BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Parkinson and Harvey and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2006-057

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainants
  • David Harvey
  • Pastor Trevor Parkinson
  • the Lumsden, Balfour, Kingston Presbyterian Church
Number
2006-057
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaints under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Orange Roughies – promo – used words “for Christ’s sake” – allegedly blasphemous and derogatory of Christians

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – distinct different dictionary meanings of “Christ” - context – not upheld

Standard 6 and guideline 6g (denigration) – not intended to encourage denigration – high threshold not reached – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1] A promo for the forthcoming drama series Orange Roughies was broadcast on TV One on a number of occasions in mid May 2006. In one of the brief sequences included in the promo, one of the characters exclaimed “you’re married for Christ’s sake!” as he walked past a parked car containing a husband and wife apparently having sex.

Complaints

[2] Pastor Trevor Parkinson of the Lumsden, Balfour, Kingston Presbyterian Church complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, about the use of the phrase “for Christ’s sake”. He wrote:

When I hear these words I cringe. Not only I, but also many of the Christian faith are aggrieved that the name of their Saviour and Lord is used in such a derogatory and blasphemous manner.

[3] Contending that the use of the phrase was insensitive to Christians, he noted that the gods of other religions were not blasphemed in a similar way.

[4] David Harvey said that he was “profoundly disturbed” by the explicit blasphemy. Because it had been broadcast without warning on a number of occasions, he added, he was not able to exercise an option and choose not to watch. There was never any justification for blasphemy, he wrote.

Standards

[5] TVNZ assessed the complaint against the following provisions in the Free-to-Air Television Code of the Broadcasting Practice:

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.

Guidelines

1a   Broadcasters must take into consideration current norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs. Examples of context are the time of the broadcast, the type of programme, the target audience, the use of warnings and the programme’s classification (see Appendix1). The examples are not exhaustive.

1b   Broadcasters should consider – and if appropriate require – the use of on-air visual and verbal warnings when programmes contain violent material, material of a sexual nature, coarse language or other content likely to disturb children or offend a significant number of adult viewers. Warnings should be specific in nature, while avoiding detail which may itself distress or offend viewers.

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.

Guideline 6g

Broadcasters should avoid portraying persons in programmes in a manner that encourages denigration of, or discrimination against, sections of the community on account of sex, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, or occupational status, or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i) factual, or

ii) the expression of genuinely held opinion in news, current affairs or other factual programmes, or

iii) in the legitimate context of a dramatic, humorous or satirical work,

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainants

[6] TVNZ apologised to the complainants for the offence caused by the use of words. However, it argued that the use of words such as “Christ”, “Jesus” and “God”, as exclamations was widespread and “it would be well nigh impossible to write a credible screenplay or novel without reflecting that”. Moreover, it continued, modern dictionaries gave two distinct definitions for “Christ” – both as a name given to Jesus, and as an exclamation expressing “irritation, dismay or surprise”. It had been used in the latter sense in the promo, TVNZ said, and had not been used to disparage a religion.

[7] In support of its argument about the use of holy words as exclamations, TVNZ cited the Authority’s Decision No. 2003-098. In that instance, the Authority declined to uphold a complaint about a promo broadcast in the early evening which had used the phrase “Jesus Christ” as an exclamation. It had not upheld the complaint, TVNZ wrote, in view of the two distinct dictionary meanings of the phrase, and the sense in which it had been used in the promo.

[8] In response to the complaint that other religions did not use the name of gods as exclamations, TVNZ said it had been advised by Islamic sources in Auckland that words which were the derivatives of “Allah” were “used in an exclamatory context in Islamic countries”.

[9] In view of the widespread use of the word “Christ” as an exclamation, and its exclamatory use in the promo complained about, TVNZ said that it did not stray beyond the current norms of good taste and decency. Accordingly, it found no breach of Standard 1.

[10] Further, because the scene showed no intent to harm Christians and was not an attack on religion, TVNZ considered the denigration standard had not been breached.

Referrals to the Authority

[11] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Pastor Parkinson and David Harvey each referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[12] Mr Parkinson agreed that the use of blasphemous language was commonplace in a secular society. However, he contended that Christians felt deeply hurt by such language, and he did not accept that its use was justified in order to “grab” a person’s attention. Mr Parkinson considered that TVNZ’s reliance on current practices did not justify its conclusion that the standards were not breached.

[13] Mr Harvey described as “nonsense” the argument that blasphemy was necessary in a modern screenplay or novel. It indicated a lack of ability or inspiration, he said. He repeated his complaint that the unexpected blasphemy did not give him an opportunity to “switch off”.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[14] TVNZ maintained that the use of such phrases in this context did not encourage discrimination against Christians.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[15] Mr Parkinson expressed his concern that TVNZ’s reply suggested that the use of the name of Christ in a derogatory manner was acceptable “to create impact, sensation and interest”. Using the name of Christ in a flippant way was insensitive and unacceptable blasphemy, he maintained.

Authority's Determination

[16] The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaints without a formal hearing.

Standard 1 (good taste and decency)

[17] When the Authority considers a complaint that alleges a breach of good taste and decency, it is required to take into consideration the context of the broadcast. The Authority notes that the definition of the word “Christ” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary includes “expressing surprise, anger, etc”. On this occasion, taking into account the context in which it was used, the Authority considers that the word “Christ” was used as an exclamation of light-hearted surprise.

[18] The Authority accepts that some people take offence at the use of such words as “Christ”, “Jesus” and “God” other than in a religious sense. It also notes that its surveys of public opinion disclose that the community’s views on blasphemy are polarised and, to a majority, the use of the word in question in a promo would not offend against good taste and decency.1

[19] Accordingly, it declines to uphold the Standard 1 complaint.

Standard 6 and guideline 6g (denigration)

[20] Pastor Parkinson argued that the use of the word “Christ” was derogatory to Christians. TVNZ assessed the complaint under the broadcasting standard relating to denigration and discrimination. The term “denigration” has consistently been defined by the Authority as meaning blackening 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 level of invective is necessary for the Authority to conclude that a broadcast encourages denigration in contravention of the standards (see for example Decision No. 2002-152).

[21] In this complaint, the Authority finds that the threshold for denigration was not met. The word was not intended to be derogatory towards Christians and offered no criticism of them. The Authority does not uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaints.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

Joanne Morris
Chair
14 August 2006

Appendix

  1. The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined Pastor Parkinson’s complaint:
  2. Pastor Trevor Parkinson’s complaint to TVNZ – 17 May 2006
  3. TVNZ’s response to Mr Parkinson – 31 May 2006
  4. Mr Parkinson’s referral to the Authority – 8 June 2006
  5. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 19 June 2006
  6. Mr Parkinson’s final comment - 27 June 2006

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it considered Mr Harvey’s complaint:

  1. David Harvey’s complaint to TVNZ – 25 May 2006
  2. TVNZ’s informal response to Mr Harvey – 26 May 2006
  3. David Harvey’s formal complaint to TVNZ – 28 May 2006
  4. TVNZ’s response to Mr Harvey – 7 June 2006
  5. Mr Harvey’s referral to the Authority – 26 June 2006
  6. TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 12 July 2006

1See Freedoms and Fetters (Chapter 6), 2006.