BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Harris and The Radio Network Ltd - 2004-184

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Ian Harris
Number
2004-184
Channel/Station
Newstalk ZB

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Paul Holmes Breakfast – segment where host played the role of an Iraqi terrorist – comments about American soldiers and a British hostage being held by terrorists – allegedly breached good taste and decency

Findings
Principle 1 (good taste and decency) – seen in context, item not in poor taste or indecent – satirical and ironic comment on situation in Iraq – presenter known for satirical approach to issues – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] A segment called “World City” was broadcast on Newstalk ZB as part of the Paul Holmes Breakfast on 29 September 2004. At the time of the broadcast, British man Kenneth Bigley had been captured by Iraqi terrorists. In the “World City” segment, the presenter (Paul Holmes) imitated Abu Massad Al Zarqari, an Iraqi terrorist.

[2] The segment began with ”the terrorist” saying that he could hear the cries of “the poor pathetic pitiful exhausted Englishman”, and washing his face with water that had been restored by American soldiers, who he described as “filthy pigs of Satan, imperialist dogs, defilers of the sacred land of Islam”.  He went on to say:

Just another piece of Western flotsam, the Englishman, with a pitiful whining family now pleading and begging for his freedom.

Oh we’ll kill him of course….of course he will die…but first we will make them wait…and build their hopes…and then we will kill them all.

[3] At the conclusion of the segment the presenter said “tune this way for more stunning revelations of the workings of the terrorist heart – World City”.

Complaint

[4] Ian Harris complained to The Radio Network Ltd (TRN) that the comments were “totally inexcusable and unacceptable”. His complaint was about “the manner and timing” of the joke, in view of the “horror being experienced by the man as he literally begs for his life” and the suffering of his family. At this time, he said, the world could only hope that the hostage would be spared the fate of others “who have been killed in the most gruesome of ways”.

[5] Mr Harris said he believed that the presenter had made “a joke of the whole situation” and had callously related the terrorist’s thoughts. Given the light-hearted way the comments were made, the complainant questioned whether the broadcaster had adequate measures in place to “clear sensitive issues of this nature before they are broadcast”.

[6] The complainant enclosed a letter he had written to the NZ Herald newspaper as a measure of how disgusted he was in hearing the item.

Principles

[]7 TRN assessed the complaint under Principle 1 and Guideline 1a of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:

Principle 1

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

Guideline 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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[8] TRN stated that World City is a “regular satirical feature on the Paul Holmes Breakfast” and that there “can be no doubt the piece complained of is clearly signalled parody and satire”.

[9] The broadcaster maintained that, far from making light of Mr Bigley’s fate, the piece “dramatically satirises the awfulness of the situation” for both the hostage and for American soldiers in Iraq.

[10] The presenter had placed himself in the character of Abu Massad Al Zarqari, TRN said. The descriptions of Americans as “imperialist dogs” and “just another piece of Western flotsam” were “dripping with irony and satire and the audience understands this”. Accordingly, TRN advised Mr Harris that his complaint would not be upheld.

Referral to the Authority

[11] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Harris referred his complaint to the Authority. He stated that the comment about holding Mr Bigley hostage for a long time and then killing him was “barbaric and totally inappropriate in both its timing and content”.

[12] Mr Harris did not accept that the World City segment was clearly signalled parody and satire, or that the descriptions of the Americans were “dripping with irony and satire”. The complainant said that he had taken this segment to be a humorous reflection on current events and he claimed that the broadcaster had offered no other description to the contrary at the time of broadcasting.

[13] Mr Harris noted that he had received no response to his question about whether the broadcaster had measures in place to monitor issues of this kind prior to their broadcast. He therefore assumed that there were no measures in place and as such, the broadcaster was “effectively condoning this standard of language and content”.

[14] Having regard to “the sensitive nature of the broadcast at that particular time with the hostage situation”, the complainant maintained that the comments had exceeded the bounds of good taste and decency. He did not accept that the broadcaster had given “unbiased or independent consideration” to the broadcast’s timing and content, therefore he asked the Authority to determine the matter.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[15] In its response to the Authority, TRN said that the presenter had painted a picture of “the awfulness of the situation” for the audience. Although it was describing something “barbaric”, the broadcaster said, in context it was appropriate.

[16] TRN maintained that the “World City” segment is “purely and simply, satire”. Giving the dictionary meaning of satire as “topical issues, folly or evil held up to scorn by means of ridicule”, the broadcaster stated that satire does not have to be humorous.

[17] Referring to the complainant’s concern about sensitive issues being screened prior to broadcast, TRN advised that all scripted material for the Breakfast show was cleared by an executive producer.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[18] In his final comment to the Authority, Mr Harris commented that in the context of what had happened to the hostage “over an extended period that ended in his death”, he did not accept that the gloating of the terrorist “was at all appropriate”.

[19] The complainant also commented on the fact that the events had occurred outside of New Zealand, suggesting that if a New Zealand citizen had been held hostage the World City segment would never have been broadcast. He added:

In the end, isn’t a sense of reason and humanity the gauge as to what is or is not appropriate in making this type of comment.

[20] Mr Harris disagreed with TRN’s contention that World City is “purely and simply, satire”, and its definition of satire. He provided other dictionary definitions of the word including “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose, and criticise people’s stupidity or vices”. Mr Harris did not see “how commenting on Mr Bigley’s situation and fate in any way fits these definitions”.

[21] The complainant said that his complaint was made in large part because the broadcast was in poor taste, inappropriate in both its timing and content, and lacking in consideration and humanity.

Authority's Determination

[22] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.  The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[23] When the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of the good taste and decency standard, it takes into account the context in which the broadcast complained about occurs.  In the present case, there are contextual factors that, in the view of the Authority, bring the broadcast within accepted standards of good taste and decency.

[24] The Authority agrees with the broadcaster’s assessment that the item was ironic and satirical, and notes that provocative humour or satire can sometimes provide effective and cutting comment on topical issues.  The Radio Code reflects the importance that society attributes to the freedom of legitimate humorous or satirical expression¹, and accordingly such expression is an important contextual factor in considering issues of good taste and decency.  

[25] In the present case, while acknowledging that many might find satirising events as dreadful as those in Iraq insensitive and inappropriate, the Authority does not consider that the intent – or effect – of the presenter’s role-play was to trivialise the situation or mock the victims of terrorist acts.  Instead, by adopting an exaggerated position, the presenter was clearly satirising the actions and attitudes of the terrorists that he purported to be portraying.  

[26] Accordingly, given the obvious satirical intent, the Authority does not consider that the nature of the broadcast was either in bad taste or indecent, even allowing for its challenging content. 

 

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
18 February 2005

Appendix

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

  1. Ian Harris’ formal complaint – 1 October 2004
  2. The Radio Network Ltd’s decision on the formal complaint – 12 October 2004
  3. Mr Harris’ referral to the Authority – 22 October 2004
  4. TRN’s response to the Authority – 3 November 2004
  5. Mr Harris’ final comment – 11 November 2004

¹See, for example, Guideline 7a, which provides that legitimate humour or satire is a defence to a broadcast that might otherwise be considered denigratory or discriminatory.