BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Thomas and The Radio Network Ltd - 2004-205

  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Lindsay Thomas
Newstalk ZB

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Paul Holmes Breakfast – comments regarding the beheading of hostages in Iraq – allegedly breached good taste and decency

Principle 1 (good taste and decency) – presenter’s comments light-hearted look at serious issue – common practice in broadcast media – no intent to minimise gravity of subject matter – no obscene language or macabre detail employed – not in breach of good taste and decency standard – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] At about 6.53am on 22 September 2004 the host of Paul Holmes Breakfast on Newstalk ZB (Paul Holmes) began a segment about the beheading of hostages in Iraq. At the time of the broadcast, British man Kenneth Bigley had been captured by terrorists in Iraq.

[2] The presenter began by asking:

What are your chances of ending up on the internet in an orange boiler suit…kneeling in front of some maniac…with one of them shouting atonally…before another one of them reaches down and cuts your head off with a bread knife?

The presenter then said that the author of a new book gave the chances as being “actually very slim, it’s getting up there with prostate cancer”.

[3] The presenter then said his second question was “where do the evil-doers get such a steady supply of orange boiler suits?”


[4] Lindsay Thomas complained to The Radio Network Ltd, the broadcaster, that the remarks about the beheading of hostages did not observe good taste and decency. He found the following to be “utterly contemptible and insensitive”:

  • light hearted banter comparing the chance of being taken hostage and killed to be about the same as prostate cancer
  • flippant comments regarding the acquisition of boiler suits for the hostages.
    [5] Mr Thomas stated that as a New Zealander, he “would be ashamed to think such comments and attitudes were representative”.


[6] TRN assessed the complaint under Principle 1 and Guideline 1a of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Principle 1
In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to maintain standards which are consistent with the observance of good taste and decency.

Guideline 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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[7] In response to Mr Thomas’ complaint, TRN stated that the Paul Holmes Breakfast was “a freewheeling, issues driven news programme, where considerable editorial opinion and satire is included”. It maintained that in this item, the presenter was:

…doing what is common in the industry and by the public…turning something that is heavy and overwhelming into something that can be dealt with by being light-hearted.

This is in no way an intention to lessen the frightfulness of many of the on-going happenings in Iraq.

[8] The broadcaster declined to uphold the complaint based on “the audience’s knowledge that over a long period Paul Holmes has frequently dealt with these situations in such a manner”, adding that the broadcast was of a “satirical nature”.

Referral to the Authority

[9] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Thomas referred his complaint to the Authority.

[10] Mr Thomas expressed his concern at the broadcaster’s statement that the presenter had frequently dealt with these situations in such a matter. He stated that “making a habit of the practice does not condone it”, and reiterated his belief that the comments did not observe good taste and decency.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[11] TRN had no further comments to add in respect of the complaint by Mr Thomas.

Authority's Determination

[12] The members of the Authority have listened to 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.

[13] The Authority acknowledges that the hostage-taking in Iraq is a distressing topic. The complainant in the present case was concerned that the presenter had addressed this issue in what he believed was a light-hearted and flippant way, and that this amounted to breaching standards of good taste and decency.

[14] The Authority agrees that the presenter’s comments were intended to be light-hearted. But of itself, this does not amount to a breach of broadcasting standards. It is common practice for broadcasters to address serious issues in a light-hearted way and there is nothing in the broadcasting standards demanding that such issues always be treated with the same degree of gravity they might be afforded in a news or current affairs programme.

[15] While the presenter’s comment might have been interpreted by some as being insensitive to Kenneth Bigley’s horrific situation, the Authority agrees with the broadcaster’s response that the comments were not intended to detract from the frightfulness of the terrorists’ actions or the plight of the hostages. It concurs with the broadcaster that the presenter was simply “turning something that is heavy and overwhelming into something that can be dealt with by being light-hearted”.

[16] Furthermore, the Authority considers that there was nothing either in the contents of the broadcast, or the manner of its delivery, that took the broadcast beyond accepted standards of good taste or decency. The presenter used no obscene language, and while the subject matter was grisly, he did not use explicit or unnecessarily macabre detail to illustrate his point.

[17] The Authority finds that the presenter’s comments were simply intended to present a light-hearted alternative perspective to the tragedy of the hostage-taking in Iraq. The practice of making light of something serious or distasteful is common, and in this case it did not threaten commonly accepted standards of good taste and decency.


For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
21 December 2004


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

  1. Mr Thomas’ formal complaint to The Radio Network Ltd – 23 September 2004
  2. TRN’s decision on the formal complaint – 29 September 2004
  3. Mr Thomas’ referral to the Authority – 19 October 2004
  4. TRN’s response to the referral – 29 October 2004