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“zombie” did not encourage denigration of dementia

August 5, 2013

In New Zealand, a decision from the Broadcasting Standards Authority: “Richmond and RadioWorks Ltd – 2013-023” dated 25th July 2013.

From the headnote:

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989

Michael Laws Talkback – host expressed view that medical personnel were deliberately overmedicating patients with dementia causing them to die – complainant called station to challenge host’s comments but was cut off – host used the term “zombie” to refer to person with dementia – allegedly in breach of standards relating to accuracy, fairness, and discrimination and denigration

Standard 7 (discrimination and denigration) – use of the term “zombie” to refer to person with dementia was not vitriolic or hateful and was not an attack against people with dementia – host was expressing his opinion and comments were typical of his style – broadcast did not encourage discrimination or denigration against people with dementia as a section of the community – not upheld

And in the Decision:

Introduction

[1] During Michael Laws Talkback, the host discussed the topic of dementia with a caller whose husband had been diagnosed with dementia, and the host expressed his view that medical personnel were deliberately overmedicating dementia patients, causing them to die. In expressing his views on this topic, the host referred to the caller’s husband as being destined to become a “zombie”. Following this conversation, another caller phoned in and said, “What you’re advocating – that demented people should be euthanised – has been tried before… quite successfully… in Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s”. The host responded, “Oh for god’s sake, I am just going to cut you off right now, bye bye”, and terminated the call. The programme was broadcast on Radio Live on 8 March 2013.

[2] David Richmond, the caller who was disconnected, made a formal complaint to RadioWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the host made inaccurate statements that medical personnel “euthanised” people with dementia, and treated him unfairly by terminating his call when he tried to challenge this assertion. In addition, the complainant argued that the host encouraged discrimination and denigration against people with dementia by using the word “zombie” to describe their disability.

[21] Mr Richmond argued that the host’s use of the term “zombie” to describe people with dementia bordered on “hate speech” and encouraged discrimination and denigration against people with dementia on account of their disability.

[23] The comment subject to complaint was made by the host in the context of his opinion that medical personnel overmedicated dementia patients causing them to die, and the caller’s objection to this. He stated:

I am sorry to hear about your husband’s dementia, but you wait until he becomes the zombie he is destined to become, and then you tell me what compassion there is in keeping him in that state.

[24] We acknowledge that Mr Laws’ use of the term “zombie” in this context may have been considered harsh and offensive by some listeners, including the complainant. However, the comment was not expressed in a vitriolic or hateful tone, and it was clearly not intended as an attack against people with dementia. Rather, the host used the term to express his opinion about what he considered to be the most “compassionate” way forward for people with dementia, and for their families, based on his perception of the impact of the condition on their quality of life. Mr Laws is well-known for expressing his opinions in a strong and sometimes controversial manner. We think that here he was being deliberately provocative to stimulate discussion about a legitimate issue.

[25] We are satisfied that the use of the word “zombie” in this context did not reach the high threshold necessary to encourage discrimination or denigration against people with dementia as a section the community on account of their disability. We therefore decline to uphold the Standard 7 complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

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