Decision No: 2004-198
Dated: 18 February 2005

Complainant
KIM HASTWELL
of Auckland

Broadcaster
RADIO NEW ZEALAND LTD

Members
Joanne Morris, Chair
Tapu Misa
Diane Musgrave
Paul France

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989

Off the Wire - comments about disabled people being "munted" - allegedly denigratory

Findings

Principle 7 (social responsibility) "no denigration on account of disability" "item was legitimate humour "not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.

Broadcast

[1] The participants in the Off the Wire programme broadcast on National Radio on 16 October 2004 discussed recent news events, including the decision of the International Paralympics Committee not to allow a quadriplegic rugby player to attend the Disabled Games.

[2] One of the participants, Mike Loder, a comedian, said that the Committee considered "how munted you are" in deciding whether to allow a person to participate in the games. He said of the rugby player:

"[he has] no feet and two fingers on each arm and he was found not munted enough"

Which makes me ask, what are they actually looking for "how munted do you have to be?

[3] The comedian went on to say that he thought the test must be two things "whether a person can still do the 'quoting thing' and whether they can make shadow puppets on the wall. If you can do those things, he said, you must not be disabled.

Complaint

[4] Kim Hastwell complained to Radio New Zealand (RNZ), the broadcaster, that the programme breached Principle 7 (social responsibility) of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5] Referring to Guideline 7a, Ms Hastwell noted that broadcasters must not "portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of 'disability'". The complainant expressed concern at references to the disabled man being "not munted enough", and the "joke" about being able to do a "two-fingered sign".

[6] Ms Hastwell stated that such comments were "extremely demeaning to the man in particular and people with a disability in general". While acknowledging that the programme is satirical, the complainant believed "it went beyond the bounds of social responsibility" and hence breached Principle 7.

Principles

[7] RNZ assessed the complaint under Principle 7 and Guideline 7a of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:

Principle 7

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required to be socially responsible.

Guideline 7a           

Broadcasters will not portray people in a manner which encourages denigration of or discrimination against any section of the community on account of gender, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation; or as the consequence of legitimate expression of religious, cultural or political beliefs. This requirement does not extend to prevent the broadcast of material which is:

i)            factual; or

ii)            a genuine expression of serious comment, analysis or opinion, or

iii)            by way of legitimate humour or satire.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[8] In its response to the complainant, RNZ noted that "a cautionary statement" was aired prior to the programme which "drew listener's attention to the fact that some of the content of the programme might require listener discretion".

[9] The broadcaster stated, by way of background, that the comedian who made the comments was disabled himself and used a wheelchair for mobility. The context played "a crucial role" in determining whether the comments were acceptable, it said, and this was "one wheelchair user making comments about another". RNZ argued that this "puts the comments in a somewhat different light".

[10] The broadcaster noted that the Authority has previously adopted a high threshold with regard to Principle 7. It stated that it did not find that the item breached its own "high internal standards or Principle 7 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice".

Referral to the Authority

[11] Dissatisfied with the broadcaster's response, Ms Hastwell referred her complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. She said that the broadcaster appeared to suggest that there were "two mitigating factors that 'saved' the programme from breaching broadcasting standards".

[12] First, the complainant stated that the presence of a cautionary statement indicated that the broadcaster must have had some concerns about the programme's content. Ms Hastwell added that, in her view, prefacing a programme with a warning "does not grant licence to make denigratory comments about people with disabilities".

[13] Secondly, the complainant alleged that RNZ appeared to adhere to the principle that "denigrating statements can be made so long as they are made by someone who is a member of the group being denigrated". She stated that this argument "holds little weight", and that having a disability did not give a person the right to make a denigratory comment about others with disabilities.

[14] Ms Hastwell also noted that, being a radio programme, listeners "could not be expected to know that the speaker had a disability". She maintained that Principle 7 (social responsibility) had been breached.

Broadcaster's Response to the Authority

[15] In its response to the Authority, RNZ noted that the word "munted" was "a relatively new addition to the English language". There was "considerable doubt", it said, that the word has the pejorative undertones sufficient to make its use a breach of Principle 7. The broadcaster also referred to Guideline 7a(iii), stating that Principle 7 "does not apply to material of a humorous or satirical nature".

[16] RNZ disagreed with the complainant's view that radio listeners would be unaware that the comedian was disabled. It argued that he is a "popular and high profile comedian in New Zealand" whose disability was not unknown.

Complainant's Final Comment

[17] In her final submission to the Authority, Ms Hastwell addressed the broadcaster's comments about the word "munted", arguing that the word was in relatively common use. Including an extract from A Dictionary of Modern Slang, the complainant noted that the noun "munter" from which the word is derived is considered to be "contemptuous and derogatory".

[18] Referring to Guideline 7(a)(iii), Ms Hastwell disagreed that calling a disabled person "munted" was "legitimate humour". She also argued that the comedian had appeared mostly on a programme broadcast on TV 2, which was not a programme that many of National Radio's regular listeners would be familiar with. The complainant disagreed with the broadcaster's contention that it would be common knowledge that he had a disability.

Authority's Determination

[19] The members of the Authority have listened to a tape of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.  The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[20] The Authority does not uphold the complaint and concurs with the reasons advanced by RNZ.

[21] Off the Wire is a regular series on National Radio in which news items are discussed in a humorous and often satirical context. The show is prefaced by a statement warning listeners that discretion may be required. 

[22] The Authority notes that "munted" is a colloquial expression which, in some instances, could be used to denigrate disabled people. However, it does not consider that the use of the term in this context encouraged denigration on the basis of disability.

[23] Instead, the discussion was critical of the International Paralympics Committee for not allowing the athlete in question to compete. The tone was, in the view of the Authority, sympathetic to, rather than critical of, the athlete involved; the comedian emphasised the athlete's disability in order to highlight his criticism of the Committee's decision.  In this context, the Authority is of the view that the word "munted", while irreverent, was neither disrespectful nor denigratory, but instead part of the comedian's ironic comment on the situation. 

[24] The Authority also notes that Mike Loder, the comedian involved, has a disability. While this does not of itself justify the words used, it does lend support to the Authority's view that the words were not intended to denigrate others with a disability.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

Joanne Morris
Chair

18 February 2005


Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1. Kim Hastwell's formal complaint - 16 October 2004
  2. Radio New Zealand's decision on the formal complaint - 29 October 2004
  3. Ms Hastwell's referral to the Authority - 12 November 2004
  4. Radio New Zealand's response to the Authority - 6 December 2004
  5. Ms Hastwell's final comment - 13 December 2004