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For fuck’s sake

By Steven | April 19, 2011

I’ve read hundreds of Broadcasting Standards Authority decisions in my time. The vast bulk of them, I agree with. Most of the rest, I figure it’s a line call. Then there are the shockers.

This is one. The BSA has found that a story on the TVNZ current affairs show Sunday about the Aramoana massacre in 1990 has breached standards concerning children’s interests and taste and decency.

Is that because it might be disturbing for children watching at 7:30pm to hear about a gunman who senselessly mowed down a bunch of people, including children? No. That might have made some sense, but that’s not what the complainant complained about or what the BSA found.

It was because a policeman being interviewed – not just any policeman, but the one who shot David Gray – twice used the word “fucking” when describing the events.

Well, he shouldn’t be talking about sex at 7:30pm, you say? But he wasn’t talking about sex.

Well, he shouldn’t be using an abusive word at 7:30, right? But he wasn’t using it in an abusive fashion.

Well, that language isn’t appropriate to describe a police stand-off. But he wasn’t using it to describe what happened. He was quoting what he Gray said to each other.

Well, TVNZ should at least give a warning. But they did. They gave two.

Here’s the excerpt:

I yelled out to him… I never told anybody this and I don’t know if it should be recorded for history or not, but I said to him: “You’re fucking good with women and kids, come out here and have a go at us.

He later quoted Gray as saying

Kill me, fucking kill me.

The majority of the BSA got a lot of things right. They said that context is all-important. They noted that this was high-value speech. They recognised that warnings had been given. They admitted that this programme was not likely to appeal to children. They acknowledged that the Bill of Rights was in play.

But they felt that it was, after all, broadcast at 7:30pm. Children may be watching, and their innocence and vulnerability needs to be protected from inappropriate language. People don’t expect that word to be broadcast then. BSA surveys suggest that more than 70% of us don’t approve of “fuck” in an interview or drama. Besides, the story could be told just as easily if the word was bleeped out.

I think the BSA did not think hard enough about the context here. Or about the need, when they’re evaluating a serious and significant current affairs programme, to come up with a better justification than normal for penalising swear words.

This was not by any stretch of the imagination a gratuitous use of the F-word. It is difficult to imagine a usage better justified by the context. It showed the intensity of the feelings involved. It smacked of their desperation, their urgency. It offered a window onto their mindset. It was part of the reality of the scene. It was not used in a sexual or abusive way. It was fleeting. In their discussion of context, the majority didn’t mention any of these things.

I also think that while the BSA recognise that this is significant speech, they don’t follow through with the implications of that. It means they need a proportionately more compelling justification before penalising it. It also means that they might have to look a bit harder at the actual harms involved. In fact “there is no psychological evidence of harm from fleeting expletives”. The evidence suggests that most kids have already been exposed to these words. It’s ridiculous to suggest that by bleeping them out in some early evening programming, children’s moral innocence will be preserved, even if it were actually under threat from exposure to a little non-abusive swearing.

In addition, a closer look at the BSA’s general research on the word “fuck” shows that it has become increasingly acceptable. Between 1999 and 2009, the proportion of people who find the word fairly or totally unacceptable has fallen from 70% to 51%. But the BSA didn’t cite this bit of the research. It focused on the research about specific scenarios, such as a television drama, which wasn’t really comparable. More comparable were the stats about its use in interviews, but I have a hunch that when 71% of people said they thought the word “fuck” was unacceptable in an interview, whenever broadcast, this was not the sort of interview or the sort of use of the word “fuck” they had in mind. I doubt, for instance, that many New Zealanders disapproved of Bono’s Golden Globe award acceptance speech, when he said “This is really, really fucking brilliant”.

In any event, the BSA has in the past accepted the use of the word “fuck” in other current affairs contexts that seem much less significant¬†(see my post on another unjustified BSA decision here).

The BSA’s chair Peter Radich made most of these points in a compelling dissent:

In my opinion, this was good quality television recording part of our social history, which, with its warnings, was able to be broadcast at the time that it was and which was within the bounds of freedom of expression.

Too right.

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