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Broadcast Standards Council tosses latest Sun News Network vulgarity back to CRTC

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The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has asked the federal broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to investigate complaints about a June 13 broadcast by Sun News Network commentator Ezra Levant.

The CBSC said in a letter to this blogger that it will not itself investigate complaints about Sun News Network's June 13 episode of Levant's program The Source because "the comments in question are about the CBSC and identified individuals who volunteer as our Panel members."

As a result, the CBSC said, it finds itself in a conflict of interest and is therefore not in a position to deal with complaints arising from the June 13 broadcast. Complaints about the broadcast will be forwarded to the CRTC, the federal agency that oversees the broadcasting and telecommunications industries, the CBSC letter said.

In normal cases, the CRTC refers complaints it receives about the content of television or radio broadcasts to the CSBC, which describes itself on its website as "an independent, non-governmental organization created by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters to administer standards established by its members, Canada's private broadcasters."

On June 13, Sun News Network and Levant complied with a ruling of the CBSC censuring them for using on the air in 2011 a Spanish profanity universally understood to mean "f**k your mother," and for clearly identifying the individual at whom Levant directed this and other insults, by reading a required statement.

The ruling noted that Levant had made the following remark on the air as part of his Dec. 22, 2011, commentary about a report the Chiquita Brands food company had announced it would avoid using oil from Alberta’s bitumen sands: "Hey you. Yeah you, [name of Chiquita executive]. Chinga tu madre." Referring to the commentary as "a tirade," the ruling noted Levant also said "in a distinctly aggressive tone" that the Chiquita executive was a liar.

Under the terms of Sun News Network's voluntary membership in the CBSC, the June 13 ruling required the right-wing U.S.-style broadcaster to read on the air a statement that it had breached the CAB's Code of Ethics in the 2011 broadcast of Levant's program. "The program contained a coarse insult directed at a specific named person," said the statement Sun News Network was required to read. "This violated Clause 6 of the Code."

But during the June 13 broadcast, in addition to reading the words of the statement required by the CBSC, Levant repeated the same offensive phrase several times, and harshly criticized the four members of the panel that issued the ruling. (He also criticized this blogger, who had filed one of 22 complaints about Sun News Network's use of the phrase.)

At various times during the broadcast, Levant referred to the CBSC as "idiots," "stupid," "a group of nobodies," "the secretive group of censors," "a kangaroo court," "busybodies, know-it-alls and snoops," and "arrogant little bureaucrats." During the broadcast, he also implied that federal Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair belonged on a list of enemies of Canada.

Levant argued, moreover, that "even if I told Chiquita to 'chinga tu madre' every day, it's not against the rules that the censors claim to be following." Based on this argument, he called the statement Sun News Network was asked to read "a false confession" and "the lie they wanted me to tell."

Levant closed his broadcast with the following words, which included a reference to the first names of each of the four panel members: "Hey censors! Yeah, you, Troy, Pip, Lea, Andree, the whole Broadcast Standards Council, Chiquita, ForestEthics. I’ve got a message for ya! 'Chinga tu madre!'" (Andree Noel, the chair of the panel, is the national chair of the CBSC and a former Quebec regional commissioner of the CRTC.)

On June 20, a lawyer for Quebecor Media informed the CSBC and the 22 complainants in an email that "…the statement was broadcast during The Source on Wednesday, June 13, 2012 and again on Thursday, June 14, 2012. … The two broadcasts of the statement therefore met the requirements for airing the statement set out in the CBSC's decision." (Emphasis added.)

As leaders of an organization arguably created for the benefit of its member corporations, the officers of the CBSC must have been gobsmacked by Sun News Network's response, which was not restricted to Levant's remarks. The Sun News website referred to the CSBC as "a kangaroo court manned by Sun News competitors.

It is easy to infer that the destruction of the CBSC must be Sun News Network's goal, and it may well succeed with that part of its program.

However, as has been said in this space before, a government agency charged with enforcing broadcast standards is a more appropriate venue for examining questions of this nature than a toothless voluntary organization that, it can be persuasively argued, exists principally to inoculate its members against the possibility of actual regulation being enforced in the interests of Canadians, who own the airwaves from which its member companies generate handsome profits.

But it is not clear if the CRTC today has the will, the regulatory tools or the internal mechanisms to deal with complaints of this nature, a situation that would effectively leave the public’s airwaves in the hands of completely unregulated and clearly irresponsible corporations with an extremist political agenda.

So it needs to be repeated that the line that connects Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his market-fundamentalist Conservative Party of Canada to the foul-mouthed hyper-partisanship of the Sun News Network and its offensive commentators is short and direct, and that they act in the service of common goals.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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