BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Grover and The Radio Network Ltd - 2003-134

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
  • Barbara Grover
Newstalk ZB

Newstalk ZB – Paul Holmes Breakfast – host used term “house niggers” – offensive language – unfair – integrity of current affairs compromised – encouraged denigration

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.


[1] During an interview with the Prime Minister, Paul Holmes, as the host of the Paul Holmes Breakfast on Newstalk ZB, referred to a comment made by Titewhai Harawira, a Maori political activist. The host said that the Government’s Maori Members of Parliament had been referred to as “house niggers” and asked a question related to the comment. The comment was broadcast at around 7.40am on 3 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] In response, TRN declined to uphold the complaint. It said that the original comment had received reasonably wide media coverage and it was acceptable for the host to use the quotation when interviewing the Prime Minister.

[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.


[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 an interview with the Prime Minister, Paul Holmes, as the host of the Paul Holmes Breakfast on Newstalk ZB, referred to a comment made by Titewhai Harawira, a Maori political activist. The host asked

Your Maori MPs are described as “house niggers” – is there a danger that you will leave them isolated from their people?

The comment was broadcast at around 7.40am on 3 September 2003.

[7] Later during the same broadcast, at around 8.15am, the host referred to a written complaint he had received from the complainant about his use of the phrase “house nigger”. He explained that he was not himself calling the Maori MPs “house niggers”, but was asking the Prime Minister to comment on Mrs Harawira’s use of the term.

The Complaint

[8] Barbara Grover complained to TRN that the host’s comments were “offensive in the extreme”, unfair and encouraged denigration. She did not accept the justification given by the host for the use of the term during the broadcast. She considered that he could have “exercised integrity and sound judgment” by referring to the original use of the term by Mrs Harawira as “derogatory”.

The Standards

[9] 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. Those 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.


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.


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.


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

[10] TRN did not uphold the complaint. It considered the complaint under Principles 1 and 7 of the Radio Code. It advised that:

The “house nigger” comment from Titewhai Harawira received reasonably wide media coverage and therefore it was acceptable for Paul Holmes to use the quotation when talking to the Prime Minister.

The reason the Prime Minister didn’t flinch was because she was also cognisant of the comments.

[11] Under Principle 1, TRN considered that the comments were acceptable within the context of the delivery. Under Principle 7 it wrote:

Paul Holmes is delivering a factual statement attributed to Mrs Harawira. There is no intention other than to illustrate the feeling of the leader of one group of Maori against another.

The Referral to the Authority

[12] Dissatisfied with TRN’s response to her complaint, Ms Grover referred her complaint to the Authority. She wrote:

Despite the attempt to justify the incendiary and deeply offensive term “house nigger” with reference to the Maori MPs being quoted from “reasonably wide media coverage” I do not accept this excuse.

[13] Ms Grover said that it was not valid to suggest that simply because someone else says something then it is acceptable to broadcast the comments nationwide at peak time.

[14] Ms Grover also stated that she believed that the term “nigger” never appears in the media in the USA or Africa. Finally, in response to TRN’s comment about the Prime Minister’s cognisance of the comments, she wrote:

The fact that… they were seemingly acceptable to her to be used is, for me, an astonishing situation given her reputation for vetting questions before going to air.

The Authority’s Determination

[15] The complainant considered that the host’s use of the phrase “house niggers” during his radio programme 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 host did not use the phrase offensively. The phrase was delivered in a serious manner in the context of an interview with the Prime Minister about seabed and foreshore ownership. It was clear that the host was merely repeating a quote to the Prime Minister and asking for her comment on the substance of that quote. The quote itself had been widely reported, and the Prime Minister’s lack of surprise or comment in the interview indicated to the Authority that she too was aware of its origin. The Authority does not accept the suggestion that the phrase was used gratuitously.

[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 host had not ensured that integrity had been maintained in the programme by broadcasting the phrase. However, the Authority does not consider that Principle 6 is relevant to the complaint. The Principle is directed at inaccurate and misleading broadcasts and the word “integrity” is used in Guideline 6d in that context.

Principle 7

[20] Standard 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
15 December 2003


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 – 6 September 2003

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

3. Ms Grover’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 24 September 2003

4. TRN’s Response to the Authority – 14 October 2003