Sun News Broadcaster Ezra Levant

Whatever one may think of the value of obscenity to public discourse, the debate over the use on the air of an obscene Spanish phrase by Sun News Network commentator Ezra Levant established an unrelated but important fact about the broadcaster that employs him.

Sun News Network cannot be depended on to keep all its agreements.

This is an important consideration for Canadian broadcast regulators because Sun News Network is sure to be back at the well seeking improvements, extensions and changes to its licence.

As is normally the case in such matters, as the steward of a resource owned by all Canadians, the Canadian government or its agency the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission may ask Sun News Network for certain undertakings in return for the privileges it wishes granted. This is, after all, the nature of negotiating an agreement.

But as we can clearly see from Sun News Network’s pivotal role in the “Chinga Tu Madre Affair” — which is about more than merely a childish outburst by a foul-mouthed broadcaster — undertakings of this nature don’t appear to mean much to Sun News Network.

This should concern the CRTC, and it will certainly be of interest to Canadians opposed to any future Sun News Network applications for whatever reasons — be they other broadcasters, opponents of the company’s highly biased far-right “news” coverage or even wild-eyed radicals bent on “censoring” Levant’s desire to inappropriately criticize people he disagrees with under cover of the Canadian Constitution.

It will also be of interest to garden variety Members of Parliament, including many Conservatives, who presumably unlike Levant’s close friends at the heart of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s inner circle, share their constituents’ attitudes about the kind of discourse that is appropriate on Canadian public broadcasts.

Sun News Network itself appears to have been essentially silent on this matter, ceding the ground to Levant as its employee and de facto spokesperson.

For his part, Levant dealt with this question in one of his broadcasts and his conclusions are not promising from the point of view of a regulator or a government that wishes assurances agreements it makes with private corporations will be honoured.

As is well known by those who have been following this imbroglio, on June 13 a broadcast industry self-regulation agency called the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled against Sun News Network for Levant’s use of an obscenity in what the CBSC referred to an on-air “tirade” in December 2011.

Levant responded the same day by reading the required CBSC statement rolled into a bombastic and immature attack on virtually everyone publicly identified as being involved in the complaint or the CBSC ruling. He closed the episode of his program by repeating the phrase originally complained of.

During his long polemic, Levant stated of the CBSC:

“On paper, they’re a private voluntary club. No TV or radio stations have to join them or submit to them. That’s the theory. But in practice, they do have the power of the state behind them, because in order to get a license, a TV license, from the Government of Canada, we’re required to join this ‘voluntary’ organization. Paragraph 6 of our TV license requires it. Talk about Orwellian. Did you get that? It’s a ‘voluntary’ organization. You’re forced to join by the government. …” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, by the sound of it, Sun News Network regretted the agreement it had made, and therefore decided simply to ignore it.

Well, they wouldn’t be the first to do something like that, would they? This is a bit like someone saying: “…in order to get a license, a marriage license, from a government in Canada, you’re required to join this ‘voluntary’ partnership!” Yes indeed, talk about Orwellian! And how inconvenient!

Returning to Levant, in the background of the TV station’s news set as he carried on a passage from a document appeared. It read: “The commission notes that the applicant stated that it would accept the standard conditions of licence for competitive mainstream national news services set out in Broadcasting Regulatory Policy 2009-562-1 including the conditions requiring a licensee to adhere to various industry codes relating to broadcast standards. The commission also notes that the applicant will be subject to various industry codes, including the RTDNA Code of Journalistic Ethics and the Journalistic Independence Code, as a member of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.”

So there you go. As Levant himself conceded, Sun News Network agreed with the CRTC that it would abide by certain conditions in order to get its licence, then ignored those conditions when it became inconvenient.

Doubtless every one of us has made a deal that, upon consideration, we wish we hadn’t. But honour, if not contract law, requires us to abide by these agreements.

Buy something you don’t like? You still have to pay. Marry someone you regret? You still ought to behave yourself, at least until the divorce. Sign a collective agreement you can’t stand? You nevertheless must live with the management-rights clause.

And thus do broadcasters sometimes agree to live by rules of conduct they may wish they didn’t have to in order to get their license. Saw offs are how deals get done — you give up a little, I give up a little and we both get a bargain we can live with. That’s why it’s called bargaining.

Society’s view of people who don’t keep their bargains is a low one, and rightfully so. It’s all about integrity.

What confidence can Canadians now have that Sun News Network will abide by the agreements it makes?

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...