BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Grover and The Radio Network Ltd - 2003-133

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Barbara Grover
Number
2003-133
Channel/Station
Newstalk ZB

Complaint
Newstalk ZB – Larry Williams Show – political commentator used term “house niggers”– offensive language – unfair – integrity of current affairs compromised – encouraged denigration

Findings
Principle 1 – not offensive in context – no uphold

Principle 6 – not relevant

Principle 7 – no discrimination – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] During a broadcast of the Larry Williams Show on Newstalk ZB, Barry Soper, a political commentator, referred to a comment made by Titewhai Harawira, a Maori political activist. The commentator recalled that the activist had referred to Maori Members of Parliament as “house niggers”. The broadcast occurred shortly before 5.00pm on 16 September 2003.

[2] Barbara Grover complained to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN), the broadcaster, that the comment was offensive, compromised the integrity of current affairs and encouraged denigration.

[3] TRN declined to uphold the complaint. It said that the commentator had merely quoted a widely reported comment.

[4] Dissatisfied with TRN’s decision, Ms Grover referred the 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 listened to a tape 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] During a broadcast of the Larry Williams Show on Newstalk ZB, Barry Soper, a political commentator, referred to a comment made by Titewhai Harawira, a Maori political activist. The commentator recalled that the activist had referred to Maori Members of Parliament as “house niggers”. The broadcast occurred shortly before 5.00pm on 16 September 2003.

The Complaint

[7] Barbara Grover complained to TRN that Mr Soper’s comments breached broadcasting standards. In her view, the term “house niggers” was highly offensive. She maintained that its use, which she considered to be “Maori bashing”, was unnecessary.

The Standards

[8] Ms Grover considered that Principle 1, Principle 6 and Guideline 6d and Principle 7 and Guideline 7a in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice were breached by the broadcast. The Principles and relevant Guidelines read:

Principle 1

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Guidelines

1a Broadcasters will take into consideration current norms of decency and good taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs and the wider context of the broadcast eg time of day, target audience.

Principle 6

In the preparation and presentation of news and current affairs programmes, broadcasters are required to be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

Guideline

6d Broadcasters shall ensure that the editorial independence and integrity of news and current affairs is maintained.

Principle 7

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Guideline

7a Broadcasters will not portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation; or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement does not extend to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i) factual; or

ii) a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or

iii) by way of legitimate humour or satire.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] TRN did not uphold the complaint. It advised that Mr Soper had been quoting the widely reported comments of Mrs Harawira. There was no question of Maori bashing, TRN wrote, because the original comment was made by a Maori about other Maori.

[10] Based on the context, including the serious nature of Mr Soper’s delivery, TRN did not consider Principle 1 had been breached. TRN also considered that Principle 7 had not been breached. It noted that the broadcast was of factual material, which is not intended to be prevented from being broadcast according to paragraph (i) of Guideline 7a. TRN also noted that it had not considered the complaint under Principle 6, as it believed the matter was more appropriately dealt with under Principles 1 and 7.

The Referral to the Authority

[11] Dissatisfied with TRN’s response, Ms Grover referred her complaint to the Authority. She disagreed with TRN’s assertion that Mr Soper was merely quoting Mrs Harawira. She noted that he was responding to a question from the host about the disruption of a Wanganui hui by Mrs Harawira. In her view, the reference to the “house nigger” comment, which was originally made at a different hui, was gratuitous as it was neither relevant nor appropriate. Ms Grover asked:

Could Mr Soper be attempting to popularise the phrase by ostensibly linking it to Mrs Harawira?

[12] Ms Grover referred to Authority research on the acceptability of the word “nigger”, and wrote:

If the use of this highly offensive, incendiary term is sanctioned by the BSA it will only serve to denigrate a section of the community.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[13] In response to Ms Grover’s referral, TRN said it considered that the use of the comment was in no way gratuitous and was relevant in the context of the broadcast. TRN maintained that Mrs Harawira was proving to be a “disruptive” element at a number of hui and therefore there was a reason for citing the “house nigger” comment.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[14] In her final comment, Ms Grover disagreed with the reason cited by TRN for the broadcast of the comment. In her view, the phrase had been “deliberately used to sensationalise” and “served no informative purpose in the context of the discussion”.

The Authority’s Determination

[15] The complainant considered that the use of the phrase “house niggers” during the Larry Williams Show breached standards relating to good taste and decency, accuracy (editorial independence and integrity) and discrimination. The Authority has considered each of these aspects of the complaint below.

Principle 1

[16] When it determines a complaint that a broadcast contravenes Principle 1 of the Radio 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 breaches the standard.

[17] The Authority considers that the broadcast fell far short of breaching Principle 1 in view of the following relevant contextual factors. The speaker did not use the phrase offensively. The phrase was delivered in a serious manner in the context of a discussion with the programme’s host about seabed and foreshore ownership. Mr Soper had referred to Mrs Harawira’s remark in the context of a discussion about her disruption of another hui. It was clear to the Authority that the host was merely repeating a quote, which had been widely reported. The Authority does not accept the suggestion that the phrase was used gratuitously and considers its use was entirely relevant and pertinent to the discussion.

[18] The Authority notes that, while its research has shown that many New Zealanders find the use of the word “nigger” to be offensive, the research itself was contextually based. Those surveyed were asked to respond to the use of the word when delivered directly as an insult to a person in authority. This was very different to the situation on this occasion.

Principle 6

[19] The complainant considered that the broadcaster had not ensured that integrity had been maintained in the programme because of the use of the phrase. However, the Authority does not consider that Principle 6 is relevant to the complaint. The Standard is directed at inaccurate and misleading broadcasts and the word “integrity” is used in Guideline 6d in that context.

Principle 7

[20] Principle 7 requires broadcasters to be socially responsible and Guideline 7a requires broadcasters to avoid portraying persons in a manner that encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, sections of the community on account of (among other things) race.

[21] The Authority has ruled, on a number of occasions, that a high threshold applies before a broadcast contravenes Guideline 7a. For a breach to occur, the Authority has required that a broadcast actually encourage denigration or discrimination. In the Authority’s view, for the reasons given above in paragraph [17], the threshold was neither crossed nor threatened on this occasion.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
15 December 2003

Appendix

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

1. Barbara Grover’s Complaint to The Radio Network Ltd – undated

2. TRN’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 9 October 2003

3. Ms Grover’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 18 October 2003

4. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 24 October 2003

5. Ms Grover’s Final Comment – 30 October 2003