TVNZ to appeal 'incomprehensible' BSA decision

By Hayden Donnell

The beach at Aramoana. Photo / Herald on Sunday
The beach at Aramoana. Photo / Herald on Sunday

TVNZ is set to appeal an "incomprehensible" Broadcasting Standards Authority decision against the use of swear words in a documentary marking the Aramoana massacre to the High Court.

The documentary on TV1's Sunday programme was about the 20th anniversary of the mass murder of 13 people by gunman David Gray in the town north of Dunedin.

It featured an interview with the police officer who shot Gray where he used the f-word twice.

Having described an exchange of gunfire with Mr Gray, the policeman said: "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 f***ing good with women and kids, come out here and have a go at us."

In describing the shooting, the policeman reported Mr Gray's request to officers, "Kill me, f***ing kill me".

Complainant 'P Freeman' alleged the policeman's "obscene language" breached standards relating to good taste and decency, law and order, responsible programming and children's interests.

A majority decision issued by the Broadcasting Standards Authority today said the use of the expletive twice in a 7.30pm programme breached standards of good taste and decency and children's interests.

But board chair Peter Radich disagreed with the finding - saying the policeman was speaking about a dire and distressing event and "bleeping" his words would have been demeaning.

TVNZ said it was disturbed at the finding and disappointed Mr Radich's "commonsense" approach was not employed by his fellow board members.

It had to appeal the decision to the High Court to defend freedom of expression in New Zealand, a statement said.

"TVNZ says the issue at stake is the right of adult New Zealanders to hear - for the first time - the exact exchange that took place between the Aramoana gunman David Gray and the policeman who then shot him dead.

"TVNZ rarely appeals to the High Court on BSA decisions but the broadcaster says in this case it feels it has no option because to let the ruling stand would be to damage the right to freedom of expression in reporting on matters of such high public interest and historical significance to this country."

The BSA majority decision said the policeman's exchange with Gray was not appropriate for a time slot where children could be watching.

Though the Sunday item revisited a significant historical event, that had to be balanced against the need to protect children, and recognise their innocence and vulnerability, the decision said.

It said the repetition of the word in a PGR time-band was not necessary to preserve the historical accuracy of the item and the tone of the interviewee could still have been conveyed if the words were "bleeped".

"While the word "f***ing" may be increasingly commonplace in daily use, our research shows it remains unacceptable if broadcast in the PGR time-band. Words may be acceptable when used in everyday language, but unacceptable when transmitted into the home. This is particularly so when children may be present."

That decision relied on 2010 research showing 71 per cent of people surveyed considered "f***" fairly or totally unacceptable in the context of an interview, regardless of the time of broadcast.

It found the publication of their decision was a significant enough penalty for TVNZ's offence.

Mr Radich's minority finding was that the policeman spoke in a measured and considered way to describe a moment of extreme emotion and stress.

The documentary was the exception to the general rule about using expletives in a PGR time-band, as it was a respectful article about a dire and distressing episode in New Zealand history, he said.

"The word "f***ing" used by the policeman when he called out to the gunman was the expressive and natural use of language in an extreme and dire situation. The response of the gunman was his expressive and emphatic use of language when he was in extremis. This was, in my opinion, a part of the English language being used by two men each of whom was in a situation of uttermost crisis."

TVNZ had previously defended the broadcast as an uncensored account of a significant New Zealand event.

It said two warnings about content and language had been given during the programme.

"The decision to broadcast the interview unedited was not taken lightly. The massacre at Aramoana was a significant event in New Zealand history and it was important to record and broadcast what [the policeman] recounted without being censored."

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