The other day I said fuck in front of my mum. She didn’t say anything, but looking in her eyes, I saw a small part of her die. Shit, I thought. I should have tailored my content to the audience at hand.
In your own life, it’s your job to regulate potentially stupid and harmful things you say. In broadcast media, this is the job of the Broadcasting Standards Authority. The BSA regulates what type of content can be fired out through the airwaves, into our eyeballs, and into the eyeballs of impressionable kiddies. As such, I decided to call up this Dastardly Organ of State Censorship (or possibly Defenders of Decency and Civility), and find out exactly what they do.
I’m averse to authority by nature and I will admit that I was nervous picking up the phone and calling this faceless bureaucracy. My Kafkaesque fears were washed away surprisingly quickly when I heard the bright, professional, voice of Catie Murray, a BSA legal advisor, on the other end of the phone. Taking my stumbling interview technique in her stride, Murray then took me through the basics of what the BSA are here for, and what they do on a daily basis.
The BSA holds the unenviable position of balancing the freedom of expression, and the public’s right to know what’s going on, with the harm that expression may cause. This is never a contentious or difficult balance to maintain (sarcasm intended). The BSA, in practice, has several difficult jobs to do.
Primarily, the BSA must gauge what we (the public) consider harmful. To do this they draw from other parts of the government and legal system (e.g. for privacy), they perform research and they take what they call ‘litmus tests’. Litmus tests check whether samples of the average Joes and Janes agree with their example BSA decisions. Their answers act as a guide as to whether the decisions made at the BSA are, well, authoritative.
The piece of their research that I absolutely LOVE is the aptly named “LANGUAGE THAT MAY OFFEND IN BROADCASTING” questionnaire. Every year they ask about 1500 people, how offensive do they find the word ‘cunt’. And it turns out that ‘cunt’ is very offensive. It tops the list with 63 percent of people finding it offensive in all contexts. Interestingly enough, this is 9 percent less than in 2013. Both eclipsed ‘fuck’ at only 39 percent (13th place). Gender related slurs have a “small but notable increase”, while blasphemies are down with ‘Jesus Christ’ losing a whopping 12 percent, and ‘God’ almost dropping off the bottom of the table.
This is fascinating stuff, as it reflects not just the role of the BSA, but what we care about as a society. If we take this as gospel, we care less about religious offense and more about people’s pride in their identity. Hopefully this means that we’re growing to be more accepting of identities that we might not see as traditional. All interesting things to ponder.
The BSA has also introduced several new words and phrases in Samoan and Te Reo. These placed quite highly in terms of offensiveness. ‘Puaaelo’ (Samoan for ‘stinking pig’), the highest of the new contenders came in at 15th, one percentage point below both ‘slut and ‘fuck’. In this reporter’s opinion, it’s good to see the BSA incorporating assholery from other parts of our multicultural society. Truly a step forward.
All this research is eventually published and made available to both the public and broadcasting industry and developed into a set of guidelines to advise broadcasters when and how they should display their content. It also includes information around whether they need trigger warnings and whether or not they should display unblurred pictures from social media of underage sexual assault victims (definite no but we’ll get to that in a minute).
Their final duty is to deal with complaints. The broadcasters themselves deal with most run-of-the-mill complaints. The BSA only rules on political and privacy complaints directly, and when members of the public believe their complaints to the broadcaster have been dealt with unfairly (appeals). They balance the harm done to the injured party with the broadcaster’s freedom of expression.
Now to get back to that earlier example. The last complaint upheld by the BSA was released in September 2018. A man had allegedly sexually assaulted four young women between the ages of 16 and 18. A Newshub headline story showed the unobscured faces of those young women, identifying them and causing the potential for public shame and ridicule. As you may have gathered, this was not cool or legal. The BSA ended up hitting Newshub with a $2000 fine and ordered compensation to be paid to the complainant of $3000.
Five thousand dollars. Hardly big money for a media company. The maximum monetary penalty is $10,000 split between Crown costs and compensation. So, (and this is pure speculation, mind you) in the eyes of the BSA this event is about halfway to the worst thing Newshub could possibly do. It makes you wonder how badly they’d have to fuck up to get that $10,000 fine.
“Fairness and Freedom in Broadcasting”. That is what the BSA strives for. Are all their decision fair? Probably not. Does the public agree with most of them? The research seems to suggest yes. Is it censorship? Well if so, it seems to be a muzzle we put on ourselves in order not to scare the kids or hurt the people we care about. If nothing else, the Broadcasting Standards Authority is the reason that, before 8:30pm, I can’t give a fuck on television.