BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Hulst and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2003-024

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • Tapu Misa
  • R Bryant
Dated
Complainant
  • Jane Hulst
Number
2003-024
Programme
Off the Wire
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
National Radio

Complaint
Off the Wire radio comedy - comment that fat people are greedy and smelly – unfair – bad taste – encourages negative stereotypes

Findings
Principle 1 – context – no uphold

Principle 5 – not news or current affairs – not applicable

Principle 6 – specific person not referred to – no uphold

Principle 7 Guideline 7a – satirical exception to encouraging denigration – no uphold – Guideline 7b – not children’s normally accepted listening time – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Off the Wire, a radio comedy, was broadcast on National Radio at about 9.05pm on Friday 1 November 2002, and repeated at 1.30pm the next day. In dealing with a news item about a doctor being sacked from an overseas hospital, a participant had stated that "fat people are greedy and smelly – don’t trust them".

[2] Jane Hulst complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the comment was unfair and inaccurate, in bad taste, and encouraged negative stereotypes.

[3] In response, RNZ emphasised that Off the Wire was a comedy programme, and said that the brief comment was humorous and not gratuitous. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Jane Hulst referred her 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.

Decision

[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] "Fat people are greedy and smelly – don’t trust them" was a comment made by a participant in Off the Wire broadcast on National Radio at about 9.05pm on Friday 1 November 2002, and repeated the next day. Off the Wire is a radio comedy quiz where four participants relate humorous incidents that have been previously reported in national and international media.

The Complaint

[7] Jane Hulst complained that the comment about fat people was unfair, inaccurate, in bad taste and encouraged negative stereotypes about them. She also expressed concern that the repeat broadcast at 1.30pm on Saturday 2 November, would be heard by children and would be unhelpful for them.

The Standards

[8] In view of the matters raised by the complainant, RNZ assessed the complaint under Principles 1, 5, 6 and 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. The 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.

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.

Principle 5

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to.

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.

Principle 7

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Guidelines

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) is by way of legitimate humour or satire.

7b  Broadcasters shall be mindful of the effect any programme may have on children during their normally accepted listening times.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[9] Emphasising that the complaint focused on a remark made in a comedy programme, RNZ said the comment arose from an interchange among the participants about a news report of a doctor being sacked from an overseas hospital.

[10] RNZ dealt first with Principle 6 and pointed out that the requirement for accuracy did not apply to comedy. Turning to Guideline 7b regarding children, RNZ said that neither time of broadcast included programmes which were likely to appeal to younger listeners. The National Radio audience, it said, was, by and large, a mature one and it declined to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

[11] Pointing out that Principle 5 required that any person taking part or referred in a programme be dealt with fairly, RNZ contended that it also was inapplicable as the item had not referred to "a person".

[12] Guideline 7a of Principle 7 does not allow the broadcast of comments encouraging denigration or discrimination. However, the standard does not apply to the broadcast of material "by way of legitimate humour of satire". On the basis that the exception applied to the comment complained about, RNZ declined to uphold that aspect of the complaint.

[13] The requirement for good taste and decency in Principle 1 was the final matter RNZ addressed. It noted that consideration had to be given to context in which the comment was made, and declined to uphold this aspect of the complaint. It wrote:

In this case it was embedded in a programme of humour and the subject of patients in hospital had just been raised. The comments made were brief, met with laughter from the other members of the panel and audience and were not gratuitous in either their delivery or language used. As well, the time of day of broadcast in both instances and the target audience of mature National Radio listeners were mitigating factors.

[14] RNZ said that the complaint had been passed on to the producer of the programme concerned, but it did not consider that the remark was sufficiently offensive or unfair to amount to a breach of the standards.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[15] Ms Hulst contended that younger listeners would hear Off the Wire at 1.30pm on Saturday when at home with their parents. She asked: should the words "fat people" be replaced with "Maori", "Jews" or "Homosexuals", would the expression be excused as "legitimate humour"?

[16] As for the audience’s response with laughter, Ms Hulst commented that she had been in the studio audience for the recording of an earlier episode of Off the Wire, and was aware that canned laughter was used.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[17] RNZ stated that canned laughter was not used in Off the Wire. It noted that the comment complained about contained a degree of irony for the studio audience as the comedian who made it could himself be described as overweight.

The Authority’s Determination

[18] Ms Hulst complained that the comment made by a participant in Off the Wire, "Fat people are greedy and smelly – don’t trust them", breached a number of standards of broadcasting practice. The Authority intends to review each aspect of the complaint in the order followed by RNZ in its response to the complainant.

[19] Principle 6 requires broadcasters to be truthful and accurate in news and current affairs programmes. As the comment was made in a radio comedy quiz programme, the Authority agrees with RNZ that Principle 6 is not applicable.

[20] Broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with people referred to pursuant to Principle 5. The comment complained about did not refer to a specific person and, accordingly, the Authority is of the view that this standard, too, is inapplicable.

[21] Social responsibility is required of broadcasters under Principle 7 and the complainant referred to the portrayal of persons in a manner which encourages denigration of a section of the community, Guideline 7a, and to the protection of children, Guideline 7b.

[22] Guideline 7a does not extend to prevent the broadcast of satirical or humorous material. The Authority accepts that the comment included in Off the Wire fell under that exception.

[23] Guideline 7b requires that broadcasters are mindful of the effect a programme may have on children during "their normally accepted listening times". While children may be listening to Off the Wire when in the company of adults, the Authority considers, first, that it is not a programme which would appeal to children, and second, it was broadcast at a time which could not be described as children’s normally accepted listening time for National Radio. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the Principle 7 aspects of the complaint.

[24] The complaint also alleged that the item was in bad taste and in breach of Principle 1. When it determines a complaint about whether 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 breached the standard. Accordingly, the Authority has considered the context in which the comment complained about was broadcast.

[25] In the Authority’s opinion, the most relevant contextual aspect of the broadcast on this occasion was the type of programme. As noted, it involved a number of participants in a comedy quiz broadcast on radio. They were expected to respond spontaneously to comments and questions from the quiz master and the other participants. The comment complained about followed an observation that some airlines required overweight people to pay for two seats. The comment was spontaneous and made in the context of a discussion about body image, and in view of these matters of context, the Authority finds that Principle 1 was not contravened.

[26] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to apply the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to limit freedom of expression in a manner which is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (s.5 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990). As required by s.6 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the Authority adopts an interpretation of the relevant standards which it considers is consistent with and gives full weight to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
20 March 2003

Appendix

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

  1. Jane Hulst’s Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 2 November 2002
  2. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 3 December 2002
  3. Ms Hulst’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 24 December 2002
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 31 January 2003