The BSA, the ASA and “good taste”

Here in New Zealand we have a thing called the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA).

Their mission statement is that they will “Support fairness and freedom in broadcasting through impartial complaints determination, effective research and informing stakeholders.” I don’t know why they call it supporting freedom – perhaps it sounds nice – but basically what they do is hear complaints about things that have been broadcast on television and radio and decide whether or not to uphold the complaint. Their functions are:

(a) To receive and determine complaints…

(c) To publicise its procedures in relation to complaints; and
(d) To issue to any or all broadcasters, advisory opinions relating to broadcasting standards and ethical conduct in broadcasting; and
(e) To encourage the development and observance by broadcasters of codes of broadcasting practice appropriate to the type of broadcasting undertaken by such broadcasters in relation to –
(i) The protection of children:
(ii) The portrayal of violence:
(iii) Fair and accurate programmes and procedures for correcting factual errors and redressing unfairness:
(iv) Safeguards against the portrayal of persons in programmes in a manner that encourages the denigration of, or the discrimination against, sections of the community on account of sex, race, age, disability or occupational status or as a consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs:
(v) Restrictions on the promotion of liquor:
(vi) Presentation of appropriate warnings in respect of programmes that have been classified as suitable only for particular audiences:
(vii) The privacy of the individual

(h) To conduct research and publish findings on matters relating to standards in broadcasting.

Recently the BSA upheld a complaint about a TV show called 7 days, a show with a reputation for being a bit on the crass side. In short, there’s a show segment called “my kid could draw that,” where children (in a pre-recorded clip) present a drawing they have made of a recent news item, and show guests have to figure out what the news item is. I think that’s how it works, but the detail of that don’t matter now. A girl showed a picture of some men in a bunk, and it was then explained (after the guests failed to guess the news item) that the picture referred to a proposal – one that had gained some publicity – to double bunk inmates in prisons to save money. The girl explained that the picture read, “No money, plus a lot of prisoners, equals a lot of grossness up ahead.” You can guess the kind of humour that this might prompt, and sure enough a few wise cracks were then made by those taking part in the game about sexual antics between men in prisons.

The TV show was broadcast at 10pm and was preceded by a verbal warning that some content may offend. However, the Authority upheld part of the complaint on the grounds that this was sexually lewd material that was shown to be connected in some way to a drawing made by a specific child. Accordingly the show segment was deemed to have violated standards of decency and good taste. Read the decision here.

In New Zealand we also have a thing called the Advertising Standards Authority. Their function is to regulate advertising in New Zealand according to its code of practice, which you can read at their website. The code includes things like “Advertisements should not portray people in a manner which is reasonably likely to cause serious or widespread hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule,” and “Advertisements should not portray people in a manner which, taking into account generally prevailing community standards, is reasonably likely to cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of their gender; race; colour; ethnic or national origin; age; cultural, religious, political or ethical belief; sexual orientation; marital status; family status; education; disability; occupational or employment status,” and “Humour and satire are natural and accepted features of the relationship between individuals and groups within the community. Humorous and satirical treatment of people and groups of people is acceptable, provided that, taking into account generally prevailing community standards, the portrayal is not likely to cause serious or widespread offence, hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule.”

Remember that shortly before Christmas I blogged on a Billboard erected by St-Matthews-In-The-City Church in Auckland, a self-styled “progressive” (read: theologically liberal and contemptuous of conservatism) church, which depicted … well here, here’s a refresher:

This is a billboard with obvious sexual references, and which was not only visible after a certain time of day, and also which had no “warning”system like the TV show. Your eyes make contact and bam, there it is. What’s more, it is clearly a way of making fun of traditional Christian beliefs about the virgin birth, and it goes as far as to liken it to the belief that God physically had sexual intercourse with Mary, making poor Joseph a hard act to follow.

A complaint was made to the advertising standards authority, and in spite of the above factors, the billboard was not deemed to have breached any standards of decency or good taste.

Find the full decisions here.

The complaint was not upheld, and in closing the Authority gave one of its reasons for reaching this decision:

The Complaints Board said that the implicit, rather than explicit nature of the advertisement meant its meaning would not be apparent to children. It was of the view that the advertisement, which it commented was prepared by a Christian church to promote debate within the Christian faith, as opposed to a deliberately offensive advertisement by an outside party for commercial gain, had been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility to consumers and to society and was not in breach of Basic Principle 4 of the Code of Ethics.

I have to wonder: On what theological authority does the Advertising Standards Authority make the decision that denying the cardinal historic doctrines of the Christian faith does not make a position “outside” of the Christian faith, and that this billboard cannot therefore be construed as an attack on Christianity, thereby making any offence to Christians accidental (i.e. not “deliberate”)?

I have made no comment on whether or not either of these two complaints should be upheld. Maybe advertising and broadcasting shouldn’t be regulated in this way. Maybe it should. However, it stands out to me that the ASA is taking on the role of a theologian in reaching its conclusion. It has determined, for example, that God is not a person who is portrayed in a way that offends people on account of their religious beliefs. (This would make the billboard in contravention of the overt statements in the ASA’s code). So their decision means that either God is not really a person, or that claiming that he physically had sex with Mary wouldn’t offend people on account of their religious beliefs. There’s no doubt that such offence really was caused (as the respondent to the complaint agreed), so where does this leave us?

Maybe the code isn’t something that should be enforced, that’s not my concern here. But to let people off the hook because they didn’t really mean to attack Christianity, and to gloss over principles that – if taken seriously and literally – amount to a statement that Fundamental Christian claims about God aren’t true, just reduces the Authority to a body that enforces socially acceptable taboos (well, acceptable to those segments of society that the Authority looks favourably on). Treading on the toes of an ignorant, backwards minority that holds to outdated dogma just isn’t going to be frowned upon. Connect a crude joke to a child, however, and the sky will fall on your head.

Use a kid’s picture to make jokes about men getting it on in prison on late night TV? Not permitted for reasons of decency and good taste. Putting up a billboard in public saying that God slept with Mary? Not in breach of decency or good taste. Just ask yourself if equal weights and measures are being used here.

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27 thoughts on “The BSA, the ASA and “good taste”

  1. Theological authority? Taking on the role of a theologian? Surely you jest. In referring to the “Christian faith”, the Authority just meant to say that St. Matthews is a Church. It wasn’t a judgment about the content of that particular faith. And a Christian Church is what St Matthew’s claims to be, whether or not others agree or disagree, and whether or not it has any “good” grounds in the estimation of other groups of Christians.

    God deemed not to be a “person”? Your post gets sillier and sillier as it goes on. The term “person” is a matter of legal definition that the Authority must follow, not a matter for the Authority’s factual determination.

    But on a more serious note – do you really think such religious opinions should be censored by the Government?

  2. Deane, you’ve rushed quickly through the issue that I did want to focus on and seized on the issue that I have no interest in when I make this comparison (between the two cases), calling it “a more serious note.” I have made it clear enough that the point that concerns me is not the legitimacy of the actual existence or role of the BSA or ASA. I have views on whether or not that role is legitimate, but those views are not the subject of this blog post.

    On a more serious note – as far as this blog post is concerned – as a person with a theological education, you must surely see that theological positions are being taken here. You say that the term “person” is a legal one, yet you don’t explain how this means that the ASA is assuming that God is not a person. The latter was the point, after all. You might think it’s just a trifling or silly concern, but I daresay that’s rather shallow. To make determinations around whether or not a person has been depicted in a certain way when God has been depicted in a certain way is to wade into theology. If there’s nothing in law requiring that God not be regarded as a person, then the ASA itself is choosing to play the role of public theologian without consulting any outside experts – so presumably it thinks it has the expertise and the mandate to do it. If there is a legal requirement that God not be regarded as a person, then the law itself is taking a theologians stance that is of great interest to me. Your comment suggests that you’ve not really appreciated that a stance is being taken here.

    You also seem to think that a determination can be made about whether a faith is Christian without making any sort of claim about the content of that faith. This strikes me is bizarre. Now, you’re within your rights to make the determination that denying a specific cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is a denial that can be made entirely “in-house” without stepping outside that faith. But is it really for the ASA to make that call?

  3. Glenn, you’re onto something I think. Decision makers in public bodies (and lawmakers I guess) often genuinely think that they’re being objective and neutral when they simply aren’t. It’s just an inability on their part to see their lack of neutrality because of their outlook.

  4. Hi Glenn,

    You say, “If there is a legal requirement that God not be regarded as a person, then the law itself is taking a theologian[‘]s stance that is of great interest to me.” There is such a law. Persons are defined as natural (human) and legal persons, neither of which legally includes God. And that’s why you were wrong to say “the ASA is taking on the role of a theologian in reaching its conclusion”. It wasn’t the ASA’s determination, it was the law. Now, there is a prior issue about excluding the offence of various deities from the law, but as I say, you were wrong to say “their [the ASA’s] decision means that either God is not really a person…”. The ASA’s decision could never mean that, because the law under which they made their decision did not include God as a “person”.

    On the other point, the ASA simply accepted that “St Matthew in the City” was a Church, obviously because it was undisputed by the parties that it is an Anglican Church. So, there was never any theological “determination” – this fact was unchallenged. In the reality of the decision, the ASA did not make any “determination” whatsoever about St. Matthew’s faith or lack of it. You picked up on the language of “Christian faith” without realizing that it was just a synonym of “Church” – without any theological “determination” being made as to whether it theologically meets the requirements of such a body.

    So – are you going to answer my question? Do you really think such religious opinions should be censored by the Government?

  5. Deane, yes obviously a natural person is a person, however it would be obviously vacuous for the law to define a person as a “legal person,” since this just means anything that can be classed as a person in law. I think you’re a bit hasty to enjoy the rhetorical pleasure of calling me wrong and my comments silly. The fact is, we do have laws – or at least one notorious one in particular – that does treat God as a being capable of being libelled.

    You’re also being far too hasty in thinking that if it were a matter of legal definition then (as a cartoon policeman might put it) “there’s nothing to see here, move along.” There most certainly IS something to see here, even if it’s a matter of legislation. Laws with religious implications are of great interest to me, even if you’re not interested in that issue.

    As for the second point, this will not do. The ASA did not merely say that technically speaking, st matthews in the city is a church (i.e. it has tax exempt status, meets in a certain type of building, etc). It actually said that rather than an attack on Christianity, this was a prompting of discussion “within the Christian faith.”

    I wonder if they consulted any theologians in reaching this conclusion.

    As for your insistence that I drop the subject and turn to the issue of whether or not speech should be regulated, let’s address the present issue first. The broader question of the regulation of free speech introduces other issues.

  6. Deane – one further question occurs to me. If, as you say, there is a clarification in the legislation used by the ASA that only natural persons (or other created entities) are meant by person (although a source is required for this), I wonder if you’d answer the following question that is related to the issue we’re discussing: What do you think of legislators taking stances on the question of whether or not God is a person as far as human society is concerned? Should they do it?

  7. The term “legal person” has a specific meaning, which includes corporations and similar statutory creations (it does not include God).

    In respect of the blasphemy section, The Crimes Act does not recognize God as a person subject to the “blasphemous libel”. Legally, all offenses under the Crimes Act are offenses against the Queen, as head of state. (The Queen is not God, although her husband is considered a god by one tribe in Papua New Guinea.) God is not recognised as a legal person, and has no rights, under the Crimes Act.

    I think you are right to rephrase your points in relation to the legislature, rather than a particular judicial board.

    Should legislators take a stance on the personhood of God? Yes, they should take a stance. Don’t you think?

  8. For what it’s worth, Deane, I think it’s hasty to assume that because an offense is covered under the Crimes Act it is therefore not being treated as an act carried out against anyone but the Queen. Yes, crimes are offences against the Crown, but it’s obvious that they are often not only acts committed against the Crown (theft, murder – these clearly have victims other than the crown). The obvious difference between blasphemous libel and other libel is that God isn’t going to take a civil suit against me if I libel him.

    Moreover, I didn’t say that the specific phrase “legal person” includes God. However you’ll be aware that what constitutes a person differs from one piece of legislation to the next. Making the sweeping claim that from a legal point of view it is obviously and always the case that “persons” excludes God. I think this is important when it comes to laws that have implications for free speech.

    The real point of this blog entry however was about different standards of decency applied by different regulatory bodies that are (to me at least) quite surprising int he way that they differ.

    And yes, I do think that legislators should take a stance on the personhood of God. In fact when it comes to, for example, free speech laws that have a scope limited to persons, legislators inevitably take a stance on this. But some unpopular consequences would follow from doing so.

  9. It’s not “hasty” to say that offences under the Crimes Act are offences only against the Queen. Crimes are crimes only against the Crown. It’s simply the law. Just as “legal person” is a legal synonym for corporations and the like. My statements only concerned legal definitions – they weren’t opinions.

    And isn’t it presumptious to assume that God would not take a civil suit against you? How do you know for sure? With some of the things you’ve said about God on this blog, He might well go for a defamation suit.

  10. I don’t think it’s presumptuous to assume that God would not take a civil suit. God is above human’s law, He created humans. He would use His own ‘law’, and if you blaspheme Him, and He only brought an equivalent of a mortal ‘civil suit’, it would be the greatest relieve of your life.

  11. It’s certainly hasty to assume that crimes are only acts committed against the Crown and nothing else (as though, for example, assault is not the violation of another person).

    As for the second comment, Deane, whatever.

  12. There is something rather creepy about the suggestion that a child had drawn a picture depicting sexual crimes. I know none of them said the child intended this… but still.

    I think God is more emotionally prepared to handle a bit of disturbing humor than a child is, and that is the real difference here. Unless you think God needs his puritanical sensibilities to be protected.

  13. Well the difference is, Max, that whatever the offence involving the child might be, it doesn’t lower the child’s standing in the eyes of people. Precisely because she is a child, people will not think less of her because of this. But the actions of St Matthew in the city lower God’s standing. It’s not about God’s puritanical sensibilities as though he’s going to be shocked. It’s about God’s right to not be slandered – or rather, it’s about whether or not God has any such right.

  14. I think God is well used to being slandered by much worse things everyday than what is basically a farside cartoon. Get some perspective!

  15. Also.. risks to the girl

    (i) PERSONAL IMPACT: she will have to live down this media attention possibly being teased at school etc.

    (ii) SOCIETAL IMPACT: it is generally irresponsible of the media to associate children and overt sexuality in a society where child pornography is becoming a major issue.

  16. Max, I do not understand why you think i should get some perspective. Is it because you think I’m saying that this is more important than other issues, thereby distorting my perspective on how important it is? It’s one blog post.

    You’re also arguing that there will be some consequences for this girl – something I didn’t deny. My point was that the issue was not, as you implied, whether or not God’s sensibilities would be offended.

    Thirdly, your third comment (your question) attributes things to me I didn’t quite say. However, to reiterate, yes I was serious when I asked whether or not God has the right to not be slandered.

  17. I am not sure it makes any sense to talk about God having “rights.” Don’t you have to have some authority or at least society above yourself to have rights?

  18. Phew. It’s always the taxes which bring ’em down, you know.

    But these “rights” that you speak of don’t exist as things that can be “recognised”. Rather, rights are only ideas. Where there’s nobody with an idea of a right, there is no right. A right without somebody’s recognition of it is a nonsense.

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