Holding and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-019 (24 May 2018)
- Peter Radich (Chair)
- Paula Rose
- Wendy Palmer
- Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
- Stuart Holding
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
An episode of Shortland Street featured a character using the phrase (according to the accompanying closed captions), ‘You’ve got no freaking idea…’ The Authority did not uphold a complaint that this phrase breached the good taste and decency standard because in the complainant’s view, the character actually said ‘f***ing’. The Authority noted that if broadcasters wish to broadcast sanitised versions of unacceptable words, then it is their responsibility to make it clear that it is not the offensive word that is being uttered, but rather a word which is distinctly aurally different. Here, where there was some uncertainty about what was said, the Authority did not uphold the complaint. However the Authority urged broadcasters to be careful in future, on the basis that if there is some murkiness and it is open for viewers or listeners to think that an inappropriate word has been used, the Authority may find there has been a breach of broadcasting standards.
Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency
 An episode of Shortland Street featured a character (Jack) having a heated argument with the police officer who had been harassing his family. According to the closed captions (subtitles) provided by the broadcaster, during the exchange the officer said:
You’ve got no freaking idea what we can do. You think you’re smart, you all do. Nothing but scum, your mongrel Dad, your crim Mum. [Emphasis added]
 Stuart Holding complained that the officer used the word ‘f***ing’ (not ‘freaking’) during this scene, which was unacceptable considering the timing of the broadcast.
 The issue raised in Mr Holding’s complaint is whether the broadcast breached the good taste and decency standard of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.
 The episode was broadcast on 7 December 2017 at 7pm and 8 December 2017 at 3pm on TVNZ 2. The members of the Authority have viewed 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 viewing or listening to broadcasts that are likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress, or undermine widely shared community standards. Current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme and the wider context of the broadcast.
The parties’ submissions
 Mr Holding submitted:
- During the scene the police officer used a word that was inappropriate considering the time of the broadcast.
- The actor clearly said ‘f***ing’ and not ‘freaking’ as submitted by TVNZ.
- Despite the subtitles provided by TVNZ, the actor’s pronunciation of the word sounded like ‘f***ing’, not ‘freaking’.
- The word ‘freaking’ is a euphemism for the word ‘f***ing’.
 TVNZ submitted:
- Shortland Street is certified Parental Guidance Recommended (PGR).
- PGR programmes may be screened between 9am and 4pm, and after 7pm until 6am.
- The actor said ‘freaking’ and this is confirmed by the closed captions (subtitles) and also by the producer of the episode. ‘Freaking’ is a euphemism, or polite word, used in the place of a swear word.
- The producer of Shortland Street advised TVNZ that the word in question has never been used in an episode, due to the show’s timeslot.
- ‘Freaking’ does not feature in the list of swear words in the BSA’s research on the acceptability of language in broadcasting.1
- The episode did not contain the word complained about and its content was consistent with the expectations of the PGR certificate.
- The PGR certificate specifically allows that programmes may contain material more suitable for mature audiences.
 When we determine 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, as well as the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast.
 In considering the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused, and the good taste and decency standard as a whole, context is highly relevant. Relevant contextual factors in this case include:
- Shortland Street is rated PGR and both screenings of the episode occurred during the PGR timeband
- PGR programmes may contain material more suited for mature audiences but not necessarily unsuitable for child viewers when subject to the guidance of a parent or an adult 2
- while Shortland Street is targeted at adult and teen viewers, the likely audience may have included children
- the closed captioning for the broadcast, which stated that the word ‘freaking’ was used
- the nature of the programme as a long-running local medical drama series
- audience expectations of Shortland Street, which frequently contains mature themes
- the nature of the scene in question, which depicted a heated argument between two characters.
 We have previously found that the use of words such as ‘freaking’ or ‘fricken’ are acceptable, less offensive alternatives to the word ‘f***ing’. It is becoming increasingly commonplace for aurally modified versions of the word ‘f***ing’ to be used. The sitcom programme Mrs Brown’s Boys is replete with such usages, for example.3
 We have viewed and listened to the relevant broadcast scene a number of times. We have struggled to reconcile the position of the broadcaster that the word used was ‘freaking’, with what we have heard. In our view, the word used was not ‘freaking’. However, we were not able to determine whether the word used was ‘f***ing’ or some less offensive but similar sounding word. Just as we found it difficult to determine what was being said, so we believe most listeners and viewers would have had the same difficulty. The diction of the speaker was poor and what was being said was said quickly.
 We are however clear on what the proper approach of broadcasters should be. It is the responsibility of broadcasters to ensure that words such as ‘f***ing’ are not broadcast at times and in circumstances where this is not acceptable. It would not be acceptable, and the broadcaster acknowledges this, for the word ‘f***ing’ to have been used on Shortland Street at this time.
 If a broadcaster wishes to broadcast a sanitised version of an unacceptable word then it is the responsibility of the broadcaster to make it clear that it is not the offensive word that is being uttered but rather that it is a word which is distinctly aurally different. Here, there was insufficient distinction and the result was that some viewers could have legitimately heard the word ‘f***ing’ being used.
 In these circumstances, where there is some uncertainty about what was said, we do not uphold the complaint. Nevertheless we make it clear that the complaint was one which was properly brought. In the future we expect broadcasters to be careful on the basis that if there is some residual murkiness and it is open for viewers or listeners to think that an inappropriate word has been used, then we may find there has been a breach of broadcasting standards.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
24 May 2018
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Stuart Holding’s formal complaint – 8 December 2017
2 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 26 January 2018
3 Mr Holding’s referral to the Authority – 15 February 2018
4 TVNZ’s further comments – 27 March 2018
5 Mr Holding’s further comments – 5 April 2018
6 TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 5 April 2018
1 What Not to Swear, The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting, Broadcasting Standards Authority, 2013, page 13
2 Guideline 2a to Standard 2 (Programme Information)
3 McClung and The Radio Network Ltd, Decision No. 2012-067