BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Schwabe and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2001-224

Members
  • P Cartwright (Chair)
  • B Hayward
  • R Bryant
  • J H McGregor
Dated
Complainant
  • Paul Schwabe
Number
2001-224
Programme
Teachers
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint
Teachers – shag and fuck and their derivatives – frequent use – offensive language

Findings
Section 4(1)(a) and Standard G2 – acceptable in context – no uphold

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Summary

[1] Teachers, an eight part series, was broadcast weekly on TV One at 9.30 on Monday evenings. Using the idiom of the staff and pupils, it told the story of a young teacher of English in a comprehensive school in England.

[2] Paul Schwabe complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the episode broadcast on 13 August 2001 included offensive language when using the words "shag" and "fuck" and their derivatives.

[3] In response, TVNZ described the series as "contemporary, gritty and humorous" and said that it was classified as AO, broadcast an hour after the AO watershed, and preceded with an explicit warning. It declined to uphold the complaint.

[4] Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Schwabe referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Decision

[5] The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines this complaint without a formal hearing.

The Programme

[6] Teachers was an eight-part drama series based on a fictional comprehensive school in England. The series focused on a young teacher and how his experiences as a teacher affected him as a person. The series was described by TVNZ as "contemporary, gritty and humorous".

The Complaint

[7] Paul Schwabe complained to TVNZ about the episode broadcast at 9.30pm on TV One on 13 August 2001. The broadcast, he wrote, was highly offensive as it contained foul language, including the words "shag" and "fuck" and their derivatives. In his letter to TVNZ, Mr Schwabe said:

No doubt you were fully aware of this as it fits in with your apparent conspiracy to not only dumb down but also dirty up our country’s broadcasting. Well its getting to be so dirty now that it can’t get much worse. I hope that one day those involved will be held responsible for the shocking downhill slide in broadcasting decency standards.

[8] He also sought the names of the members of TVNZ’s Complaints Committee.

The Standards

[9] TVNZ assessed the complaint under both the standards nominated by Mr Schwabe, s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989, and standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[10] The former reads:

4(1) Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with –
    
       (a) The observance of good taste and decency;

[11] Standard G2 requires broadcasters:

G2  To take into consideration currently accepted norms of decency and taste in language and behaviour bearing in mind the context in which any language or behaviour occurs.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Complainant

[12] TVNZ referred to the series in the following way:

It was observed that while it is at times humorous, Teachers reflects a tough teaching environment in an English comprehensive school. What is portrayed in fictional terms is neither the elite of the English teaching profession, nor the elite among school students.

[13] To ensure that the fictional series seemed real and believable, TVNZ argued that it was necessary for the language used to reflect the idiom of the people portrayed. That meant, it added, the use of swear words and oaths.

[14] In view of the type of series being broadcast, TVNZ continued, it took action to ensure that viewers were aware of the content. That involved the time of broadcast, 9.30pm, one hour after the AO watershed, classifying the programme AO, and including a special warning, that said:

"Teachers is rated Adults Only and is intended for a mature audience aged 18 years and over. It contains frequent use of strong language that may offend some people. We advise discretion".

[15] In these circumstances, TVNZ declined to uphold the complaint.

The Referral to the Authority

[16] Mr Schwabe began:

I am disgusted with broadcasting standards which have generated, in TVNZ, the gall to first broadcast and then arrogantly defend, this particular programme.

[17] He described the programme as a "pathetic soap", and maintained that the warning did not authorise the broadcast of offensive language. He noted:

I also attach importance to the warning notice which graphically demonstrates that TVNZ knew the programme was not consistent with the observance of good taste and decency, and, by going ahead and broadcasting it anyway, directly contravened the Act as I have charged.

The Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[18] In its response to the Authority, TVNZ denied the complainant’s argument that the presence of a warning amounted to an admission that the broadcast breached the standards. TVNZ stated:

It is the purpose of a warning to enable a viewer to make an informed decision about whether to watch a programme, or not to. TVNZ has made an effort in recent years to make warnings more specific as a further help to viewers. It is noted that in the soon to be launched revised Free-to-Air Code of Broadcasting Practice an extra emphasis is placed on warnings.

The Complainant’s Final Comment

[19] In his final comment, Mr Schwabe argued that TVNZ, by broadcasting specific warnings, was "covering its backside" rather than showing concern for discerning viewers.

The Authority’s Determination

[20] In determining a complaint which alleges a breach of s.4(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act, the Authority is guided by standard G2 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standard G2 requires the Authority to take "context" into account. As community norms of "good taste" and "decency" are not absolute concepts, it is the Authority’s practice to determine complaints which refer only to s.4(1)(a), by reference to standard G2.

[21] Consequently, when the Authority considers a complaint alleging a breach of good taste and decency, it takes into account the context in which the material complained about occurs. The context is relevant, but not decisive, to the Authority’s determination of whether the programme breached standards of good taste and decency.

[22] The Authority considers that the following contextual matters are relevant to its decision:

  • classification – AO
  • time of screening – one hour after AO watershed
  • warning
  • ongoing series described by TVNZ as "gritty".

[23] Taking these matters into account the Authority is firmly of the view that the nominated standards were not transgressed.

[24] The role of warnings has arisen in the correspondence. The Authority considers that the system of warnings gives notice that some of the material in the programme to which the warning relates may challenge some viewers. The Authority does not regard warnings as an excuse for otherwise unacceptable material. It has no reason to believe that they are being used by broadcasters in that way.

[25] Finally, the Authority observes that to find a breach of the nominated standards would be to interpret the Broadcasting Act 1989 in such a way as to place too great a limit on the broadcaster's statutory freedom of expression in s.14 of the NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990. It prefers to adopt an interpretation of the standard which is consistent with the Bill of Rights.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Cartwright
Chair
17 December 2001

Appendix

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

1. Paul Schwabe’s Formal Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 6 September 2001
2. TVNZ’s Response to Mr Schwabe – 25 September 2001
3. Mr Schwabe’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 17 October 2001
4. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 26 October 2001
5. Mr Schwabe’s Final Comment – 19 November 2001