BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

McArthur and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2005-111

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Stella Anne McArthur
CanWest TVWorks Ltd
C4 # 2

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Popetown – animated comedy set in a fictional Vatican City – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency, privacy, balance, accuracy, fairness and programme information

Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – contextual factors – not upheld

Standard 3 (privacy) – no private facts disclosed about an identifiable person – not upheld

Standard 4 (balance) – not a “news, current affairs or factual programme” – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – not a “news, current affairs or factual programme” – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) and guideline 6g (denigration) – high protection given to satire and comedy – programme had clear satirical and humorous intent – did not encourage denigration – not upheld

Standard 8 (programme information) – not applicable – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] C4 broadcast an episode of Popetown at 9.30pm on 10 August 2005. The animated series was set in a fictional Vatican City (called Popetown), and centred round a young priest called Father Nicholas, a group of corrupt cardinals and a child-like Pope character.

[2] During the episode on 10 August, Father Nicholas is put in charge of looking after the horses in the Popetown Derby, but he asks Sister Marie to look after the Popetown horse due to his severe horse phobia. As a subplot, the Pope scares himself by watching movies about serial killers and asks Swiss Guard Richter to give him a gun.


[3] Stella Anne McArthur complained to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme had breached standards of good taste and decency, privacy, balance, accuracy, fairness and programme information.

[4] Referring to Standard 1 (good taste and decency), the complainant argued that the programme had depicted the head of the Catholic Church as a “buffoon” and the whole church structure as ridiculous. In doing so, CanWest had not borne in mind the current norms of decency and taste and language and behaviour, she said.

[5] With respect to Standard 3 (privacy), Ms McArthur referred to the Authority’s privacy principle which states that “the protection of privacy also protects against the disclosure of private facts to abuse, denigrate or ridicule personally an identifiable person”. She also alleged that guideline 4a of Standard 4 (balance), guideline 5a of Standard 5 (accuracy), guideline 6a of Standard 6 (fairness) and Standard 8 (programme information) had been breached.

[6] Noting that Popetown was classified PGR, Ms McArthur considered that parents had been encouraged to “collude with the presenters of this programme, in guiding their children’s viewing”. She said that a public apology from CanWest was expected.


[7] CanWest assessed the complaint under Standards 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Standard 1 Good Taste and Decency

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Standard 3 Privacy

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the privacy of the individual.

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Standard 6 Fairness

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

Standard 8 Programme Information

Broadcasters are responsible for ensuring that programme information and structure does not deceive or disadvantage the viewer.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[8] The broadcaster noted that the Popetown programme started at a fictional Catholic secondary school where a student at the back of the class was working on a cartoon. His cartoon was Popetown. As the cartoon was drawn specifically from the perspective of a disinterested teenage schoolboy, CanWest argued, it could be expected that his cartoon would be irreverent. The characters he drew were caricatures and exaggerations. The broadcaster asserted that this scene set up the expectation that what would be seen would not be a satirical look at the Catholic Church in general, but a more distorted view from the perspective of a teenage boy.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[9] CanWest contended that in order to constitute a breach of Standard 1, a programme must be unacceptable to a significant number of viewers in the context in which it is shown. It argued that there were several relevant contextual factors on this occasion.

[10] First, the broadcaster noted that Popetown screened at 9.30pm – an hour after the AO watershed. It also argued that C4 was an “accepted niche channel” that was known for screening more challenging programmes than conventional stations. Further, CanWest said that the later timeslot ensured that a more mature audience was watching, and they would appreciate that it was a story told from a particular perspective.

[11] Second, CanWest said the cartoon was rated PGR and screened in an AO timeslot because it contained material more challenging than could be expected from a G-rated cartoon. In this context, the broadcaster argued that the language and the depiction of the inhabitants of Popetown would readily be understood as satire. CanWest maintained that there was no AO content in the cartoon, and said that a warning was not required.

[12] Third, CanWest noted the audience expectation and their knowledge of cartoons based around the sensibilities of teenage boys. As examples, the broadcaster cited well-known cartoons like Beavis & Butthead, bro’Town and The Simpsons. It said:

The New Zealand audience is well versed in the type of humour that this perspective shows – for example fart and faeces jokes, sexual humour and a general disrespect for authority. The content of Popetown in this context would not be surprising or even particularly challenging.

[13] Finally, CanWest noted that an expected part of the cartoon genre was that events did not have to follow reality, and that it was not unusual for a cartoon to be based in a fictional place which had some relevance to an actual place. For example, bro’Town was based in a fictional school in the actual suburb of Morningside, Auckland. CanWest argued that viewers would easily recognise that “Popetown” was not the Vatican City, and would understand that the actions and storylines did not relate to the Catholic Church except in the most trivial of ways.

[14] Taking these factors into consideration, the broadcaster did not agree that a significant number of viewers would find the cartoon offensive or in bad taste. It also found that the average viewer of cartoons of this nature would have expected the content and perspective of the storyline.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[15] CanWest argued that no viewer would think the “Pope”, a child who likes to ride a pogo stick, was a realistic representation of any real Catholic Pope. The behaviour of the other characters was equally unrealistic, it said. CanWest also noted that guideline 6a did not apply to Popetown, because the programme did not deal with actual people or events.

[16] The broadcaster found that Standard 6 was not breached. It wrote that the ideas were clearly intended to be seen as the cartooning of a teenage boy, and as such were not intended to be taken seriously or considered to be reality.

[17] CanWest also declined to uphold the rest of the complaint alleging breaches of Standards 3 (privacy), 4 (balance), 5 (accuracy), and 8 (programme information). It noted that no private facts about a real person were disclosed in Popetown, which precluded the application of Standard 3. Further, the programme was not a “news, current affairs or factual programme”, therefore Standards 4 and 5 did not apply. Lastly, CanWest noted that Standard 8 had been written to ensure that the audience was not deceived by programmes which claimed to be independent about products and services, when in fact they were being paid to promote the goods or services. In the broadcaster’s view, no material in Popetown breached that standard.

Referral to the Authority

[18] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Ms McArthur referred her complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The fact that the Popetown series had concluded, she said, did not eliminate the damage already incurred.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[19] The broadcaster added nothing further to its original response to the complainant.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[20] In her final submission, Ms McArthur invited the Authority to consider a recent article from the NZ Catholic newspaper, which reported that the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference had also lodged a formal complaint about Popetown.

Authority's Determination

[21] The members of the Authority have viewed 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.

[22] The Authority agrees with CanWest that Standards 3, 4, 5 and 8 have no application on this occasion. The privacy standard does not apply because no private facts about a real person were disclosed, and Popetown was not a “news, current affairs or factual programme” as required by Standards 4 and 5. Further, the Authority finds nothing in the programme information or structure which could amount to a breach of Standard 8.

[23] In light of this, the Authority has focused its determination on Ms McArthur’s complaints about breaches of Standards 1 and 6 of the Television Code.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[24] The Authority accepts that the lampooning of an institution or a group in a satirical context is likely to offend at least some members of the group or institution. But such offence is outside the gamut of the broadcasting standards relating to good taste and decency. This standard requires programming to meet commonly accepted norms in terms of language, violence, sexual material or nudity.

[25] The Authority considers that an animated satirical comedy which contains no offensive language, violence, sexual material or nudity, does not go beyond commonly accepted norms of good taste and decency.

[26] Furthermore, contextual factors are always relevant when assessing good taste and decency. In this case, the programme was broadcast on a channel that is aimed at the 15-29 demographic, and well-known for its challenging “youth culture” programming. In these circumstances, and taking into account the likely expectations of the C4 audience, the Authority considers that the good taste and decency standard was not breached.

[27] Essentially, the complainant’s concern was that the programme was offensive to Catholics because it denigrated the church. This, in the view of the Authority, is more appropriately addressed under the fairness standard, and in particular guideline 6g, which prohibits denigration.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[28] The Authority notes that the complainant has referred to guideline 6a in her formal complaint to the broadcaster. It agrees with CanWest that this guideline is intended to apply to actual people and events, and therefore is not relevant to a cartoon programme. However, for the avoidance of doubt, the Authority considers that the complainant’s main concern about fairness relates to the denigration of the Catholic Church and its members (guideline 6g). In light of this, the Authority makes the following comments.

[29] The starting point for the Authority in considering a complaint such as this is the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, protected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990:

Freedom of expressionEveryone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

[30] The right to freedom of expression is fundamental to a democratic society. Under section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act, the Authority may restrict this freedom only where such limitation is reasonable, and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

[31] One of the inevitable consequences of the right to free expression is that people will sometimes be offended by what others have to say. The Authority accepts that the complainant is genuinely offended by the depictions of her religion. But, in light of the right to free expression, the fact that offence has been taken – even if it is widespread offence – is not of itself sufficient justification for finding that a broadcast has breached broadcasting standards.

[32] The question for the Authority is instead whether the programme encouraged denigration of Catholics on the basis of their religious belief, prohibited by guideline 6g.

[33] The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as meaning a blackening of the reputation of a class of people (see for example decisions 1994-062 and 2004-129). It is also well established that in light of the requirements of the Bill of Rights Act, a high threshold is required before the Authority will find that a broadcast encourages denigration to such an extent that it amounts to a breach of guideline 6g (see for example Decision No 2004-001).

[34] The Authority also notes that the prohibition against denigration is not intended to prohibit a broadcast offered “in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work”. This exception to guideline 6g reflects the importance that society assigns to the freedom of legitimate humorous or satirical expression. While there may be cases in which a satirical or humorous work may breach the standard – if it amounted to hate speech, for example – the code is clear that such works are afforded a high degree of protection.

[35] Popetown is a satirical comedy, using the fictional setting of life at the Vatican as a vehicle for an irreverent “youth culture” comedy. In the view of the Authority, there was nothing in the programme that went beyond the boundaries of legitimate satire, into the realm of vitriol or hate speech.

[36] It is the nature of satire that many of the topics it addresses invite a strong response from listeners or viewers. The fact that a programme causes offence is not of itself a reason to prevent the broadcast of legitimate satire; this is especially so when the satirical and humorous intent is as overt as it is in the present case. The Authority has consistently recognised the right of broadcasters to satirise politics, religion or culture (see decisions 1990-011, 1991-050, 2004-152, 2004-184, and 2004-187). It sees no reason to depart from that position in the present case.


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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
28 November 2005


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

  1. Stella Anne McArthur’s formal complaint – 14 August 2005
  2. CanWest’s decision on the formal complaint – 8 September 2005
  3. Ms McArthur’s referral to the Authority – 12 September 2005
  4. CanWest’s response to the Authority – 26 September 2005
  5. Ms McArthur’s final submission – 3 October 2005