BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

McArthur and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2002-187

  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • J H McGregor
  • R Bryant
  • Stella Anne McArthur
Radio New Zealand Ltd
National Radio

Live to Air: an Election Drama – radio play – National Radio – use of words "God" and "Jesus Christ" as expletives – offensive language – blasphemy

Principle 1 – context – no uphold

Principle 7 and Guidelines 7a, 7b, 7c, 7d, 7e, 7f – only Guideline 7a relevant – threshold not achieved – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Live to Air: an Election Drama was the title of a fifty minute-long radio play broadcast on National Radio at 4.05pm on Sunday 28 July 2002. The dialogue on occasions used the words "God" and "Jesus Christ" as expletives.

[2] Stella Anne McArthur complained to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the irreverent use of holy names. She described their use as offensive.

[3] In response, RNZ maintained that the language was acceptable in the context of a dramatic work, aimed at an adult audience, which depicted the lives of working New Zealanders. Furthermore, RNZ argued that it did not encourage denigration, and it declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with RNZ’s decision, Ms McArthur 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.


[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] Live to Air: an Election Drama was the title of a radio play broadcast on National Radio beginning at 4.05pm on Sunday 28 July 2002. The play dealt with the impact of the General Election on the lives of a number of New Zealanders. The election to which it referred was held on the day before the broadcast – Saturday 27 July.

[7] The play focused on the domestic difficulties of the two main characters and ended with them being advised that their child had gone missing.

The Complaint

[8] Stella Anne McArthur complained about some of the language used. Writing as a Christian, she described the irreverent use during the play of the holy names of "God" and "Jesus Christ" as offensive. The Lord’s name, she wrote, should be respected.

The Standards

[9] In view of the matters raised in the content, RNZ assessed the complaint under the following Principles and Guidelines:

Principle 1

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.


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 7

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


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 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.

7c  The time of transmission is an important consideration in the scheduling of programmes which contain violent themes.

7d  If a programme is likely to disturb, an appropriate warning should be broadcast.

7e  Broadcasters shall ensure that the incidental promotion of liquor is minimised.

7f  Advertisements and infomercials shall be clearly distinguishable from other programme material.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[10] From the outset, RNZ stressed that it was necessary to consider the context of the broadcast complained about. In this instance, it wrote, the language had been used towards the end of the play when the two main characters were told that their child had gone missing. RNZ considered that the language used "while perhaps not acceptable in some situations", was appropriate given the story-line. Furthermore, RNZ argued, those who wrote artistic works had a right to freedom of expression.

[11] As another aspect of context, RNZ considered that the broadcast did not target a younger audience, adding that the typical profile of National Radio listeners at most times was "largely an adult, older age group".

[12] In view of these contextual matters, RNZ declined to uphold the Principle 1 aspect of the complaint.

[13] As for Principle 7, Guideline 7a, RNZ contended that the authorities accepted that a high level of abuse was necessary before it was accepted that denigration was being encouraged. It declined to uphold the Principle 7 aspect of the complaint.

[14] RNZ observed:

Having made this decision, RNZ does however appreciate that you did not consider that the use of language in the programme you complained of was appropriate in this instance and thank you for drawing this matter to our attention. It provides RNZ with the opportunity to remind programmer producers to be mindful of the results of research previously undertaken by the Broadcasting Standards Authority detailing what language, and to what extent that language, is found to be offensive or otherwise by New Zealand society.

The Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

[15] When she referred the complaint to the Authority, Mrs McArthur noted that 51% of New Zealanders described themselves as Christians in the 1996 Census. Arguing that the Lord’s name should not be taken in vain, she considered that the media had a responsibility to promote respect for the Creator.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[16] Mrs McArthur repeated her concern about the irreverent use of God’s name, which she said was becoming "an all too common practice".

The Authority’s Determination

[17] When it determines a complaint that a broadcast contravenes Principle 1 of the Radio Code, the Authority is required to determine whether the language 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 language complained about was broadcast.

[18] The radio play Live to Air: An Election Drama broadcast between 4.00–5.00pm on Sunday 28 July included the phrases "for God’s sake", and "Jesus Christ" used as expletives. The phrases were used on occasions throughout the broadcast.

[19] The play was constructed around the use of audio clips from a dictaphone and a tape recorder and the clips utilised colloquial and conversational language. In the Authority’s opinion, the play’s novel form of construction represented reasonably accurately everyday dialogue in presenting a commentary on a range of factual matters and the characters’ emotional responses to them.

[20] In addition to this contextual aspect, the Authority has also taken into account the target audience and the typical profile of National Radio listeners, described by RNZ as "largely an adult, older age group". Furthermore, the Authority has considered its own research into the use of language which showed that the phrases such as the ones complained about on this occasion were considered acceptable by more respondents than those who found them unacceptable

[21] In view of the above contextual matters, the Authority concludes that the broadcast did not breach Principle 1 of the Radio Code. It reaches the same conclusion in regard to the Principle 7 aspect of the complaint. Taking into account the matters raised by the complainant, the Authority considers that Guideline 7a is the only one applicable. It notes that it has recorded on a number of occasions that there is a high threshold to be reached before it will find that a broadcast encourages denigration of or discrimination against a section of the community. It considers that the threshold was not reached with the broadcast complained about.

[22] The Authority observes that to find a breach of broadcasting standards on this occasion would be to interpret 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 reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Cartwright
21 November 2002


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

  1. Stella Anne McArthur’s Formal Complaint to Radio New Zealand Ltd – 31 July 2002
  2. RNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 2 September 2002
  3. Mrs McArthur’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 10 September 2002
  4. RNZ’s Response to the Authority – 13 September 2002
  5. Mrs McArthur’s Final Comment – 24 September 2002