BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Howard and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-237

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
  • Alfred Howard
TV One

Holmes interview with Prime Minister about refugees – reference to Nauru as a pile of bird shit – offensive language – inappropriate for school children

Standard G2 – crude but acceptable in context – no uphold

Standard G12 – minimal impact on children – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Nauru was described as a "pile of bird shit" by the presenter on Holmes when interviewing the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about the Government’s decision to take 150 refugees from the Tampa. The item was broadcast on Holmes on 3 September 2001 beginning at 7.00pm.

[2] Alfred Howard complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the phrase was totally inappropriate and offensive. He expressed particular concern that school children would hear the language.

[3] On the basis that the phrase was descriptive and informational, and not used as a swear word, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Howard referred his 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 viewed 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] The decision of the New Zealand Government to accept 150 refugees then aboard the Tampa was discussed on Holmes, broadcast on 3 September. The item involved interviews with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and, during the interview, the island of Nauru was described by the presenter as "a pile of bird shit".

The Complaint

[7] Alfred Howard complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the phrase was totally inappropriate and offensive. He said that an apology from the presenter was appropriate for the interviewees, for school children and for the citizens of Nauru.

[8] Mr Howard also expressed his concern that the presenter on Holmes referred to the Prime Minister and Ministers of the Crown by their Christian names, rather than by their title.

[9] In a second letter, Mr Howard argued that another phrase could have been used to refer to Nauru’s guano mining history.

The Standards

[10] TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standards G2 and G12 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They require broadcasters in the presentation and preparation of programmes:

G2  To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour, bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.

G12  To be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted viewing times.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[11] TVNZ argued that, in the context of a live and informal interview, the words "bird shit" were not unacceptable. The word "shit", it continued, was not used as a swear word, but in the sense of "droppings". TVNZ acknowledged that the question could have referred to the guano mining industry, but the phrase used:

… was strictly accurate, triggered a recognition among viewers (including yourself) of the nature of Nauru and its economy, and required no further elaboration.

[12] In response to Mr Howard’s concern that both interviewees were women, TVNZ considered that, rather than the accepting Mr Howard’s point, both would have been offended if they were spoken to differently because they were women.

[13] As for the effect on children, TVNZ considered that the phrase would not set a bad example as the word "shit" was not used in an offensive context.

[14] Dealing with Mr Howard’s concern about presenters using the first names of politicians, TVNZ stated:

… that New Zealand has long seen itself as an egalitarian society in which people from all walks of life mingle freely. We know of no politicians who object to being addressed by their first names, and most respond by similarly addressing reporters and presenters by their first names. The [Complaints] Committee is sorry that you find this practice distasteful, but felt that at this point in your complaint you were expressing a personal preference, rather than establishing a breach of the statutory standards.

[15] TVNZ maintained that the phrase "bird shit" did not breach standard G2 given the context in which it was used. Further, as it was used in a "descriptional and informational sense," not as a swear word, it did not believe that standard G12 had been threatened.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[16] In a detailed referral to the Authority, Mr Howard commented on a number of aspects of TVNZ’s response. With regard to the broadcasting standards issues, Mr Howard strongly disagreed with TVNZ’s contention that the phrase "bird shit" encapsulated Nauru’s history. He listed some points about Nauru society, including its guano mining history which, he wrote, amounted to more than a "pile of bird shit". Pointing to the influence of television on school children, Mr Howard considered that the phrase would have a bad effect on them.

[17] On the basis that society expected that women be shown more respect than men, he disputed TVNZ’s point that the interviewees would not want to be treated differently on account of their gender.

[18] In reference to TVNZ’s comment that New Zealand was an egalitarian society, Mr Howard also said that the manner in which Ministers were addressed was not part of his formal complaint. In conclusion, he rejected TVNZ’s findings that the standards were not breached.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[20] In its reply to the referral, TVNZ repeated the point that the word "shit" was not used as a swear word and thus it was unfair to suggest that its use encouraged children to swear.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[21] Pointing to TVNZ’s focus on the aspect that "shit" was not used as a swear word, Mr Howard explained that he considered that the word should not have been used at all. The reference by the presenter to "bird shit" he wrote, was "distasteful and unnecessary".

The Authority’s Determination

[22] The complainant alleged that the description of Nauru as "a pile of bird shit" breached community norms of good taste and decency. In determining a complaint which alleges a breach of standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, the Authority is required to take "context" into account. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standards of good taste and decency.

[23] The Authority regards the use of the phrase "bird shit" on this occasion as crude and simplistic, and potentially disrespectful to the inhabitants of Nauru, but finds that its use falls short of breaching broadcasting standards.

[24] Taking into account the context in which it was used on this occasion, the Authority concludes that the standard was not contravened. It was used as a throw away line, and not followed up by either the interviewees – the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition respectably.

[25] The Authority is of the view that its impact on children would be minimal because the phrase was used in an idiomatic sense. Accordingly, it upholds neither aspect of the complaint.

[26] Finally, the Authority observes that to find a breach of the standards would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster's statutory freedom of expression in s.14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. It prefers to adopt an interpretation of the standards which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Cartwright
17 December 2001


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

  1. Mr Howard’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 4 September 2001
  2. TVNZ’s Initial Response to Mr Howard – 7 September 2001
  3. Mr Howard’s Further Complaint to TVNZ – 10 September 2001
  4. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 24 September 2001
  5. Mr Howard’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 26 September 2001
  6. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 11 October 2001
  7. Mr Howard’s Final Comment – 18 October 2001