Hard News by Russell Brown


Not in front of the children

A Herald editorial attempts, in unlovely prose, to consider the issues embodied in the furore around Paul Henry's unpleasant comments about Susan Boyle. It is justifiably cautious about a call by Special Olympics New Zealand chairman David Rutherford for the Broadcasting Standards Authority to ensure that the use of the word "retard" is unacceptable.

In response, the Herald's editorial writer quotes Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression:

There are exceptions for the likes of defamation and criminally unacceptable circumstances but the law cannot be clearer: New Zealanders enjoy freedom of expression.

That freedom is frequently under threat. Too many people want to constrain it. This week Special Olympics New Zealand called for the word "retard" to be banned by the Broadcasting Standards Authority after its puerile use by TVNZ presenter Paul Henry to describe singer Susan Boyle.

The global Special Olympics movement wants the word to go the same way as "nigger", reviled and abandoned from usage. As a voluntary goal, through education, that is commendable. The next step, urging a regulator to declare a word unusable, is fraught with danger.

Broadcasters, other media and individuals do not need the state's direction on what can be said. They need sensitivity to public and private feelings and the judgment to know when a term exists purely to offend. TVNZ has indulged this offence.

Let's start with the word in question. My younger son uses it occasionally, in the context of geek culture. A user interface might be described as "retarded" -- but never, so far as I can recall, an actual person. The bullying, sneering sense in which Paul Henry used the word may well be quite unknown to my son.

The irony there, of course, is that two or three decades ago, he and his brother could have been diagnosed "retarded". Public health records in California show quite a tight correlation between the collapse in diagnoses of "retardation" and a rise in autism diagnoses. It is a term that carries much unpleasant baggage.

Clearly context is important here, as it is in the case of "nigger", a word the Herald believes has been "abandoned from usage" if not outright banned. Clearly, leader-writers don't spend a lot of time hanging out with rappers. You don't need me to veer into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of culturally reclaiming such words as "nigger" and "queer", but it is worth noting that the BSA does not, and cannot, ban words.

What it does do is survey the public in order to determine shifts in community standards. As this Herald news story from February explains, the most recent survey found a softening in attitudes to swearing on television:

More than two-thirds of people surveyed in 2006 were offended by the C-word, but only 58 per cent baulked at the F-word, down from 70 per cent in 2000. "Bugger" bothered only 16 per cent.

According to the BSA, even the C-word doesn't necessarily breach standards.

It's all about context - the programme's timing, tone and target audience.

So even the "worst" word is acceptable in context. I should know. I uttered it, and "nigger", in a Media7 programme this year on the topic of offensive language and standards. Our discussion was prefaced with clear warnings as to its content, and we dropped in a substitute episode for the single daytime screening.

Which is where the Herald's argument gets really, well, retarded:

Another concern is the BSA finding this week that One News' coverage of the Clayton Weatherston trial was offensive for airing the accused's own words of his gory stabbing of Sophie Elliott. Authority members declared the item should have been preceded by a warning.

Here, a regulator is playing at editor and censor, determining how a factual court report of clear public interest should be presented. Section 14 is compromised, again.

The decision in question is here. The complainant, Shona Thomson, claimed that the use of Weatherson's explicit, leering testimony in the 6pm news was a breach of Standard 1, covering good taste and decency. TVNZ disagreed, and certainly has the right to a robust argument about the reporting of court proceedings.

But even the broadcaster granted that the report could have been better handled in the context of the bulletin:

However, the broadcaster said that its news department acknowledged that throughout the reporting of Mr Weatherston’s trial, verbal warnings prior to such footage could have been better utilised. It stated that its news staff had learnt from the experience and that more robust processes had now been put into place to ensure warnings were used when appropriate.

The authority's determination is hardly unsympathetic, and it acknowledges that "choosing which footage to include in reports on the trial would have been a difficult editorial decision. It also accepts that it was important for the public to see Mr Weatherston giving evidence in order to reflect events accurately."

Three of the authority's four members concluded that Standard 1 would have been met had Weatherston's evidence been prefaced with "a warning advising viewers of the explicit content the item contained. In this respect, upholding this complaint clearly promotes the objective of Standard 1, and therefore places a justified and reasonable limit on TVNZ’s freedom of expression. The Authority upholds the complaint that the item breached Standard 1."

No penalty was ordered and the authority expressed the view that its decision would merely provide guidance for the future. Essentially, everyone has come away with the lesson that such unpleasant content should be flagged to viewers in advance.

Everyone, that is, but the Herald's leader writer. This wouldn't be quite such an oafish stance if the editorial didn't insist on depicting this all as some sort of dangerous new regulatory overreach. Look, here are the codes and standards for free-to-air television. And here are the guidelines on Standard 1:

1a Broadcasters will take into account current norms of good taste and decency bearing in mind the context in which any content occurs and the wider context of the broadcast e.g. programme classification, target audience, type of programme and use of warnings etc.

1b The use of visual and verbal warnings should be considered when content is likely to disturb or offend a significant number of viewers except in the case of news and current affairs, where verbal warnings only will be considered. Warnings should be specific in nature, while avoiding detail which may itself distress or offend viewers.

Anyone who can read should be able to tell that the BSA's determination here was not only in line with the standards it is required to apply, it was reasonable.

If the Herald wants to rail against "a regulator is playing at editor and censor," it should direct its ire at the broadcasting standards themselves, not the empanelled authority. It would be buying a fight there, though.

Alternatively, the paper could employ editorial writers who have a clue what they're writing about.


And then, this morning, we have what looks to be a moral beat-up around a free Downstage performance of An Adagio Christmas for children in CYF care, in which one swear-word and a couple of mildly suggestive moments were somehow deemed important enough to lead the 9am news bulletin on Radio New Zealand.

I haven't seen the play, but Alan at the Wellingtonista seemed happy enough to have taken his kids to another performance, and David Farrar described it as "a superb hour of entertainment, and I really can’t think of anyone who would not enjoy it – from kids to grandparents."

But, because it was CYF, the moral outrage that no one actually seems to be expressing is news all over this morning. Including, ironically, in the Herald.

PS: Thanks to everyone who contributed to the success of the Orcon Great Blend on Friday night (and I regard just turning up and having a good time as a contribution). It's been a demanding couple of weeks, but that was a great way to finish up. But wait! There's more! As promised, Christchurch gets its own book launch, this evening. David Haywood has the details here.

PPS: We were making a TV show on Thursday evening, so I wasn't able to get to the Attitude Awards, which I found moving and inspiring last year. But Peter Williams did go, and it appears he hit the mark with his comments about his Breakfast colleague, Henry.

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