Stratford and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2005-124
- Joanne Morris (Chair)
- Diane Musgrave
- Tapu Misa
- Paul France
- Brian Stratford
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Facelift – character used the words “Jesus” and “Christ” – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – context – not upheld
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
 Facelift, a satirical programme which lampooned politicians and other high profile New Zealanders, screened on TV One at 10.05pm on 19 September 2005. On this occasion, Facelift ridiculed television coverage of the election results two nights earlier. The character playing TV One’s political editor, Mark Sainsbury, used the words “Jesus” and “Christ”.
 Brian Stratford complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the character had used the words “Jesus” and “Christ” as exclamations. He considered that this was blasphemous and offensive.
 The complainant argued that TVNZ, as a state-owned broadcaster, should be exemplary in its standards and should not permit such “poor taste”.
 TVNZ assessed the complaint under Standard 1 and guideline 1a 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.
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. The examples are not exhaustive.
Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant
 In its response to the complainant, TVNZ initially made two observations on the subject of blasphemy. First, it noted that the Concise Oxford Dictionary (10th edition, 1999) listed two separate definitions for words like “Jesus” and “Christ”. “Jesus” was first defined as a noun meaning “the central figure of the Christian religion, considered by Christians to be Christ or Messiah or the Son of God”. The second definition was as an informal exclamation “expressing irritation, dismay or surprise”. TVNZ contended that the use of “Jesus” and “Christ” in Facelift involved the second definition.
 Secondly, TVNZ was of the opinion that for a term to be considered blasphemous, it must have intent to disparage or denigrate either the religion or its adherents. The broadcaster submitted that the words used in Facelift were everyday colloquialisms. Further, there was no suggestion that the character playing Mark Sainsbury had set out to denigrate Christianity or its followers.
 TVNZ noted that guideline 1a required it to bear in mind “the context in which any language or behaviour occurs”. In this case, it believed the relevant contextual factors included the time of the broadcast, the classification of the programme, and the nature of the programme and the personalities involved.
 The broadcaster noted that the programme did not begin until 10.05pm. The Authority, it wrote, had previously declined to uphold a complaint about the use of “Jesus Christ” as an expletive in a programme trailer which had screened at 7.15pm (Decision No. 2003-098). Further, Facelift was classified as Adults Only.
 As far as the nature of the programme was concerned, TVNZ observed that the episode had satirised the exuberance of election night on television, and the sometimes chaotic attempts to keep up with what was going on. In that context, it did not believe that the use of some “frequently-heard words of exclamation” were out of place. TVNZ concluded that Standard 1 (good taste and decency) was not breached.
Referral to the Authority
 In his referral to the Authority, Mr Stratford contended that a significant proportion of the population objected to the names Jesus and Christ being used in the alternative dictionary meaning. In spite of the AO classification and the time of the broadcast, the complainant was of the view that it was unacceptable for the names to be used in that context. He argued that other famous names were not similarly accorded disrespect.
Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority
 TVNZ disagreed with the complainant that “other famous names” were not similarly accorded disrespect. It noted that famous people were constantly mocked and lampooned in satire all over the world. The broadcaster stressed that the words Jesus and Christ had emerged as exclamations whose definitions were quite separate from the noun that referred to the founder of Christianity.
Complainant’s Final Comment
 In his final submission, Mr Stratford noted TVNZ’s statement that famous people were constantly mocked in satire. He agreed, and observed that Jesus Christ had been lampooned in films such as The Life of Brian. Mr Stratford did not object to satire centred on Jesus or the Christian faith per se.
 The complainant also referred to TVNZ’s statement that words such as Jesus and Christ had emerged as exclamations. He maintained that these words could not be separated from “Jesus Christ the founder of the Christian faith”, and argued that if someone had respect for those names then using them as an exclamation would cause offence.
 Mr Stratford asserted that the words Jesus and Christ were not commonly heard in everyday conversation, and suggested that this was because standards of good taste and decency existed in society.
 The complainant asked if it was credible to suppose that TVNZ would continue offending the Islamic population of New Zealand in a similar way if members of that population protested. Mr Stratford considered that Christians were treated in a “cavalier fashion” and that they had the same rights as other citizens not to be offended by the state broadcaster.
 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.
 When the Authority considers a complaint which alleges a breach of good taste and decency, it is required to take into consideration the context of the broadcast. On this occasion, relevant contextual factors include:
- the time of the broadcast, at 10.05pm
- the AO classification of the programme
- the adult target audience of the programme
- the satirical and light-hearted nature of the programme.
 The Authority accepts that some Christians would regard the use of the words “Jesus” and “Christ” in this episode of Facelift as blasphemous. However, the Authority considers that the limited use of the words on this occasion, as an expression of dismay and surprise, would not have been offensive to the majority of the programme’s target audience.
 The Authority has previously considered the use of the words “Jesus” and “Christ” (Decision Nos 2003-068 and 2005-032) and declined to uphold those complaints on the basis that the use of the words “fitted into the category of an exclamation of irritation and alarm”. Taking into account the contextual factors listed above, the Authority sees no reason to depart from that position in the present case. Accordingly, the complaint is not upheld.
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
22 December 2005
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
- Mr Stratford’s formal complaint – 19 September 2005
- TVNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 5 October 2005
- Mr Stratford’s referral to the Authority – 15 October 2005
- TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 26 October 2005
- Mr Stratford’s final comment – 6 November 2005