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The F-word on TV in NZ

The following commentary is reproduced from my English training website ( ).

New Zealand’s state television broadcaster TVNZ is to appeal a ruling of the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) which upheld a citizen complaint about two uses of the word “fucking” in November last year.  TVNZ considers the ruling to be “incomprehensible”.

The word “fuck” and its derivatives have been in the English language for a long time – centuries in fact.  They have been on television for rather less time but these days the usage is considered unremarkable in movies shown on tv after the “watershed” – the time of the evening when content is considered to switch from general, which includes children’s content, to “adult”.  Different countries have different watersheds – in the UK, it’s 9pm whereas in New Zealand it’s 8.30pm.

But the BSA’s ruling in question relates to the use of “fucking” in TV One’s long-running current affairs programme Sunday, which screens for an hour from 7.30pm on Sundays (funnily enough).

The offending item was a documentary piece on the 20th anniversary of what is infamously known in New Zealand as the “Aramoana Massacre”.  In November 1990, a resident of a tiny seaside village in the south of the country shot to death 13 people, including four children and a police officer, before being himself gunned down by police.  The TV One item featured an interview – the first ever apparently – with one of the police officers who confronted and shot the killer after a lengthy and harrowing house-to-house search for him.

During the interview, the now-retired officer recounted what happened when the armed police found the killer baled up in a crib* in the village.  He revealed – hesitantly – that he called out to the man, “You’re fucking good with women and kids.  Come out here and have a go with us.”  Not exactly standard negotiating language but the actual words of the officer, according to him.  A short time later, the killer did indeed emerge into the open, firing one semi-automatic rifle from the hip while also holding another.  The police officer further recounted on the Sunday programme that he – the killer – was shouting “Kill me, fucking kill me”.  They did.

The BSA ruled by a 3 to 1 majority that these two uses of “fucking” breached two of the rules by which all tv and radio broadcasters are bound.  The general prohibition of content which breaches the “good taste and decency” standard and the specific prohibition of content contrary to the interests of children before the watershed.  One member of the Authority – actually it’s chairman – dissented, believing the use of the f-word in the particular context to be an acceptable departure from the norm.

Agencies such as New Zealand’s BSA have a thankless task in this day and age, endeavouring as they do to tread a path between freedom of expression and societal expectations of what is or isn’t to be broadcast.  Matters aren’t assisted by the largely uncontrolled World Wide Web which since its inception has been pushing the boundaries globally of acceptable viewing content.

And there’s no doubt that the f-word is much more acceptable in English-speaking countries today than in bygone years.  In its ruling on the Sunday item, the BSA referenced its own research – actually carried out on its behalf by the Neilsen rating agency – into what New Zealanders considered to be the most unacceptable words to be used on television.  In the most recent survey, conducted in late 2009, it was apparent that “fuck” was dropping down the list, compared with the surveys conducted in 1999 and 2005.#  On offensiveness criteria, it falls significantly below the c-word (“cunt”) and the n-word (“nigger”), which continue to be the most unacceptable words for use on television, at least in New Zealand (and, I would surmise, elsewhere in the native-English world).

Nevertheless, the BSA noted that 75% of New Zealanders still considered “fuck”, “fucking”et al to be either totally or fairly unacceptable for television movie or drama content before the watershed (ie, 8.30pm).  They extrapolated that it should also have that status for what was acknowledged to be serious factual content on a matter of significant public interest.

In due course, I expect to be able to report on what the High Court make of the issue – and possibly thereafter the Court of Appeal and perhaps even the Supreme Court.  It’s that sort of issue. TVNZ is plainly upset that its no doubt carefully considered assessment – in allowing “fucking” to go to air expletive undeleted – should have been so belittled by the BSA.  The agency for its part can be expected to vigorously defend its right – indeed its obligation – to make the call.

As noted earlier, we native-speakers of English use the f-word a lot.  Sometimes in its literal – ie, sexual – meaning but much more often as a way of giving emphasis to something being said, with no sexual connotation whatever.  It’s very much in this wider adjectival use that “fucking” can be heard in everyday speech across the English-speaking world.  Not by everybody, to be sure, but by a lot of people.

Including the cold-blooded killer of 13 people in New Zealand in 1990 and one of the police officers who despatched him.  The courts have been presented with a tricky one.


*  ”crib” means a holiday dwelling, typically seaside and of modest proportions.  Its use in this context is confined to the southern part of New Zealand, whose population is largely of Scottish ancestry.  Elsewhere in the country such a dwelling is a “bach” (rhymes with “patch”).

#  Interested readers may read the full survey report – and learn a lot of naughty words – at

Update, November 2011:

In his decision in late October, Justice Simon France in the High Court emphatically overturned the Broadcasting Standards Authority’s censure of Television New Zealand for leaving  ‘fucking’ – twice – unexpurgated in its Sunday feature on the Aromoana massacre, describing it as ‘plainly wrong’.   In other words, the BSA got judicially jumped on from a great height.  TVNZ, needless to say, was pleased.  When I find a copy of the actual judgment – which, inexplicably, I haven’t been able to so far – I’ll comment further.

  1. Joe permalink

    why is it ok for the word s*** to be aired unedited even on the 6pm news (supposidly G rated) yet whenever the word ‘Fuck’ is aired its automatically bleeped out, Time these dickweeds at TVNZ stop applying double standards to censorship, why is one bad word OK but not the other??

    • Well, I can’t speak for ‘dickweeds’ or anyone else at TVNZ, but there’s demonstrably – the survey I mentioned – a big difference between the word ‘shit’ and the word ‘fuck’ when it comes to societal acceptance. Even if we agree they’re both ‘bad words’ the latter is, um, badder than the former. So TVNZ and other media providers have to make a call – it’s not double standards, it’s the way people think about ‘obscenities’.

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