BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Hayes and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2019-047 (10 October 2019)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer
  • Susie Staley
Dated
Complainant
  • Peter Hayes
Number
2019-047
Programme
Nine to Noon
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand National

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that quotes from the book ‘Everything is F*cked’ by Mark Manson, broadcast as part of a review of that book, breached the good taste and decency, programme information and violence standards. The Authority noted that the right to freedom of expression allows individuals to express themselves in their own words, provided this does not cause undue harm. In this case, the nature of the item was clearly signalled by the introduction, and the quotes were contextualised by the reviewer who was using them as examples to emphasise and support his criticism of the book. This enabled listeners to make an informed decision about their listening and that of children in their care. Taking into account contextual factors, such as the adult target audience of Nine to Noon and RNZ National, the broadcast was unlikely to unduly distress or disturb listeners, and children were unlikely to have been listening.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Programme Information, Violence


The broadcast

[1]  An episode of Nine to Noon included a book review of ‘Everything is F*cked’ by Mark Manson. The item was introduced with the reviewer noting:

So I will be saying ‘F’ quite a lot through this review, probably more than the average Nine to Noon review, ah, just to be clear to everyone, when I say ‘F’, it means the word that starts with ‘F’ ends in ‘K’ and has ‘UC’ in the middle.

[2]  The reviewer quoted a section of the book to illustrate the author’s political views:

[H]e talks about ‘kicking pinko commie bastards in the nuts’ – pardon my language there, at least it wasn’t the ‘F’ word, although it’s sort of tongue in cheek.

[3]  The reviewer disapproved of some sections of the book:

Not only is it a very sweary book as the Times gently puts it . . . but Manson’s at great pains to try and shock with his language and his hyperbole. He says ‘if you think everything is f’d why not run with scissors, sleep with the boss’s wife or shoot up a school’. . . I don’t think suggesting that kind of thing is the best thing to do in the US especially if you’ve got a base of 5 million readers, it’s not particularly responsible.

[4]  He also provided several examples of language used in the book to demonstrate and critique the author’s writing style:

He uses, you know, sweet ass, bad ass; I'm all up in ya shit; the doctor did doctor things and ran doctor tests; then science happened and shit got cray cray; and thus began the stupid dick measuring contest also known as human history. So you get the idea, it’s quite Beavis and Butthead, but it’s not consistent. So I do feel it’s quite a false way of talking about these things. . . I feel like his profanities [are] this kind of stolen try-hard effort to perhaps, I don’t know, it seems to be borrowed from one of his favourite shows The Wire . . . I don’t feel like he actually does swear that much, in his life, it’s kind of a front.

[5]  The review was broadcast at around 10.30am on 23 May 2019 on RNZ National. As part of our consideration of this complaint, we have listened to a recording of the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[6]  Peter Hayes submitted the broadcast breached the good taste and decency, programme information and violence standards of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Standards for the following reasons:

Good taste and decency

  • The book review included quotes from the book such as:
    • ‘kicking pimpo [sic] commie bastards in the nuts’
    • ‘sweet ass, bad ass, I'm all up in ya shit’
    • ‘science happened shit…’
    • ‘...dick measuring contest also known as human history.’
  • The book review ‘could have been conducted without the graphic language’, and the reviewer ‘seemed to revel in the recital’ of these phrases.
  • There was no expectation of this type of language on RNZ or Nine to Noon.

Programme information

  • There was no audience advisory, and the opening remarks were not a suitable warning but rather were also offensive ‘in the way the “f” word is graphically spelled out.’

Violence

  • The quote ‘...run with scissors, sleep with your bosses [sic] wife or SHOOT UP A SCHOOL’ [complainant’s emphasis] was ‘extremely unwise and unnecessary’ to include ‘in light of recent events in Christchurch’.

 [7]  Mr Hayes also commented the complaint was not a freedom of speech issue, but rather a broadcasting standards issue and should be measured against those standards. He stated:

This is not an issue about the book's existence or the author's right to express his opinions. It is about [the reviewer]’s conduct and [the presenter]’s failure to intervene.

The broadcaster’s response

[8]  RNZ did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

  • It acknowledged that Mr Hayes was offended by the item ‘however that does not necessarily mean that the review was in breach of the broadcasting standards’.
  • A distinction has to be made between the causing of offence and the causing of harm and the possible level of harm from the broadcast was not at a level that justifies restricting individuals’ freedom of speech.
  • Context is a relevant consideration under the good taste and decency standard. In this case, the item was approached in good humour.
  • ‘[T]he difficulty is when broadcasting to a national audience that what most people might find acceptable may, at times such as this, offend other members of our audience. RNZ endeavours to…make decisions that will please the most and offend the least.’
  • The wording of the introduction provided listeners with sufficient information as to ‘the general tenor’ of the segment.

[9]  RNZ did not address the violence standard in its response.

The standards

[10]  The good taste and decency standard states that current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The Authority will consider the standard in relation to any broadcast that portrays or discusses material in a way that is likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress.1

[11]  The purpose of the programme information standard is to ensure that audiences are properly informed about the content of the programmes on offer.2 In a radio context, this means that where a broadcast may be outside audience expectations of the radio station or programme, an audience advisory should be broadcast.3

[12]  The violence standard states that broadcasters should exercise care and discretion when dealing with the issue of violence.

Our findings

[13]  Mr Hayes has submitted that this is not a freedom of speech issue, that it is a broadcasting standards issue. We acknowledge that he is not making a complaint about the book’s existence or the author’s right to express his opinions. However, as the standards necessarily operate to establish limits on freedom of expression exercised by broadcasters, application of the standards cannot be separated from consideration of freedom of expression.

[14]  Our starting point with any complaint is that we recognise the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, including the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information and the public’s right to receive that information. In this case that includes the broadcaster’s right to air this reviewer expressing himself in his own words to capture the spirit of the book he is reviewing.

[15]  Equally important is our consideration of the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and uphold complaints where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified. The importance of freedom of expression is such that, at some times, the exercise of it may cause offence to be taken by some. Ultimately, there is a sensible balance to be struck.

[16]  The Authority has previously recognised that ‘the right to freedom of expression allows individuals to express themselves in the way that they choose, so long as standards are maintained.’4 That being said, authentic language should not cause harm at a level requiring the Authority’s intervention.5

Good taste and decency

[17]  Mr Hayes has referred to specific language in the broadcast which appeared in quotes from the book being reviewed. Of the language complained about, the words ‘dick’, ‘bastard’ and ‘shit’ were the only ones tested in our 2018 Language That May Offend in Broadcasting research.6 They were ranked, respectively, 26th, 28th and 30th least acceptable of the 31 words tested, with less than 25% of survey participants finding these words unacceptable in any broadcasting scenario. This suggests that the general level of unacceptability for these expressions in the community is low.

[18]  The phrases ‘the f word’, ‘f’d’ (or equivalent) were not tested in this survey. However, we acknowledge that this word (expressed in full) was ranked 13th least acceptable7 and 17% of respondents asked to identify any other offensive language (not expressly tested in the survey) identified other variations of that word as offensive. We note however that care was taken for the word not to be used in the actual item.

[19]  Context is highly relevant to our assessment of whether the broadcast undermined widely-shared community standards.8 In our consideration of this complaint we found the following contextual factors to be relevant:

  • the nature of Nine to Noon, a current affairs programme targeted at adult listeners, and RNZ National
  • the nature of book reviews, particularly that listeners would not expect the same degree of formality as with a news broadcast
  • the time of broadcast at around 10.30am on a school day, so children were unlikely to be listening
  • the introduction to the interview which indicated the nature of the review
  • the comments were direct quotes from the book, and were used to illustrate specific points and critiques made by the reviewer
  • the comments were not made in an aggressive or vitriolic way
  • the reviewer was not endorsing the quotes, but was using them to indicate how he personally found the ‘sweary’ nature of the book unnatural and off-putting.

[20]  Where broadcasters take effective steps to inform their audiences of the nature of their programmes, and enable listeners to regulate their own and children’s listening behaviour, they are less likely to breach this standard.9 We agree with the broadcaster that the introduction to the item, while not a specific warning, was sufficient to indicate to listeners the nature of the review which was to follow. Listeners therefore had sufficient information to choose not to listen.

[21]  While the specific phrases complained about may cause occasional offence, in the context of a review of a book with the title ‘Everything Is F*cked’, the inclusion of this kind of language was indicated to listeners. It was reasonable in that context for the reviewer to use those quotes to illustrate and emphasise his specific critiques of the book as well as to authentically express his view and experience of the book.

[22]  Having regard to these factors, we do not consider that the broadcast was likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. The right to freedom of expression includes the right to broadcast low level coarse language when it is justified within the context of the broadcast.10

[23]  For these reasons we do not uphold the complaint under the good taste and decency standard.

Programme information

[24]  We acknowledge the complainant’s submission that the item should have been preceded by an audience advisory. However, as discussed above, we consider that the introduction to the book review and the book’s title would have been sufficient to alert listeners to the nature of the item.

[25]  For the reasons we have outlined above, we do not consider that the quotes from the book took the broadcast beyond audience expectations for a book review broadcast on RNZ National at a time children were unlikely to be listening and targeted at adults.

[26]   In these circumstances, we do not consider an additional audience advisory or warning was required, and we do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

Violence

[27]  Guideline 4b to the violence standard states that any description of, or reference to, violence should be justified by the context. However, the violence standard will rarely apply to radio, given violent material has more impact visually.11

[28]  The complainant has specified that the quote ‘if you think everything is f’d why not run with scissors, sleep with the boss’s wife or shoot up a school’ is in breach of the violence standard. However, the quote is provided as an example of something the reviewer disagrees with. The reviewer specifically denounces this statement, saying it is irresponsible for the author to write that ‘especially in the US if you have a base of 5 million readers’.

[29]  Taking into account the contextual factors, the reviewer’s denunciation of the quote and our reasoning under the good taste and decency standard above, in our view, the comment made by the interviewee was not so graphic as to justify our intervention in upholding the complaint under the violence standard.

[30]  We therefore do not uphold this aspect of the complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair
10 October 2019


 

Appendix

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

1                 Peter Hayes’ formal complaint – 27 May 2019

2                 RNZ’s response to the complaint – 28 June 2019

3                 Mr Hayes’ referral to the Authority – 3 July 2019

4                 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 18 July 2019

 


1 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
2 Commentary: Programme Information, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
3 Guideline 2a
4 Lough and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-080 at [11]
5 Barclay and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2019-003 at [12]
6 See Language that May Offend in Broadcasting: Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2018, page 6
7 As above
8 Guideline 1a
9 Guideline 1b
10 See for example: Taylor and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No 2018-106
11 Guideline 4a