13 June 2008
3. Mr Dobson’s referral to the Authority – 1 July 2008
4. TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 16 July 2008