BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Young and TVWorks Ltd - 2012-085

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Roderick Young
Number
2012-085
Programme
South Park
Broadcaster
TVWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
FOUR

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
South Park – animated series depicted the Queen committing suicide – allegedly in breach of good taste and decency standard

Findings
Standard 1 (good taste and decency) – episode used parody and satire to comment on politics – freedom of expression includes the right to satirise public figures – content  acceptable during AO programme screened at 9.30pm – contextual factors – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  An episode of the cartoon comedy South Park was broadcast on FOUR at 9.30pm on 21 June 2012. Towards the end of the episode, Queen Elizabeth II was depicted committing suicide by shooting herself in the mouth, following a botched terrorism attempt.

[2]  The episode was rated Adults Only (AO) and preceded by the following visual and verbal warning:

This programme is rated Adults Only and is recommended for a mature audience. It contains violence that may disturb some people.

[3]  Roderick Young made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the content of the episode, and specifically the depiction of the Queen “taking her own life”, was unacceptable and offensive to all Commonwealth nations.

[4]  The issue is whether the episode breached Standard 1 (good taste and decency) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Did the programme threaten current norms of good taste and decency?

[6]  In assessing an alleged breach of broadcasting standards, we must give proper consideration to the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Any restriction on the right to free speech must be prescribed by law, reasonable, and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society (section 5).

[7]  The starting point is to assess the value of the particular speech, and then to balance this against the potential harm that is likely to result from allowing the unfettered dissemination of that speech. South Park is an American animated sitcom that is aimed at a mature audience. It has become well-known for its crude language and lampooning of social and political issues and public figures in a way that is often controversial and provocative. The ongoing narrative follows four eight-year-old boys who engage in anti-social, disrespectful and sometimes illegal behaviour, and who are depicted as unrealistic, two-dimensional cartoon characters.

[8]  The programme genre has become increasingly popular and well-known to most television viewers. South Park is similar to, though perhaps more challenging than, programmes such as Family Guy.1 An important similarity, in terms of the right to freedom of expression, is that while these programmes are primarily designed to entertain, they are also valuable in that they inject unconventional ideas through the use of humour and satire, often making reference to current events and modern cultural icons. The Authority has previously recognised that satire is an important form of speech,2 and we therefore think we should be cautious about interfering with the episode’s broadcast and reception.

[9]  Standard 1 states that broadcasters should observe standards of good taste and decency. The standard is primarily concerned with the broadcast of sexual material, nudity, coarse language or violence.3 The Authority will also consider the standard in relation to any broadcast that portrays or discusses material in a way that is likely to cause offence or distress.4

[10]  When we consider an alleged breach of good taste and decency, we take into account the context of the broadcast, which here includes:

  • the episode was classified AO
  • the episode screened at 9.30pm, an hour after the AO watershed
  • it was preceded by a visual and verbal warning for violence that may disturb
  • South Park has screened on television in New Zealand for many years and is well-known for its challenging material
  • the channel’s, and South Park’s target audience
  • audience expectations.

[11]  The episode subject to complaint was a parody of the television series 24, and involved the uncovering of a terrorist attack against America. The perpetrators were thought to be Muslim, but turned out to be a group of Russian Neo-Soviets acting as a distraction for “America’s oldest rival”, the British. Towards the end of the episode, Queen Elizabeth II was informed that the plot to “end the American Revolution” had failed, at which point she placed a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Her brains were shown splattering on the wall behind her as her bloody corpse fell to the floor in front of the throne. The depiction was simplistic and crude.

[12]  Consistent with the programme’s genre and usual format, the episode employed parody and satire to comment on political issues. It did not single out Britain or the Queen, but made reference to the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist following 9/11, and included crude depictions of political figures such as Hillary Clinton. The Authority has consistently recognised the right to freedom of expression includes the right to satirise religious figures, and this extends to public figures including heads of state.5

[13]  While we accept that the themes and references in the episode could be considered challenging and offensive by some viewers, it was well within the bounds of an AO programme broadcast at 9.30pm. The pre-broadcast warning for “violence that may disturb” gave an adequate indication of the programme’s likely content. We also note the visual warning that precedes all South Park episodes in the form of a “joke”, which states that all characters and events depicted, even those based on real people, are fictional, and that the programme “should not be viewed by anyone”.

[14]  For these reasons, and giving full weight to the requirements of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the satirical value of the programme, we consider that upholding the complaint would be an unjustifiable limit on the right to freedom of expression.

[15]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 1 complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
25 September 2012

Appendix

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

1                  Roderick Young’s formal complaint – 22 June 2012

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 18 July 2012

3                 Mr Young’s referral to the Authority – 18 July 2012

4                 TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 26 July 2012


1The Authority has also previously considered Pope Town to be in this category: New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference and CanWest TVWorks, Decision No. 2005-112

2E.g. New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference and CanWest TVWorks, Decision No. 2005-112

3Turner and TVNZ, Decision No. 2008-112

4Practice Note: Good Taste and Decency (Broadcasting Standards Authority, November, 2006)

5See, for example, New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference and CanWest TVWorks, Decision No. 2005-112, and, Simmons and 34 Others and CanWest TVWorks, Decision No. 2006-022.