BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - ID2005-112

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference
  • (NZCBC)
CanWest TVWorks Ltd
C4 # 2

                                  INTERLOCUTORY DECISION

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 and unfair

Decision on interlocutory application

Request for formal hearing – not required in all the circumstances of the case – declined

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] Three episodes of Popetown were broadcast on C4 at 9.30pm on 29 June, 6 July and 20 July 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] An episode called “Trapped” was broadcast on 29 June. The storyline involved the character Sister Marie giving the “Pope” “papal bull” energy drink, whereupon he develops “windy pops”. The Pope, Father Nicholas and Sister Marie become trapped in the catacombs under Popetown.

[3] An episode called “Possessed” was broadcast on 6 July 2005. In this episode, Sister Marie and Father Nicholas think that the Pope is possessed because he is levitating, speaking in a strange voice and vomiting. It transpires that the Pope has accidentally swallowed some bees. In another storyline, the Cardinals discover a wonder-cream that makes the user young and beautiful and decide to market it to lepers.

[4] An episode called “A Family Affair” was broadcast on 20 July 2005. It involved Father Nicholas’ mother coming to visit Popetown and having an affair with a Swiss Guard.

[5] The New Zealand Catholic Bishop’s Conference (NZCBC) complained to CanWest TVWorks, the broadcaster, that the episodes breached Standard 1 (good taste and decency) and Standard 6 (fairness). It specifically elected Guidelines 6a, 6b, 6f and 6g.

[6] The NZCBC alleged that Popetown caused calculated and deliberate offence, and was unfair to clergy and members of the Catholic church.

[7] CanWest did not uphold the complaint, and the NZCBC referred the complaint to the Authority.

NZCBC’s Procedural Request

[8] After referring the matter to the Authority, the NZCBC, through its solicitor, requested that the Authority convene a formal hearing to consider the complaint. In particular, the complainants advised that they wished to make submissions in respect of what they perceived as the reliance on comments made by Lyndsay Freer, a representative of the NZCBC and Catholic Communications.

[9] They described Mrs Freer’s comment that she “couldn’t take [Popetown] seriously enough to consider it harmful or offensive”…as a “preliminary reaction”. The complainants noted that, at the time of the broadcaster’s submissions, they were aware that the NZCBC and Ms Freer had taken a different attitude in respect of the programme. They considered that this issue was “worthy of examination”.

[10] The complainant also considered that previous decisions by the Authority raised issues regarding the fairness standard and s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. It asserted that the Authority equated unfairness with denigration, and that this required some “critical examination”.

[11] The NZCBC further submitted that the particular and continuing effect of Popetown, and the attitudes promulgated by it, required further examination. It advised that the position of the complainant would be that the series, taken as a whole, met a reasonable test of denigration.

[12] Finally, the complainant advised that there were other, unspecified issues to be dealt with by further submission.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[13] CanWest opposed the request for a hearing. It noted that the Authority had already determined two complaints about Popetown, and submitted that this complaint did not raise any new information or issues, not covered in the earlier complaints, that necessitated a hearing.

Authority's Determination

[14] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[15] It is the usual practice of the Authority to deal with complaints on the papers, after both the complainant and the broadcaster have been given the appropriate opportunity to make submissions. In adopting that general practice, the Authority has regard to s.10(2) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, which states that complaints should be determined with “as little formality and technicality” as is permitted by the Act, the proper consideration of the complaint, and the requirements of natural justice.

[16] The question for the Authority in determining a request for a formal hearing is whether such a hearing would assist the Authority in determining the complaint. In assessing this question, the Authority may take into account the following matters:

  • whether there are any complex issues of fact that could best be resolved by hearing witnesses
  • whether there are issues of credibility that can best be determined by examining witnesses in person
  • whether the complaint concerns complex legal issues that can best be addressed through oral submissions and argument, and the questioning of parties or their legal counsel
  • whether the legal issues are matters of broad principle or general public interest
  • whether there are special circumstances relating to the complainant meaning that they cannot be fairly expected to make submissions in writing.

[17] The Authority does not consider that any of these grounds apply in the present case. The NZCBC’s complaint does not raise any disputed issues of fact requiring resolution. The Authority acknowledges the complainants’ intention to address in its submissions the proper application and interpretation of the fairness standard in relation to this complaint. Nevertheless, the Authority is of the view that this argument can appropriately be dealt with through the exchange of written submissions; effective consideration of this issue is unlikely to be materially advanced by the parties making oral submissions.

[18] While the issues raised by the broadcasts of Popetown are undoubtedly of deep concern to the complainants, and do raise important issues about freedom of expression and satire balanced against the rights of identifiable groups, the Authority does not believe that fact alone justifies convening a formal hearing.

[19] Where the facts are not in doubt, the issues for determination are confined (albeit important) and there is no reason that the issues cannot be effectively addressed through the exchange of written submissions, the Authority considers it appropriate to follow its usual course of action in determining the matter on the papers.

[20] For the above reasons, the Authority considers that this is not a matter for which a formal hearing is required.


For the above reasons the Authority declines the complainant’s request for a formal hearing.

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. NZCBC formal complaint to CanWest – 22 July 2005
  2. CanWest’s response to the formal complaint – 22 August 2005
  3. NZCBC’s referral to the Authority – 16 September 2005
  4. CanWest’s response to the referral – 26 September 2005
  5. NZCBC’s formal request for a formal hearing – 8 November 2005
  6. CanWest’s response to the request for a formal hearing – 18 November 2005