Graham and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2017-049 (4 September 2017)
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Paula Rose
- Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
- Elizabeth Graham
ProgrammePlaying With Fire
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
A radio play, Playing With Fire, was broadcast on RNZ National on 22 and 26 February 2017, around the time of the Port Hills fires in Christchurch. The play followed a family as they were evacuated from their home in rural Canada due to a forest fire. The focus of the story was the struggling relationship between married couple Judy and Arnold, and its effect on their son, Daniel (who was described as having learning difficulties). The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the broadcast of this play, around the time of the Port Hills fires, was in poor taste. Programme selection and scheduling decisions were ultimately at the discretion of the broadcaster, and the Authority recognised the high value of the fictional work in terms of the right to freedom of expression. The Authority noted that while the play featured one scene that might have been challenging for listeners affected by the fires, this scene was brief and clearly sign-posted, and did not reach the threshold necessary to find a breach the standard.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency
 A radio play, Playing With Fire, was broadcast on RNZ National on 22 and 26 February 2017, around the time of the Port Hills fires in Christchurch. These fires began on 13 February 2017 and were declared officially extinguished on 20 April 2017, 66 days later.1
 The play followed a family as they were evacuated from their home in rural Canada due to a forest fire. The focus of the story was the struggling relationship between married couple Judy and Arnold, and its effect on their son, Daniel (who was described as having learning difficulties).
 Elizabeth Graham complained that she was horrified to hear the play while the Port Hills fires were not yet under control. She said that the broadcast of the play, particularly the scene in which Arnold and Daniel re-enter their burning home, was in poor taste, as she said homes had been destroyed, residents evacuated and a helicopter pilot killed during the Port Hills fires.
 The issue raised in Ms Graham’s complaint is whether the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 The radio play was broadcast on RNZ National at 9.36pm on 22 February 2017, and again at around 3pm on 26 February 2017. The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
Did the broadcast threaten current norms of good taste and decency?
 The purpose of the good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) is to protect audience members from listening to broadcasts that are likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. In a radio context, this standard is usually considered in relation to offensive language, sexual references or references to violence, but may also apply to other material presented in a way that is likely to cause offence or distress.
 The standard is not intended to prohibit challenging material, or material that some people may find offensive, but to ensure that sufficient care is taken so that challenging material is played only in an appropriate context.
The broadcaster’s submissions
 RNZ submitted that:
- Ms Graham’s complaint raised the issue of editorial choice as to when something was put to air, rather than an issue of broadcasting standards. The play was scheduled several weeks ahead of time, and as a national broadcaster, RNZ was mindful of the expectations of the nationwide audience, as well as the expectations of those in a particular area.
- RNZ had only a seven-day window in which the play was available from the BBC for broadcast, and it would have been difficult to have scheduled something different in the available timeslot.
- In any event, RNZ endeavoured to ensure that broadcasts were not offensive. The theme of the play, resilience in the face of coping with the tragedy of a significant fire, may well have resonated with audiences at the time.
 When we make a determination on a complaint alleging a breach of broadcasting standards, we first give consideration to the right to freedom of expression. We weigh the value of the broadcast item, as well as the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, and the audience’s right to receive information and, in this case, to be entertained, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast.
 Playing With Fire was an award-winning radio play which in our view amounted to an important piece of artistic expression and had high value in terms of the right to freedom of expression. The playwright drew from her own experience of wildfires from her childhood in Canada, and, as noted by the broadcaster, the play’s themes focused on resilience and reconciliation between Arnold and Judy. For reasons we expand on below, we do not consider the alleged harm in this case outweighed the right to freedom of expression, of both the broadcaster to broadcast the play, and listeners to hear it.
 The complainant’s concerns in relation to the broadcast of this play raise matters of personal preference and editorial discretion. Generally, programme selection and scheduling decisions fall to the broadcaster, RNZ. However, the wider context of the programme and its broadcast are still relevant to the Authority’s consideration of the complaint under the good taste and decency standard, including whether the broadcast might have distressed listeners.
 As we have noted above, Ms Graham was particularly concerned that the scheduling of this radio play, while fires in Christchurch were not yet under control, was offensive (and particularly distressing for those who had experienced the Port Hills fires, those who had been evacuated from their homes, or those affected by the death of the helicopter pilot).
 We acknowledge that some material in Playing With Fire may have been challenging or distressing for some listeners, particularly those affected by the Christchurch Port Hills fires. However, we do not consider that overall this broadcast reached the threshold necessary to find a breach of the standard.
 This was a fictional work that primarily focused on the relationship between Arnold and Judy, and its impact on Daniel, and not on the fires themselves. One scene, in which characters Arnold and Daniel re-enter their evacuated home before it is engulfed in flames, may have been distressing for listeners. The scene featured Daniel calling out for his father while panicked and coughing. However, this scene was brief (around two minutes of a 53-minute item), and was signposted clearly, as the proximity and danger of the fires was referenced repeatedly throughout the play. The scene therefore would not have come as a surprise to listeners who might have been sensitive to its content.
 All audiences will inevitably bring their own experiences and emotions to fictional broadcast material, but as a national broadcaster, RNZ has submitted that the play was scheduled several weeks ahead of time and that it had only a short timeframe in which to broadcast this play for all New Zealanders.
 While we therefore acknowledge the complainant’s concerns, and recognise that the scheduling of this story shortly after the Port Hills fires may have been distressing for some listeners, having regard to all the relevant factors, we find insufficient justification for us to interfere with the right to freedom of expression in this case.
 Accordingly we do not uphold the good taste and decency complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
4 September 2017
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Elizabeth Graham’s formal complaint – 8 March 2017 (received 15 March 2017)
2 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 28 April 2017 (received 4 May 2017)
3 Ms Graham’s referral to the Authority – 16 May 2017 (received 29 May 2017)
4 RNZ’s response to the referral – 21 June 2017 (received 5 July 2017)
1 Selwyn District Council, Port Hills Fire 2017: https://www.selwyn.govt.nz/services/rural-fire/port-hills-fire