Broadcasting Act Turns 35, And Is Showing Its Age – Broadcasting Standards Authority

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The Broadcasting Standards Authority’s vision of freedom of expression without harm is as relevant as ever as the nation’s broadcasting regulator turns 35, but legislation is stuck in the pre-internet age, the Authority says.

The BSA came into being under the Broadcasting Act 1989, which received royal assent on 27 May 1989.

BSA Chief Executive Stacey Wood says the last 35 years have seen the Authority tackle some era-defining issues and evolving community attitudes towards aspects of harm, along with seismic shifts in technology and audience behaviour.

“During this time, the BSA has moved from receiving complaints by fax and reviewing VHS tapes of broadcasts to a world where audiences are rapidly moving from traditional radio, TV and print to online and digital platforms.

“Working alongside broadcasters in a co-regulatory system, the BSA has established itself as a respected regulator overseeing a standards system that delivers on our vision of freedom in broadcasting without harm. The success of this regime is evidenced by ongoing low uphold rates for complaints about TV and radio programmes.

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“However, audiences are fast migrating from traditional broadcasting to new platforms outside our jurisdiction or that of any existing regulator. This is making it harder to keep delivering on our vision. The need for reform towards a modern, fit-for-purpose regulatory framework is urgent, and we stand ready to offer our expertise and support for future solutions,” Wood said.

The Broadcasting Act became law in the year David Lange resigned as Prime Minister, Sunday trading began, TV3 began operations, and the Holmes show was first screened.

The first commercial internet service providers surfaced around this time along with New Zealand’s first internet connections, but widespread use of “the net” was still a thing of the future.

Highlights from the past 35 years include:

  • The BSA released its two first decisions in January 1990. One of these decisionsconcerned a broadcast investigating “the after-dark activities in one block of Vivian Street, Wellington” (it wasn’t What We Do In The Shadows). The BSA accepted this was designed “to give an insight into what many people may well consider to be unseemly, unsavoury and tasteless businesses”. However, given the context and viewer expectations, it did not breach the then ‘good taste and decency’ standard – an approach that could well be applied today.
  • Allegations of unfair treatment of politicians have been an ongoing theme, including complaints from politicians themselves. A high-profile uphold in 1994found then Health Minister Jenny Shipley was treated unfairly in a radio interview, but the Authority acknowledged changing times in radio, resulting in a review of how the broadcasting codes apply to talkback. Over time it has been well established that the threshold for finding a fairness breach in relation to politicians or public figures is higher than for laypeople or those unfamiliar with the media. Politicians can reasonably expect a high level of scrutiny over their public roles.
  • Humour, while considered subjective, has been the target of numerous complaints for formal determination. These are seldom upheld, but in a notable 2005 decision, the BSA upheld a complaint about the “gratuitously explicit” F**k News, in which two partly dressed presenters seemed to be having sex while reading the news. The Authority “acknowledged an important role for television to broadcast humorous exaggerated imitations of aspects of society, but pointed out that there were limits to what could be accepted even in a satirical context”.
  • The BSA’s longstanding research on language that may offend in broadcasting reflects sweeping changes in community views over time – with a shrinking tolerance for racial and cultural slurs, but softening attitudes towards blasphemy and terms using the F-word. Twenty-five years ago, repeated use of the word ‘bugger’ in a famous advert for a ute vehicle sparked national outrage. Considered unacceptable by one in six Kiwis at the time, ‘bugger’ has now dropped from the BSA’s list of offensive terms along with several others previously considered ‘swear’ words.
  • The Christchurch mosque attacks in March 2019 were the subject of some of the BSA’s most challenging and significant decisions to date. The Authority upheld a complaint about a TV news item in which extensive excerpts from the attacker’s livestream video had the potential to cause significant distress to audiences – particularly to the family and friends of victims and the wider Muslim community. Due to the unprecedented circumstances and high public interest, the BSA did not uphold complaints about other news items featuring a very brief excerpt from the livestream video and footage of victims being taken into hospital. The BSA subsequently produced new guidance for reporting on terrorism, violent extremism and crisis events.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic generated increasingly passionate responses and saw the BSA dealing with misinformation and disinformation on significant public health issues. Broadcasting complaints increased sharply and took on a new level of vehemence reflecting growing polarisation. The Authority found that in the overwhelming majority of cases broadcasters had covered “the vicissitudes of the crisis” correctly and accurately.
  • In March 2021, the BSA drew a line under complaints against the use of te reo Māori in broadcasting. In new guidance, the Authority noted Māori was an official language and its use was protected and promoted by law. Complaints about its use do not raise issues of harm and the BSA encourages broadcasters to respond indicating it is not a breach of standards to broadcast in te reo Māori.

All of the BSA’s decisions, dating back to 1990, can be browsed on our website here.

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