30 June 2006
BSA Releases South Park Decision
The Broadcasting Standards Authority today released its decision on 35 complaints received about a South Park episode
which screened on C4 in February. The BSA did not uphold the complaints, the largest number about a single programme
since the BSA was created in 1989.
The complainants were mostly individuals, but included three church organisations. They alleged the episode breached a
range of standards in the Free To Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The BSA held that the relevant standards
related to good taste and decency and denigration.
The BSA acknowledged the degree of offence taken from this episode, noting that the broadcaster later undertook not to
screen the episode again. But the Authority held that the broadcast of the overtly satirical programme, while clearly
distasteful to the complainants, was protected by the Bill Of Rights Act 1990.
Considering whether the programme had breached the good taste and decency standard, the Authority took into account a
number of contextual factors, including South Park’s time of screening, its AO classification with visual and verbal
warnings, and its limited adult target audience.
The Authority noted that contextual factors alone will not save a programme if it has gone too far. In this case,
however, the Authority considered that the material in the cartoon was of such a farcical, absurd and unrealistic nature
that it did not breach standards of good taste and decency in the context in which it was offered.
As with its recent decision on Popetown, another animated series shown on C4, the Authority concluded that it was being
asked to find that a programme breached the requirement for good taste and decency because it showed disrespect towards
religious beliefs and practices.
The Authority noted the level of concern and offence within the Catholic community, which has been subjected first to
Popetown and now to South Park. However, it was unable to reach a different conclusion to that in the Popetown case. The
Were the Authority to uphold the complaint, this would amount to a statement that broadcasters who offer satire, humour
and drama … may not offend against the religious convictions of others…That, in the view of the Authority, would be an
unreasonable limitation of a broadcaster’s right to free speech, which includes the right to satirise religious issues.
The Authority also declined to uphold the complaints that alleged South Park denigrated all Christians, in particular
Catholics - as well as Muslims, Jews, women and alcoholics.
The Authority noted that the intent of the programme was to satirise, among other things, belief in the miraculous power
of religious icons. The programme was not a direct attack on the Church or on Catholics, although it was deliberately
provocative. There is no doubt that aspects of religion revered by devout Catholics were treated in a disrespectful and
cavalier fashion, in particular a statue representing the Virgin Mary. But showing disrespect, in the view of the
Authority, does not amount to the sort of vicious or vitriolic attack normally associated with the denigration standard.
Copies of all decisions are on www.bsa.govt.nz
In line with its usual policy, the BSA will not be commenting further on this matter.